Poet Shin Yu Pai in front of her video poem projection “heyday” at the 2017 Redmond Lights Festival

New Civic Poet Shin Yu Pai Puts Poetry in Action

by Amanda Ong

Last month, award-winning poet, visual artist, storyteller, and curator Shin Yu Pai was named the fourth Seattle Civic Poet. Pai comes to the title as a previous Poet Laureate for the City of Redmond. 

Seattle Civic Poet is a two-year position overseen by the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture. According to its website, “The Civic Poet will serve as a cultural ambassador for Seattle’s rich, multi-hued literary landscape and will represent Seattle’s diverse cultural community. In addition to annual City events, the Civic Poet will foster community dialogue and engagement between the City, the public, and other artists, while celebrating the literary arts.”

To become a Civic Poet, applicants must submit writing samples, go through an interview process, and develop a work plan to connect poetry to the public. Past civic poets have included Claudia Castro Luna, Anastacia-Reneé Tolbert, and Jourdan Imani Keith. Pai is also the first Asian American Civic Poet. 

“I see the primary part of my work as the Civic Poet to be an ambassador of poetry and a promoter of poetry for others,” Pai said in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald. “I’m thinking of this role in terms of how I can share poetry and elevate other poets in this community who have not been elevated in the way that I have been.”

While Pai hopes to center other poets rather than herself as Seattle Civic Poet, her own poetry tends toward the abstract and avant-garde, with a focus on playing with forms. She once wrote a poem about an heirloom apple orchard in North Seattle and Carkeek Park, printing parts of those poems on the ripening skins of the apples using the sun. Her upcoming poetry collection is a series of haiku comics — comic illustrations of three-line haikus. Her podcast, The Blue Suit, was produced with KUOW last year, and its second season will premiere in May. 

Poet Shin Yu Pai with her embroidered poem “Same Cloth” at the 2017 So Bazaar Festival in Redmond
Poet Shin Yu Pai with her embroidered poem “Same Cloth” at the 2017 So Bazaar Festival in Redmond. (Photo: James McDaniel/City of Redmond)

“I think that my work these days is very much about thinking about how I can circulate poetry or stories in the world in different ways that can engage readers [in a] multi-sensory way,” Pai said. “I use poetry to mess with whatever I want. It’s like my podcast, The Blue Suit. There’s no poetry in it, right? But it is very lyrical and poetic. And it absolutely stems from the poetic impulse of telling a story in a nonlinear way with associative leaps.” 

In the same vein, Pai’s influences tend to be other poets who had deep relationships to the visual arts, like Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, and Barbara Guest. As the Poet Laureate for the City of Redmond, Pai found her sense of visual artistry integral to her approach in engaging the community in poetry. For the Redmond Lights Festival, she projected a video poem about Redmond’s environmental initiative to expand and increase the tree canopy onto the back of Redmond City Hall. The poem reached around 15,000 people.

Pai’s upcoming projects as Civic Poet continue to reflect her interest in pushing boundaries. In March, around World Poetry Day, Pai has organized bilingual English and Spanish poetry in partnership with Seattle’s sister city of Grenada, Spain, as a UNESCO City of Literature. She is developing an initiative with KUOW to bring Seattle poets onto the airwaves in April during National Poetry Month. She also looks forward to working with the Northwest Film Forum on projects as well as the Cadence Video Poetry Festival. 

“What has become very clear to me is that poetry is the vehicle to claim one’s voice and agency in the world,” Pai said. “I’m so excited about this work, because I’m alive and I get to use my voice, which was maybe not something that my parents’ generation got to do, or my ancestors, for that matter. And so in that way, I have this incredible artistic privilege that has been conferred on me by the universe. It feels like I should use that voice and that ability with language to do something more than just be experimental, to really say something that can mean something, or to change a heart.”

For Pai, this has manifested in a shift in her poetry in the past 20 years from being about aesthetics, philosophy, and spirituality to being an act of resistance and a kind of activism. Now, in her position as Civic Poet, an equally important part of the power of her poetry is sharing her platform with others. 

“I’m really excited about discovering poets and poems that I’ve never read before; that feels really meaningful to me,” Pai said. “As a writer, poems are deep reflections of the way that I think or am in the world, and they reflect something about me. Getting to know another person through their poems can be very beautiful.”

The City of Seattle is sure to see more from our Civic Poet in the coming two years, and getting to know her from her poems and projects, and through the other poets she uplifts. On March 21, Pai will curate an online Celebration of World Poetry Day in English and Spanish. To learn more about Shin Yu Pai and her upcoming events, visit her website or follow her on Twitter.

Editors’ Note: This article was updated on 03/15/2023 to correct the fact the second season of The Blue Suit podcast will come out in May.

Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.

📸 Featured Image: Poet Shin Yu Pai in front of her video poem projection “heyday” at the 2017 Redmond Lights Festival. Pai has recently been named Seattle’s fourth Civic Poet. (Photo: James McDaniel/City of Redmond)

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