Interview with Performance Poet, Wendy Brown-Báez
Nadia Giordana: Hello everyone, greetings from Interviews with Extraordinary Women! Our guest today is Wendy Brown-Báez. She is the author of the full length poetry collection Ceremonies of the Spirit, and is renowned for her signature style as a performance poet. In 2004, Wendy released her poetry CD, Longing for Home and since then, has traveled to perform poetry nationally, and in Mexico, in unique venues such as cafes, bars, galleries, schools, women’s retreats, art festivals, cultural centers, and even parking lots–solo and in collaborations. She has published poetry and creative non-fiction in numerous literary journals, including Borderlands, Out of Line, Mizna, Minnetonka Review, The Awakenings Review, The Chrysalis Reader, Mississippi Crow, and Wising Up Press. Wendy was the recipient of 2008 and 2009 McKnight grants provided through COMPAS to teach writing workshops with at-risk youth. If you Google her name, WENDY BROWN-BAEZ, you’ll find her easily on the Internet. Her website is www.wendybrownbaez.com.
NG: Wendy, let’s talk about your book, Ceremonies of the Spirit. What can to tell us about it?
Wendy: Ceremonies of the Spirit is a collection of love poems that travel a spiral from infatuation to consecration. It begins with romantic love, then travels to love that has been lost or wounded, then to love of family, love of a specific place, and finally to a longing to unite with the Divine.
NG: Many poets say that all poetry is essentially love poems, what makes your book different?
Wendy: I believe that all love is a form of yearning for connection. Ceremonies explores relationships but the ultimate place of arrival is connection with oneself. When my publisher first looked at the manuscript, she said that the trouble was I had so many different styles and it might help if they were put into sections. So I sorted them out and that’s when I realized that the poems move from longing to transformation.
NG: Michael Parker gave a wonderful review of Ceremonies in the literary journal Oranges & Sardines. He began his review by saying “As I introduce Ceremonies of the Spirit, I do so in a spirit of awe because of the natural transformative power Baez possesses as a narrator of the human condition. Though I believe the purpose of Ceremonies is for healing and empowerment of women, I was not a foreigner to the effects of this beautiful work.” Then he compares it with the five stages of knowing that were written about in the well-known book, Women’s Ways of Knowing (by Mary Belenky, Blythe Clinchy, Nancy Goldberger and Jill Trule). He summarizes the five stages as going from silence and voicelessness to constructed knowledge where women experience themselves as creators of knowledge. He goes on to say that in Ceremonies, we not only experience the narrators of these poems going from silence to reconnecting with their inner voice but they become masters of their destiny, of finding their own source of healing, truth and enlightenment. That’s quite a glowing review—were you surprised by it?
Wendy: Yes, especially since it was written by a man! I wasn’t consciously focused on that in this collection but I have always tried to be a voice for those who are voiceless. For example, I have poems speaking as women in the Middle East or in Mexico, although these aren’t included in this book. Ceremonies is my most personal work although it speaks to the universal condition of wanting to love and be loved, so I was really pleased when Michael understood the healing that comes from speaking one’s authentic truth.
NG: So how do you see the link between love and self-empowerment?
Wendy: These were times in my life when I was voiceless. For example, I was silenced by the dysfunction caused by my partner’s bi-polar illness. At the end of his life, he was becoming more and more mentally ill, and he wanted me to only listen to him, not to have a real conversation. I also experience living in a commune where we were silenced by an over-powering personality. But throughout the book what I wrestle with is the urge to give in or to surrender to another person and to also remain independent. I think these are common themes we have as women, and as human beings, but especially when we give up our voice to take care of others, when we follow someone else’ dream instead of our own. I did that for years. I used to want to melt completely with another human being and it took me a long time to recognize that it is not only impossible but it really isn’t desirable. Longing for connection can mislead us into thinking that means we have to sacrifice ourselves instead of rejoicing in true partnership. The transformation I am writing about is a re-imagining or a mystical journey to the core of oneself and then to offer that to another or to the world. It means being transformed by love, not just having an emotional experience.
NG: You have experienced other painful times in your life as well. How did they affect your writing?
Wendy: In 2005, my youngest son died from suicide. It was a horrible tragedy. He had been drinking and I believe it was a bad choice made under the influence. I was totally devastated. For a while I couldn’t write at all. I was unable to write or to pray or meditate. But I belonged to two writing groups at the time and eventually I returned to the groups just for companionship and comfort. I found that once I had the pen in my hands, it was automatic to put it to the paper, kinda of like riding a bicycle; you don’t ever forget. It took at least another year from that point to be able to get back into writing on any kind of consistent basis. But I found that writing was healing for me and writing in groups, in circles, is healing for all of us. There is something very healing in the process of writing and sharing what you have written and being heard. In fact, they have done studies about it. They studied two support groups that were asked to keep journals. One group simply wrote but the other group shared what they wrote and were listened to with focused attention, and that group healed faster.
NG: So there really is something in the process of sharing, even though writing is usually a lonely occupation.
Wendy: Yes, that’s why, for me, performing my work is so vital.
NG: You are a performance poet. Tell us a little about that.
Wendy: I was invited by Marcia Starck to join her women’s poetry group in Santa Fe in 2000. Before that, I was writing prose as well as poetry but this changed my focus to poetry. We were 5 women who had been writing together for a while and we wanted to have a public reading. We decided to call ourselves Word Dancers. Each of us was pretty theatrical, actresses or story tellers. I suggested that instead of each of us getting up and reading for 15 minutes, that we pick themes and then each read a poem that fit the theme. Our first event was after my partner, Michael had passed away, at the time of Dia de los Muertos, and we called it Dancing Between Worlds. I had a poem I wanted to read about Michael but it was too emotional for me to read it off a piece of paper so I memorized it. The support from the audience was incredible and from then on I was hooked. We also created an altar on stage and set candles all around the room, making a magical atmosphere.
Every time I perform I try to set up an altar with flowers and candles and photos. I memorize my poems and act them out theatrically and I use costumes and props. I light candles between poems and dedicate them to those who have passed on or those who have inspired me, other poets or artists, or others I want to acknowledge. Thus, the stage becomes a living prayer.
NG: Is it hard to perform like that?
Wendy: Before that first performance, I was terrified, so I took a public speaking class. I remember sitting in a café in Berkeley where I was the featured reader and wondering if anyone would notice if I just quietly went out the back door! But the connection with my audience when I don’t have a piece of paper in my hand is very powerful. I enjoy it and have been performing 12 – 18 times a year, so I have become more confident and less terrified of making mistakes. Also now I know I won’t fall apart on stage or faint if I forget some lines.
NG: Maybe this would be a great spot for you to perform something for us. How about it Wendy?
Wendy: I’d love to. This one is called, Calypso.
and when did it begin
this sweet necessity
to know you are listening to my
salt-spray heart, rhyming tide
of ocean foam, the moon
calypsoing over my raft as it
sails away to a bay of palm
trees and white doves. I sent a
continuous signal of SOS
code of revelation and urgency
not knowing if your dial was
set at my frequency. Like a dolphin
rounding the curve of its young and
nosing to the surface, did I float
free of disappointment and vanity.
Did I think when you turned
away, the soul threaded between us
snapped clear? Could I count on a
dream to pull me back, did the
open sea take me, did a fierce wind
abscond with me, scowling like a
beautiful god determined to have his own way.
by Wendy Brown-Báez in Ceremonies of the Spirit, Plain View Press 2009
first appeared in The Litchfield Review 2003
NG: That was wonderful, I loved it! What is next for you?
Wendy: I have some irons in the fire. I am hoping to get to the Austin International Women Poetry festival this year and I am featuring at “waiting 4 the bus” in Chicago in April. By the way, Ceremonies debuted in Chicago at the Green Mill Jazz Club, which is such a fun place to hear all kinds of poetry. The audience is made up of all ages and all colors and all types of poetry can be heard, not just spoken word. I have traveled all over the United States and over-seas, but I had never been to Chicago until February a year ago! I loved it. It has a very exciting poetry scene there and has been very welcoming. I have ideas of projects I want to do. I want to make a video trailer of some of my poems and some day I would like to make a documentary about how art can transform lives.
NG: Tell us more about “In the Shelter of Words”. What does it look like…how does it work?
Wendy: In the Shelter of Words is a multi-media art installation that houses a CD recording of the writings of at risk youth. I worked with the students of Face to Face Academy Charter School and clients of SafeZone drop in center. The structure is based on the concept of the sukkah, which is a portable temporary shelter that the Jewish people build on their porches or in their yards after the High Holy Days. It’s supposed to represent the time when they traveled in tents across the desert. The idea is that they are built from found materials, you take your meals in them, and technically you are supposed to sleep in them for a week. Then they are supposed to decompose back into the earth, although of course now-a-days you have the pre-fab sukkahs that you re-use every year. The sukkahs in Israel are places where everyone is treated equally. You can visit famous writers or the prime minister in his sukkah. Our sukkah was built by the students of Face to Face Academy. It is a 6 x 8 frame that they covered with a beautiful tied-dyed cloth they made in art class. When you sit inside, you can listen to the CD recording and you can see photos that they took of places where they feel safe or feel they belong. We also had a professional photographer Dan Marshall gift us with photos of the building process. The project was funded by a McKnight grant provided through COMPAS Community Art Program and it was installed at the school for a month in September for the students, their families, the staff, and board to experience.
NG: So the at-risk youth were from these two organizations?
Wendy: Yes, the students at Face to Face are accepted into the school based on particular criteria…they have to be below poverty level, are homeless or abused, or are mentally ill, or are parenting.
SafeZone is a drop in center for impoverished or homeless youth where they can do laundry, take a shower, work toward their GED, look for employment, learn life skills…or just hang out. Both are in St Paul.
One of the reasons I got inspired to create the project is that I read that 80% of all foster children, when they become 18, are homeless for a year or two. Their foster parents no longer receive money to keep them. Homeless doesn’t necessarily mean they live in the street, but they might crash on someone’s couch. Still, this is a time in a young person’s life when they should be full of anticipation and looking forward to limitless opportunities, when they are becoming a responsible adult. I think it is a hard time to be uncertain about one’s future. It raises questions of identity and a sense of belonging, and it is hard to take care of one’s health as well. There are a number of agencies in the Twin Cities to get help and in the shelter, we have brochures with phone numbers and websites. I think it is important to acknowledge the courage and determination of these young people to work toward a better future. My experience is that they are full of optimism and hope and that is so inspiring to me.
NG: Did you teach them poetry?
Wendy: Not just poetry. I had a student who asked me to teach her how to write poetry but I don’t think it can be taught. I think you can be inspired by a mentor and given the tools of writing and given exercises. But the best way to learn how to write poetry is to read it: lots and lots. Read every poet you can. Find a favorite and absorb her or his words, imagery, and meanings. Go to readings and soak it up! Here in the Twin Cities, there are many many readings: at Magers & Quinn Booksellers, at the Loft, the GBLT readings at Hamline, the first Wednesdays at Common Good Books, second Fridays at Banfill-Locke, and the one I will feature in on Feb 10th at Birchbark Books which is held the second Wednesday of the month. Rain Taxi sponsors readings and so does the U. You can sign up to receive the poem that Garrison Keillor reads daily on his radio show through Writer’s Almanac. In fact, if you become a Loft member, you have access to their poetry library. It’s a great resource.
Also, many beginner poets think that each word is sacred, that the poem can’t be edited. I used to be like that as well. It took a lot of rejections to get it through my head that editing was needed! Poetry is like any art: you have to practice and you have to work at it. In order to write poetry, it requires a certain tenderness, a sensitivity, it is like stripping yourself bare, and that sensitivity can be hurt when you are critiqued but if you want to move to another level of publication, you have to be able to be critiqued and to edit your work. Once in a while, a poem comes that is just perfect the way it is. I call them gifted poems. I recommend reading your poems aloud, as well, even if just to yourself. A group that you feel comfortable critiquing with is really invaluable.
NG: Wendy, this would be a great time to hear another one of your poems. Do have something else you can to share with us today?
Wendy: This one is special: For My Son, on His 23rd Birthday
There is an ache in my arms
when no child is near. When I was
young, the ache was about wings
and flying but you taught me
the beauty of mothering, of
flesh warm and innocent
smelling of promise and
the little boy trust of which
I am unworthy and must become.
I wanted girls, imagining dolls
and dress-ups. Instead the closet
was filled with cars and trucks,
their hard metallic bodies screeching
and zooming. I did not know
what to do when you struggled
into and out of messes. I had no
idea that childhood could be
so hard. But I did know not
to panic the day you came home
with blood dripping down
your face and shirt, the hour in the
hospital awaiting x-rays the
longest in my life, longer
than the agony of your birth.
When we got home, the elderly
neighbor had washed the stairs of
blood. Gratefully I noticed
because I was exhausted
by fear and incapable of doing one
thing more, although I brought you
supper, afraid to touch the
stitched-up bump, afraid of the chasm
my heart had become.
by Wendy Brown-Báez in Ceremonies of the Spirit, Plain View Press 2009
NG: I loved that. In the writing workshop, what kinds of exercises do you use? How do you get the students to write?
Wendy: In the writing workshops, I used poems as a jumping off place for the rhythm of language and also because part of the reason I received the grant was to promote literacy development. We read the poem and discussed it, and then we wrote by free associating. I call it spontaneous timed writing, as originally taught by Natalie Goldberg. My hope was to get the young people writing and to ignore the critic or the judge that tells them their writing isn’t good enough. I wanted to inspire them with a love of language, how it can impact us, how it can validate our feelings or give us new perspectives. I call my writing workshops Writing Circles for Healing: Words to light our way because I believe words can shed light through dark times.
NG: Do you have other workshops available for the public?
Wendy: I will be teaching at Celebrate Yourself women’s retreat in April and I have been hired by Face to Face to teach an after school writing workshop for 8 weeks. So I don’t have a workshop for the general public yet but you can keep checking my website or email me and get on my mailing list. www.wendybrownbaez.com. I would love to take writing circles into non-profit organizations for their clients, for support groups, or to train the staff how to use writing as a therapeutic tool, but these ideas need funding, of course.
NG: And when can we see the finished installation?
Wendy: In the Shelter of Words will be installed at Plymouth Congregational Church in April. Every year their youth group does a project to bring awareness of homelessness by sleeping outside in boxes. This year (2010) that project is slated for April 16th so I am hoping the art installation will be up and opened to the general public after church services the week-end before or after. We are looking for other venues to host it after that. My hope is to keep re-installing it in other community venues, such as churches or community centers so a lot of people can come to experience it. The purpose of the art installation, besides literacy development and self-empowerment of the participants, is to raise awareness of youth and poverty and youth and homelessness, to generate a dialogue about these issues, and to see if there are ways we can help, even if it is just to listen. You can read more about it and see photos of the project on my website www.wendybrownbaez.com
NG: How can people contact you?
Wendy: firstname.lastname@example.org or through the website, wendybrownbaez.com is the best way.
Nadia: Wendy, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been a real pleasure.
Wendy: Thanks Nadia, I enjoyed it, and I think it’s a great idea to have this radio program focusing on extraordinary women.
NG: Thanks, I’m definitely enjoying it.