An Interview with Author Shin Yu Pai
May 13, 2020
Interviewed by author and TSW contributor Anne Liu Kellor
I first encountered Shin Yu Pai’s work in 2015 when I was with my five-year-old son in Carkeek Park in Seattle. As we walked down the wooded trail, past a clearing with an old orchard, I noticed that some of the apples had been stenciled with words. I didn’t yet know the story behind this project—the inciting inspiration, the poem that the words were part of, nor the trial and error process that Pai underwent to figure out how to apply the decals and eventually “tattoo” the apples with the words’ shadows (once the decals were removed)—but I knew that I was intrigued.
Shin Yu Pai’s new book Ensō is a twenty-year retrospective of her poetry, handmade books, hybrid art installations, and art-making processes. Born in the Midwest to Taiwanese immigrants, Pai documents her multitude of influences—from witnessing her mother’s artmaking, to writing ekphrastic poems, to creating installations and public art, entering motherhood herself, and reckoning with the death of her dear friend and teacher. Each chapter of Ensō contains a rich trove of meditations on the practice of making art and engaging with others as life-giving encounters. Pai’s work pushes at boundaries of collaboration—whether between artists of different mediums, or between artist and viewer—actively inviting each of us to reexamine the role of creativity in our lives, and in this very moment.
Anne Liu Kellor: Thank you, Shin Yu, for this book and this window into your sacred practices. There is so much in here I resonated with. Let’s talk first about how we, as artists, find and cultivate our evolving forms and practices. In Ensō, you write, “My sensibilities of language have been informed by growing up with Taiwanese and Mandarin in my ear, and a strain of English that wasn’t metrical. As a result, I’ve steered clear of form—in the same way that I approach prose with caution.” But prose exists alongside poetry in your new book, and you also go on to write about how embracing an imposed structure can be useful. In particular, can you tell us more about how adopting the haiku as your “go-to form” decades ago affected you as an artist, and about your haiku collaborations?
Shin Yu Pai: I wrote a lot of haiku in the years that my son Tomo was under 2 years old. I wrote haiku before Tomo’s arrival as well, but as a regular practice, it sustained me during some lean creative times when I could no longer see a path. I was constantly sleep-deprived, overworked, and malnourished. The haiku and my haiku friendships were a gift that kept me connected to my creative self in the simplest way. The Haiku Year [by Tom Gilroy et. al., 2004] was an important book to me because of what it symbolized about how simple it can be to dip back into the creative mind, even for a fleeting moment. Haiku are short, low-impact to write and read. Off the cuff, requiring only that you tune in.
The writers who cemented their commitment to writing haiku for a year, did it on the underside of a hotel desk drawer. Michael Stipe, who was part of that original project, was a huge inspiration for me in my adolescence. I became a vegetarian at one point, because of him and Morrissey. I was a fan of Grant Lee Buffalo’s music as well. But it was my friendship with Tom Gilroy, the filmmaker who is at the core of The Haiku Year, that has been most significant to me. The short poems are a form of talking to one another. They are a conversation from one mind to another.
Anne: This really inspires me to try writing more haiku — and to do this with others! How about now: what is your relationship to having a regular practice, whether writing or otherwise?
Shin Yu: For the past several years, my commitment to myself has been to do something creative every day. That doesn’t mean sitting down to write a poem. It can mean reading a book and thinking about what it’s doing, making a meal from a recipe that I’ve never tried, writing a note to a friend far away, curating a complex event that involves a tall ship, an accordion player, and a speaker on mythical sea creatures.
Being creative every day is part of my self-care routine in inviting forth the best parts of myself. I also make time to sit in front of my altar and listen to myself, chat with my ancestors and to get in touch with what ideas are living in me right now and what’s asking for attention.
Anne: I love this, the idea that a creative practice can be comprised of so many different activities. It seems like whether you are working with other artists, or working across disciplines, an element of collaboration has increasingly informed your work. Can you tell us more about this? What have been some of the most transformative collaborations for you?
Shin Yu: Early in my career, I collaborated with artists working in photography and painting and 2D work. From them, I learned their own vocabulary and dictions and experimented with appropriation and borrowing almost as a form of conversation. I’m not sure that I would have found the language of sports and nutrition interesting, or a source for inspiration, if my collaborators hadn’t been mining those subjects for inspiration.
I’ve enjoyed working with book designers and book artists, but some of the things that I learned from working with Peter Madden, and in now working with Sarah Mottaghinejad in Seattle at her book arts studio, have been very important in that they put the tools of creation directly in my own hands. As a result, my thinking about books, and what they can be, has expanded.
The composer and vocalist Jessika Kenney put me back in touch with my voice in a very personally significant way… More recently, I’ve worked closely with Jane Kaplan, a theater director at The Rendezvous in Belltown, and a movement-based artist — Vanessa DeWolf — both of whom have given me deep feedback on how to present specific performative works for a live audience and to think through issues of movement and engaging more deeply with an audience. Jane first commissioned me to write a piece for a history cabaret about a neighborhood in Seattle where I’ve spent a fair amount of time. Feedback on writing has gotten easier to accept over the years, but taking notes on embodiment and performance are quite different. Working with artists like Jane and Vanessa have pushed me to give voice to my work in more authentic and vulnerable ways and to play with improvisation in a way that sometimes feels less possible in writing. The directive has usually been something like, “just be more of yourself.”
Anne: Yes, how can we continue to move towards greater authenticity as artists. You write about how you once chose to “hide behind my poems, distance through object-making, and to choose creative circumstances that allowed me to control what I shared of myself.” Can you speak more about the shift in you that has taken place over time that has allowed you to hear and share more of your voice? What is the value of bringing our words and art into the public sphere?
Shin Yu: I have spent a fair amount of time studying leadership, and as part of that endeavor, connecting to my cultural and ancestral roots. [I do this] to understand intergenerational legacies and trauma, and the role that I can take in changing deeply ingrained patterns of behavior and belief within my self to be a better ally, accomplice, and leader.
I grew up within a patriarchal and Confucian family system that completely devalued women — their voice, their intelligence, autonomy, creativity, resourcefulness, and feminine power. I can remember one of my female cousins in Taiwan saying to me when we were young that it was her wish to be reborn a man.
To be born at all (as human) is a tremendous privilege and gift. We have the opportunity to become enlightened in these bodies. To have been born in this country, to have been born at all is not to be taken lightly. I suppose that a central shift in my work has been towards gratitude. Perhaps I once wrote and made work out of survival — a deep instinct to try and preserve whatever tenuous sense of identity or self existed. Maybe that wasn’t my voice, but the voice of what I’d inherited and had to make sense of in order to claim an actual voice.
Anne: Another transformation you’ve undergone in recent years involves becoming a mother. You write, “I fully expected motherhood to be obliterating. The end of myself as I knew me. What I didn’t anticipate was the expansion that my spirit would undergo to integrate all the parts of my previous identities to make me a better human and mother.” How has becoming a mother made you a better human being? Has it also made you a better artist/writer?
Shin Yu: I used to put a very high value on my artistic and creative production and worked very hard to center that practice in my life. I was competitive with myself, more than being competitive with others (or so I tell myself). I cared about too many things that were out of my control or reach — grants funding, publication, publicity, teaching opportunities — and spent a lot of time trying to figure out things that seemed important to one’s “career advancement” as a writer or artist. Becoming a mother helped me to focus inward and get back in touch with how important process is to my work. To care less about the external, because I’m trying to incubate something complex that takes the time that it takes, that has its own life cycle and rhythms. As far as being a better human: To mother is to develop empathy and a deeper ability to connect, while also establiShin Yug healthy boundaries — for one’s child and for the inner child that didn’t get what they needed in one’s own development. Because we come to care and love for someone outside of ourselves, we give up a part of ego that would not have had to be relinquished had we chosen not to mother. To be an artist requires a certain amount of selfishness. It’s sometimes useful to be selfish and it’s useful to be unselfish.
Anne: Yes, so much paradox inherent in motherhood and artmaking. Can you tell us what inspired you to create this book at this juncture? Why now?
Shin Yu: I wanted to make a book where many kinds of my work could live together, reflecting the complex and parallel aspects of their production. I have published books of poetry for nearly 20 years. Many readers know my work in the context of the printed page, or may understand my work in the context of the poetic collection, i.e. the book. My practice and my interests are much more expansive, and I suppose I wanted to give readers some insight into the different practices that inform and shape my writing, whether or not they involve literal language. Put another way: people throughout my life have seen me as an Asian woman. There are certain kinds of them. Dragon women. The good daughter. The good wife. Tiger mother. Caricatures.
I’m a Taiwanese-American Southern Californian that was raised in the Inland Empire by a working-class family in a mixed-race community. When I worked on my piece for Jane Kaplan’s history cabaret, I focused my writing on another Asian American artist — Pat Suzuki, the nightclub singer. Pat made it on Broadway eventually, which she left. She was cast as a stripper in Flower Drum Song. Before that, in Seattle, she was cast in a touring play that came to The Moore. Her part? “Minor Oriental.” I’ve come to terms with the idea that I don’t have to be a minor Oriental in someone else’s play or narrative. Those days are over.
Identity is tremendously complex and people have all kinds of narratives when they don’t look beyond the surface of what’s easy to take in. Identity, art — I think there’s a way in which perhaps this book is a love letter to that impulse to assert and celebrate the complexity of one’s being. We get to define ourselves.