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.

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