In Seattle, of course, you can always attend as many poetry readings as you could possibly want. Between open mics and book launch parties and ongoing reading series, Seattleites could spend the better part of almost any week at poetry-based events. But poet Shin Yu Pai looked at the landscape of readings and saw a kind of poetry event that simply didn't exist.
"I wanted to curate a series that could really focus on the social role of poetry rather than just having poets in to read from their most current work," she explains to me on the phone.
Pai says her new series, Lyric World, which launches on January 30th at Town Hall in conjunction with KUOW, is designed to be a bridge between poetry and everyday life. Each event will be centered around "hot topics of conversation." The poets will read work that has been specially selected to reflect the theme of the event, "and then have an onstage conversation with a peer facilitator who's read their work very carefully and deeply." The series also spotlights musicians who can reflect on these themes with performance.
The first event on January 30th spotlights mixed-race Asian-American poet Thomas Pruiksma, who Pai says "is a magician, a musician, and a poet. I asked him to talk about the role of wonder and magic in his work." Pruiksma will be joined in conversation by the poet Melanie Noel, who explores the full range of sensory experiences in her work. Pai chose Noel because "she's really looking at the ways in which the different senses are activated and how poetry can reflect that experience."
In March, Pai is pairing Seattle poet Koon Woon with Seattle poetry leader Paul Nelson in an event "focused around the idea of displacement, home, and belonging." Koon, who immigrated to the United States from China as a young boy, "lived for many decades in Chinatown/International District in various marginalized conditions. He was eventually displaced and is now living in West Seattle," Pai says. The evening will be a study of what it means to be taken from your home, through immigration or gentrification or other means, and percussionist Paul Kikuchi will share work that incorporates his "research around the Japanese American internment experience in his own work and in his own family."
Lyric World's first season will conclude in June with Prageeta Sharma, author of Grief Sequence from Wave Books, discussing "the poetry and grief or grieving" with local poet afrose fatima ahmed.
"I was looking around and feeling like there were no series that were really elevating Asian voices, and that's very important to me," Pai says. She cites Amber Flame's Black on Craft reading series and the Poetry Across the Nations reading of Native poets at the Hugo House as inspirations for Lyric World's first season.
Pai has plenty of experience putting on events that cross disciplines and investigate new paths for the arts — she's curated citywide events as Redmond's Poet Laureate, and she is the head of the Obscura Society for Atlas Obscura. Does she have any metrics for determining whether Lyric World is a success as an event?
"The quality of the question and answer or comment period can often be a provocative gauge of how engaged the audience is," she says. Pai also wants this series to deliver a cross-section of Seattle poetry audiences, from regulars at Margin Shift to Hugo House open mics to Seattle Arts and Lectures: "success to me is seeing a convergence in the audience of different poetry communities," to inspire a "cross-fertilization of ideas and aesthetics."
In the end, these conversations about place and grief and imagination are "really for people who are curious about poetry but maybe have certain perceptions of it as being difficult or inaccessible," Pai says. She's particularly eager for KUOW's audience to be exposed to the series because "we're taking poetic topics and putting them in conversation, so that we can connect that to the relevance of our lives."