“The Soft Part of the Brain,” by Maw Shein Win


The Soft Part of the Brain


……….we ride our wooden bicycles along the dust path


……….……….blooms above weep drops of sap on arms & legs


children on electric scooters zip across freeways


………………..bring your toothbrush      memorize the cue cards


……….the soft part of the brain fits into a clear jar


……….……….glazed wheels     roads taken     minty pillows


From Storage Unit for the Spirit House (Omnidawn 2020) and reprinted here by permission of the author. The book is available for order here. Listen to the poet reading her poem here.


Maw Shein Win’s poetry chapbooks are Ruins of a Glittering Palace (SPA/Commonwealth Projects) and Score and Bone (Nomadic Press). Invisible Gifts: Poems was published by Manic D Press in 2018. Win is the first poet laureate of El Cerrito, California (2016–2018). Her full-length poetry collection Storage Unit for the Spirit House (Omnidawn) was longlisted for the 2021 PEN America Open Book Award and nominated for a Northern California Book Award for Poetry. She often collaborates with visual artists, musicians, and other writers and was a Spring 2021 ARC Poetry Fellow at UC Berkeley. mawsheinwin.com


Poet’s Note

This poem basically emerged from the question: What would fit in a clear jar? I was washing a jar for reuse and held it up over the sink. I made a list in my head: dimes, buttons, pebbles, teeth, and so on. I have six iterations of this piece and used an earlier draft for a collaborative music project.

Audio (an early version of the poem “brain”): Vata & the Vine with Evan Karp.

Reviews of Maw Shein Win’s work


Interview by Maxine Flasher-Düzgünes

What did you imagine yourself becoming when you were a child?

I taught my younger siblings how to read and, according to my mother, seemed quite determined to be a teacher one day. In elementary school, I began to write little poems and had a fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Aaronson, who encouraged me. She would sign her last name “Air ‘n’ Sun” which, of course, my young poet self adored.

As a writer, what does it mean to feel at home?

If I think of home in a literal sense, I’m sitting at the table, laptop and notebooks on an olive-green tablecloth, warm coffee in a blue mug, flowers in a vase, stacks of books nearby. The things I can touch. Perhaps these objects may enter my writing and lead me to other places beyond the window.

I remember our beloved calico, Bokchoy, who used to rest on the chair next to me, her frail body in her last months. Hearing her purr-mews felt like home.

I think of both friends and strangers who are also writing in their homes and feel a connection. I’m in writing groups that meet on a monthly basis. This has been a respite for me, especially during these pandemic times. I have writing partners where we support each other as well as poetry collaborations via email.

What is your ideal place for a writing retreat and why?

Any place with trees, birds, a river or ocean nearby. A cabin with a big desk and a comfy bed. At night, dinner and a good bottle of wine with poets and artists under the stars.

How has the pandemic affected the way your local community values poetry?

Overall, I must admit that I am thankful for Zoom during these pandemic times. Being able to attend and participate in readings and events happening all over the world has been amazing. Am I tired of seeing faces in little boxes on a screen after fifteen months? Yes, but I also feel that we have been able to connect in a different way and that sometimes a sense of intimacy occurs in our remote worlds.

One recent event, Voices from Burma: Poets of No Name, would not have been possible without tech. Writers and artists from all over the world shared the words of Burmese poets and spoke of the tragedy of poets who have been imprisoned or killed since the coup. Poetry can speak truth to power.

Currently, I am enrolled in an online class called “Poetry of Resilience,” taught by Danusha Laméris and James Crews, and I have found it to be a balm and a release. That is to say that I’m teary-eyed on Friday mornings.

Do you find that having a background as an educator influences your approach to writing poetry?

Most definitely, yes. If I’m teaching a writing workshop, I will often immerse myself in reading, and this naturally affects what I’m working on.

Tell us about the process of forming your poem collection. How did you curate the poems that made it into the book?

 Storage Unit for the Spirit House began as a group of poems I had been working on around the idea of containers and containment. Questions I considered: Who is held and who is not held? What do we save and what do we discard? What is hidden and what is released? I had been working on poems initially sparked by a curiosity about storage units, and I then continued to explore the theme of containment by writing pieces about architecture: prison cells, towers, bedrooms, convention centers, and so on. During this process, I began to think about past visits to my extended family in Burma/Myanmar, where my parents had emigrated from in the early Sixties, and remembered my fascination with spirit houses and nat worship. From there, I wrote the spirit house poems that ended up serving as a structure for the book, these poems opening or closing each of the six sections.

It goes without saying that working with poet and editor Rusty Morrison (rustymorrison.com) was a dream. I’m grateful to her and Omnidawn (omnidawn.com) for publishing this book.

Tell us about your collaboration with Adrian de la Peña to make video poems from your latest collection. What do you appreciate about working within different disciplines?

The video poems and cover art are by one of my longtime friends, Adrian de la Peña, and the interior art is by my other dear friend, Mark Dutcher. They are both artists who live in Southern California. We met in college as undergraduates in the early Eighties, lived together in a small ramshackle house in Long Beach, California, with other artists, dancers, musicians, and writers, and have collaborated on various projects over the years. As I was working on the manuscript, I would send drafts of poems to both of them. Mark started working on the ink drawings that were responses to sections of the book. Adrian painted variations on the spirit house using different media such as spray paint, graphite, and paint markers. A practice of working within multiple disciplines has provided opportunities for creating and expanding.

For the videos, I sent Adrian some poems, and he decided which ones he wanted to respond to. The process felt natural and organic, and we are currently working on an image and text collaboration.

Tell us about your recent involvement in the Wall + Response project.

In 2019, to participate in CAMP, artist and organizer Megan Wilson approached me with the idea of co-curating a project that would bring poets together to respond to a selection of CAMP’s murals on Clarion Alley. I said yes, suggesting the title Wall + Response, and the development and curation of the project began. The four murals selected for Wall + Response exemplify successful collaborations between artists and larger organizing forces to create public works and messaging that represent this collective effort. Here is a recent profile in the SF Chronicle Datebook if you’d like to learn more about the project: Poets add voices to Clarion Alley murals’ social justice stories.

What future project(s) are you working on?

I’ve been working on a series called Thought Logs over the past year. Here are three that I wrote this past spring semester while I was a Community Poetry Fellow at UC Berkeley’s Arts Research Center.

Also, I’ll continue to collaborate with Evan Karp on vata & the vine and work on new material with Amanda Chaudhary for Pitta of the Mind.

Mark Dutcher and I are currently gathering ideas and brainstorming for a book on the creative process that will include prompts and exercises to help artists and writers get unstuck.

What do you hope that one day poetry will bring to light?

Inspire birds. Connect eyes. Release fireflies. Liberate fists.



This week’s column was contributed by Maxine Flasher-Düzgünes.

Maxine Flasher-Düzgünes is a hybrid artist from Northern California. Her poetry, fiction, scores, essays, and interviews have appeared widely in journals including Dance Art Journal, Samfiftyfour LiteraryMarin Poetry Center AnthologyGallatin ReviewOctober Hill MagazineLOCULUS Collective, Washington Square News, and VerbalEyze Press, where she published her first novella, through EileenShe is an editorial writer for inbtwn magazine and serves as Marin Poetry Center’s webmaster, excited to launch its inaugural Youth Poet Ambassador Program 2021-2022. Her ongoing project, strikethrough-score.org, is a digital platform where poets can generate choreographic scores for dancers is currently being exhibited at the Museum of Wild and Newfangled Art. Visit her at www.poeticabythebay.com.



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