Maw Shein Win on Cats, Colors, and Outer Space
Maw Shein Win lives in Berkeley and teaches in San Francisco. She often collaborates with visual artists and musicians, and her most recent chapbook, Ruins of a glittering palace, was published by SPA/Commonwealth Projects. She is a poetry editor for Rivet and is a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto. Dark chocolate is part of her food pyramid.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
I say I teach, write, edit, perform, and occasionally organize literary events.
What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?
As far as writing goes, I continually struggle with how to end poems. I still have poems from years ago that I have yet to finish because I can’t figure out the last line or image.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
Don’t give up. Keep on writing, performing, reading, collaborating. Take breaks when you need them. Find or create your community. Support your friends. Share your work. Join poetry groups and have writing dates if that’s your thing.
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?
I was obsessed with Helen Keller. When I was in 4th grade, I read her biography and taught myself how to sign the alphabet. Black and white memories of watching “The Miracle Worker” on TV in my cotton pajamas.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
Absolutely. It’s hard to imagine who or where I would be not having read e.e. cummings, Denise Levertov and Pablo Neruda’s poems as a teen. Seeing the Minutemen and Saccharine Trust at the Anti-Club as a young punk living in Southern California. Finding Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit and Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons on the library shelves. The first time I saw Remedios Varo’s paintings or listened to Joni Mitchell’s Blue.
Art deepens my life experience. I’ve learned about the importance of taking risks, experimenting, and discovering what moves and inspires.
What are you working on right now?
I’ve been writing poems inspired by the idea of cinematic distance as part of a second collaborative book with my long-time friend, Mark Dutcher, a painter in Los Angeles. “Close up of an ice cube slowly melting on her tongue.”
Also trying to come up with new material for a Pitta of the Mind performance in February for Sound-Speak which is a quarterly show involving music and writing as part of Outsound. Pitta of the Mind is my duo with composer and musician Amanda Chaudhary. Common themes include cats, colors, and outer space.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
Make it affordable to live here. I moved to SF in 1994 and paid $300 for a room in a two-bedroom Victorian in the Castro. Over the years the rents and cost of living in the Bay Area have become out of control. It makes me sad seeing friends move away, people losing their homes, and struggling to get by. Yet it gives me hope when spaces like Adobe Books or Starry Plough continue and that you can still go to poetry readings and check out music and art almost every night of the week.
What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?
With 50 words, I might be able
to write a poem or better yet,
just give me 50 dollars instead
& I’ll buy a silver metallic
spacesuit or 50 painted daisies, no
make that 60. In 50 days,
the daisies may multiply & the poem
will end somehow despite itself.
What are some of your favorite smells?
Coffee, lilies, onions frying in a pan, oranges, the ocean.
A night on the town: what does that mean to you?
Begin by opening my closet (which resembles a clothes rack at a certain Thrift Town in the East Bay), throw on a muumuu, and head out the door with Thomas Scandura for tea leaf salad at Rangoon Superstars. Maybe go to a friend’s art opening, attend a music performance, and end the evening spending quality time with my polydactyl Calico cat.