Maya Stein is a writer and poet living in San Francisco. Her gorgeous poems and prose have inspired so many of us in the blogosphere. Her writing is, and can be, so many things—honest, deep, fierce, thoughtful, erotic, lush, gentle, fearless. In addition to her own books (linked below), several of her poems currently appear in Patti Digh’s Creative Is a Verb. Having been a fan of Maya’s poetry for years, I’m honored to feature her here.
1. I’ve been reading your beautiful poems at your blog for many years. How does writing poetry nourish you?
Well, first of all, Marilyn, I’m totally honored that you asked to interview me. And I’m delighted that you’ve been such a long-standing reader!
It’s funny, but when people ask me what I write and I say “poetry” I find myself grimacing slightly. I worry about how that sounds to an outsider, but maybe more truthfully I just haven’t completely come to peace with that word on my own. As an English major in college, “poetry” was complicated and epically long and full of totally obscure references and most of all, so serious. And largely inaccessible.
But I think the blog – more than anything – has really deepened my relationship to poetry. I think it has to do with a combination of my own life experiences drawing more out of me creatively, having found a certain kind of rhythm and style in my writing and being more comfortable around expressing myself. And there’s the public nature of the blog and the accompanying gentle pressure it applies on me to stay current. And of course, it’s become important to me to create pieces of writing that are both personal and approachable. So that combination of elements is a really good template for me to work from, to help guide my writing. Just having that kind of structure in place gives me a better understanding of how I want to shape each piece. At the same time, I try to let myself off the hook a little. I’m not aiming for perfection here. The little tagline under my blog title begins “This is not about getting it right,” and that’s my permission slip, in writing and in life.
2. I loved reading about the traveling poetry project you created for yourself last fall, Tour de Word. You seemed so good at finding the gifts in each experience. Often when we embark on large projects like that, we can’t help but imagine what it will be like. Can you share a moment from the tour when the experience didn’t look like you might have imagined it would, but turned out to be surprisingly gratifying?
There were a lot of these along the way. I remember a particular moment driving on Route 2 through northern Montana and North Dakota. I had been thinking about this stretch of the trip before I even left, imagining it as a sort of desolate and lonely experience. It was a road I wanted to take because it was off the interstate and I was determined to stay off the main roads. When you look at the map, Route 2 is long and straight and there are not many towns that it goes through. So there was this little niggling worry – what if my car broke down in the middle of nowhere? What if I didn’t have cell phone service? Mind you, all of this happened before I even arrived at the beginning of that road. All that anticipation. I was preparing myself for solitude and rigor and mishap. But then, after coming down from Glacier National Park and merging on Route 2, all of that just fell away. It turned out to be one of the most beautiful drives of the trip. Not because of what was happening outside – although there was something very starkly beautiful about that scenery and I took about 300 photographs in those two days alone – but because of what was happening inside. That drive turned out to be deeply peaceful for me. I began to actually enjoy my own company and to see the importance of that as the rest of trip followed. How vital it was that I enjoy myself in the process. During that drive, I really began to understand that I was my own best friend, and that I would never be alone.
Of course, there were a lot of gratifying moments in the workshops themselves. I had no idea how it would be to lead a writing workshop for adults – I’d never done that before – so the idea of it felt like walking into the fire. Except what really happened was not about fire at all. What it came down to was just people writing in a room together, and me guiding the experience for them. It was less about “teaching” than “facilitation,” and I think just that shift in my own thinking gave me permission to step more fully into that role. From the very first workshop, I walked in trusting that what needed to happen would happen. I had faith that the right people would be there, and I had faith in the process and my relationship to it. I don’t know how. Maybe because I had no interest in the alternative.
3. Your Tour de Word blog posts were accompanied by lovely photographs of your travels. How did photography as a medium impact your creative experience while you were on tour?
I think taking photographs along the way gave me a sense of both place – the geography I was in - and progress – how far I was coming along. I also had a keen sense that I was documenting my trip for others. The pictures were like these breadcrumbs, and a way for people to connect to where I was even if they couldn’t physically be there with me.
I was so taken with the beauty of the country, and I felt very lucky to be able to explore it at this pace. To have the luxury of taking back roads and stopping in unexpected places. I tried to build in enough time in between stops to allow for detours. And I found that the most striking discoveries came from those detours. Again, it was both outer and inner experience – I think of detours on the metaphorical level, too. That joy of coming upon something unexpected. And marking it, memorializing it by taking a photograph. There weren’t a lot of people in my photos – mostly landscapes, views of open plains, mountains, bodies of water, bridges, trees, rain, and the road itself. I took a lot of photos of the roads I drove on. I’d take these in the middle of driving, through the front windshield. Probably not safe, but for me, this was the quintessential moment that captured the experience of what it meant to leave home to do this. There’s both this exhilaration about the open road and also a groundedness – this is the way you get from one place to another. You always have a road underneath you, in one form or another. You’re never really lost. I think all of my photographs were my way of reminding myself of that.
4. Tour de Word was an offshoot of a long-time poetry project, 10-line Tuesday. How has the discipline of maintaining that Tuesday practice for so many years helped in other areas of your life?
I started “10-line Tuesday” because I wanted to have a writing practice that was manageable, that was enough of a stretch in terms of keeping me creative and holding me accountable, but was also something that was approachable to readers. Bite-sized poetry. So those themes – manageable and approachable – have been good guidelines for me in terms of coming up with new projects. I like to push myself enough – to do something that’s sort of butting up against my comfort zone – but also to keep it accessible. It’s all about gentle expansion, like in the way continental drift happens. I think if the work is too rigorous, or the idea too lofty, you start to put ridiculous amounts of pressure on yourself to succeed, and the project fails because it’s too top-heavy – carrying too much weight in its ideas instead of its executions. “10-line Tuesday” was about setting up a goal that I was actually excited to meet. If nothing else happens that week, I know that I have still gotten to be creative and to actually finish something. I really believe that a feeling of ongoing accomplishment – no matter how small - is crucial to keep growing, creatively and otherwise.
5. For those who might believe poetry is not in the realm of possibility for them, what’s a simple exercise anyone can use to tap into their inner poet?
I think the first thing you have to do is relax. Absolve yourself of the pressure of writing POETRY. That’s a buzzkill every time, and most certainly a creative block. You can’t know exactly what you’re going to be writing. The trick is to keep the muscle loose and flexible, give yourself room to breathe. I always think that with every new piece of writing, I’m starting over as a writer. I may have written something good two weeks ago, but I’m looking at something new that’s never been written before and I have to keep that beginner’s mind as I start putting words down.
But in terms of what to do creatively, how to actually generate a piece of writing? Take down notes. Fragments. Snippets, snapshots of what interests you. Scan over the past few days or the past couple of weeks and see what lands on you, what catches your attention. Think in terms of visual, physical details, sensorial details – maybe your son knocked over a vase of carnations, or a check bounced, or you saw the full moon and it left you breathless. Maybe you had a bizarre dream one night, or a friend from your past contacted you, or you wore your favorite pair of jeans and felt totally in your body. This exercise is merely about paying attention to small moments, fleeting experiences, excerpts from life, snatches of conversation. I try to start small with every new piece and build from that. Again, this is about setting reasonable goals that push but don’t force.
I did this exercise during my workshops on Tour de Word. I’d have people write about 7 or 8 little fragments, and then we’d go around the room one at a time and read our lists one item at a time. It was really incredible to listen to everyone, and see them listening to each other, and then to see them light up when they realized that even a little fragment could read like poetry. It gave them a very different take on what they could do – on a small, manageable scale – to tap into their own creativity.
6. You’re in the process of teaching an e-course, Feral Writing. The tagline is: An Online Workshop for Untamed Storytellers. In what way(s) do you like to give yourself permission to remain untamed?
I started the course because I feel in certain ways that we’re losing that primal connection to our intuition. Whether it’s because of how much information we take in on a daily basis, or our own rigorous self-criticisms, or social pressure, whatever – it seems to get harder and harder to maintain a relationship with our instincts. I think writing is especially hard to keep “wild” because we always want to have it make sense, or tell a complete story. So a lot of the work of the class is about deconstructing and returning to the source of things. Moments of time, fragments of experience, sensory details that lit something up inside.
I think the notion of “light” is very important when it comes to nourishing that wildness. Years ago, when I was talking with a friend about a frustrating relationship I was in, he said, “Go where the light is.” And that instruction hit me dead center in the chest. I got it immediately. What he was saying was to stop struggling. To stop believing that I should be struggling. That there was a difference between good work and work that was rigorous for no reason. My job was to connect to the stuff that lit me up in the right ways. It didn’t mean that everything would be easy. But at least it would be clear.
Having a relationship with wildness and exploration feels very important to me. So being outside is great, and almost any kind of movement – playing basketball, going on a drive, taking a stroll somewhere, even just going to the park with good book – this kind of stuff always feeds me.
I also do things like eat when I’m hungry and sleep when I’m tired. I try to stay in tune with my body, with my internal cycles and needs. When my body wants or needs something, I listen. Because if it’s not happy, then I not going to do a very good job of putting it to use.
7. You’ve published a book of poetry and photography and two collections of essays. What do you enjoy about the editing process when you’re crafting a new collection of your work?
To be totally honest, I’m not a very good editor of my own work. So I kind of avoided that part of it for those books, although a lot of the pieces in there were workshopped in writing classes so at least other people had their eyes on them before I printed them.
But the part I really love about putting a book together is the design. I’m a closet designer and so any opportunity to play around with fonts and formats and images is deeply fun for me. The ordering of pieces is a little hard, but it’s really about not thinking too hard about it, just kind of having a sensor out there for transitions and timing. Maybe one piece is particularly dense so the one that follows it should give the reader a little bit of break.
I guess at the heart of it, putting a book together is about getting into the mindset of a reader. It can be a refreshing change actually, after all that immersion in the material.
8. You’re also a caterer and have a catering company, Three Pears Catering. Do you find that some of your writing skills are translatable to your catering career and/or vice versa? How do those two creative paths complement each other?
I love to cook is because it gets me out of the cogitative state that I’m in when I’m writing. It’s more about intuition and action. I’m not thinking a whole lot when I cook, I’m just doing. And that’s a good reference point for me in terms of writing, to know what that’s like so that I can really feel my way through a piece instead of thinking too hard about it. It’s interesting because the longer I write the harder this is to do. Getting back to that “beginner’s mind” when I start something new. Not dragging everything I’ve experienced from a previous piece. Of course, I see this is in life, too – these are all just metaphors for living. So this is about staying connected to some kind of primal nature and allowing that to take the lead. It’s not easy, but when I’m in the middle of an experience where this is happening, I feel unambiguously happy.
It used to be that my writing was a lot more solitary and the catering was kind of a social outlet…but now, in the way that I’ve been sharing my work online, and of course the trip I just took, and the Feral Writing course…that’s connected me to a lot of people, so writing has become far less solitary. And that feels like good progress.
9. You’re an avid cyclist and took your bicycle on tour with you. Can you describe a recent favorite ride?
I think my favorite ride on the trip was in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I’d had a rough workshop the evening before at a writing center for kids – the bulk of the participants were between 9 and 12 years old and I think they’d been sent by their parents, so they were a little grumpy about being there. It was a pretty excruciating 2 hours. Thankfully, I didn’t have to go anywhere the next day, and I woke up with a very clear set of instructions in my head: find a body of water and bench to sit and quietly look at it.
So I looked on the map and found this park about 12 miles away and just hopped on my bike and rode there. I found a nice country road to go on, and it was in the thick of fall so the leaves were just stunning. The day was warm and I biked through a town where I stopped to pick up some stuff for lunch, and I got to the park – Hudson Mills Metropark – and there it was. The river, and a bench right by it. I started to cry – in a good way. It’s like I got exactly what I asked for. It was a great big gift, that ride, and it really brought me back to center in the best way. By the time I rode back to where I was staying, I was like a different person. And the workshops that followed that bike ride felt so much steadier to me. It’s like I just got into some sort of new groove.
10. In May 2009 you wrote a guest post at Superhero Journal as you were training for a week-long cycling trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles. You talked of experiencing an epiphany when you let yourself relax into a place of non-judgment:
What if there was no such thing as “hot” or “windy” or “freezing?” What if it was just called “weather”? What if I stopped thinking in terms of miles and used the word “space” instead? And what if there was no such thing as “uphill” or “downhill” and it was simply called “the path”?
What’s your process these days for getting to that place of non-judgment—to clear space to just be with what is?
I just do my best to stick with what’s happening at any given moment. I think so much of those judgments can come because we have this picture in our heads about what things should look like or sound like or taste like or be like, and when they aren’t that’s when we get upset, and something inside of us gets shaken. But when I stay with what is – even when it’s unpleasant – I can move with it a lot more easily.
There were certainly some days on the trip that were challenging for me. But all I really had to do was say to myself, “Wow, this is challenging” and almost instantly there was a kind of self-empathy about that. By simply acknowledging and validating my own feelings, I was able to get some distance from the “problem” and then it became almost humorous, a good story to tell later.
I recently got introduced to Byron Katie’s work, and I just started reading her book, “Loving What Is.” She talks about three kinds of business – my business, your business, and God’s business. And the only business I can do anything about is my business. But so often, we get involved in other people’s business. We want them to act in a certain way, or do things differently, or whatever. And of course, there are things even further beyond that that we get all twisted up about. When something doesn’t seem to “work out.” Whenever barriers come up and prevent our moving forward. This is the stuff that’s God’s business, which as I see it is about forces of nature or circumstances that I do not have a hand in. So I can’t do very much about those.
So when I stick to my business alone – which in my mind is all the stuff that only I can control – then I can really start to get some distance from what’s not mine to worry about. It’s a much more powerful place to act from, when you’re just taking care of what’s yours to take care of. So I’m seeing myself start to unclench from trying to fix things for others, or inserting myself in places where I don’t belong, or “wishing” things were different, or otherwise putting effort in situations I do not have the power on my own to change. And it’s remarkable how much less stressed out I get.
11. Maya, I’d like to close this interview with a video clip of you reading from your work. I’ll let you choose what you’d like to share with us. Thank you.
You know this makes me a little nervous, but okay. Here goes.
Books: Papaya Publishing
Photo of Maya Stein by Stefanie Renee Lindeen