Interview with Shin Yu Pai

1.What is your personal/aesthetic relationship to the poetic line? That is, how do you understand it, use it, etc.?

Comparisons of my work have been made to Language, Flarf, and avant-garde poets. Poets that I’ve spent very little time reading. The poetic line, as it interests me, is a unit of communication to convey, not obscure, the clarity of an experience. Recently, I had a conversation with the poet Prageeta Sharma in which she talked about her latest book Grief Sequence in the context of writing emotional honesty vs. the aesthetic craft that poets are taught in MFA programs. While I delight in the playful possibilities of language through sound and visual arrangement, a central quality of my work has consistently been emotional honesty. Beyond that, the construction of the poetic line is a series of choices that are and can be sometimes informed by craft and literary device, but more often, for me, informed by the ear, the intuition, and the heart. Sometimes the poems may come across as sentimental or corny, raw and vulnerable. That does not mean confessional or uncrafted.

2. Do you find a relationship between words and writing and the human body? Or between your writing and your body?

Words spring forth from the body, not simply the mind. During the pandemic, I’ve started running two miles a day. During my runs on the Interurban Trail near my home in North Seattle, I concentrate on breathing and moving. Some of my best moments of mental clarity and invention emerge from this activity. Essays that I may be struggling with to find a through line suddenly find a unifying image or anecdote. Haikus are everywhere I look. As I drop deeper into the body and its senses and my own primary modes of sensing — seeing, hearing, smelling — I receive the word images that populate my poems. I aspire to write embodied poems.

For a long time, much of my work was intellectual, visual and aesthetic – when I think back to my first book Equivalence (La Alameda, 2003), which was mostly about talking and thinking about the visual arts. It’s as if I lived only from the neck up. The brain, the eyes. These last few years, I’ve dipped a toe in performance and singing — these practices require all of the body. To be a body relating to space, while relating to words and letting them move up and out from the body. There is a deep relationship between writing and my body that I am only beginning to explore and access now.

3. Is there anything you dislike about being a poet?

This question feels slightly impossible to answer. It would be like answering if there is anything that I dislike about being a woman or being Asian American – the identities that we inhabit have aspects of joy and aspects of difficulty, both of which we have to contend with and embrace or reject. There are distinct aspects of the poetry profession and poetry community that I find disappointing and antithetical to being a poet. However, being a poet, having the perspective and vision of a poet, is in itself a gift.

4. Your new book is very original and innovative. It uses a great deal of visual material, has a haiku chapbook within the volume, and includes self-reflective memoir. And yet it doesn’t feel strained, but rather natural as a way to present your work. Can you explain a little bit about how you came to this kind of container for your work?

My publisher offered me an opportunity to put together any kind of book that I wanted to – a survey of my work up to this moment that could include the full range of my creative practice which has encompassed photography, installation, animation, public art, book arts, and performance, as poetry and essay — the disciplines for which I may be best known. I wanted to put together a book that could show everything and give a broader context of my creative practice to readers who already know my work, and those who may be new to it. And that had to include process essays that could tell the story of how certain works were made which could reveal aspects of my thinking and experience. My work has undergone some major shifts and evolutions from the time that I became a mother seven years ago. My processes and practice became much more hybrid and fluid and I wanted to build a collection that could express that breadth. It meant going through 20 years of visual material – black and white slides from graduate school, negatives from the period when I was shooting medium format photography, chlorophyll prints made from leaves I gathered from the City of Redmond when I was the city’s Poet Laureate. It also meant going through journals and correspondence from friends and collaborators and taking the time to write essays that could trace the evolution and connect the dots between one evolution of thought to the next.

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