Criticism & Features


Small Press Spotlight: Shin Yu Pai

By Rigoberto Gonzalez

Author Photo: Kent Barker

Adamantine, White Pine Press, 2010.

Shin Yu Pai's previous books include Haiku Not Bombs (Booklyn Artists Alliance, 2008), Works on Paper (Convivio Bookworks, 2007), Sightings: Selected Works, 2000-2005 (1913 Press, 2007), The Love Hotel Poems (Press Lorentz, 2006), Unnecessary Roughness (xPress(ed), 2005), and Equivalence (La Alameda, 2003). Her work is anthologized in America Zen: A Gathering of Poets (Bottom Dog Press) and The Wisdom Anthology of North American Buddhist Poetry (Wisdom Publications).

You open Adamantine with a quote from Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost: “…for even the slokas on papyrus and bound ola leaves would be eaten by moths and silverfish, dissolved by rainstorms–how only stone and rock could hold one person’s loss and another’s beauty forever.” And yet that doesn’t stop the poet from committing an insight, observation or memory to paper. Perhaps the ephemeral quality of ink and language shapes a kind of responsibility to make the experience of a poem (as process and as artifact) a worthwhile one. A number of your poems ask the reader to reflect and ponder an event or encounter. The philosophical questions are not spelled out, but that doesn’t seem to be the point. Rather, it’s the engagement of thought that matters. How do you reconcile intangibility and abstraction with the title of this collection? In the world of impermanence and technology, how has the role of the poet/ poem changed?

The name of my collection arose from two ideas – the notion of the unbreakable and diamond-like adamantine, and therefore the monumental and “permanent.” This concept counterbalances with the idea of the adamantine vehicle or diamond path of Buddhist practice, which reflects the intangible and impermanent. Images of stone and man-made monuments permeate Adamantine and yet these artifacts are often in varying degrees of disintegration. The spirit of these stone objects and their lost or concealed histories become the focal point, as their material bodies fall apart or change hands.

The role of the poet, for me, remains speaking the beautiful and rendering the impermanent permanent through language. The poet’s role is to document, witness, and remember as technology outstrips us. I’m increasingly drawn to the work of poets like Ian Hamilton Finlay and his Little Sparta, or Ofelia Zepeda’s work which is engraved on boulders on a one-mile stretch of highway in urban Tucson. I’m not sure that new technologies change the role of poet or poem. I think poets will continue to say what they are called to say, but find new ways to deliver their vision. I realize that as I say this, I am talking about two poets whose work operates apart from the page and that my attitudes must sound stone age compared to modern technologies. I hope that poets consider the applications of their work to public art and spaces, garden design, oral history and restore the practice of poetry to a communal art and action.

More on Anil’s Ghost: one of the revelations of that novel was the atrocities of war in Sri Lanka that were essentially “buried” history, which is a type of healing. A few of the interesting movements in Adamantine is the level of compassion and empathy that recognizes injustices large and small, the presence of literal healers of the body and the mind, the commemoration of the dead. I am particularly struck by the poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Vulture” (with a nod toward Wallace Stevens), which reads like an ars poetica–the book’s ability to absorb an expansive landscape of religions, ethnicities, philosophies, artistic expressions, etc. and the speaker acknowledging “the body’s burden,/ I feel the pounding of// my own enlarged heart.” What was your own visceral and intellectual response at the completion of this book? What was the journey like for you as the writer?

I have often felt thinner-skinned, like the protective layer between myself and the world “out there” is entirely permeable. This circumstance of birth creates a strong degree of transference – the reflective mirroring I experience heightens a sense of identification and connection to the experience of others. It’s taken many years to locate the place where I can feel at ease and present with experiencing “the pounding of my own enlarged heart” by balancing empathy with a simultaneous sense of discriminating/contextual awareness or grounding.

I wrote Adamantine while undergoing major healing work (some of which caused setbacks and new disturbances) – Ayurvedic medicine, chiro, acupuncture, bioenergetic therapy, and yoga. This physical and energetic work uncovered deeply held experiences and stories and served as tools to support moving through major life transitions that were occurring during a period when I was enrolled in a doctoral program.  Both of these strands of physical and intellectual experience informed the poems that came out of me and helped shape an ability to look with greater compassion.

I felt a sense of integration and completion in finishing Adamantine and maintain a deep commitment and connection to the poems in this book.

Embedded into this exhausting but incredible journey are glimpses of a story about a woman exploring the various roles of her identity–as a girl, a daughter, a fiancée, an artist. The poem at the center of this story is “Chop Wood, Carry Water,” which makes some startling admissions. Did you find it difficult, given the nature of Adamantine, to find room for the more autobiographical pieces, or has this territory been covered by your other projects? Where is your next book taking you/ us?

The inclusion of more autobiographical work in Adamantine was necessary, but challenging in allowing the self-disclosures of a personal experience and perspective. There are ways in which all of my work to date has been autobiographical, there are elements of my childhood in the food-related poems of my Nutritional Feed poems and early childhood experiences in the Unnecessary Roughness series which appear in Sightings. The poems from Equivalence reflect on my time working in museums, particularly experiences in the collections of the Dallas Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. But these earlier works relied on language play and code-switching, and/or broader philosophical explorations, which made for a certain opacity. The overall project that is Adamantine necessitated self-disclosure as a practice of personal disarmament consistent with the intention behind the book.

In between major projects, I try to work on smaller-scale projects to allow my energies to rest and refocus. I am working on two artist-book projects, one with master bookbinder Craig Jensen from BookLab, and the other with letterpress printer and book artist Sara Parkel of Filter Press. The project with Craig explores poetic space in re-imagining the work of artist James Turrell through a suite of three poems that engage the reader in an interactive reading experience that guides the reader through layers of a modified clam-shell box structure. The project with Sara is an artist-book on the theme of ecology and the interaction between plants and humans. The book will be produced as an edition variation of approximately 45 books. The sculptural structure will open to display the letterpressed text along with linoleum cuts, woodcuts, collagraph, stencil, and monotype printed imagery. All materials used in the construction of the book will be made of contemporary sustainable and biodegradable materials.

In terms of a larger book project, I’d like to move towards working with a single sustained sequence or theme. Reading Sherwin Bitsui’s Flood Song made me think about the possibilities of sustained poetic sequence. There are two themes that have been working on me for some time that I’d like to weave together – the human body and a study of containers (prayer lockets, shrines, canopic jars, buildings, and other box-like structures) as containers of experience. Those are the over-arching themes – but I aspire for the nature of the work to be as self-implicative as the work in Adamantine.

 A bonus question: what small press title have you been reading lately that you’d like to recommend to Critical Mass readers?

Up until recently, I worked as an acquisitions curator for a literary archive and spent a great deal of time building and expanding the small press poetry collections at the Wittliff Collections. The archive focuses its mission on writing related to the Southwest – so I focused on acquiring relevant texts from small presses like Charles Alexander’s Chax Press in Tucson, as well as acquiring most of the back catalog for two San Antonio-based publishers – Wings Press and Pecan Grove Press, as well as the catalogs of Cinco Puntos, West End Press, La Alameda, and the Tres Chicas collaborative founded by poets Miriam Sagan and Joan Logghe.

Some of the books that came across my desk that most interested me included Heather Nagami’s Hostile, which looks at the Japanese internment camp experience, and Alison Cobb’s Born 2, which looks at the heritage of Los Alamos. Two Red Hen Press titles – Orlando White’s Bone Light and Erinn Batykefer’s collection Allegheny, Monongehela, which is based in part on paintings by Georgia O’Keefe, also excited me. Former Albuquerque poet Mary Rising Higgins’ sequence )cliff TIDES and Joule Tides always engages my eye and mind.

In my work with the archive, I was cheered to discover micro-press projects like Leslie Marmon Silko’s first edition chapbook Sacred Water, which combines photography and text, as well as more recently published hand-bound books from CJ Martin and Julia Drescher’s San Marcos-based Dos Press.

Recent small press journals that have engaged my reading interests include Brian Unger’s Zen Monster project, Urthona – a magazine of Buddhist-related arts and letters published out of the United Kingdom, and Drew Kunz’s Miniature Forests and Tir Aux Pigeons pamphlet series.