Anything can go wrong, at any time
[TO BE PERFORMED IN THE STYLE OF DAVID ANTIN’S TALK POEMS]
[NOTE TO AUDIENCE: THIS TALK INCLUDES A SECTION WHERE THERE IS NO TALKING]
On occasional Wednesday nights, I attend a Zen sitting group that meets at St. Ignatius’ Chapel on the campus of Seattle University. The chapel is an extraordinary work of beauty, designed by celebrated architect Steven Holl. During the day, each part of the chapel glows with tinted light bouncing off color fields painted on the back of hung baffles. As the days grow longer, the patterns of light entering the chapel call out to the distracted eye untethered from the meditation cushion. Sitting in this space has called forth more than one poem.
the warning stick of the Zen priest
is a way to sharpen the mind
the parts of a soul we call back
to ourselves, baffled halos of light
in a stone box installed with seven vials
of radiance, we took our seats,
processing between pews and
through the hall of worship —
ceremony, a thing you shy away from
like the memory of Pentecostal rite,
the impulse, a desire, to recover
what was once whole, sunlight gunned
through colored glass the unbroken image
of St. Ignatius’ shell reflected in the basin beyond
After sitting group one night, Tetsuzen, the group’s resident priest, welcomed me to give a dharma talk, at any time, about any topic I might wish. I held my breath when he extended the invitation. I’m pure novice. Even after 22 years, I feel Impostor Syndrome rise up, take over my brain. It’s reported that writers EJ Koh and Ocean Vuong spend hours of each day in meditation practice as their non-meditating petitioners marvel at this detail of their creative practice, agog in awe at the austerity of Asians. But I’m not that kind of Asian. I’ve got a six-year-old, and day-to-day life runs away from me. When the chemical reaction dissipates, I get curious about the idea of what it would be to give a non-dharma talk about my “feelings” about giving a dharma talk. And that is where we arrive now.
I take comfort in engaging in familiar patterns that move me a little closer to something that feels like perfection. Once, a designer built a poetry collection for me in such a way that it required that I hand cut holes in every book cover and hand stamp the interior of each book with notes about my text. We printed just under 1,000 copies, which I prepped and cut in two weekends before shipping them off to my publisher’s distributor. I went through a box of exacto blades and a bundle of nail files, saving the letters from the words cut out of the covers to repurpose into personalized author notes. Contrary to what I imagined, the effect of reusing the text looked nothing like the roughness of ransom notes. I found the activity calming and embodied. I could be productive while thinking about nothing. Except when I saw my mind attaching too much to some idea of perfection.
Pema Norbu Gompo
shares with me a story:
at reaching thirty
glancing into the vanity
to see a trimmed down
waist w/out love
handles – starting over
from zero, more than once
to better polish his intent
my own practice:
carving holes in
w/ exacto blade & straight edge,
intervention as design concept
a hole too uneven
a hole too big
a hole too ragged
a hole too small
I’ve decided to embark on a new project that involves making exactly 108 clay tsa-tsas – Bhutanese sacred reliquary objects — that I’ll give away. I view YouTube videos of street artisans and talk to clay artists about “standard release methods” including Murphy’s Oil, corn starch, and olive oil. I read online tutorials, test different kinds of clay and wax, and also think about what could be placed inside the clay forms. In my readings on tsa-tsa making, I learn that medicine is sometimes placed inside these offerings. This is confirmed in one online video, when I see a tsa-tsa maker unceremoniously stuff what resembles an ibuprofen gel cap into a clay body. Somehow, I imagined more plant-like or magical healing medicine, even a handwritten mantra. My friend Michael offers to help me with my project, so I visit him in his ceramics studio that’s a short dash from the college football stadium. A series of decisions unfolds before me about process: type of clay, glazes, firing temperatures. All of these possibilities also point to the specter of failure.
Anything can go wrong, at any time. Excess moisture in a preliminary firing can cause a piece to explode in the kiln. Too high a temperature can cause shattering. Glazing can behave unpredictably. And under particularly dramatic and expensive instances, a kiln shelf can blow up. We steel ourselves for the unpredictable. Make a back-up cache of objects just in case. Anything can go wrong, at any time – like a mentoring relationship, love affair, or even a dharma talk that’s lost control. We have to improvise. And this is the thing I think, as I wander the spice aisle of the University Village Safeway searching for pink Himalayan sea salt. Thinking about what desiccated herb might be a fitting offering to tuck away inside my clay objects, having forgotten the fragrant stems of Texas sage sitting atop my altar at home. There is no edible lavender to be found in the baking section.
all beings, our teachers
the jazz poet invited me to lunch
on the premise of electing me
for a poetry prize, when I arrived
for our meeting he opened the door
in his bathrobe, his apartment staged
with Orientalist porn
the AAPI novelist recruited me to teach
without pay — I looked the right part
to a group of Pinay teens
she’d later take to Manila
as research subjects; when I
explained I needed work that paid
the rent she said I failed
in my responsibilities
the mentor handed me a news clipping
from The NY Times —
here I am giving you a poem
the piece was on Vietnamese
tonal language speakers
why we have perfect pitch
I stopped learning Mandarin by the time I was 8
Now I am older, when I bump
into former instructors outside
of the classroom they say
She was my student.
She studied with me.
I taught her.
For many years my best
teachers were books, they
would not force me with
callused ashen hands, no
way of being misread
this aversion to learning
to teaching sometimes I miss
sharing my mind with others
in these moments I turn
to you and say claim this
beauty that belongs to you
and make it yours
We pack the clay into the 3-inch molds that resemble menstrual cups. Apply gentle and firm pressure to ensure that the details on the inside of the molds imprint across the surface of the clay. The molds form miniature stupas, or temples. We tear off chunks and strips of clay from the base to form a standing foot that when brushed against a table or any texture takes on those notes. We knead and fold the clay into cones and bulbous tear-dropped shapes that more easily fit within the molds of the tsa-tsas. I watch Michael and his student Ren work the clay.
I haven’t touched clay since I was a teenager. Ceramics was largely my older brother’s domain. He partitioned off part of our parents’ Southern California rambler and installed a pottery studio. He built containers on a rotating kick wheel and displayed his creations on rows of shelves lining the walls of the enclosed patio. I remembered the control he exerted over his fast-spinning, wet vessels, using, not his strength, but brute force. A reflection too of our own relationship.
No one tells me to handle the clay in a particular way. Both Michael and Ren, explore their own relationship to the material. Rolling, pinching, tapping, peeling. I pick up some of their technique by watching and begin to understand that our task is to approximate a shape. Not the shape of the mold, but the more ambiguous shape of the thing that will fill the mold. It is hard to understand that these are different things. At times, the shape that emerges from my hands resembles something phallic, and embarrassed, I flatten my efforts into something squat, twist the clay into something geometrical. My mind tries not to fixate on the outcome of the perfectly formed tsa-tsa. Ultimately exerting more care versus being freer doesn’t make a difference.
Michael starts splitting the clay into triangular shapes to improve our efficiency and production time per tsa-tsa. When I glance at the clock it’s 10:40 a.m., but it’s broken and 50 minutes later, the hands haven’t moved. Tiny bits of dried clay stick to my hands. As I wipe them clean, Michael gestures at his typewriter suggesting all that can be transcribed and recorded from our conversations.
What’s the best technique to crimp the perfect new year’s dumplings?
Ask your Taiwanese sister-in-law.
Who’s given a memorable artist talk in recent Seattle history?
Cedar Sigo on musicality and connecting to his indigeneity.
What should be protected in the San Francisco Bay area?
Cohen Alley, aka The Tenderloin National Forest, a throw-away space, that was leased from
the city by artists for $1 a month and transformed into an urban greenspace.
When the ribbon jammed on the Corona Electric, we abandoned technology for sharpie pens. The idea of reading to one another was tossed around but after counting only 103 completed objects, Ren and I doubled down to finish the job. Michael pulled out a Cooley Windsor essay to read aloud on the subject of teaching. Being read to as I created stirred an old memory of sitting in graduate school workshops laboring over a poem as the instructor fed lines to the class from abstract sources. The effect of listening to Windsor felt more akin to guided meditation. I didn’t hate him. His work evoked tenderness. And the embodiment of that tenderness seemed bound to express itself in our last objects, in the close attention and fidelity to unformed matter molding to a shape. It is perhaps, why some artists will also talk to clay as they relate to it. Like two lovers engaging with one another.
I gather up the molds that have enabled our work and oil and wipe the dried clay from inside and outside the bronze forms using an odorless yellow camellia oil. I complete the clean-up process three times, thinking of how the process of purifying and putting away your implements in Japanese tea reflects respect for the tools, and an honoring of the spirit of servitude, hospitality, holding space for one another.
The first time, I read this next text to a room of strangers, I was overcome with emotion, remembering all in my life that lost control. It caught that moment before betrayal, before he asked me to leave my husband to make a life together. I considered his request. And required him to give up nothing. That moment before he told me he wasn’t ready or equipped; the moment before he revealed he used our relationship to leverage fear, and to secure a commitment from that other Asian gal from his past, the one that “got away.”
This is the last time I will read this poem in public.
of the three jewels
the most precious
is the community
of practitioners, I feel
this truth acutely when
I conjoin with another
disciple & we pivot to bow
in unison to the circle, as we
retire from sacred space,
honoring how you & I once
turned towards a roomful of friends,
raised our hands to our hearts
humbling ourselves, to ourselves,
I bowed with you, not to you
the gaze turning downwards,
my heart opened, giving
silent gratitude too
for who we were then
In that space of mind meeting mind, the ancient ones and all of the buddhas of the future stood present with us. And we were all awoken.
I am trying to hold the view that all spaces have the capacity to become sacred – the shell of a bronze mold acts as a womb. The writing desk, the uninhabited heart, the college lecture room. Even if who we were in that moment of first encounter, will never again be who we are now, we brought our curiosity and reverence for what wasn’t yet known. So that what starts as a “work party,” something transactional, commonplace with a goal of “being industrious”, grows into something more joyful than a dinner party. That “productive aspect” is to be honored, the shared efforts of having toiled, sometimes failed, and found something together in the multi-faceted gem, in spite of whatever breaks apart in the conduction of heat moving through a body.
Shin Yu Pai is the author of several books including Ensō (Entre Rios Books, 2020), Aux Arcs (La Alameda, 2013), Adamantine (White Pine, 2010),Sightings (1913 Press, 2007), and Equivalence (La Alameda, 2003). From 2015 to 2017, she served as the fourth Poet Laureate of The City of Redmond, Washington. Her personal essays have appeared in CityArts, Tricycle, Seattle’s Child, and YES! Magazine. She’s been a Stranger Genius Award nominee in Literature and lives and works in Bitter Lake, Seattle. For more info, visit www.shinyupai.com.