Seven poetry collections, some of which are collaborations with visual artists.
HAS LIVED IN:
California, Texas, Boston, Colorado, China, Arkansas, and Seattle.
REFERS TO SWADDLING AS:
"The baby straitjacket."
Shin Yu Pai's most recent poetry collection, Aux Arcs, is a book about the anger and frustration of being a Taiwanese American living in the Bible Belt. It's an intelligent, emotional book—prickly, sad, funny, dismissive—but it's only a sliver of color, like a lurid, furious red, in a much larger spectrum of work. Any discussion with Pai instantaneously reveals her two most important qualities: curiosity and clarity.
Pai is prolific. She often collaborates with visual artists (most recently local painter Whiting Tennis) to tease out new meanings from familiar art. She reads with certain poets because she finds the way their work complements each other to be particularly pleasing. Every April, she writes one haiku a day; they're often funny, observational diary entries tucked efficiently into a handful of syllables about topics like riding across the Ballard Bridge while trying not to think of an earthquake, or momentarily mistaking the word "gaslighting" for "waterboarding." She published a book of poetry all about paper—its creation, its purpose, the relationship between a poem and the paper it's printed on. And she's working on a book about the birth of her first child, a son, and her own relationship to the importance of firstborn sons in Taiwanese culture. She's the youngest daughter in a Taiwanese American family.
On the page, Pai aims for the small moments in life where language fails. Here's the first stanza of "Chit Chat at the Super Wal-Mart," from Aux Arcs:
the cashier catches me
off guard when she wonders
aloud—I'm emptying out a cart
full of moving supplies: polymer totes,
packing tape, solvents to scrub
down a greasy stove, glass cleaner
for a bathroom mirror trying to see
things from her view, no polish,
I ask her the question again
to make sure I hear her right:
Do you do nails? she repeats
With no other evidence, the cashier assumes that because she's Asian, Pai must "do nails." ("I look down at unmanicured hands," Pai continues, "my own ragged cuticles...") It's a passive, lazy form of racism, but it's racism nonetheless; Pai notices the cashier is "relieved" to see that she answers in unaccented English. When Pai chooses not to engage with her—changing the subject to her upcoming move back to Seattle—the conversation devolves into simple small talk about the weather. The cashier never again has to think about the stupid assumption she made, but it clearly left a mark on Pai, and she lets us know in simple, cutting language that everything left unsaid in that conversation is much more important than any vapid "bless your heart" could ever communicate.