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Voices From the Gaps

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Shin Yu Pai

Shin Yu Pai was born in Decatur, Illinois and grew up in Riverside, California. The child of Taiwanese immigrants, language and story-telling have always been central to her experience.

Her recent projects include Unnecessary Roughness, a collaborative visual text manuscript with NY based photographer Ference Suto which explores the relationship between sports and the development of adolescent sexuality and identity, and "Nutritional Feed" a collaboration with Boston painter David Lukowski.

She has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, The Ragdale Foundation, and the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. She was also a recipient of a 2003 grant from the Cambridge Cultural Council, Massachusetts Cultural Council and the Puffin Foundation.

Asian American Press caught up with her recently to talk about her book, Unnecessary Roughness.

Asian American Press (AAP): Aside from the press release, how would you describe your book to people thinking about reading it?

Shin Yu Pai (SYP): The poems of Unnecessary Roughness are about pain thresholds, socialization of violence thru game play and sports, development of adolescent identity and gender roles and the examination of the role of sports in shaping identity.

AAP: How long have you been writing? What got you started in writing?

SYP: I've always written, but in my undergraduate years at Boston University, I suppose that's when I started thinking more about issues of literary craft and aesthetics. I started out taking poetry workshops in my last years in college and than went on to two different MFA programs - the Naropa Institute and the Art Institute of Chicago where I received my final degree.

Language has always been very important to me - my parents immigrated to this country from Taiwan and my mother is a visual artist. In those early years, language was about expression and communication, bridging cultural and generational gaps. I actually started out as a translator, before concentrating more on writing my own poetry. These days I think more in terms of the translation between visual and textual languages.

AAP: Do you have a personal favorite piece that you've written?

SYP: I am particularly proud of the work in my forthcoming manuscript NUTRITIONAL FEED which will be out from Tupelo Press this Fall. It is a series of 20 or so poems written in response to paintings by David Lukowski, a young painter currently based out of NY.

I wrote the manuscript of NUTRITIONAL FEED in 3 weeks. The poems are concrete/visual pieces which employ a variety of tactics and strategies, pushing the visual beyond my work with UNNECESSARY ROUGHNESS. The work critiques notions of education, nutrition, and the media in shaping childhood and identity.

AAP: Who are some of your favorite writers?

SYP: Frank O'Hara, Andrew Schelling, Joanne Kyger, Arthur Sze, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge are writers who have been important to me. O'Hara for his overlap into the visual arts, as a curator at the MOMA and his close associations with the NY school of painters. Andrew Schelling for his work in translation and the literary journal form. He, Joanne Kyger, Arthur Sze and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge are all poets who I came into contact with at Naropa. Arthur interests me for his translation work and blending of languages and cultures. Mei-mei has done a number of interesting collaborations with visual artists and her books are works of art. Joanne Kyger has done wonderful work with the literary journal as well. I also like Michael Ondaatje's work a lot. A. Van Jordan's work is very interesting and full of surprises.

AAP: Do you play any sports yourself?

SYP: I played tennis in high school and work out fairly religiously at the gym. I also swim. I'm not much on competitive sports. I have fantasies of playing soccer, (I like to kick things. . ) does that count?

AAP: When are you satisfied with something you've written?

SYP: When the whole thing comes together or feels complete in terms of content and form, space and type. I suppose I look for risk taking and an avoidance of the predictable. A love for language is at the core of all of my work.

AAP: Have your family and friends been supportive of your writing?

SYP: My family has been great. At one point, my folks had high hopes that I would go into a conventional profession like nursing, teaching or law.

They've always had a deep concern for my independence and well-being and felt initially that the arts and poetry were high risk. But my mother being a visual artist and my father being a scholar and great lover of literature, I think on an intuitive level, they understood that this is what I needed to do to become who I am. My friends, likewise, have been incredibly supportive - they buy the books, come to readings and focus on the positive.

I'm at an age where a lot of my childhood friends are married, own property or have children. With my closest friends, there's never any question or interrogation about "When is Shin Yu going to settle down and quit moving around. .have kids, etc. ", most of them know and accept that life looks a little bit different and my priorities are closely tied to my work which defines my identity.

AAP: Looking at these poems, you do a lot of play with shape, form and language. What was a typical process for you as you decided on a particular structure for a poem?

SYP: With several of the Unnecessary Roughness poems, the shapes and structures came directly from the playing fields of sports. A dodge ball field, a banked track for a roller derby poem, a four square grid, a strategic diagram for a football game illustrated by x's and o's which also suggest in the larger context of the series, "love" and "kisses". Two minute minor and five minute major were the very first poems I wrote for the series. I thought about teams facing each other on a field and the penalty box and scoreboard with those early pieces. The content (and language) dictated the shapes of the poems and where no shape was evident, I went with the more conventional left justified poem.

AAP: The visual effects of the poems are quite evocative, but is there a particular way that you read these poems aloud when you present them in public? I.E. tones, rhythm, with musical accompaniment, etc. ? Or are they even read aloud in public?

SYP: have read some of the visual pieces aloud in public. Like with "square it up" there is a way in which I wrote the text to lead the eye of the reader. The text begins outside the grid where an imagined player would serve the ball which would bounce into play and the sequence of the text is suggested by the (mis)numbering of squares and crisscrossing of action.

Other of the pieces are easier to read, vertical lines, or clockwise orientation. The pieces are certainly readable, but they do have a life off the page. With some of the talks I give on my work, I do slide presentations accompanied by readings which allow me to show the work in a visual format.

AAP: What are your current projects you're working on now?

SYP: Well, there's NUTRITIONAL FEED as mentioned previously. I'm involved in a haiku project with some friends - I write 1 haiku for every week of the year, culminating at the end of the year with 52 haiku. There's also a big family memoir project that's been taking up a lot of time. . .

I'm going to Taiwan next year to do a fellowship and residency at the Taipei Artist Village where I'll work on printing and shooting images for this project and writing the texts and laying out a book. I've been working on trying to get the project better funded and setting up that project for success.

There are some other projects in the works too - nothing developed enough to talk about in depth. But more than one thing going at once. I'm also planning my wedding to my sweetheart of 7 years which is a rather large undertaking.

AAP: Do you have any advice for younger writers?

SYP: I don't like to pretend to be an authority on anything except for maybe my own work. But things that I wish I had known when I was starting out on the literary path. . . how important reading is - reading has taught me as much about writing as sitting in college writing workshops. I advocate for exposure to as broad a range of the arts as possible - film, visual arts, dance, music, BOOK ARTS, look for the connections and parallels. On a practical level, avoid contests as much as possible - solid research and strong poems are enough to get your work published. As one of my own mentors advised me, book contests are like looking for love on the street. Avoid gossip and negativity whenever possible and cultivate community. Read Lewis Hyde's "The Gift" and reconsider poetry as part of the gift economy.

AAP: If a reader really wanted to learn more about your work, which of your books would you recommend them starting with to see your style in action?

SYP: My first full-length collection, Equivalence (La Alameda, 2003), looks at the connections between poetry and the visual arts, Eastern and Western cultures, and tradition and modernity. It can be purchased directly from the wonderful people at '''La Alameda Press '''

AAP: Do you have any plans to tour in the coming months ahead? (Especially through the Midwest?)

SYP: I'm doing a lot of readings in Texas throughout March-May for a variety of venues, and planning a reading tour in my home state of California for December - hopefully by then, the new book, Nutritional Feed will be out from Tupelo Press. I'd love to try to set up a few readings in the mid-West this Fall in Chicago or other cities, but nothing in the works just yet.