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Apples and Ballons Are Like Paper for This Poet Laureate

Redmond Poet Laureate Shin Yu Pai is changing the way we experience poetry.

by Abby Ronner
May 16 2017, 4:25pm

All photos courtesy the artist

In August 2015, a public orchard in Seattle was transformed into an experiential poem. Apples were imprinted with words that corresponded to a letter of the alphabet. The words formed an abecedarian poem, an ancient poetic form that dates back to psalms in the Hebrew bible. Abecedarian poetry was used by Chaucer in the Middle Ages, then more recently by Dr. Seuss and Edward Gorey in children's literature. It is a rare form of poetry that Shin Yu Pai, Poet Laureate of Redmond, WA, chose in order to distill the textures and sounds of an orchard into words. Her son was two at the time and just learning to speak, which influenced her creative process. "I wanted that language to be made visible," she tells Creators.

Experiential poetry is an underutilized art form and one Pai is incredibly interested in. "Through bringing in the interactive and experiential elements, I'm seeking to open up the field of experience to include the somatic in the understanding of language as a medium—to perhaps 'reach through' words, to contemplate and create other meanings beyond what words on their own may signify," she explains.

Pai reached this philosophy over a 20-year career of multidisciplinary collaborations, but most influential was her relationship with her mother. The artist was born to Taiwanese immigrants and raised in Highgrove, CA. Growing up, she and her mother shared no common language, and the disconnect affected her deeply. She sought a new way to establish a connection, "through a creative language that could express everything," she recalls. Pai dove into poetry, catalyzed by the Beat Generation, then moved on to Eastern influences that reflected her own, yet unexamined, culture. She attended the Writing and Poetics program at Naropa University, founded by Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman, where she learned from both a Buddhist and literary perspective, eventually receiving her MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Pai continuously seeks out varied creative inspiration that keeps her perspective fresh. She once gave away balloons printed with poems derived from the visceral experience of Redmond Lights, the area's annual secular celebration of winter traditions. Her work usually explores themes of identity, race, place, labor, criminality, nature, and Buddhist perspectives, translating them into a multisensory engagement.

"I started out as a poet working on the page," she says. "Over time I've grown more interested in the way in which language can be activated to engage a reader beyond the intellectual hook, through performative and visual strategies that create a more complex experience." With her projects, she hopes to immerse viewers in an experience that leaves them with "curiosity and delight."

Pai is currently working on a performative poetic music collaboration with musicians Tomo Nakayama and Tom Romer of The Lowlands while also installing short "wayfinding" poems on bike trails throughout Redmond. To learn more about Shin Yu Pai and her work, visit her website.

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