Shin Yu Pai’s Poetry Series Gets a Dose of Magic With Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma

by Paul E Nelson

Lyric World Conversations with Contemporary Poets: Poetry and Wonder is the name of a series of events happening in 2020 at Town Hall and curated by poet Shin Yu Pai. One poet featured in the series is Vashon Island’s Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma.

A 2014 Stranger Genius Award nominee, Shin Yu Pai’s the author of eight books of poetry. Her works appeared in publications throughout the U.S., Japan, China, Taiwan, the UK, and Canada. Some of her poems have been commissioned by the Dallas Museum of Art, and she’s been a featured presenter at national and international literary festivals including the Geraldine Dodge Poetry Festival and the Montreal Zen Poetry Festival.

Pruiksma is a poet, magician, and musician based on Vashon Island who brings together diverse practices in his creative expression. He touches upon the similarities between poetry, magic, and music to explore the boundaries and edges of what’s invisible and to gaze more deeply into the nature of wonder.

Paul E Nelson: Shin Yu, tell us about how you got involved in developing this program for Town Hall?

Shin Yu: Sure. So initially it was a conversation that I started having with KUOW, actually. So when Elizabeth Austen stepped down from doing poetry programming for the radio station, I approached them with the idea of wanting to do some sort of programming around poetry. And while they were not necessarily interested in continuing with the kind of work that Elizabeth had been doing for them related to poetry, they were interested in a live poetry event series, which I hadn’t expected. So, knowing that, I thought about the different territorial partners I’ve worked with over the years and went back to Town Hall Seattle, who I’d worked with in 2018 as an artist or curator in residence for them, where I built these interdisciplinary programs that were often related to looking at the arts and creativity in relationship to some other larger subjects. So, I had Peter Levitt in to talk about poetry and the everyday sacred.

I had a program with artists and activists who talked about how creativity sort of innovates their work in activism around issues of homelessness. And I had a program also related to the writer in relationship to research in place, how that can sort of ground a practice. And so, in building these programs in the past that had that quality of onstage conversation in a sort of deeper dive into craft, and I thought that is something that I can continue to extend in the work that I’d done with them before.

I began to sort of craft or put together this series idea and it originally came out of a programming proposal I’ve been putting together for the Seattle Asian Art Museum because they put out a call to basically reactivate the museum that’s opening in February, 2020. And as part of that overall proposal to reactivate the museum, there had been a literary series that I had built out with a number of AAPI poets in the region. And when that proposal didn’t come together, I felt really strongly about wanting to be able to work with the poets and the writers who I had been thinking about for that series. So decided to sort of bring that over to Town Hall Seattle in a different context where instead of just poetry readings that we would have done with Seattle Asian Art Museum, it sort of evolved into a series that could involve these onstage conversations that could look more closely at elements of craft and literary commitments and work with these writers. So that’s sort of the origin of the series.

PEN: Yeah. And when you use the moniker AAPI, you’re talking about Asian-American and Pacific Islander.

Shin Yu: Yes, exactly.

PEN: Okay. And this new series asks the question “how can poetry expand our understanding of civic life?” Now, first of all, I’m guessing that you think that yes, it can have positive effect. You wouldn’t be a poet, you wouldn’t be involved in this way, but you’re in a society that largely doesn’t share that feeling. I mean, we could give thousands of examples, but I think we can agree that’s pretty much the conventional wisdom that the public, by and large, doesn’t care about poetry. So, can you answer the question in a brief way without stealing any of your thunder from the series?

Shin Yu: Well, one of the questions I will ask as part of the series to each of the participants is the question of, what do you believe is the role of poetry and the role of poets in society? And I feel like that’s an important question to ask. Some of the themes may be more obvious in how they may link up to civic life. Like the program that Koon Woon will offer in March related to displacement and notions of home, which may be a larger sort of broader conversation related to larger issues here in Seattle related to displacement. But the other topics that I’ve sort of chosen, they are topics that are really meant to enrich and enliven conversation between people about what it is to be human in this world and in this time.

PEN: Wonderful. Thomas, tell us about how your work expands our understanding of civic life as you understand how it does that.

Thomas: Well, that’s a great question. The first thing that comes to mind is that I came to poetry through the language of Tamil Nadu. And one of the things that really struck me about Tamil is how present the entire poetic tradition is in everyday life, including an entire tradition of public poetry or poetry that addresses questions of politics, questions of ethics, questions of how the larger community or the larger community of communities gets along. And, while the poems that I’ve written most recently don’t as a whole focus on polity or on civic life, there are two things. One is that there’s a kind of underlying concern with ethics, which is an underlying concern with how we get along with each other, both at the level of personal relationships and at the level of the larger relationships between communities of people. But also there are some poems that have come out of my practice, and out of circumstances, and opportunities that have presented themselves to me that are more directly related to civic life.

Thomas:    One in particular is a poem called Here, which I wrote for the Vashon Maury Heritage Museum. Last year they did an exhibit called Joy and Heartache about 125 years of Japanese American history on Vashon Island. And it traced five historical periods in the unfolding of life on Vashon, focusing particularly on the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II. And because, you know, a historical exhibit can be informative but not necessarily engage the imagination, the curators wanted to have some way to enter into the deeper stories of the stories of the exhibit. And so they invited me to write a poem that appeared at the entrance of the exhibit to as a kind of existential preparation, if you will, for experiencing the exhibits.

Thomas: So I wrote a poem which traced not only the experience of Japanese-Americans on Vashon Island, but the relationship between the living and the dead, and the relationship between the original inhabitants of Vashon, what we now call Vashon, the Sqababsh people, the part of the Coast Salish peoples. And how the first internment of the first incarceration began then, in the 19th century with Europeans and other settlers coming to that, to Cascadia, and how we see these patterns repeating through time, not only in our public life, but also in our hearts and in our dreams. And so as a poet, I’m interested in that intersection. The intersection of the inner world and the outer world, the heart and the community together, intertwined.

PEN: Fantastic. One of the things on the website says that you’re going to discuss the ways that different languages alternately obscure or reveal truth. Living in a time that’s been characterized as the post truth era, the era of “fake news.” I mean it, you know, we, we kind of laugh at it, but you know, we see in the impeachment proceedings that there are people repeating talking points that are patently false. You have CNN reporters saying, “You know, that’s patently false.” And then they can even play the proof of the president saying what they denied that he said. And I also think that your experience with the Tamil language is very helpful here because coming in from at least a bilingual perspective, which is your practice, is very important because you can see the differences between Tamil and English. So, tell us about that notion about how different languages alternately obscure or reveal truth.

Thomas: That’s a big, big question. But as a start, I’d simply say that that languages offer us ways to articulate our experience. And the more inarticulate our experience, or the more ineffable our experience, the more language has to reach towards poetry to express that experience. But even at the more straightforward, apparently factual level of our political discourse, our words and our metaphors deeply inform our perceptions.

A very simple example, we talk about one of the phrases of the last 20 years, there’s always the “war on drugs”, which is such a kind of banal phrase, so bandied about that we don’t necessarily think about it. But actually, it’s a metaphor that drugs is kind of like an enemy and we’re waging a war on them. And this metaphor of war is so prevalent in our public language that we forget that it’s a metaphor and we forget all that the metaphor of war implies. So, in a very different realm, for instance, in academia, you write a Ph.D. dissertation, and you have to defend your thesis. Well, there’s the metaphor of war again, right? That we defend against attackers. We brace ourselves. We arm ourselves with arguments. And to the extent that we’re not aware of how metaphors shape our perceptions, we’re shaped by those metaphors. We’re shaped by the metaphor of war. How different our public life would be if the metaphor wasn’t one of war, but of conversation, or of communion, or of hospitality.

So I’m interested as a poet and as a person and as a citizen in how, about in the ways that we speak about our shared experience and the ways that our language can illuminate or show us new possibilities, reopen our perceptions to new possibilities. Or the way conversely, they might just close us back down into some preordained path to war.

PEN:  Right.

Shin Yu: I want to say too, that when Thomas and I were talking about what his talk could look like and the sort of arc of it, we also talked about language in the context of different practices like magic and music and wonder if maybe you want to say something about that?

Thomas: Sure. One of the things that I come to poetry interested in is how poetry allows us to touch the unseen or the invisible. Because poetry isn’t something we see. I mean you might look at a poem on a page, but the poem on a page is akin to sheet music, to a manuscript for a song. It tells you how the song would be performed, but it isn’t the song. The song is the living thing that’s in the air, that’s embodied, that somebody might embody with their breath and their heart. And somebody might take in through their ears and also their heart. And so to me there’s an interesting connection between that bringing of the unseen, but hearable into our experience. And the way, in our stage magic, or theater more generally, brings into our visual experience… it embodies an experience, which also might be at its heart invisible. It might also, at its heart, have to do with the unseen worlds that we move in all the time. Perhaps not realizing that we do.

PEN: Shin Yu, you talked about how this was developed for the Seattle Asian Art Museum, which is reopening after the remodeling. And I’d like to ask you, you have Thomas here, Hitoshi Pruiksma. You have Koon Woon. So, you have people of Asian descent as part of this. Tell us why it’s important that we be exposed to poets of Asian descent.

Shin Yu: Sure. And Prageeta Sharma, who’s of Southeast Asian descent is the third presenter in June and she’s fabulous. She’ll be presenting with Afrose Fatima Ahmed as her onstage interviewer. And I’ll also mention that PEN Kikuchi is going to be playing for the Koon Woon program. He’s a fabulous Japanese-American mixed race percussionist and has done a lot of work related to the Japanese-American internment with his own sort of research and practice. So I’m really excited to sort of curate him with that theme of displacement in home.

So, why is it important to feature underrepresented voices? I very intentionally chose poets who have never had the opportunity to share their work with Town Hall audiences before and sort of who I considered to be sort of hometown locals who maybe haven’t had the light shined on their work. Thomas being on Vashon, Koon Woon being an older poet now in his seventies who resided for many decades in the International District and then eventually got displaced to West Seattle. He has been praised by Lawrence Ferlinghetti for the innovation of his verse and is a publisher and is such a great community builder here in Seattle.

Prageeta maintains loose connections here to Seattle. She has a home here while teaching elsewhere but is published by Wave Books here in Seattle. So that sort of connection to the local was very important to me, but also uplifting Asian-American voices. I think there’s been a lot of evolution in my own curatorial practice as somebody who produces a cultural and public programs. And for many years I had sort of gone where my interests directed me, and in this way I wasn’t always very intentional about being more inclusive about underrepresented voices. And as I’ve matured in my career and reflected, I have been so lucky over the years to have doors open for me as an Asian-American female poet. And I think now as I enter my mid career and become more of a mentor, or a teacher, or somebody who has cultural influence and it has the ability to carry out these programs that it’s very important that I recognize that power and influence I have to uplift voices that would otherwise not be heard.

PEN: Excellent. Tell us what you hope people attending the series will get out of it.

Shin Yu: Well, I hope that they will open their eyes to the role of poetry and what it can be in everyday life in a different way. The real intention of the series is to bring poetry to new audiences in a way that can make it more relevant to their lives and therefore the onstage conversation. Also having a musical component that can help sort of bridge the different sections of these programs and also reflect on the different themes. So you know, I hope that people will come together, you know, be together, open their hearts and minds to hearing work and voices that maybe they may not have been familiar with, and to contemplate these things deeply with us, whether it’s poetry and wonder, or magic, or poetry, and its utility, and healing, and grieving, and grief. I feel like poetry is this tremendous tool to have really heart to heart conversations.

PEN: Thomas, do you want to take us out with one of your poems?

Thomas: Sure. Here’s the little poem that occurred to me to share as we were talking. It’s from my most recent book called The Safety of Edges and the poem is named Hushed.


In the library the young girl
her mother checking email
sang a little song she was
making in the moment it wasn’t
being sung for her mother
or herself it wasn’t being sung
for anyone around her it was only
being sung for the sake
of being sung her heart and mouth
moving in the movement of the song
and I knew who she was
beyond what I knew she was me
as a child singing to be singing
and I knew that her mother
in the library would stop her
or tell her to be quiet
how could she not but oh
for the singing that seeks
no applause and is ours
even in the silence.

PEN: You read that at Elliot Bay at your launch. And I love that poem.

Thomas: Oh, thank you.

PEN: That’s so beautiful. What a great way to end it. I’m really grateful for the work that you both do for poetry and in this community. And you know, I know that you do it because you’re compelled to do it. You have been called by poetry to do that. But we benefit from that deep calling and I’m very grateful for your work. Thank you and I wish you much success.

Shin Yu: Thank you, PEN.

Thomas: Thank you PEN.

Lyric World: Conversations with Contemporary Poets—Poetry And Wonder:

Thursday, January 30, 2020, 7:30pm
Town Hall Seattle
1119 8th Avenue
Tickets: Here

Photo: Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma (courtesy of the artist)