Seattle poet shares work of belonging

Posted 9/6/23

Current Civic Poet of Seattle Shin Yu Pai knows disconnect. But she also knows belonging.

“My interest in writing poetry stemmed from finding that language in which I could express …

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Seattle poet shares work of belonging


Current Civic Poet of Seattle Shin Yu Pai knows disconnect. But she also knows belonging.

“My interest in writing poetry stemmed from finding that language in which I could express myself,” she told The Leader, tucking her legs under her on the loveseat nestled within her small studio space.
Her eyes wandered, landing on the window that looked out over her forested backyard.

“Having such a creative mother and father who was invested in literature…there was an affinity for me toward poetry as the main medium for my art.”

“But,” she continued, a small smile flitting across her face as she paused.
“My mother did not speak much English. She was a visual artist, with a visual vocabulary. It was this other language in which I could get to know her in the absence of being fluent in Taiwanese.

“Since we didn’t have a common language, for me, poetry became this third space of desire and longing in a symbolized language of metaphor; it’s where my mother and I could bridge the disconnect between culture and language and find each other there.”

Pai is the second-born child of immigrants who came from Taiwan as young adults in the 1970s. They ended up settling in a part of southern California, where, Pai noted, there weren’t many Asians.

“I had a very bicultural upbringing and identity,” she said.

“I had a traditional Taiwanese home experience, and then I had to assimilate into an American public school.”

As she got older and began to study writing, Pai said that her practice morphed into a desire to use her voice as an Asian American woman.
“Historically in many cultures — my culture in particular — there is a heavy patriarchal, oppressive, sexist, misogynistic view toward women, with a goal to keep them silent and small.”

Because of these dichotomies, Pai said certain themes grew within her poetry.

“I consider a lot of my writing place-based,” she explained.
“Nature is very important to me,” she said as an example. “It is tied to a sense of belonging to a place. It serves as a marker; anywhere I’ve lived, there is something unique to the area that draws me in and helps me find connection.”

And she has indeed lived a lot of places. Pai was born in Illinois, grew up in Riverside, Calif., went to Boston for her undergraduate, moved to Colorado, then to Chicago to finish graduate school; relocated to Dallas with her partner, then back to Boston so that he could go to acupuncture school. They moved back to Dallas so he could care for his mother, who was ill. Around that time, they visited Seattle. After a brief stint in Arkansas, Pai decided she was “done with the south forever” and officially made her home in Seattle.

“A lot of migrations,” she mused.

“Returning to certain areas helped me process things that were unfinished. Cities change while you’re gone. But one commonality was that in every place I’ve lived, I’ve found a handful of poets to be my people.”

Pai marveled at how poetry drew her attention to how communities can support each other and build together.

“That sensibility then allowed me to navigate between different pockets of communities; it became more navigable when I understood these things about literary citizenship.”

Literary citizenship, she explained, is all part of the practice of involvement; supporting one’s artistic community.

“My practice is very interdisciplinary,” she said.

“It’s not simply being a poet at my desk. I produce podcasts, reading series, and events. I read and review other’s books. I spend time with musicians, visual artists, dancers.”

This past spring, Pai collaborated with a dancer colleague to start a somatic arts collective.

“We meet once or twice a week. It’s not a typical writing group. We get together and check in on two accounts: ‘what’s been going on in your body?’ and ‘what have you been reading lately?’”

Pai said she was excited to have this practice because, according to her, so many writers are stuck in their head.

“They write from the neck up. Their work feels intellectual, not embodied. Dance helps.”

As for her podcast, “Ten Thousand Things,” it is in the top one percent of all podcasts published, was listed on Mashable’s top 10 best podcasts of 2023, and reached 200,000 downloads. It is produced by KUOW Public Radio, an affiliate station of NPR.

“It’s specifically for Asian American stories, artists, activists, leaders,” she said. “It’s about bringing more positive stories about our community at a time when there is a rise in hate crime.”

Pai’s dream is to be a public radio host. But in the meantime, she will have to fall back on her 11 published books, awards from the City of Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture, 4Culture, and The Awesome Foundation, title of 2022 Artist Trust Fellow and Poet Laureate for the city of Redmond, and the prestige of being shortlisted in 2014 for a Stranger Genius Award in Literature.

Pai’s new anthology of poetry is coming out later this year, published by Empty Bowl Press.

Pai will be in Port Townsend 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 10 at Wilderbee Farm to read selected works at Poetry on the Salish Sea. The event is free. For more information, visit