UNNECESSARY ROUGHNESS by SHIN YU PAIHEATHER NAGAMI reviews
Unnecessary Roughness by Shin Yu Pai
(xPress(ed), 2005, available through lulu.com)
Playful, technical, deadpan, grave, precise, dynamic, daring—these are all words that came to my mind while reading Shin Yu Pai’s chapbook, Unnecessary Roughness. From playground dodgeball to bodybuilding, Unnecessary Roughness is a unique exploration of how physical activities shape our roles in society, our senses of self, and our sexualities. A skilled poet and visual artist, Shin Yu Pai utilizes her creative faculties to their fullest.
What struck me in the opening pages of Unnecessary Roughness was Pai’s recognition of the book’s physicality—its own identity as a work on paper—not just ideas, but a self-conscious visual creation. The first two pages offer diagrams of two familiar sites: four square and dodge ball. Each is partially a diagram (four squares, a circle), and partially a written poem. The former conjures feelings of both familiarity and disorientation (i.e. “Yes, I remember this,” and “What, I’m in a poem?”) with the added benefit of Pai’s embellishments, which include two concentric circles in the dodge ball diagram, instead of just one, eerily resembling a bull’s-eye. The latter, the words on the diagram, are an interesting mix of familiar playground put-downs (e.g. “scaredycat” and “baby”) and the more obviously consequential “fag” and “pussy” (7). These are mappings of hierarchies, the origin of names, and the nature of childhood socialization.
Pai commands great precision over her words and also her word processing software. In “square it up,” words and phrases trickle down the page diagonally, backward, and forward, resembling trails where a child might have run during a four square game. As a four square alumnus myself, this all looked too familiar, until I read the text, “bobbling,” “chicken feet,” and “serving bitch,” which I only later found (through some research on Google) to actually be technical Four Square terminology (6). Did Pai remember these terms from grammar school? Or is she, too, a Google researcher? I had to wonder. However, no matter how she might answer, this alien language pointed to a community that was more complex and intricate than I knew. This feeling resonated with Pai’s remapping of my own childhood memories.
While Pai uses her word processor’s palette freely, she also demonstrates the limitations of such a palette. Exclamation marks separate the vertical lanes in a swimming pool diagram in the poem, “wet area.” Judging by the imprecise spacing, I do not think that Pai used tabs; so I imagined her typing something like this: exclamation point, space bar, space bar, space bar, space bar, space bar, space bar, space bar, space bar, space bar, space bar, space bar, space bar, space bar, space bar, space bar, exclamation point, space bar, space bar, space bar, space bar, space bar, space bar, two-character word, space bar, space bar, space bar, space bar, space bar, space bar, space bar, exclamation point. This is a hands-on, laborious piece that speaks to the boundaries created within a societal system that stunts and discourages personal growth and creativity.
In Unnecessary Roughness, Shin Yu Pai exposes the grim realities that await us under the guise of children’s games and sports. The three poems I have discussed represent only a small portion of what I found in this truly unique chapbook. Pai uses a full and diverse range of poetic devices that, along with the integrated visuals, demonstrates her devotion to the arts. This is the first piece I’ve read by Pai, and I’m hooked.
Heather Nagami's first book, Hostile, was published by Chax Press in 2005. Heather earned her B.A. in Literature/Creative Writing at U.C. Santa Cruz and an M.F.A. at University of Arizona, where she also taught poetry and edited Sonora Review. Her work has appeared in Antennae, Rattle, Shifter, and Xcp (Cross-Cultural Poetics). Along with her fiancé, Bryan, Heather runs overhere press, a small press that published chapbooks by people of color and other underrepresented voices.