Shin Yu Pai is the author of ENSŌ, a book which in its very construction exemplifies the possibility and practice of art-making as a form of devotion. Combining poetry, prose, imagery of all kinds, and a book within a book within an exploration of solitude and community, ENSŌ not only defies categorization, but offers solace in a world seemingly ruled by words gone awry.
Her work encompasses a wide geography of place and ways of making. She was a 2014 Stranger Genius Award nominee, has authored ten books of poetry, has exhibited work across the country, and has served as a curator, public speaker, and events producer nationally and internationally. But her astonishing list of accomplishments pales in comparison to the grace of her presence in person, as fierce as it is compassionate.
I first came to know of Shin Yu when she invited me to speak on a panel about Cascadian Zen at the 2019 Cascadia Poetry Festival. Well before we met, we were meeting in words, exploring how to honor the practice of truthfulness. It thus seems fitting, as the pandemic continues, that we’ve carried out the following interview in writing.
It’s been an enormous pleasure to speak with Shin Yu about embodiment, mothering, teachers, and the practice of devotion.
The Rumpus: If one flips through ENSŌ, a book that could as easily be displayed in a museum as in a bookshop, one might discover, on page forty-five, a pocket made of cerulean-colored paper containing a chapbook of uncollected haiku.
And, if one slips it out and opens it, one might also discover my favorite poem in both the inner and outer book:
seeing a fiddlehead fern for
the first time my boy draws
his hand into a curl
Tell me about the genesis of this poem and its poet.
Shin Yu Pai: My son Tomo did not speak with ease until he was close to four. By “normal” developmental standards, he was delayed in his speech. At that time, I was speaking to him in English, Taiwanese, and Spanish.
Tomo would communicate through his gaze and through his body language, and a handful of words. His relationship to language required me to be closely attentive to his ways of communicating so that I would not overlook anything, or fail to be present with him.
For small children, there are so many firsts. The first experience of food. A first encounter with sweetness. The first light of sunrise. Experiencing the world through my son’s perspective made me notice the small details. When Tomo first saw the curve of a fiddlehead fern, he communicated with me how that living being embodied that turning. It reminded me of his first meeting with an orchid. Its buds still shut tight—he squeezed his eyes closed to express the flower in its process of becoming and would say simply “eyes open.”
Much of preparing for giving birth, and then having that child, was a process of becoming embodied, and inhabiting the body—something that I avoided for decades. Being an Asian American woman, having survived certain kinds of trauma, I wasn’t interested in being embodied. But physicality is the vehicle by which we encounter the world and become more fully ourselves. In the earlier books, my poems were so cerebral, springing forth from the mind and eye. Anything above the neck. The poet and the poems became more visceral, more experiential. I want to use all of the senses that we are given, to convey and evoke the ideas and sensations.
Rumpus: In the section of ENSŌ called “Mothering Time” you speak about how the idea of becoming a mother first entered your heart in a funeral parlor and how a vision of your own mother’s love was followed by the loss of your first child. How have your experiences of losing that child and giving birth to Tomo affected your understanding of mothering and maternal love?
Pai: There was a long process I underwent that called me to turn towards learning to mother myself. In 2012, I had planned on taking my father, who was seventy-two years old at that time, to Taiwan to see his siblings and to visit the places of his military service. We planned that trip to take place while I was early enough in the pregnancy to be able to travel. I miscarried a short time before we were scheduled to leave the country. I did not know how to grieve that loss. And, I had made a commitment to accompany my father on a journey that he did not want to make alone. So, I went anyway.
In retrospect, it was not the best idea. My body bled for twenty-eight days from the exertion of traveling. It extended my recovery time. While my father was fully informed about what had medically happened to me, he was also deeply lost in his own trauma—reliving the pain of memories under the Chinese occupation of Taiwan and not prepared to be present for what I needed. So, I hijacked part of that trip as an act of rebellion. I insisted (that if I was going to spend this difficult time together) that we’d also be using the time to conduct creative research.
I built us an itinerary of sites of historic trauma and conscience. We traveled off the coast of Taiwan to visit Ludao, or Green Island, the site of a political prison where innocent citizens rounded up during the White Terror were tortured, forced into labor, and imprisoned. We walked through the panopticon of the prison’s architecture and abandoned cells, across empty cement compounds to touch the trauma and grief that inhabit the ghosts of Green Island. I wanted my father to understand how the trauma and grief that we feel as individuals connects to public and historic traumas that are embodied in the land, and in the spirit of place. This was my own act of connecting the dots from private to public, and it was a gift that I thought could be of value to my father, if he could be receptive to it.
During that trip, I was placed in a position of being required to mother. To emotionally caretake a parent that had not been present for me, either on that trip or throughout my childhood. I had just lost a child, and I was having to fulfill a gender role expectation, despite everything else that I carried. My father wasn’t very thoughtful about allowing me to have room to be myself. As we visited temples and I listened to him pray to the gods, I felt like my chief role was to bear (male) grandchildren and to reunite the family. Should I be unable to make good on this grand promise of womanhood, I would be rendered without societal or familial value.
I was very angry on Green Island. I rode a bike around the coastline, trying to get away from my father, trying to connect to my own sense of self. I thought about my partner at home in Seattle and whether or not I might die far away from him. Whether the spirits of Green Island might claim me. My partner had accepted, but not understood, my decision to grieve on my own. In that moment of thinking about death, I made a choice to turn towards living. To leave all of the “small deaths” that I had experienced during the first half of my life and my obsession with death, behind on Green Island. I was choosing to move towards mothering myself and to center my own experience. To be finished with the masculine Confucian values that had dominated my early life and to make space for the feminine.
And then, ten months later, I gave birth to a boy.
I had to learn the boundaries of what mothering would look like and feel like for me. My own mother is a highly skilled visual artist and taught art and worked as a graphic designer before moving to the US. She gave up everything to marry my father and it took her a long time to find her way back to her creative practice after having children. She was very tied up in supporting my father and there was a language and cultural gap between us. She mothered in the sense of being dutiful in keeping the household going. The children were bathed; we had hot meals. She fulfilled certain gender expectations that I am able to rebel against. I’m uncertain that she felt any deep sense of commonality with me as a woman, until I became a mother seven years ago.
Loving my son and being there for him has not required me to give up parts of myself in the way that I feared that it would. Or rather, I see the integration of self that needs to happen in my psyche, as deeply connected to the work of mothering. I am proud of his ability to name his feelings and to advocate for himself and to know his own happiness. That is the legacy of my maternal love.
Rumpus: ENSŌ also bears witness to several important teachers. Tell me more about Ikka Nakashima, tea, and your explorations of the art of bookmaking.
Pai: Sensei Nakashima was my tea teacher in Chicago. I started studying tea at Naropa Institute during my poetics studies at the Jack Kerouac School and when I moved to Chicago to go to art school, I wanted to continue. Sensei was probably already in her seventies when I started practicing tea with her. Like my teacher in Boulder, Sensei had a deep sense of tea heart. I had a lot of things going on in my life. Most of my time was spent working, printing in a photo lab, writing, or longing to be loved. I could not devote unlimited hours to practicing outside of the tea room. And, tea studies were expensive. I showed up with my heart and best efforts, when I could. That was acceptable to Sensei. I’m not sure my best efforts were acceptable to me—I wanted to be earnest in my studies and to improve and make progress. I’d grown accustomed, in academic settings, of being a “good” student and struggled with my averageness. That’s a very model minority kind of baggage. Sensei accepted and saw me for who I was, not how I performed. One day out of the blue, she spontaneously told me that she loved me. I hadn’t even been her student for long. My own mother didn’t say those words to me until the day that I got married, in my early thirties. Sensei saw in me that my heart had been badly damaged and she reminded me to be with an open heart.
Catherine Papenfoth and Peter Madden taught me the basics of bookmaking. In some ways, the impressions that they left on me were deeper than studies with poets. They equipped me with a different set of tools and forms that I could adapt to many kinds of work and gave me the vocabulary and language to talk about what I wanted a book to be as an experience. The content was irrelevant—we looked at forms and structures as containers for whatever needed to be expressed. I learned to deconstruct and recreate paper out of pulp, work with materials in different ways under Catherine’s guidance and also learn the alternative photographic formats of cyanotype, Vandyke, Polaroid transfer, and other methods that I missed studying in art school.
Zen teacher and poet Peter Levitt has become an important teacher in my life. We met when we were guests of the Montreal Zen Poetry Festival and staying at Leonard Cohen’s house in the Plateau. Peter’s work penetrated my heart—particularly his poem about the face of his unborn son. In Montreal, I couldn’t wake up early enough to sit with the Zen teachers. But Peter and I walked around the shipyards together, ate Chinese food, and talked about poems. I hoped that one day I’d get a chance to study with him. Peter’s sangha on Salt Spring Island has met over Zoom since the start of the pandemic and I now sit with his group whenever I am able.
The people who taught me writing or that I shared communities with have been a more complicated bunch. There’s an essay waiting to be written about power, harm, ego, gaslighting, posturing, and lies. An example: A BIPOC poetry teacher who an Asian American prose writer introduced me to asked me to lunch on the premise of nominating me for a Bread Loaf scholarship. He insisted that I meet him at his apartment. When he opened the door, he was wearing a bathrobe. A different teacher confessed to me years after I had left our community that he did not correct his partner’s false belief that we had carried on in an affair. It took me many years to see and fully understand why I had been ostracized by students and peers in our community and the impacts and harm to my character.
But ENSŌ felt very much like a book about honoring a practice, the friends and peers who have informed my practices, and the teachers who left me a changed person. The ones that helped me to change my narrative about myself. The teachers that empowered me to connect to the best parts of my mind to be able to step more fully into my own practice. I want to also mention Jane Kaplan, a theater director in Seattle who gave me the best guidance on how to speak a poem aloud to an audience of non-poets and breathe life into it. This was after twenty years of reading the same way.
Rumpus: ENSŌ is both the name of your book and the title of one of its central poems. Tell me about this word and how it connects with both the experience of death that you explore in that poem and your conception of the book as a whole.
Pai: An ensō represents a circular form in the Japanese language and is often associated with Zen. To me, it serves as a gesture as much as an image. Calligraphic practitioners draw the form over and over again as a practice that represents the aspiration towards perfection. Embedded within it is implicitly the notion of imperfection. The ensō is also a symbol of completion.
There are a few other symbols that appear in the poem “Ensō” that carry weight—the images of lotus and cherry blossoms blooming together at the same time is an intentional technical gaffe. As living beings, lotus and cherry come into bloom during different seasons and their appearance together represents a kind of impossibility because their blooming simultaneously operates outside of a sense of linear time. A tattoo artist explained to me that you can know the quality of a tattoo based on its cultural veracity. I became very interested in this idea of imperfection and an experience of time that operates outside of standard temporality.
My work has evolved and changed dramatically over the past two decades, but it wasn’t perhaps until writing the poem “Ensō” that there was for me a sense of personal and creative self shifting, and undergoing a turning of a wheel, in the Buddhist sense.
I had spent so many years writing poems that felt to me like offerings of the mind, poems for others. “Ensō” asked for something different from me. The poem asked me to look at my heart and what needed to change or evolve in terms of an understanding of suffering. To hold the practice for myself. And to also be my own teacher. To upend my ideas of the poem and what’s allowed to come into it. To be fully in it, in a way that I just wasn’t before. “Ensō” is fundamentally a poem that arose out of a moment of ignorance and naïveté that took me down a path that I wasn’t prepared to go—allowing and witnessing harm done to another sentient being. The poem became about interrogating how that death changed me. How a part of me died along with that juvenile squid in the hand of the retired fire jumper. I can’t write intellectually driven poems anymore. There is no distance between the I and the other.
As a larger project, ENSŌ is about that change that happened in my life and work. As much as the book traces the different evolutions of my practice, it’s also about the practice that is now emerging—one that takes emotional risks and is agnostic to form. There’s a place in that practice for everything. Both the words and the wordless. The song and the silence.
Rumpus: I had the sense reading ENSŌ that it is as much about the past informing the present as the present opening to the future. Amid its great multiplicity, I catch glimpses of a single aspiration, a vibrant living thread that continues past the last page. Having brought this beautiful book into the world, how would you describe your practice of devotion now?
Pai: I have thought for a long time about the notion of the artful life, or what it is to live in harmony with creativity. That there isn’t a separateness between art and life, but rather there are very intentional ways in which these things can converge. This approach has things in common with how I view devotion. Years ago, I was drawn to the Tibetan Vajrayana path for perhaps, what seemed like a fast track towards enlightenment. But twenty years out from having taken refuge and bodhisattva vows and having moved slowly along the path, I feel a little more aligned with Soto Zen perspectives—notions of the sacred in the everyday. In the washing of the rice, the sweeping of the porch, the chopping of wood, the carrying of water. As somebody who studied in an art school, it was easy for me to compartmentalize early on that artmaking practice takes place in a studio within a certain context of work(ing). I don’t think the practice has to be so rigid now. Life and artmaking flow together concurrently and are interwoven. Likewise, devotion doesn’t just happen on the meditation cushion or remain separate, or disembodied, from everything else.
Photograph of Shin Yu Pai by James Arzente | Arzente Fine Art.