Redmond poet laureate (and Stranger Genius nominee) Shin Yu Pai presents her final project for the city at the Redmond Lights festival this Saturday, December 2. The secular winter event, which draws approximately 10,000 people, begins with the lighting of a giant oak tree and a fireworks display in the outdoor plaza between City Hall and the Senior Center. Then visitors walk a candle-lit path to the Town Center, where there's a bunch of stuff for kids to do. This is going to be premium fun for the whole family, and also for the odd lonely person who hasn't had every single ounce of municipal fellow-feeling squeezed out of them by our endless social apocalypse.
There's lots to see at this thing, but Pai's collaboration with Seattle designer Michael Barakat isn't to be missed.
Barkat animated a poem that Pai wrote about Redmond's efforts to revitalize the city's tree canopy, and they're going to project it onto the backside of City Hall, which will be visible from the tree-lighting ceremony. In the animation, words jump out from the poem and morph into trees, fall when the trees fall, and reflect the action of the poem in other ways. The video will play on a loop throughout the evening, so everyone will get a chance to see it.
The poem itself, which is called "heyday," condenses Redmond's history with logging and milling into a few lines before focusing on how Redmond's revitalization effort starts a chain reaction that benefits the city in social and ecological ways: "memory a series of concentric rings; / one thousand acres to be brought / into active trust — the city of tree / stewards recover a watershed, / cultivate urban vegetation, / extend the forest canopy / to change the temperature."
Pai's talk of changing the temperature in that last line resonates with the extra-heated political environment in the U.S. right now, so I called her up to ask if she was thinking of politics as she was writing the poem. "I was talking quite literally about environmental impact," she said. "But it does suggest larger social change, temperament as well as temperature, I'd say."
I was also extremely excited by the phrase "brought into active trust," a bit of bureaucratic language that Pai's poem charges with multivalent meaning, so I asked her to talk about what the phrase meant for her. "Sometimes we think of a trust as dormant resources, and this usage plays with that notion," she said. "This active trust is an agreement between a people and its land. You have to cultivate and maintain it. Paired with this idea of social change—it's aspirational, certainly, but it's active. That idea actually informed the decision to animate the poem, because the animation literally activates the language."
In terms of sheer size, this animated poem is Pai's largest project to date. But her tenure as Redmond's laureate has been marked by her use of novel and yet fitting ways to create, distribute, and engage with poetry.
In Animating Archives, for instance, Pai collaborated with Megan Bent to print images of loggers from the Redmond Historical Society onto leaves using a special chlorophyll printing process. "I thought the technique would be the perfect application for these images," Pai told me. "I could harvest and locally source leaf and plant matter, then print this historical matter onto he leaves to evoke that connection between place and time." Though the leaves are now gone, Pai and Bent created large digital prints of the original artifacts. If you want to see them, they'll be on view at the Redmond Senior Center through Dec. 20.
In another collaboration, this time with textile artist Maura Donegan, Pai created a community project in response to a hate crime. According to the Seattle Times, some asshole dropped off a bag full of Ku Klux Klan robes at a black-owned consignment shop called Rags to Riches. He fled before the owner, Leona Coakley-Spring, discovered the robes for what they were.
Pai ended up writing a poem about the incident, but instead of printing on paper (or on a leaf) she embroidered it into fabric in order to, she told me, "evoke the texture and fabric of the event, the fabric of the robe." She then showed the piece at So Bazaar, a summer festival in the city. To open up the project to the community, she invited festival-goers to stitch their own poems into fabric. Participants could draw from a phrase bank stocked with lines from Langston Hughes, Stacey-Ann Chin, and fragments from Redmond’s cultural inclusion resolution. "Some people wanted to stitch other things—their own names or members of their family," Pai said. "But the intention of the interactive poetry booth was to explore our relationship to this social value of inclusion."
When she leaves her post later in the month, Pai plans to continue to "focus on creating immersive and hybrid work with a public element."
"I’m a poet that has worked outside of the book form," she continued. "And I think this whole experience has given me different ways to circulate writing and poetry that is still impactful, and that reaches a wide range of communities."