Jan/Feb 2011  •   Reviews & Interviews

Bloom and Balm: An Interview with Shin Yu Pai

Interview by Kimberly L. Becker

How wise of her to know that what is adamantine is the open heart. Fearless seeing, ancient mutterings on contemporary pathways and boulevards, inventive poetics, merciless memories and tender, knowing hands all take their proper place here, where she finds "every event a mirror / of mind & heart." Her eyes will help you open what you've held onto too tightly, too long, and her heart will open the rest of you from the first word to the last.

Shin Yu Pai is the author of seven books of poetry. Her work has appeared in publications throughout the U.S., Japan, China, Taiwan, The United Kingdom, and Canada. Poems have been commissioned by the Dallas Museum of Art and featured in the Poetry-in-Motion Program sponsored by DART. She has been a featured presenter at major events including the Montreal Zen Poetry Festival and the Geraldine Dodge Poetry Festival and is a member of the Macondo Workshop for Writers.

She has served as a poet-in-residence for the Seattle Art Museum and produced literary programming for the Crow Collection of Asian Art, the Women's Museum of Dallas, and the Rubin Museum of Art. She is former assistant curator for the Wittliff Collections and is currently associate director of the Hendrix-Murphy Foundation Programs in Literature and Language at Hendrix College.


KB     In the poem "Chop Wood, Carry Water" from your newest collection, Adamantine, you reference the Zen saying "Before Enlightenment chop wood carry water, after Enlightenment, chop wood carry water." Does poetry enlighten an oft-dark world?

SP     I think of poetry as having an illuminative power that can subtly shift ways of seeing, perceiving, and thinking, but this is an idea of poetry that is also lofty in its ambitions. I tend to locate the intention of my poems in clear seeing—perhaps this is an idea of smaller-scale awakening.

KB     You have said that this collection "looks at the notion of 'personal disarmament.'" Is this related to clear seeing?

SP     The poems in Adamantine engage with the idea of personal disarmament in terms of the dissolving of the boundary between a poetic "I" and other, to arrive at a kind of radical compassion for all beings—so the primary theme of the collection is one of critical engagement. Personal disarmament is for me, the practice of being open and vulnerable, looking at the places where I implicate myself in my practice.

KB     The image of the heart (whether human or animal) is central to the book (inside the stone of / my heart the stone / of my heart). Is that the challenge? To stay open-hearted?

SP     The challenge is to stay connected to the heart space and the knowledge of the body, versus living in the mind, which is an all-too-easy place to occupy in the space of language and the poem. To approach the poem in a way that can embody a physical experience or event and make a direct connection to the physical and emotional experience of the reader.

KB     There is certainly a physical element in your work:

my own practice:
carving holes in
poetry books w/
exacto blade & straight

You also practice yoga. Do you experience fluidity between your various disciplines?

SP     There is a parallelism in my various practices, but I'm constantly working on physically integrating disciplines within the body which would allow for fluid transitions between practices. I am not as disciplined as I would like to be in any of my pursuits.

But the poem that you cited from is the actual design strategy that went into the my book Sightings, and writing that poem grew out of cutting up the covers of hundreds of paperbacks and smoothing the apertures with a nail file. The holes in that book cover were not die-cut in a printing factory but were cut as part of my final process in intervening into the "finished" book. I saved the cut-outs and pasted them into personalized copies. Throughout that process of cutting books, I experienced moments of judging (the exactitude of the holes, the poems) and listening to my critical mind, before bringing myself back to physical practice. Maybe that's the loose connection to yoga—that it's best not to judge one's ability to hold a posture—that the commitment is to practicing the best yoga or hole-carving that I can in any given moment.

KB     A broadside piece was produced by Filter Press using the text of your poem "Bamiyan." In an era of online publication and Kindle, what is the particular joy of say, a broadside of one poem? Have we lost or are we in danger of losing something important in terms of the tactility of work? I'm thinking of these lines from "Blossoms from a Japanese Garden":

at cashout I argue with
the proprietor for the book

as art object, cultural document,

specimens to be studied together
in the garden of the reader

"In the garden of the reader" suggests the cultivation of a voracious appreciation for art, whether visual or written ("gnaw & chew of language"). Does the relationship between reader and writer change depending on the form of the work?

SP     The relationship between reader and writer absolutely changes based on the tactility and physical object quality of the text. A letterpressed poem with the body of the text deeply embossed into the paper is not the same experience as reading on a computer screen. The non-standard paper size, ink smears, imperfections and variations—none of these tactile qualities translate over to the technological realm.

A few years ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to work with Convivio Bookworks on a labor-intensive small-edition project called Works on Paper. John Cutrone and Seth Thompson letterpressed the full text of that book and created an elaborate binding structure that involved the wrapping of the cover boards in a paper dyed in a fermented persimmon-based stain. The smell of "kakishibu" resembles something like wet cat rolled in Parmesan cheese but gradually dissipates over time. The dye color also shifts and changes in tone as part of the aging process. I love these nuances and the sensuality and pleasure of the full reading experience. Until scientists invent smell-o-vision a la Willy Wonka, I don't think that kind of joy can be mechanically replicated.

At the same time, there are qualities that new technologies possess that the old technologies can't compete with—that engage the eye and intellect in complex ways. Video and animated poems on sites like Born Magazine, flash-based text in the work of artists like Young-Hae Chang—certain works could not exist without the flexibility and tools of modern technology. I would not have been able to make a book trailer for Adamantine if it were not for the technological tools available to me.

KB     You completed your book Nutritional Feed in three weeks. Are you normally a fast writer, or does it depend on the work? How long did it take to complete Adamantine?

SP     Nutritional Feed was created during a writing retreat in the woods of Peterborough, NH. Thus the inspired frenzy of writing. There are many distractions that prevent me from working at a heightened pace. But the time that a project—whether a book or a single poem—takes to come to fruition does widely vary. I had a first draft of Adamantine completed in Spring 2007 at the end of a retreat at Soul Mountain. Then I moved across the country and started a PhD program and was preoccupied with academic work. I finished a revision of Adamantine at the end of 2008, while on retreat at the Centrum Foundation in Port Townsend.

KB     How would you describe the arc of your work up to now?

SP     There is a sense for me that the work has come full circle. The poems of Equivalence were very much concerned with Buddhist aesthetics and visual art. Experiencing the world through the perspective that I had at the age I was when I wrote those poems. There were years where my work diverged dramatically and collaborative process became a driving force. The poems in Adamantine mark a moment in my life when I have renewed commitments to certain values that have always been central to my sensibility and work.

KB     "Anniversary Poem" describes your refuge vow ceremony and formal initiation into Buddhist practice. As child of Taiwanese immigrants, is Buddhism one of the "traditions that constitute a personal inheritance"?

SP     Buddhism was not a tradition that I inherited from my family of origin, per se. I grew up in an atheistic household with an awareness of my father's blended worldview that brought together Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism.

When I first traveled as an adult to visit my father's hometown of Ching Shui in central Taiwan, I toured the main temple and saw deities from Buddhist and Taoist traditions housed under one roof in a temple erected to honor Matsu, the goddess of the sea. My father's spiritual orientation is complicated; my father's English name comes from a missionary who provided my father opportunities to better his English by serving as the pastor's translator, but he was pressured to become a Christian. As a result, my father has always remained sympathetic towards those doing missionary work, and I can remember many Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses being welcomed into our living room.

My mother was educated at Catholic girls' schools in Taiwan. Late in her parents' life, her family became Christians when my grandmother was diagnosed with a terminal illness.

Buddhism was something that I chose for myself through first academic study that eventually grew into practice-based study.

KB     Eduardo Duran wrote about inter-generational trauma; in Adamantine you write about "ancestral burden":

the healer dies
weeks after giving me
a picture of Jesus

& taking the blue-
green rock of my
ancestral burden
hand it over, she said

Is your poetry a path toward healing? Is writing therefore a spiritual practice (sit at writing desk / sit before shrine / write poems)?

SP     My writing practice has been a path towards wholeness and integration of disparate experiences and cultural incongruencies. It has been a primary vehicle in making sense of cultural and ancestral inheritance and serving as a pathway to connect to wisdom. It is at times a spiritual practice. At other times, it's a vocational discipline with which I struggle. The gift of the inheritance comes with responsibilities, and the path has been towards finding how to work with the current.

KB     "Burning Monk" was recently featured on Poetry Daily. How do you wrench beauty from such horror?

SP     I suppose they are two sides of the same coin—beauty and horror, transcendence and human suffering. There is a gravity and responsibility to engage with both beauty and horror, without the exclusion of one or the other.

KB     In the poem, "A Day Without an Immigrant, Dallas, Texas," you cite the...

that prevents me from
understanding why

the workers want to know
how to buy one-way trips

Do you feel a particular responsibility to address issues of social justice issues in your work? Is the poet's role one of witness?

SP     The concern with social justice is one that has gradually emerged within my work. Social criticism was an earlier motif, but the poems in Adamantine take the role of witness to a new level for me. The poems in the book are deeply informed by the time that I spent studying anthropology. As I've become more engaged in social justice issues in my own thinking and professional interests around oral history, curriculum transformation, and community-based research, these concerns have naturally found their way into my creative work.

KB     Do you have an artistic community that supports your work?

SP     I have a few very vital friends who are deeply committed to their writing practice and remind me of my own longstanding commitments. Mostly everyone works away at it in a solitary manner, and we hold a space for one another to do that work. I have friends whom I turn to as mirrors—Rick Benjamin, in particular, has been a deep source of inspiration and support. There are also dedicated practitioners whom I look to as role models for my work who are involved in diverse commitments. I am attracted to the idea of an artistic community, but in practice it's difficult to not be skeptical of that idea.

KB     Many of your poems bear dedications or acknowledge other artists; in what way are your poems conversations with the living or the dead?

SP     To a degree, my work is engaged in conversations with artists, whether living or dead—but the greater engagement is with perhaps their work, which exists outside of and beyond the artist.

KB     In "Search and Recovery" you write,

the weight of being
unseen—to travel
a path back to

what you knew
at birth, the warmth
of being held close

brought home

and in the next poem, "Double Happiness," the last in the book, you write,

A boy separated
from his parents
on the streets of Pusan
grows up on the slopes
of Vail to win
bronze at Turin, prizes
more dearly
the journey of
reaching outward
to find a way home
to this body, his birth
father, this motherland

Where is home for you, geographically and spiritually? Where would you place yourself in the landscape of contemporary letters?

SP     I grew up in Southern California and have moved around a lot as an adult. I used to think that this was somewhat normative. Last year, I had to explain to a group of strangers who I was meeting for the first time, where I am from—while physically referencing a map of the United States. There were a lot of lines back and forth, criss-crossing—and some amusement from this group of strangers who were very place-based and self-identified with specific geographical regions…. I've lived in Texas three times, Boston twice, and in between—Chicago and Boulder.

An old Seattle friend, now based in Vancouver, recently said to me that her current city mostly closely aligns with her internal sense of home. Jen Graves, art critic for The Stranger, writes, "…landscape is political—it shapes its people. It tells them stories about themselves, and plenty of people move to certain places because they want the place's story to be their story." I didn't know that when I moved to Seattle that it would most closely align with both my internal and external sense of home and become a deep part of my story. Geographically, culturally, intellectually, and spiritually—it is the place that reflects back to me my values, interest, and commitments, and where I locate many of my peers.

I'm not sure of my location in the landscape of contemporary letters—I'm grateful for the readers that I have—how diverse their backgrounds are and their openness to relating to my work. You won't find my work in many Asian-American anthologies of writing, but you will find it in Buddhist-related collections. I'm included in an anthology of innovative Chicago writing, though I only lived in Chicago for two years. Editors have a hard time fitting me into any notion of a "Southwestern" identity though I grew up in SoCal and aspects of New Mexico and Texas have had a strong influence on my work. I'm not a "regional writer" but my work is very connected to an urban sensibility.

KB     Although your work may not be found in many Asian-American anthologies, does being an Asian-American woman affect your self-concept as a writer and your readers' expectations of you and your work?

SP     My status as an Asian-American woman does not affect my self-concept as a poet. I do not think about my ethnic or gender perspective when I am in the act of poem-writing. But my position does come into some of my non-fiction writing, which deals more explicitly with identity. I'm not sure what readers expect of me or my work. Whatever the expectations are—I don't feel prepared or obligated to own them.

I gave a poetry reading recently in Arkansas where afterwards, an audience member told me that my work was nothing like what he had expected. I'm not sure what he meant by that, and I'm not sure I need to know. I have been marked since birth by my physical appearance, and the choice that I've made as an adult to use my Chinese name in lieu of my American name. My choices affect how others will perceive me and my work. I am aware that there are expectations that do not fit with the reality of what I do—and that is something I can acknowledge, but which I can't own.

KB     Some of the poems in Adamantine are influenced by headlines (the collapse of the World Trade Center, the Virginia Tech shootings) and some from non-headlines (the scarcely-reported death of an immigrant laborer); is any subject off-limits for poetry? Is it the poet's obligation to remember and name grief (a memory like a burning body / can't be put out with water /bottles/jackets/fire extinguishers)?

SP     No subjects are off-limits for poetry—but it does personally take me a long time to process what I feel and wish to express about an event or incident. The poems based on headlines are not "occasional" poems in the sense that they were not written to commemorate nor remember an external or public event. They are poems that mark for me the occasion of an internal and very private event—that has deeply left an impression upon the psyche and demands a response.

KB     How did you come to title the poem "Hozho" with a Navajo (Diné) word? How did you come to shape that poem?

SP     "Hozho" was inspired by the abstract nature paintings of a friend, JB Bryan, who has lived for decades in Albuquerque and has a deep connection to the land that is New Mexico. I can't remember where I first heard the word "hozho" —there are also references in that poem to Chinese literati painting. JB's paintings themselves are complex abstractions composed of organic plant-based forms—no language easily describes or sums up how paint and form operate on his canvases and the Navajo word for me best approached the gestalt of JB's images in addition to referencing a specific cultural and syncretic landscape from which these images sprung.

KB     You worked with your father on your first chapbook Ten Thousand Miles of Mountains and Rivers. Adamantine includes rengas. Has collaboration always been an important facet of your work?

SP     Collaboration has been an ongoing part of my writing practice. I've been lucky to know a lot of gifted artists working in diverse mediums who have been open to engaging in cross-disciplinary conversations through art-making. One of my earliest projects was when sculptor and video artist Larry Lee gave me a pre-existing text (a Chinese-English phrasebook) and asked me to make something new with it which he then used as the basis of a video installation piece. I meet people and notice when I feel an affinity for their process and vision. The work collected in The Haiku Year is another project that reflects collaborative interests—the book compiles together the work of two filmmakers, a musician, a doctor, and several other haiku poets.

KB     You've spoken about your mentor and friend Andrew Schelling and your own work mentoring emerging writers. Do you view mentoring as part of the gift economy?

SP     Mentorship is one of many ways to keep the gift of poetry circulating. I'm not as directly engaged with teaching as I have been in the past, but currently, I serve as a poetry thesis/creative writing reader at Hendrix College and work with a handful of undergraduate students. I see mentorship as a combination of knowledge and resource sharing—a sort of guidance in navigating an unfamiliar system. I don't enter into many mentoring relationships because the perspective I have to offer is very specific and process vs. outcome-oriented and is a very peer-to-peer knowledge-sharing style.

Perhaps that approach reflects Andrew's impression on my sensibilities. The turn in our relationship for me from student to peer shifted quickly and we've occasionally written poems together in the past few years. There are two pieces from our collaborative exchanges included in Adamantine which were given to me during periods when I struggled to find time and space to create.

KB     You are also an oral historian, photographer and editor. How is the photographer's eye like the poet's eye? Is the same power of observation required for such a dead-on description as this:

...I watch a woman
pluck a cell phone & cash
from her cleavage

SP     The approach is similar. The intensity of looking at a total context. There are also technical decisions that are made that run parallel to each practice, which are also applicable to the total sum of a life practice. I think of my fourth uncle, who is a gifted photographer and was for years the documentarian of the Pai clan. In describing a way of analyzing a difficult situation, he mimed shooting with a camera and described looking through every angle before releasing the shutter to record the definitive image. There is a certain amount of forbearance combined with skillfulness that is required, in suspending a moment of action to consider what crosses into a field of awareness.

KB     Has your study of anthropology impacted your work as a poet?

SP     I completed one year in the anthropology PhD program at the University of Washington and decided that the life of the social science researcher was not for me. At the same time, exposure to the anth discipline filled in some gaps in my education and helped me to arrive at new ways of thinking about power, politics, culture, tradition, and citizenship. I switched over to museology where I could continue to work with ethnography and oral history and completed a second Masters degree in 2009 and have been working as an arts administrator/pseudo-academic since that time—first as a museum curator, and currently as the director for a private foundation at a small liberal arts college that funds programming related to language and literature. Academic life takes up a lot of my time and energy, there's no way around it. But I've been lucky to be in largely creative positions that allow me to read deeply and widely and to continue learning.

KB     In your work, you see the skull beneath the skin—

the humanity of bodies stripped
of skin, fatty tissue, age & eye color...

—and also the force that through the green fuse drives the "lucky bamboo":

stick after stick
our marriage bamboo
withers, handwritten

wishes slipping
into stink water,

I trim back roots,
& place near light

sponge-like mold
claims yet another
yellow-mottled victim

Does this sensitivity to the impermanence of life render your writing more urgent?

SP     There is an urgency for me to engage with thoughts, ideas, and language. At times, the desire to write consumes me. But urgency comes and goes too—in the end, it the process and opportunity of engagement that means the most, regardless of how that experience becomes manifest.

KB     In "Sold" you reference Shiva:

one leg raised in cosmic dance
the other crushing illusion

Does the poet's dance likewise simultaneously celebrate life and confront its illusions?

SP     At it's best, I would hope that my work could hold a space that simultaneously commemorates and sees with clarity—this is also the same idea that you are getting at when you ask me about the idea of horror and beauty within the same poem that is "Burning Monk."

KB     In closing, I'd like to quote this poem in full:

Spring Peepers, Summer Flowering

                        invisible singers

                                                                        awaken from winter

slumber under logs,

                                    loose bark

at the edge                                           of bodies

                                                                                               of water

                                    sounding courtship songs

                                                                       my father and I

                                    share a memory of

                                                                       staying awake to witness

the night-blooming cereus

                                                white queen flower

                                    a balm for the heart

                                                                                   blooms in the backyard

                                                             just once before withering

Although several poems mention your father, this one is especially tender in its evocation of shared experience and memory. The poem seems to exemplify your quest towards non-attachment: the flower blooms just once before withering. Yet in the poem, the flower continues as both bloom and balm. Thank you for the beauty of that image and for such an open-hearted collection. Do you have any further comments you'd like to share regarding your work or life?

SP     No further comments—but your attention to this poem is significant to me—it is one of the more personal poems in the book, about ephemerality, connection, witness, loss, and longing. The quest to be present and to hold a moment of unfolding, and to surrender it as it passes.


Shin Yu Pai
White Pine Press, NY. 2010
ISBN: 978-1-935210-18-4


Editor Note: Thinking about buying Adamantine or another book today? Please click the book cover link above. As an Amazon Associate, Eclectica Magazine earns a small percentage of qualifying purchases made after a reader clicks through to Amazon using any of our book cover links. It's a painless way to contribute to our growth and success. Thanks for the help!