The apples in Seattle’s Piper’s Orchard will ripen this summer and fall with words from a 26-section poem printed on their skin. The “Heirloom” project by poet Shin Yu Pai is a simple idea — using vinyl stickers to imprint letters on fruit — that invites visitors to have a more complex experience in the Carkeek Park orchard through a constantly changing literary narrative.
“The language written throughout the trees alludes to different aspects of the orchard’s trees and history, and is meant to be experienced as a self-guided tour,” Pai told Hyperallergic. Remotely, the poem and an ambient audio component involving sound from different seasons at the orchard are available online.
“Heirloom” is part of the 12-artist exhibition Propagation: Heaven and Earth VII in Carkeek Park, co-curated by David Francis and Thendara Kida-Gee. “Just as there are hundreds of varieties of antique and heirloom apples, I wanted to explore uncommon textures of language that could enliven the environment of the orchard,” Pai explained.
The poem takes an abecedarian structure, with a section for each letter of the alphabet. For example “A” is for “Antique,” as in the heritage heirloom apples that grow in the orchard; “E,” for “Eye, apple of my”; “G” for “Graftage,” that is “propagating a vanishing line”; and “M” for “Minna,” for Wilhemina Piper who tended to the orchard. Her husband Andrew’s sweet shop in downtown Seattle burned to the ground in the Great Fire of 1889, which brought the family to relocate to North Seattle where they homesteaded on the land that’s now part of Carkeek Park. Throughout is a love for the wordplay of heirloom apple names that readily lend themselves to the rhythm of Pai’s poem, like Northern spy, wolf river, Spokane beauty, hidden rose, Ozark gold, and pixie crunch.
Pai added that the poem was influenced by her two-year-old son Tomo. “Tomo is in the time of acquiring language and words and I thought about children’s literature and structures,” she said. “I didn’t want to write a long piece that was explicitly for children, but there was something about the spirit of a children’s verse form that appealed deeply to me.”
With her living tree collaborators, every experience at the orchard is different, as fruits ripen and are embossed with sunlight-burned letters, as apples fall or rot, and as trees experience infestations or severe weather. Pai has mostly worked with printed poetry, although she’s also an experienced photographer, and her unconventional collaborations include Hedwig Dances performing her poem “Recipe for Paper” at the Chicago Cultural Center in the early 2000s, and her friend and composer Gao Ping creating music from one of her poems. She’s now the poet laureate for Redmond, Washington, and plans to work on outdoor installations in the city’s public trail system involving text.
“I do love written and page-based poems,” she said. “I’m also excited about what happens when readers and viewers encounter text in unexpected environments and how language in public places can make poetry more visible and accessible.”