John Gustav-Wrathall

So, in the mother of all last-minute postings, I finally bring you the dirt on John Gustav-Wrathall. Guess what? He likes Star Trek! Okay, so he’s more into the original series than any of the spin-offs I tend to favor, but I refuse to let that spoil my joy. Anyway, he’s an old hand at Patrick’s (he actually used to work here for awhile) and will be premiering “Night Visions” at the upcoming show, a series of animated shorts describing his dreams.

“This is something different. I’ve never done anything like this before,” he said. Previously the most daring thing he did onstage, he says, was a dance/performance piece with his husband. Mostly he just did readings of his work; as a writer his main creative outlet is to publish, but  “I enjoy Patrick’s a lot. I enjoy the spirit there, and every once in awhile I feel inspired to volunteer and do some kind of reading there.”

Gustav-Wrathall has always been fascinated by dreams, and often wrote them down, but it wasn’t until January 2006 that he started writing down everything he could remember about every dream he had. He has recorded over four hundred and fifty dreams. He was frustrated, however, by the limitations of words, and soemtimes added sketches to his journals. He had always loved art, and drew a great deal throughout high school and college. And thus the idea came for the animations. “You can always tell somebody, “Oh, I had this really interesting dream, and you can sort of describe it to people, but it occurred to me that in fact–there are some things that are hard to describe, or the visual aspect of the dream was important enough that I felt like I needed to sort of sketch. So I thought it would be cool to present dreams in a more visual format.”

Dreams are also very important to him because of his faith as a Mormon, though after a crisis of faith in college–struggling with being gay, with the way church history was being taught, with an emerging feminist consciousness–that almost led him to commit suicide, and a vision of God telling him it would be alright if he left Mormonism, he did not identify as such for many years. Then a friend invited him to a conference of Mormon intellectuals.  In the very first session, he had a spiritual experience in which the Holy Spirit told him it was time to re-enter the church. He was angry with this, and tried to ignore it for awhile–“I was like, ‘This is so inconvenient!'”–but it kept bugging him and he began attending Latter Day Saints services again in October 2005.

“Dreams are an important spiritual resource to me,” he said. Dreams are very important to Mormons, who believe in communication through dreams and visions with the Holy Spirit and with those who have passed on. Gustav-Wrathall has had both these experiences, which is one of the reasons he began writing his dreams down. “And actually, creating these animations based on the dreams that I’ve had has been a spiritual experience in it’s own right.” In fact, he became so overwhelmed upon creating the final image of his third short that he almost cried, and had to set aside the piece and stop working on it for awhile.

He has had his work appear in numerous publications, and has just had a fascinating book published called Take the Young Stranger by the Hand: Same-Sex Relations and the YMCA. You can check out more of his work at his blog: youngstranger.blogspot.com. And you can come to Patrick’s Cabaret tonight and tomorrow! Be there or be…amorphous.

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Wendy Brown-Baez

These days I’m running around like a chicken with its head cut off, so I considered just posting the transcript of the interview. Then I realized that that would subject you to my stream-of-consciousness questioning style and my random Jasper Fforde geek-out. And as my friends would tell you, I’m not that cruel. Actually, they would probably tell you I am that cruel. Liars. Anyway, not to follow the bouncing ball of conversation, but I would like to take this opportunity to thank Ms. Brown-Baez for introducing me to the Mid-town Global Market. I can’t believe I didn’t know about it before! It’s like a magical land of wonder and delight. And deliciousness. Mmm, falafel sandwiches.

But to the point.

Wendy Brown-Baez is committed to bringing poetry to unusual locations, from bars to art galleries to schools. Her performance poems have an energy and a rhythm, with costuming and sometimes dance and music adding to the experience. She works both solo and in collaberation, and is a great believer in the healing power of writing. She says, “I draw inspiration from everything. I use the material of my life, what I notice and observe around me. I write poetry to try to explain the world to myself, or to try to explain myself to myself. So I’m trying to process something, things that I hear about, something in the newspaper–I write poetry. The situation with the enslaved children in Haiti after Hurrican Ike–I wrote a poem about that, ’cause that disturbed me, and the things that disturb me, I try to take that and turn it into something that places some meaning, and it’s kind of like saying, ‘I have written what happened to you.'” She added, “And I get inspiration from emotional stuff, also. And when I write with other people, from things that they’ve concocted or suggested or things that I see. But I use a lot of material from my daily life.”

Ms. Brown-Baez was always a bookworm, the kind of child who took books to parties, and stayed up late with a flashlight under the covers. She would creep to the window to read in the light from the streetlamp, hoping her parents wouldn’t hear the creaking of her footsteps on the wooden floor. She wrote her first novel when she was nine, a haunted house mystery that blossomed into a series. In fifth grade she learned more about the power of words–she had to write a story for class, so she penned The Sun Comes Shining, an angsty tragic romance that had all the girls in the class just bawling. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is really–this is so cool,'” she recalled.

However, she spent many years not doing any writing at all. For one thing, she was very busy, living in a commune caring for the homeless, traveling, and caring for two small children. But another part of the reason was that the commune held up its members to an ideal of perfection, and she felt intimidated and discouraged from even trying. But then she was traveling in Israel and found the experience so incredible and profound that she had to find a way to express it, and thus writing re-entered her life.

She enjoys a wide range of poets, from Robert Frost to Pablo Neruda to e.e. cummings. I asked her what it was about these poets that attracted her to them, if they all had some subtle similarity. “For me, art has to generate some kind of emotional response,” she said. “Whether it’s painting or poetry, if it evokes some kind of emotional response in me, or some sense of transformation that happens, that’s what I really admire, and that’s what I try to do in my own work…I like to find out about different poets that I haven’t heard of before, and sometimes I’ll get on a kick with one where I’ll just read a lot of that person’s work.”

She has a book of poetry coming out through Plain View Press entitled Ceremonies of the Spirit. It contains love poems of all different kinds: romantic love, sensual love, love of a place–there’s one for Cordoba and one for Jerusalem–unrequited love, failed love, and love of the divine. In fact, it all progresses towards a love of the divine, “finding unity within and without.”  Ms. Brown-Baez says that all love is divine love, that “every relationship is a paradigm of that, but I use a lot of sensual imagery–basically that’s what I’m saying: ‘Take me, I’m yours, because you are everything.'”

If I listed all of her other accomplishments, I would never finish this article before collapsing in a caffeine-deprivation-induced stupor. Therefore, suffice it to say that she has: written a novel about an ancient matriarchal tribe that was accepted by two local presses (unfortunately, they both went out of business), produced a CD of her fantabulous poetry, received a McKnight Grant to create and run a workshop on poetry for bilingual students in which they were immersed in Spanish poetry and culture, and learned to write their own poetry. Wendy Brown-Baez runs other workshops as well, often employing spontaneous timed-writing exercises. Getting people to write isn’t hard, she says, but getting them to share their work is very difficult. She confesses that she still gets nervous sometimes herself, “I’ll be sitting there at Patrick’s Cabaret and going, ‘Maybe if I walk out the back door, no one will care.'” But she says she’s learned, over the years, that it’s possible to screw up and still go on, that forgetting a line or getting her shawl caught on the microphone is not he end of the world. “It’s just poetry, just trying to connect, you’re hoping it’s a good thing and fine and everybody enjoys it and you enjoy it–and if it’s a heart-to-heart connection, it’s gonna happen.”

One of the most moving connections she experienced was at a show in Puerto Vallarta. “My son had only been dead a year,” she said, “and I was in very, very deep grief, very deep. And I could barely function, it seemed like.” To honor his memory, she put an altar in her show with Dia de los Muertos sugar skulls and other symbolic items. She and a friend did the show bilingually, Brown-Baez’s work as well as that of Neruda and Paz and a friend from New Mexico. The two stood onstage and called back and forth the Mexican names for death: “The Bitch,” “The Hag,” “The Stinky One,” “The Bony-Faced One.” Brown-Baez says it was amazing, like an echo. Then: “I had candles, and at a certain point I had everybody in the audience light a candle. And I said, ‘Just think of your loved one, whoever it is, light a candle and wish them well during this time.’ It was really amazing, really very special.”

Hey! You know what you should do? You should totally come have an experience of your own Friday or Saturday. Be there or be squ–wait, I already used that for the last article. Be there or be a trapezoid.

Joan Calof

Oh, how I dread my new computer
Hate taking on that talking head
It really ruins my day
To hear that robot say
Your keychain is gone
Your e-mail is wrong
You can’t turn me on
This morning
Someday I’m going to kill that computer
Throw it out the window of my den
I’ll wipe its OS system clean
And smash in the computer screen
And then I’ll have my real life again.
Joan Calof sang this little ditty to me as we sat in the Tea Garden, sipping our drinks, shortly after I explained to her about blogs (cleverly concealing how little I knew myself). It’s from her latest project, a chapbook of poetry entitled The Lyrical Curmudgeon. “I loved to sing, actually, when I was young,” she remarked later in the conversation. “That’s the thing I liked the best. If I believed in reincarnation, I’d like to come back as a singer, whether operatic or jazz or blues.” Not all of her work is funny, she says, but she does do a lot of satire, like this song. She has sung in her performances before, but she has never put together a chapbook. But she likes trying new things. “It’s a risk, I don’t know if I’ll do okay or flop–fall flat on my face,” she told me, laughing.

 

Joan Calof has always loved to push herself, to expand her horizons. Eager to escape an overprotective childhood, she got into child welfare and worked with what were then called “disturbed childen.” (One girl climbed up into her lap and hugged her, which pleased her immensely–until she realized the child had stolen her brooch.) As a licensed social worker she traveled around placing children in foster homes. It was an interesting time, and she learned many things: among them that sleeveless dresses and religious families don’t mix, and that it is highly embarrassing to bite into a heavenly cinnamon role just as a family starts to thank God for sending you to them. On a darker note, during this time she had her first encounter with the reality of children being exploited sexually. There was no set procedure in place; she once had to pick up an abuse victim and drive her to the Y to get her to safety. Ms. Calof went on to work at the Hennepin County Mental Health Center, where she dealt on a regular basis with people who wanted to kill the President (so she had to notify the FBI), people who wanted to kill her (she had to notify the guards)…one schizophrenic girl she was attempting to treat literally climbed to the top of her bookcase! Later, a teaching job at St. Cate’s prompted her to cut back on her time at the clinic and eventually go into private practice. There she treated many women who were depressed, or who had difficulty knowing what to do with themselves once their kids had gone, or who were struggling with coming out (one such women was a minister having an affair with a member of her congregation–whose husband came after her with a gun!). Ms. Calof says her energy was flagging a bit, so she began to gently turn some of the more violent and unstable patients towards the clinic, including a women from Las Vegas who habitually carried a gun.

Halfway through her private practice years, Ms. Calof took a course in autobiographical performance at the Playwrights’ Center. She followed it with more courses there, as well as at the Loft. She came in second place in the Minnesota Women’s Press Short Fiction Contest, wrote a play whose scenes can still be found in national anthologies of monologues for mature actors, and created the CD Songstories with fellow writers Agnes Smuda and Nancy Cox.

Patrick’s Cabaret was actually the first place she ever performed her work, and she has since become something of a regular. She says she was scared at first because everyone else there was much younger, but that she went ahead and did it and had fun: “I find it a very congenial place. I think the people, audiences, are usually sophisticated but they’re kind.” 

 In keeping with their mutual love of adventure and the new, she travels a lot with her partner, Jerry. They have been to Thailand, Bali, New Zealand, Ireland, and lots more places that I will get jealous just typing about, so let’s move on. Travel and theatre are the main things she spends money on, she says, as she believes it is very important to support the arts. Ms. Calof also enjoys biking. This is sort of like saying Michael Phelps also enjoys swimming. “I used to do fifty or seventy miles a day, I could, but now if I do twenty, I’m okay. You know. I’m really not okay, but I gotta be okay,” she laments. I would tell you  my reaction, but I’m not really sure how to type a facial expression. Suffice to say that it was something along the lines of HOLY FREAKING COW YOU ARE AMAZING. I mean, twenty is damn impressive in my book, but fifty or seventy, Ms. Calof? HOLY FREAKING MOTHER OF RODDENBERRY, WOMAN!

Ahem.

Joan Calof will be at the Cabaret on this coming Friday or Saturday. Be there or be square.