ArtSEA: Seattle’s new Civic Poet wants to see poems all over the city

Plus, a Chihuly documentary that goes behind the glass and Northwest writers up for national book awards.

a woman with long dark hair wears a beanie and stands below words projected on a wall in blue light

Seattle’s new Civic Poet is Shin Yu Pai, seen here with one of her projected poems. (James McDaniel/City of Redmond)

Cue confetti — let’s all throw it — welcome, Seattle’s new Civic Poet! Last week the Office of Arts and Culture announced that Shin Yu Pai is the latest poet to land the local literary title, held in previous years by Jourdan Imani Keith, Anastacia-Reneé and Claudia Castro Luna.

The first Asian American in the two-year post, Pai has written 11 books of poetry (with two more slated for later this year), previously served as Redmond’s Poet Laureate and currently writes and produces The Blue Suit, a KUOW podcast showcasing Asian American stories.

ArtSEA: Notes on Northwest Culture is Crosscut’s weekly arts & culture newsletter.

The aim of the Civic Poet is to “foster community dialogue and engagement between the city, the public and other artists, while celebrating the literary arts.” So how exactly does one do that? Pai shared some of her thoughts with me in a short Q&A over email. 

What does it mean to be a Civic Poet in Seattle at this cultural moment?
I think that poems have the power to heal, facilitate difficult conversations on race, and to leave a person changed. Certainly, that's one dimension of the power of poetry that can be elevated. Poetry as a tool of narrative change.

Can you share some of your plans for public engagement?
When I think about strategies in public art … I think about how it's sometimes placed under bridges, wheatpasted on empty walls, or painted on abandoned storefronts … to promote a sense of safety and the presence of beauty and care.

I would like to focus my tenure as Civic Poet on encouraging poets in our community to give voice to their expressions of belonging, safety and joy, and to also consider the activist possibilities of poetry in conveying underrepresented perspectives. I want to do a visual poetry poster campaign with hundreds of posters, and I want to do projection mapping on buildings and put poetry on public radio's airwaves … I plan on using the platform of Civic Poet to elevate lots of other poets who are not me. 

What’s a poem-worthy public location in Seattle?
I'm particularly fond of the UPS Waterfall Garden Park in Pioneer Square, which was designed by Masao Kinoshita. The garden has a manmade waterfall that can be turned on and off, plus beautiful plantings. The space provides an urban oasis and a place to slow down and take a deep breath.

The splashy Glasshouse sculpture at Chihuly Garden and Glass. Artist Dale Chihuly is the subject of a new Smithsonian Channel documentary. (Chihuly Garden and Glass)

Heart of Glass

Slowing down and taking a deep breath — it sure sounds like a good idea as the new year tumbles forward. I’m still catching up on a few arts happenings I missed over the recent holidays, including a new Smithsonian Channel documentary about one of our local art stars: Master of Glass: The Art of Dale Chihuly. (Watch online with a free day pass.)

While Dale Chihuly’s glittering legacy of blown glass gets plenty of attention in Seattle — some argue too much — this documentary presents a truly revealing look at the man behind those exuberant twists of translucent color. 

The 43-minute film has all the footage you’d expect: slow-motion zooms on molten glass, drone shots of large-scale outdoor glass installations, archival imagery from the 1970s founding of Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood, and captivating glimpses inside the Chihuly Boathouse studio and hot shop on Lake Union. All of which is fun to watch. But what struck me most were the least flashy sequences, when Chihuly, 81, talks about his struggles with depression.

“I’m bipolar,” he says plainly. “I’ve been depressed many times in my life … I don’t know if I have to explain what depression feels like, but it’s not a good feeling.” Chihuly’s wife Leslie and glassblowing colleagues including Debora Moore, Jim Mongrain and Joey Kirkpatrick talk openly about his “down days,” the sudden shifts and “heartbreaking lows.” Chihuly goes on to explain how he has found help with a combination of medication, watching old movies, and the steady pursuit of an art form that requires teamwork. 

We also learn about the family tragedy that struck when he was a teenager growing up in Tacoma. Shared grief forged a tight bond between him and his mother Viola, who later became a respected figure among his fellow glassblowers.

And throughout, we witness Chihuly’s genuine delight and exhilaration in his art form. After five decades in glass, he still watches the process with rapt attention and enthusiasm, exclaiming, “God, that looks good!” or “That orange is so powerful” or “Beautiful!” As Leslie Chihuly explains, “He lives and breathes being an artist.”

Three writers with Northwest connections are finalists for National Book Critics Circle Awards.

More Seattle artists in the news

A Washington state legislature committee has selected local artist Haiying Wu — whose previous work includes the Seattle Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Pioneer Square — to design a new statue of Nisqually tribal member, treaty rights activist and environmental leader Billy Frank Jr. The sculpture will eventually stand in the National Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol, representing Washington state.

Three writers with Northwest connections are finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Awards, a literary honor bestowed since 1975. The local nominees are: Paul Hlava Ceballos, for his poetry collection banana [ ], which includes a history of the Latin American fruit in the form of a found poem; Vauhini Vara, for her Bainbridge Island-set tech-dystopian novel The Immortal King Rao (which I loved and wrote about last year); and Annie Proulx (yes, Washington state is her adopted home!) for her nonfiction book about the vital role of wetlands in the climate crisis, Fen, Bog and Swamp. The lucky winners will be announced March 17. 

After successful runs from Seattle to Scotland, Lizard Boy, the quirky, queer, indie-rock musical by Seattle singer/songwriter/playwright Justin Huertas, is getting its Off Broadway premiere. The original cast (including Huertas, Kiki deLohr and William A. Williams) will perform the scaly superhero songs this summer (June 1 - July 1) at Theatre Row in New York City.

And while you won’t see any Seahawks in the Superbowl this weekend, you might see a Seadog. The Seattle Times reports that Cooper, a boxer-mix puppy — skilled in the art of cute — from Seattle Humane, will compete in the annual Puppy Bowl (Feb. 12 at 10 a.m. on various streaming channels). Woof!

Get the latest in local arts and culture

This weekly newsletter brings arts news and cultural events straight to your inbox.

By subscribing, you agree to receive occasional membership emails from Crosscut/Cascade Public Media.

Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors