By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
Local poet and visual artist Shin Yu Pai’s upcoming book of poems, ENSŌ, promises to intrigue both seasoned poetry readers and beginners to the art. Due out in March from Entre Ríos Books, ENSŌ stands out amongst Pai’s work in that represents an overview and a culmination of everything she has done so far, while leaving no doubt that the journey continues.
Pai’s ENSŌ is a look back over her artistic life thus far, and an unusually close up look at her artistic process— something not often found in books of poetry. The book starts out with atmospheric images of water and circles. Many people are familiar with the ensō symbol that is often associated with Zen Buddhism. An unfinished circle, usually done with ink brush, gives a sense of freedom, balance, and coming to a finishing point that still leaves room for openness.
“For me, it is the symbol of completion,” explains Pai. “It’s a symbol of perfection, but embedded in that is a symbol of imperfection. It’s an aspiration, but it’s also a practice. It’s a thing that we do over and over again, so the book, in a lot of ways, is about coming ‘full circle’ with the practice and evolving.”
After a first poem and introductions, the book launches into the first chapter, 16 Pillars, which revolves around site-specific poems penned over repeated visits to a gallery of Asian works at the Art Institute of Chicago. These poems, and others within the book, are in the tradition of ekphrastic poetry, which describes a work of art; yet, in any encounter with art, one invariably includes oneself.
“I asked myself what it would mean to engage with a single place over an extended period of time. How might that place become a part of my experience and live within my memory, just as I might become a part of its physical history and record.”
In ENSŌ, Pai shares her inner life, her relationships with the world around her, and her abiding interest in combining different media. A significant portion of the book is dedicated to revealing her artistic process in not only writing poems for a book, but journaling, adding visual art, perhaps tactile elements, and even crafting the book itself.
“Early on in my career I ended up collaborating with a lot of different people—dancers, theatre companies, photographers, composers—they always gave me a different language that I could borrow, or a set of images that I could let enter my work, or invigorate it in a new way. That was always really exciting to me.”
While she has in no way left behind her love of collaboration, Pai cites activities in an apple orchard, discussed in the section of ENSŌ titled Heirloom, which, along with her pregnancy, provided an impetus to search for that integration within herself.
“I think that was the beginning of thinking about photography, text, place, installation, and what all these things could mean, as well as giving a talk or a tour of the orchard and activating it through a guided tour, not exactly a performance, but this idea of the ways in which the practice lives together in these complex parts, so it’s not simply about just the writing of the text.”
The transparency which Pai displays throughout ENSŌ is remarkable not only for poets, but also for artists in general, many of whom choose not to reveal the background and buildup to their work. Not so Pai, who with ENSŌ admits to entering a new phase of increased vulnerability. Her inspirations were many, from the encouragement of her publisher, to motherhood, to a desire to make her work approachable, something she grew accustomed to during her tenure as the City of Redmond’s poet laureate.
“I wanted to share about the process to really unpack for readers how I go about making work, but also how rich a poetic practice can be,” Pai says.
“I think another thing that is played out is that I was, for a very long time, a very introverted, private person. Certainly I would speak in public, or talk to reporters, but I think there was a way in which I was very concerned about image control and what I would share because I didn’t want to be vulnerable. I think that there is this real concrete shift for me now since becoming a mother.”
Part of Pai’s previous reticence was cultural. Coming from a Taiwanese background, she shares that “there was a part of me for a long time that, as an Asian American woman, I felt very much constricted to certain expectations of female behavior.” Her increased willingness to speak out came from necessity and, perhaps, the boldness of age and experience. She describes a group experience when this became evident.
“I was one of the handful of Asians in that cohort, but they all came from such radically different backgrounds…I realized no one was going to represent the Asian American identity and what that is, and so I did something which I’d never done… talking about what the model minority myth is in 10 minutes, and why it’s harmful…I think for a long time I felt like my perspective doesn’t matter, or culturally it’s hard to let myself have that perspective, which is often different than other people of color at a table. I’m finally …embracing that voice.”
There are many moments in ENSO that are enjoyable exactly because they are openings into deeply felt and considered parts of Pai’s life. Same Cloth, one of the most moving chapters in the book, describes Pai’s encounters with racism, and her responses to it. In this chapter, she tells about a Confederate flag that was raised next door shortly after she and her husband moved into a home in Texas. During that time, Pai also received hateful emails that referenced the fact that she was married to a white man.
ENSŌ shows us a woman doing her best to live her life journey with integrity in every aspect—artistic, spiritual, personal, professional. Pai shares her process so that readers can come to the book and find out, how does one be an artist? How does one be an artist and mother? An artist and a student? An artist and a child? An artist and a lover? ENSŌ proves that people make sense, that we should trust our own processes, and let our own perfect yet imperfect circles develop.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.