What does it mean to represent a city, or a state, through poetry? To me, the role of poet laureate always felt like it would be too much responsibility. Writing a book of poetry is one thing, but to represent the varying perspectives of a community through poetry seems like a daunting task of representation. Seattle poet Shin Yu Pai talked to me over the phone last month about her tenure as Redmond's Poet Laureate — what she learned, her successes and failures, and what she thinks her legacy might be. To learn more about Shin Yu Pai, including samples of her work and upcoming events, visit her website. She reads next at Elliott Bay Book Company on Saturday, January 13th.(Photo of Shin Yu Pai at the "Heyday" video unveiling by James McDaniel.)
You're one of the most thoughtful poets in the Northwest, and I was wondering if your term as Poet Laureate of Redmond provided you with any insights into what being a poet laureate, what representing a city as a poet, means to you. What did the experience teach you?
I learned a lot about what the work of doing public art is like, and what skills are involved in doing that. I worked collaboratively with individual artists and designers, and even companies. Working on a larger scale — working with a community or city — was a new kind of experience for me, and I found that there were different kinds of skills that needed to be brought forward in my own work and ways of managing projects that I needed to be more flexible with: scopes of projects, timelines, and so on.
Those are the things that, over time, informed the way that I went about the work. I made certain pieces knowing what kind of iterative processes they might need to go through before they could be presented or shared. Those were good lessons for me, because for a work to really reflect a community — and for a work to be conversation and collaboration — those things take more time, and a lot of back and forth.
A lot of your work in this project has involved nature. I’m thinking of the leaves and your animated poem “Heyday,” about the Redmond history of logging. You know, nature is probably not in the top three things that a Seattleite thinks of when you ask them about Redmond.
So Seattleites probably think of Microsoft and rocket technology when they think of Redmond. And those things are absolutely true, and they're stereotypes, too. They've still got farmland [in Redmond,] and there's still parts of it that feel very unspoiled to me.
For me, exploring Redmond became this exercise in really wanting to see what the city is: its history, its place. Certainly there's the city — the contemporary technology and what makes it the place that it is now. But I wanted to very much ground that with the physical geography of what Redmond is.
And that’s what drew me to the bike trails, and really interpreting the history and what the city is known for in terms of its archeological significance, alongside famous residents and contemporary people who were important to this city. That was a very intentional gesture, looking up historical records to really look at the past of Redmond, and bring it alive and animate it.
I didn't really have many thoughts about Redmond when I moved here because I don't drive, so I almost never made it out there. But then I started walking, and I wound up walking to Redmond a lot, and I really dig it. I like all the bike trails, and then as I've learned more about it I like what I’m learning. The mayor has been very progressive, and very interested in making the city ready for transit, in a way that other communities outside of Seattle haven't really done. And politically, of course, there's Manka Dhingra, who’s just turned Washington state’s legislature blue for the first time in a while. It’s interesting to me that you don’t live in Redmond but you’re representing Redmond. What was your exploration of the city like?
Yeah, so, it's been a series of visits. Usually they’re built around exploring a certain site. The Heron Rookery was one place that I harvested leaves from, and the Farrel-McWhirter Farm Park. And I also explored the organizations that are there. I've had a couple of really great partners in the Redmond Public Library, in VALA Eastside, in the Senior Center. It’s been a slow and gradual exploration from a distance.
I will admit, honestly, that I think that living here in Seattle — and I don't drive much either — it was a challenge to be more deeply immersed as a Poet Laureate. And I actually think that as they're looking for a new Laureate, they should probably consider somebody from the eastside.
But, I don't think that was necessarily a barrier or deterrent in eventually hitting my stride
One of the things that I did last year for National Poetry Month was to curate this celebration of poetry and song. And so, I brought together people like Jessika Kenney to perform traditional Persian and Middle Eastern music with a performer from Kirkland named Srivani Jade who sings Mira Bai poems.
And it was really exciting to see that the audiences that were coming out for some of these programs were quite different than what you would see at Seattle openings or Seattle readings. Redmond is a city that is very much made up of many immigrants from Southeast Asia, and it was really great to be able to draw some of those folks out with some of those things I'm trying to do.
You've always been a very collaborative artist, but it seems to me that the act of being a Laureate involves a sort of elevation of other artists. Was there a learning curve to finding people and to curating the Laureate experience?
Yeah, certainly in some of the technologically sophisticated projects I wanted to do. I collaborated with the textile artist, Maura Donegan, who is from the east side, on this poetry embroidery project that was a response to a hate crime that happened in Redmond. And it took me a while to find Maura, because I had sort of gone down this path of wanting to figure out a way to digitally fabricate the piece that I made that was basically an embroidered broadside in multiples. But that was a very complicated and expensive process, so ultimately I engaged Maura to just make me one big textile piece that she basically sewed herself.
It was a challenge to find her, and VALA Eastside really helped to direct me towards her. And, with this last piece that I'm doing — this video projection — it took time to figure out who had the technical knowledge. I needed to find a designer who could do animation, and then I needed to find somebody who could help me with the logistical specifications of projecting onto the side of a building at night. So, I've been really lucky through Seattle networks to know who those go-to people can be, to help me create that work.
So, the learning curve, I would say, was pretty steep. Because there are lots of people that I know in my creative network here, but I also felt like the particular projects that I was working on required a certain kind of sensibility.
I wanted to ask you specifically about the textile work, because I don't know if I have seen other Poets Laureate be that, sort of, immediate? It seemed, to me, to be a mix of poetry and visual art and journalism. What a Poet Laureate should do is console in times of tragedy and investigate what the tragedy means to the community. And that seems like, just such a unique moment and unique piece.
Yeah, I'm really grateful that you asked about it. It's a piece that's important to me, and I wasn't able to share it or fabricate it for over a year.
So, I wrote the poem in early 2016 — I want to say in January or February of last year. It was this a crime that you may have heard about in Redmond. It involved a woman named Leona Coakley-Spring, who is a Black business owner and had this small consignment shop, which was called Rags to Riches.
She was running her business and there was a young man who came in, acted really suspiciously, said he wanted to consign some clothes with her. He ended up leaving, and he left behind a couple of garments in bags. And so when she went to look through them to try and identify if she could return the materials and garments to him, she wasn't quite sure what she was looking at. But when her adult son came and looked at the materials, what they discovered was that this young man had basically abandoned a Klu Klux Klan robe.
That was this really, really heavy thing. I remember reading about it in the news and being so shocked and appalled — that in this present day, so close to where I live, that this was happening.
And, you know, a KKK robe is a very potent symbol whether or not you're a black person or not.
And it's such a specific crime, with such a personal level of premeditation to it There’s such a weird intentionality to it. You know, you hear 'hate crime' and you think of, like, graffiti or something impersonal like that, but this feels so direct.
It was very threatening. It was very disturbing to me. It was this clear message of like, "Go back to where you come from." You know?
And so, it really demanded or called in me this reaction to express some sort of solidarity or compassion — some kind of response. And so I wrote this poem and I hoped to share it with the community at that time, but because this was under investigation and the poem included details of what had happened, the city determined that we couldn't share it with the public, because it was an active crime investigation. And that investigation went on for a few months, but ultimately they weren't able to track down the individual that left those items, and Ms. Coakley-Spring ended up closing her store, and the robe was somehow returned to her. I don't know if it was taken in as evidence for a time or if she always had it, but I read a story in the news about her burning it.
That was this really powerful moment too, because I had had this whole plan that I would try to connect with her and ask her if I could have the robe so that I could embroider it or do something with it, and use it as kind of the basis of the response that I wanted to make. And so that didn't work out.
I thought about an embroidered broadside, and that didn't work out budget-wise. And so then, we made the textile, and that was actually shown this summer at the So Bazaar Festival. I partnered with VALA Eastside, which is this gallery in Redmond, and we talked about the idea of putting together an interactive poetry embroidery booth. We wanted to use the broadside that Maura and I had made together as kind of an example of what people coming to the festival could do. They could sit down at this booth with embroidery hoops and cloth and thread and needles, and basically do embroideries themselves and come away with something that they could take home or feel proud of.
And so I curated language out of Redmond's Inclusion Resolution, and I also took language from poems by Elizabeth Alexander, who's a former Obama inaugural poet, and Langston Hughes and some others, that all dealt with inclusion and tolerance in some way. And then we basically mocked them up so that people coming to the booth could stitch those as kind of their sampler. The intention behind the booth was very much to engage regular citizens in this specific dialogue around inclusion.