Shin Yu Pai

Shin Yu Pai is the author of several books, including Less Desolate (Blue Cactus Press, 2023). Pai is the recipient of several fellowships and honors, including a 2022 Artist Trust Fellowship and a MacDowell Fellowship. In 2023, she was named an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellow. Pai will organize a year of large-scale poetry activations, including the distribution of posters featuring Seattle poetry to public libraries and community spaces. What do you hope for the future of poetry in Seattle, and what support do you hope future poets laureate in the state have?

Shin Yu Pai: Seattle is a UNESCO City of Literature, and I’d love to see more integration of poetry in public art projects. Whether that’s a wall or crosswalk murals, permanent poetry installations on bridges or bicycle trails, the range of possibilities is wide open; and as a city that has a particularly vibrant history of both supporting and creating public art, it seems like a rich area to be mined.

Our Washington State poet laureate is actually very well supported with significant budgetary resources, although this was not always the case. It would be great to see cities in Washington that have poet laureate programs mirror that structure of financial support that exists at the state level. I’ve been a poet laureate for two cities. First Redmond, and now Seattle. I also sat on the committee that chose the poet laureate for the City of Port Townsend. These roles are often under-budgeted and under-resourced in terms of funds available to conduct community outreach, planning, and activations. I hope that future poets laureate in the state have the infrastructural support that they need to serve in their positions in a meaningful way, and cultural and municipal partners who understand the needs of writers, how writers operate differently from public or visual artists. How has being a poet laureate changed your relationship to your own writing?

SYP: I’ve gotten a chance to work with youth poets, incarcerated poets, and poets who are unhoused during this past year. Being exposed to new voices and going into communities and places that I am not usually directly involved with have been  powerful learning experiences. I can’t say that my own writing has been affected. The role of poet laureate has really been about creating platforms for other people’s voices. I’ve focused very little on my own creative production—or rather, that’s not been a focus of the laureateship for me. 

I continue to work, but that’s separate from the laureate role. My own work is currently informed by somatic approaches to building aesthetic awareness, which then shapes how I think about time and place and space and how (public) space choreographs the individual. I think my laureateship has brought perhaps more legitimacy and weight to my creative practice, and I have new opportunities to work with dream collaborators. I’m working on a book about aesthetic awareness, creativity, and belonging with the artist Tonya Lockyer, and the poems that have come out of our somatic writing sessions together are so different from what I was writing before I began paying attention to the body. How can a poet, or poetry, bring a community together? 

SYP: Honestly, on one level, I think that the public expects far too much from poetry—for it to be able to inspire world peace, racial healing, and restorative justice. That said, I have seen and been a part of initiatives that use poetry to facilitate difficult dialogues on racial equity and the lived experiences of those from intersectional and marginalized communities. A few years ago, I was involved with King County’s equity and social justice initiative, along with Quenton Baker and a couple of other poets who were invited to share our work with King County employees as part of their racial equity training. In Seattle, it’s not unusual to see a racial equity facilitator start a session with a popular poem to invite people into a specific kind of imaginative space. Sometimes it’s effective. Sometimes I find it cliché. A poet or a poem alone, reflection alone, can’t bring a community together—it’s the two-way dialogue that brings the community together. What part of your project were you most excited about?

SYP: I’m working with the designer Jayme Yen to create a public poetry campaign that will include the takeover of multiple storefront or gallery spaces. Originally, I had thought that we would limit the properties to city-owned spaces and galleries in the core of downtown Seattle. But as the submissions to the open call came in, I realized that we had a number of very site-specific poems in the mix that were connected to certain neighborhoods— like Seattle’s Central District. I also received a submission that was inspired by Seattle Public Libraries. So I’ve been excited to go into the community to identify partners who will host the poetry displays in the neighborhoods and communities that inspired them. I think Jayme’s going to make a little map too that visitors can use to visit all of the displays. What obstacles, if any, did you experience when starting your project? 

SYP: Soliciting submissions took quite a bit of time and effort. Many poets waited until the last few days of the open call. Very few established, published poets submitted work unless I wrote to them directly, sometimes more than once, and asked them to send work. People did not consistently follow the guidelines for submission. The majority of submissions came from people without MFAs or a significant publication history, which was great because I wanted to find new voices. In the end, I collected more than fifty submissions for five spots. Even so, I was surprised that I didn’t receive more submissions. Could you speak a bit more about the year of large-scale activations you will be displaying throughout Seattle?

SYP: I’ve reimagined my strategy a bit since becoming poet laureate at the beginning of 2023. The work during this first year has been very time-consuming and rigorous, requiring a long runway for planning, design, and execution. The main activations that will take place in Seattle will be in April, which is National Poetry Month. We’ll launch the public poetry campaign in various spaces, including Seattle Public Library (Central and South Park Branches), the art center Wa Na Wari, Slide Gallery, the after-school program Bureau of Fearless Ideas, and the Seattle Municipal Tower Gallery, managed by the Office of Arts and Culture. 

By mid-2024, I’d like to consider what other activations might look like. Next winter, for example, when the days are shorter, I’m interested in doing some poetry projection mapping on buildings. Is there a poem on that inspires you and your work in Seattle? How so?

SYP: A lot of my work in Seattle is about being in conversation with artists from different disciplines, and poets who approach their work in very different ways than I do. I’ve always deeply loved the work of the New York School poet Frank O’Hara. “Why I Am Not A Painter” speaks to the dialogue that happens through looking, parallel discoveries, as well as the power of being in community and creative camaraderie with people who are doing different work.