Photo Credit: Reva Keller / KUOW

No Neutral, Empty Bowl, 2023

Less Desolate, Blue Cactus Press, 2023

Beginnings: What prompted this book? What were you thinking about, how is it the same or different from previous work? Is there anything you want to say about process? 

Shin Yu Pai: I took a haiku comics class with graphic novelist David Lasky during the pandemic. I loved the form and exploring illustrating my haiku poems with sequential art but haven’t spent a lot of cultivating my drawing skills. I’d written haiku for more than 20 years and wanted to take the form to another level. So I teamed up with my friend Justin Rueff, a comics artist in Oregon, to bring the collection to life visually. 

We worked on Less Desolate over the course of a year. I suggested ideas for images and visuals and gave him reference photos and we had lots of conversations about the poems.

No Neutral is a new full-length collection of poems written over the pandemic. I’ve engaged with social issues in my work for a while now, but I think these poems have a stronger activist impulse and a different kind of urgency of voice. I continue exploring the theme of ekphrasis in this work as well as Buddhist themes. The collection came together over a year. I worked on it while writing nonfiction scripts for public radio which really changed my sense of voice — the voice in these poems is much more direct, unobscured.

What was your favorite thing about writing it? 

SYP: It was pretty magical seeing my words interpreted visually by Justin in Less Desolate and thinking about his approach to the meaning of some of the poems which I took for granted. It helped me to clarify my own intentions and ideas at times and it was just great to be in conversation with a peer while making that book. So many of the poems in that book are about the loneliness of the pandemic and the stress of being a person of color during a time of social unrest and upheaval. Sharing those poems with someone built community and care between Justin and me and provided a source of consolation during difficult times.

With No Neutral, I felt like I got to try out some different voices, bolder voices, a more plainspoken voice than my usual poetic approach, as I reached towards trying to connect to a deeper sense of authentic voice. In this way, it feels quite different from the work that I was writing 20 or even 10 years ago.

Was there a section or poem or part of the book that you felt doubtful about including or that was particularly challenging to you to write? 

SYP: In Less Desolate, there are a lot of poems about motherhood. I’ve written about mothering in other projects, but these poems are particularly concise and vulnerable. They are and were a critical part of my artistic identity, particularly during the pandemic when life radically changed and parenting really shifted to a full-time, never-ending role. Since this collection is in part about the daily experience of life during pandemic, it felt important to show the messiness of this part of my life.

With No Neutral, one of the hardest pieces to write was the opening sequence about the solidarities and allyship between Black Lives Matters and the Asian American experience during pandemic and an era that saw a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes. To find the right tone, to give space to many stories, and to bring in my own voice and position.

What are some lines, phrases or images from the book that stay with you, either because they capture something that feels very true, or they came to you in a way that felt whole and surprising?

SYP: I love Justin’s illustrations in Less Desolate of the haiku poems that were inspired by a trip that I took to the Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan. He drew beautiful mandalas for one comic. His illustrations of political unrest and protest in Taiwan were also very evocative and striking to me.

Images that stay with me from No Neutral include the labyrinth walk in “Coiling Lines,” and the yellow chainlink and photographic billboards of Desert X. Also Crow Nishimura’s mirrored swan from her performances with Degenerate Art Ensemble. To a degree, each of these poems is an exercise in ekphrasis and dialogue. In that way they came into focus very quickly and easily.

Can you share a few other works that influenced you in the writing of this book? Do you think these influences will be visible to your readers? 

SYP: Graphically, Less Desolate was informed by graphic novels like work by Marjane Satrapi and David B. But it was really David Lasky who inspired much of the thinking and form. The world of poetry comics is relatively small, but I think Seattle readers will recognize David’s influence.

While writing No Neutral, I was thinking about many artists. Port Townsend poets Norman Schaefer, Mike O’Connor, and Sam Hamill influenced this work. The artists of the Desert X Biennial (Rana Begum and Tyre Nichols) informed a couple of pieces, as well as the writings of Jenny Odell. And finally, the performance art of Degenerate Art Ensemble inspired two of the poems. Many friends are woven throughout this book. And the landscapes and psychogeographies of Seattle and Port Townsend are present here.

Shin Yu Pai is currently Civic Poet of The City of Seattle (2023-2024). From 2015 to 2017, she served as the fourth poet laureate of the city of Redmond. Shin Yu is a poet, essayist, and visual artist and is the author of several books including Less Desolate (Blue Cactus Press, 2023), VIRGA (Empty Bowl, 2021), ENSŌ (Entre Ríos Books, 2020), SIGHTINGS: SELECTED WORKS [2000-2005] (1913 Press, 2007), AUX ARCS (La Alameda, 2013), Adamantine (White Pine, 2010), and Equivalence (La Alameda, 2003). Her poetry films have screened at the Zebra Poetry Film Festival and the Northwest Film Forum’s Cadence video poetry festival. She is creator, host, and writer of Ten Thousand Things, a podcast on Asian American stories for KUOW Public Radio, Seattle’s NPR affiliate station.