Updated: Sep 2, 2022
By Annie Newcomer:
Fourteen years ago when my brother, John Doyle Klier (a beloved professor and scholar in Great Britain), died, the first line of his obituary in The Guardian read:
In trying to process this unexpected loss that left me feeling broken, I wandered into poetry.
For me this is a remarkable twilight life adventure, not just because I spend a lot of time trying to sort out words as I place them on a page, puzzling over how to create a poem, but for the poets who I meet along the way and the interesting ways in which I am introduced to them.
One night as my husband lay sleeping, I awoke and, not wanting to disturb him even though he is tolerant of my early morning chatter, I located my cell phone and began searching for poets who seemed to beckon me to them on the Internet.
Enter Maya Stein.
By morning I was so enthralled with her words, her work, and the wonderment that is Maya that I emailed her and asked if she would allow me to interview her. She immediately responded and generously agreed. The following interview was written with the hope that I might be given a chance to introduce her to you too.
AN: Welcome to the Flapper Press Poetry Café, Maya, ninja poet, writing guide, and creative adventuress. What an honor for me to interview you. Just as in the scene that opens the series of Harry Potter books, I see the naming process as a sacred ceremony. So I am curious, how did you land on "Ninja Poet" to describe yourself?
MS: I think adjectives are so important—they specify, and in so doing establish reference points for context, for identity. To say simply “poet” to describe myself doesn’t address my way of writing it, or my attitude about how it can function in our lives, or how it functions in mine. So “Ninja” is so important here, because it says something about surprise, about the unexpected, and a slyness that nevertheless carries an unmistakable presence. What I mean to say here is that I’m drawn to poetry because I believe it has the power to change things, but through quietude, through its reserve, its subtle, slippery arrivals and departures. I want to be this kind of poet, not someone who shouts from a bullhorn and makes a theater of it. So I try to write poems in which I look at the bedrock rather than the surface of the water, so to speak. I’m more interested in the backdrops, in the shadows, in the tiny movements. This is where so much of life is happening, stirring awake, and making change in near-invisible increments. I’m drawn to writing poetry that points its gaze at those places.
AN: I read that you believe much of writing is about seeing that which is right before us. Might you describe your writing practice for our readers?
MS: For me, the bulk of the creative process is about intake. Our antennae are always up and getting a read on our environments, whether we’re consciously aware of that or not. There is so much stimulus in any given moment—the noise outside and in. So the first thing we have to do when approaching any creative work is sift through this catalog of noticings, establish patterns or themes, make connections, discern what it is that is inviting us to investigate further. For me, the physical landscapes of our day—what we might consider routine and forgettable—are actually quite ripe with creative potential. But we have to know how to look more closely, slow things down to the speed of poetry (as Billy Collins says).
AN: One of my dearest friends is blind. If he asked for your help on his poetry path, how might you guide him?
MS: There is so much about the creative that goes beyond the visual. The feel of things against our skin. The things we hear. What we sense—the ethereal. In addition, I’m always fascinated by how limitation can also be its own creative crucible. When we have less to work with, we dig further into what we have. That said, for me, poetry is a space where there is so much available that can live outside the linear and the obvious. It allows us to stretch into places we can’t necessarily see (whether we have a visual impairment or not), and this is sort of the point. We peer into other worlds beyond or tucked into our own. I would say to your friend that whatever they are drawn to taking note of is a sign of their creative intelligence at work.
AN: What advice do you give to poets who aspire to be published? Some of my students take rejection of their work very personally, and I don’t always know how to comfort them. How do you console poets when their work is not accepted?
MS: What I would say is to try and disentangle from the attachment that getting something published means you are a success as a writer. In my mind, every time a person sits down to write, when they listen to the call of their creative heart, when they lay one line down in front of the other . . . this is success, too.
Publishing is sometimes the reward for those successes, but it is not in and of itself a reflection that you’re a “real” writer. I think too often people point their attentions to an outcome rather than a process. They measure their worth or the value of their offering in the metrics of website hits or followers or video views or publishing accolades. It can be exceedingly hard to pull oneself away from the numbers because, of course, we want feedback. We want to know that our work is making an impact. But in my opinion, if we feel moved by our own creative work, that can be enough. And if one person reads what we’ve written and feels a small but meaningful shift in their mindset or outlook, that can also be enough. I try to remind myself that the people who read my work may never get in touch, which means I may never know who they are, and that means I may never know the full impact of what I have made. The focus of my efforts, then, is necessarily in the making itself. As long as my heart is there, I can feel a version of success that’s actually quite deep-rooted and lasts a lot longer.
That said, it does feel wonderful to have a piece accepted somewhere, and I’m not myself immune to the joy and pride of having my work received more widely. But, to use Thanksgiving dinner as a metaphor for a minute, I think of this as the gravy rather than the turkey.
AN: I was impressed as I read about your 2010 Tour de Word, 2012 Type Rider: Cycling the Great American Poem, 2014 Type Rider II: The Tandem Poetry Tour, and the Tiny Book Tour in a covered wagon caravan. These were wonderful pre-pandemic events that celebrated poetry and community. What are some of the projects you hope to provide once we are all able to “step out” of the pandemic and move on in our daily lives?
MS: Each of these projects was a build on the previous one, so I anticipate that whatever gets drummed up in terms of future traveling art initiatives likes these will have elements that will feel familiar. Right now, though, I’m actually quite happy staying put at home and getting a chance to create “in place.” I tend to think in terms of cycles anyway. The pandemic has perhaps forced a longer-term hibernation than usual, but I will also say that the planning for these kinds of projects is many-layered and pretty all-consuming, so it’s wonderful to have a longer amount of time and space to calibrate to whatever’s next.
AN: I signed up for and am enjoying your 10 Line Tuesday. Might you share about this initiative and how you select the art/photographs that you join with the poems on the site?
MS: When I launched “10-line Tuesday” in June 2005, the aim was to create a shareable slice of my writing life and to do it in a way that felt “digestible.” I think in general people tend to have an ambivalent relationship to poetry (too academic, too literary, too complicated, too inaccessible), and I wanted to land on a form and format that would hopefully take some of that ambivalence away. I decided that writing in a consistently short form would help and came up with the moniker of “10-line Tuesday” because of its alliteration. Honestly, I thought this practice would last only a year, but it’s been such a wonderful homing device for me each week I’m still at it 15-and-a-half years later.
In terms of the photographs, I like to use images that are almost like a slant-rhyme to the poems. Not totally linear or directly in relationship with the subject of the poem itself but a kind of soft-focus connection. I take a lot of photographs, and I like the part of the process of putting these together with my poems, figuring out the subtle conversation they might be having.
AN: I noticed that you have perfected the art of List Poetry. Can you tell us a little bit about this type of poetry and why you gravitate to this form?
MS: Aren’t we always making lists, mental or otherwise? That pad of paper we might have by the fridge, for example, making note of what needs to be purchased on the next grocery store run. The chore list. The fix-it list. The bucket list. The list of regrets or what-ifs or should-haves that runs on repeat in our heads. I think we’re built for lists—it’s how we attempt to find order in the chaos. It’s how we remind ourselves to put one foot in front of the other. I think the beauty of the list is also that it’s devoid of the rigidity of sentence structure. It’s all about shorthand, getting to the meat of the thing quickly. It’s efficient, and there’s a lot of implicit freedom we give ourselves in lists that we don’t necessarily extend to other kinds of writing. I love the rhythm of lists, the intensity even, because we’re not softening the words with any superfluous coating. There’s a baldness there, a directness, a straightforwardness that I’m drawn to. So I like to bring elements of this format in my own work.
AN: I enjoyed reading about the first poem that you ever wrote and shared with your parents. Do you have a couple of poems that are especially tender to you now and that you might share with our readers here at Flapper Press?
MS: There are two 10-line poems that come to mind. One is called “how to climb a mountain,” which I wrote in 2009 and which in many ways feels like my signature poem, meaning a piece that addresses a way of framing experience and choice and decision-making that still very much rings true. The other is a poem I wrote quite recently called “when we get through this,” which is really about the hope of a post-pandemic world . . . or at least, my hope of it.
Here are the poems in full:
how to climb a mountain
Make no mistake. This will be an exercise in staying vertical
Yes, there will be a view, later, a wide swath of open sky,
but in the meantime: tree and stone. If you're lucky, a hawk will
coast overhead, scanning the forest floor. If you're lucky,
a set of wildflowers will keep you cheerful. Mostly, though,
a steady sweat, your heart fluttering indelicately, a solid ache
perforating your calves. This is called work, what you will come to know,
eventually and simply, as movement, as all the evidence you need to make
your way. Forget where you were. That story is no longer true.
Level your gaze to the trail you're on, and even the dark won't stop you.
when we get through this
When we get through this, I want us to set a table with all of the loaves of bread
we’d practiced in our quiet houses. I want us clutching fistfuls of the cilantro we coaxed
from our city windowsills, and I want the nascent musicians, the ones who learned
old songs on their new ukuleles, or warbled choruses on isolated balconies, to take
the stage together. I want all the knitted, crocheted, stitched, and mended things pooled
at our feet, warming our ankles. I want us to greet each other in unfamiliar languages,
to tell the stories of those who have been lost. I want us to look, in unison,
toward the world millions of miles and light-years away, to take in what is before us,
and beyond us. I want us to wake to the magnitude of our fortune against the smallness
of our time. And then I want us to remember this, and to keep remembering.
AN: Maya, What would you be doing if you weren’t writing?
MS: In my former life, I played a lot of basketball, and I’m wondering if I’d spent time pursuing that with more commitment, what I might have done with that particular passion. I had grand visions of playing in the WNBA, but who knows? Nevertheless, despite not having stuck with it, I still have a pretty mean left-hand hook shot I can pull out when necessary.
AN: Thank you so much, Maya. We wish you continued success as you bring communities together poetically as you share your beautiful literary gifts.
MS: Thank you, Annie! I’m grateful for your interest in and support of my work.
Maya Stein—ninja poet, writing guide, creative adventuress
On Maya Stein's website you will find her books, upcoming classes, group writing sessions, and more.
Annie Newcomer teaches poetry classes at the University of Kansas Medical Center's Turning Point—a place for hope and healing for people suffering with chronic health problems. Her North Stars series shares interviews with poets and writers and Annie's own experiences through writing. Annie also helms the Flapper Press Poetry Café—dedicated to celebrating poets from around the world and to encouraging everyone to write poetry!