By Shin Yu Pai
When I was appointed as the fourth poet laureate for the City of Redmond in 2015, a few citizens pointed out my largest shortcoming — that I didn’t live in Redmond. This claim raised several critical questions. As a literal outsider, how could I begin to know or understand the city’s identities or challenges from a distance? And without this insight, how could I accurately represent the community’s interests?
I took these questions to heart in how I approached making work for the city. My first Redmond Lights, I invited contributions from residents over social media and asked people to send quotes from their favorite winter movies. From several dozen submissions, I collaged together a holiday-themed crowd-sourced poem that I shared on stage before an audience of 300 people. But I felt the poem missed its mark and realized that engagement with poetry at the level of a community must come in more than one form. I took in the sights and experience of the festival and scribbled down two short poems that I hoped would better capture the texture of the event.
pinpoints of light
dot the night sky receding
the great oak
loses its leaves, marking the days
count down to a tree lighting
That next year, I printed the poems on balloons and handed them out to 250 children and families until there were none left. We set up the balloon installation near a photo booth where more than 1,000 people photographed themselves and their loved ones with giant illuminated balloons.
I followed the news in Redmond from afar and kept an ear to the ground for challenges impacting the community. When business owner Leona Coakley-Spring discovered an abandoned KKK robe in her shop, I responded by writing a poem inviting a show of solidarity for one of Redmond’s own.
“same / cloth”
a poem for Leona Coakley-Spring
the white robe, a length of rope
a pointed hat: hate symbols
evidence of a message much
louder than “go back to where
you came from,”
there are people here who will hurt you
a veiled threat that burns
bright as any wooden cross
planted in the earth as if
to stake a claim, what if we
were to sow seeds of
solidarity for a stranger
public “victim” of a hate crime
the “black business owner”
who believed the best about
another human – instead
of recognizing the glory suit
for its cut-out eye holes
saw a choir robe
to sing the holy gospel –
to know this neighbor
by her name, to recover
some deeper meaning of “clan”
I shared “same cloth” at the So Bazaar festival this past summer. Teaming up with VALA Eastside and artist Maura Donegan on an interactive booth, we displayed my poem alongside embroidery supplies and curated texts that showcased poems exploring themes of tolerance; as well as lines drawn out of the city’s Cultural Inclusion Resolution. My invitation to the public was to engage with the theme of inclusion, whatever that might look like. The VALA Eastside booth interacted with 500 visitors.
VALA’s education director Nicole Baker remarked, “This was one of the most meaningful projects I collaborated on this year. Shin Yu’s poem and the embroidery project reminded me that when we sit together and stitch imagery or words illustrating our cultural traditions, while sharing our personal stories, interests and identities and a few laughs, we reveal that we are more alike than different–we are indeed made from the same cloth.”
Since the summer, I’ve taken an interest in the local vegetation and landscape in Redmond. I culled images out of the Redmond Historical Society and made chlorophyll prints with the help of artist Megan Bent, using sunshine and leaves sourced from local plants. I printed images of loggers, farmers and mill workers on various leaf species. We showed this work at VALA Eastside for three weeks, in an exhibition that drew 400 visitors coming from Everett, Seattle and the Eastside. The work was re-exhibited at the Redmond Senior Center in December, reaching nearly 600 individuals.
In harvesting materials from Farrell-McWhirter Farm and the Heron Rookery to make my leaf prints, I felt a palpable connection to the land and a sense of place that I hadn’t felt before. This ultimately led me to my final project for the city.
My poem “heyday” screened in early December at Redmond Lights. In my poem, I wanted to explore Redmond’s origins as a city and where it has arrived in terms of its relationship to the land.
during the logging boom, loss
& gain, the old growth forests —
Pacific red cedar, & fir felled
to create a city’s earliest trade;
t i m b e r
woodlands clear cut
with logs rolled, skidded
down roads to arrive
at a new understory,
what a sampling of sylvae
say about the now:
memory a series of concentric rings;
one thousand acres to be brought
into active trust — the city of tree
stewards recover a watershed,
cultivate urban vegetation,
extend the forest canopy
to change the temperature
I worked with designer Michael Barakat to create an animated text piece that could illustrate the evolution of Redmond as a city and its sensibility. At Redmond Lights, we projected the piece on the back of city hall in full view of 3,000 visitors.
As the city’s fourth poet laureate, I’ve had the opportunity to share my work with more than 10,000 people in the community. I’m deeply proud of the art that I’ve created over the past two years and have been very inspired by Redmond. In attempting to shine the light on the history and experiences of this city and its residents, I’ve come to better know this place — to find my own sense of belonging and civic pride in this town just a few miles east of where I live, that has come to feel like home.