Editor’s note: Shin Yu Pai’s Ensō is a hybrid work. It mixes poetry, image, memoir, essay, reflections on the making of art. The effect is kaleidoscopic, encompassing: a book that builds its own form on the foundation of the form it represents. It also offers a deep inquiry into art-making as practice, a way of living as much as it is a livelihood. The title refers to a Japanese calligraphic shape that signifies wholeness: a circle, hand-drawn as a simple brushstroke; it can be left open or closed. Such a model, or metaphor, is fitting for what Pai is doing throughout the book, considering connectedness through a lens of sketches, building narrative from a variety of disparate, but ultimately integrated, parts.
For many years, I worked at a skyrise in Belltown, a Seattle district just north of downtown once known for low rent and grunge bars, but now gleaming condo towers and construction cranes dominate the landscape. When a neighborhood theater asked if I’d compose a piece for a history cabaret about Belltown, I saw the invitation as an opportunity to better delve into local history.
To spark my writing, the team at the Rendezvous handed me a thick packet of information on local personalities. Pat Suzuki was a Japanese American nightclub singer who had been Seattle’s first musician to make it big on Broadway. Pat’s narrative, like so many stories of the local Nisei, included the hardships of surviving the internment camps of WWII. Hers was a story worth celebrating and sharing. My question became, Could I center Pat’s story in my own voice?
For the cabaret, I wrote about Pat Suzuki’s connection to Seattle, before her arrival here and after she left it. The piece included imagined fragments of her childhood in Camp Amache, and musings on her decision to leave a successful career on Broadway. The theater assigned me an amazing dramaturge, Sally Ollove, who explained to me how cabaret and musical theater differ. The space of the cabaret is an extension of the artist in real time; the focus becomes the connection between the artist and her audience. There is no need to inhabit a character, as with musical theater or Broadway. You are exactly who you are. Suzuki was cast in Flower Drum Song as Linda Low, a stripper. Before that, she played a part in the touring Teahouse of the August Moon as a minor “Oriental type.” Unwilling in the long term to embrace the limited roles that were available to her as an artist, she chose to return to a less prestigious life that would allow her to perform on her own terms.
This notion of authenticity deeply appealed to me in helping me understand Suzuki’s potential motivations for leaving New York, but in also helping me to understand how my delivery of a poem need not be a persona or performance so much as a practice of vulnerability. My earliest models of performed poetry came out of watching Anne Waldman sing/scream “Skin Meat Bones” on stage at Naropa and seeing old footage of Allen Ginsberg sing Blake poems on harmonium while accompanied on guitar by Steven Taylor. This needed to be something different from that.
With the encouragement of the director, I read my piece onstage for the cabaret and performed an a cappella version of “How High the Moon,” a song that Suzuki was widely known for singing. I’ve always loved the voice. As a teenager, vocal performance was my first passion. But I choked at my audition to music school, and it would take me many years to risk that kind of vulnerability again.
I instead chose to hide behind my poems, distance through object-making, and to choose creative circumstances that allowed me to control what I shared of myself. To the extent that I began to literally remove myself from the work of my animated poems. What I couldn’t fully embrace was the value of my own voice. To stand in one’s own creative power while being fully seen in her vulnerability is an energetic exchange that gives the artist access to the great ineffable creative source.
in the vintage footage
Old Blue Eyes calls her
“You can’t get anywhere as a singer unless you’re Italian.”
But Frank, I’m Japanese
she protested, I’m from Seattle
the home she chose
It was the easiest of times, you know.
I didn’t have any responsibilities.
at the age of eleven,
little Chiyoko, the All-American girl
sent packing to the High Plains
locked up at Granada War Relocation Center,
for the crime of being
descended from the Japanese
How does suffering shape a life?
Behind barbed wire,
imprisoned children grew up
to be poet, printmaker, nightclub singer
Lawson [Inada], Arthur [Okamura], Pat [Suzuki]
the record reaching back
so far, we strain to hear the past
* Childhood name for Pat Suzuki who was the youngest of four children; translates roughly as “squirt.”
in place of cooking or setting
the table, kids play house standing
in imaginary mess hall lines
floating over barbed wire
the jade rabbit pounds
mochi in the full moon
over camp, boy scouts raise
the flag, pledging a country
that has shunned us
six guard towers armed
with machine guns—here
for our “own safety”
Boy’s Day: fish streamers
fly over barracks, the largest carp
to honor an oldest son
the silk vest handmade for
a boy’s deployment, 1,000 red knots,
each hand-tied by a different detainee
wheezing from fever
she reshapes the mattress—the canvas
bag stuffed full of hay
thin-walled tar paper
barracks can’t block the biting
chill of winter
before razing the camp
the last act: building a marker
for the dead
as “SUZUKI” she “arrived” in Seattle
performing at The Colony Club
in two thousand consecutive shows,
her ex-husband Norm described
how she sashayed off the street,
a half-pint gamin(e) at 22-years-old
decamping from a bit part
at the Moore—where she was cast
as a minor Oriental in
Teahouse of the August Moon
after touring Kansas City, St. Louis, Los Angeles
to take up residency in Belltown,
discovered one night by Bing Crosby
she was Seattle’s first musician to make it big
“100 pounds of Nisei dynamite with a voice
that could loosen the tiles on Broadway’s towers”
from 4th & Virginia to Broadway, New York
a recording contract within six months, to be cast
three years later in the role of Linda Low,
the stripper in Flower Drum Song,
her signature tune, “I Enjoy Being a Girl”
we question why a rising star might quit
a bright career in New York theater
preferring Podunk clubs or motherhood
over art—she embraced the person that she always was
to find herself at home in a cabaret
of her own making, that place where
she saw herself reflected in the pale white
faces of the public, where she shattered
stereotype, inhabiting her
skin; flush with more
than anyone from Camp Amache could ever dream
Excerpted from Ensō, by Shin Yu Pai, with permission of the publisher, Entre Ríos Books.