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Writers on Writing, Volume 11: Maw Shein Win

Maw Shein Win is a poet, editor, and educator. Her writing has appeared in many journals and several anthologies, including Cimarron Review, MARY: A Journal of New Writing, Poetry International, and Fanzine.

Maw often collaborates with visual artists, musicians, and other writers. Along with composer Amanda Chaudhary, she is part of musical duo Pitta of the Mind that combines poetry with abstract electronic music. A collaborative book with paintings by artist Mark Dutcher, Ruins of a glittering palace, was published by SPA/Commonwealth Projects.

Maw's most recent poetry chapbook is Score and Bone, from Nomadic Press. Her full-length collection, Invisible Gifts, was published by Manic D Press in 2018, and her second full collection will be published by Omnidawn in 2020. Maw is the first poet laureate of El Cerrito.

This spring Maw will be instructing a weekend class at Left Margin LIT called "Games Poets Play." The class will take place on Sunday, April 14th. Maw will read as part of Left Margin LIT's poetry celebration (co-sponsored with PEN West) from 3-5pm on April 13th at Left Margin's Berkeley location.

Photo credit: Annabelle Port


How long have you been writing? What drew you to writing poetry?

I started writing at an early age, wrote very dramatic poems, and kept a diary. In fact, I still have my journals from high school and onwards hidden away in a box somewhere. I wrote and edited for my school papers and thought I would either be a journalist or a teacher. As an undergraduate, I switched from studying journalism to creative writing. Reading and writing poetry opened up new ways for my younger self to experience and express both inner and outer worlds.

Do you have a favorite piece in your new book, Invisible Gifts? If so, why is it your favorite?

One poem I am particularly fond of is “Gold Barns Above Sea Level.” The piece is from a group of poems I wrote inspired by a series of Time Machine paintings by my friend artist Mark Dutcher. (One of Mark’s paintings is the cover of my book.) I enjoyed the process of writing these poems in different versions, working with sound, and experimenting with homonyms. Also, one iteration of this poem became a part of a collaborative performance with poet and dancer Sharon Coleman. Invisible Gifts is organized into four sections: Blue Bells, Pink Light, Silvery Moth, and The Greenhouse. I used color as one of the threads in this poem.

Where did the title Invisible Gifts come from? Talk about what it means to you.

Invisible Gifts is the title of a poem in the book. The poem arose from a period of my life when my partner Tom and I were housesitting and taking care of my sister’s family dog, Pepper. As I am more of a cat person, I was a bit nervous to be living with a large Black Labrador although he was as sweet as could be. I remember the sound of his tin tags clinking together as he jumped up and down when Tom would feed him in the early morning. An invisible gift. We were heartbroken when Pepper passed. I still miss him.

As the first Poet Laureate of El Cerrito from 2016 - 2018, what were some of your favorite moments?

It was an honor and pleasure to be the inaugural poet of El Cerrito. I loved organizing and hosting a reading series called Poetry & Place which occurred in different locations including libraries, parks, and elsewhere. I particularly enjoyed hearing everyone’s words at the open mics as well as meeting wonderful folks I would not have met if it weren’t for this position. An experience I’ll never forget.

You’re serving this semester as a Visiting Scholar for the English Department at the University of California, Berkeley. What are some of your responsibilities in that role?

This semester, I have two primary goals. I’m collaborating with poet and musician Bonnie Kwong on a storytelling project. We are having conversations with refugees in the Bay Area who are Tibetan, Rakhine, and Vietnamese. The project is sponsored by the Critical Refugee Studies Program and directed by Penny Edwards in the Southeast Asian Studies Department. There will be an opening night of performances including poetry, dance, music, and art at BAMPFA on April 26th and a closing event on World Refugee Day on June 20th that will feature a poetry and sound piece inspired by our story circles. There will also be a Q&A panel with participants and community activists. I hope everyone can join us for these events.

In addition, I’m thrilled to be working on a new full-length poetry collection for Omnidawn that is slated for publication in the Fall of 2020. I’m grateful to Robert Hass, who is my sponsor in the English Department, and am impressed by the resources at Cal, especially their libraries.

Your upcoming one-day poetry class at Left Margin is called "Games Poets Play." Why do you think the concept of play is important to writers (and maybe to poets in particular)?

As poets and writers, I think we sometimes forget the importance of delight and play in the writing process. One of my favorite undergraduate professors was Dr. Richard Lee. Some of his “assignments” included looking in the mirror every morning and laughing at ourselves for five minutes, or wearing all orange for a day. He taught me how to not take myself too seriously.

I believe that play is one of the best ways to get somewhere else and free your mind from rules and fixed notions of what it means to be a writer. I use word games and exercises to open myself to new possibilities and ideas and not worry about “making sense.”

Letting go of expectations and embracing spontaneity helps one’s writing process in multiple ways, especially as a poet. I’d also like to add that dark chocolate, clementines, and experimental music are an integral part of my writing workshops!

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