Shin Yu Pai profiled by Peggy Sturdivant

shin yu paiA place to call home

Shin Yu Pai’s most recent poetry collection was partly inspired by not belonging to a place. She already feels that will not be the case as a Ballard Writer.

Originally from California, Pai’s past moves have been for purposes of study or jobs. While working in Texas she met her future husband; they moved here in 2007 for her intended Ph.D. in Anthropology at the University of Washington. After two years they moved instead to Arkansas, returning to Seattle in 2012, this time to Ballard, fittingly for her Texas-born Swedish-American husband.

Pai’s vita, which includes teaching, several poetry collections, commissioned works, artist-in-residence at Seattle Art Museum, an MFA from the School of Art Institute of Chicago, curatorial experience and her own visual art and photography, is daunting. Friend and BWC writer and poet Carol Levin puts it simply, “Shin Yu’s brilliant.”

As an example of this I had to have Shin Yu explain the title of her new book to me, “Aux Arcs.” Even though this would be pronounced in French at “o-zarks” I had not made the connection to Arkansas’ Ozark Mountains. She explained the etymology, probably derived from the French term for the region that cartographers drew as the largest bend or arc in the lower Arkansas River and a starting point for exploring the Ozark Mountains. More personally Pai sees her time in Arkansas as its own arc, possibly a detour that put her off uncomfortably off-track.

“I came to this place as a professional. I’d framed my life around work,” she said of her position with a philanthropic organization based near Little Rock. While there Pai traveled almost monthly for work and welcomed the opportunity to be away from Arkansas and how it informed her poetry. As a partner in a bi-racial marriage she experienced race and gender issues that ultimately made her reconsider choosing location as a function of work. Pai and her husband decided to return to Seattle, initially without jobs, making “a leap of faith.”

As they were literally crossing the state lines leaving Arkansas Pai realized how much she longed to belong to a place, as though it became most obvious when Arkansas was in the rear view mirror. Yet she still needed to explore her relation to the place where she had been living. This is a different twist on place-based writing, more akin to the way an artist might use negative space, allowing what’s unfilled to illuminate.  Paul Constant, writing in The Stranger said of this collection, “Cut as they are from sheets of pure red rage, Pai stitches her words into something undeniably beautiful.”

In “Aux Arcs” many of the poems dissect what made Arkansas a place that Pai didn’t belong, concluding with a sense of coming to terms with her relation to that place. In “Ozarks” she writes of the mountains and ends with these lines:

I am one w/the summits

when decamping.

Like so many of us, either by luck of birth or by some instinct, Pai has chosen Ballard as her place to settle. Our meeting was in part an announcement to the Ballard community that she wants to make this place home.


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