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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Couplets: Interview with Wendy Brown-Baez

To honor National Poetry Month, I'm participating in Couplets: a multi-author poetry blog tour, by posting a series of interviews with other poets (be sure to click the link and see all of the other posts related to the tour).

First up is Wendy Brown-Baez. Wendy does some pretty impressive work, not just writing poetry, but taking it out to wherever people are, whether that's by performing it in nontraditional locations, leading her Writing Circles for Healing workshops, or inspiring youth through the In the Shelter of Words project. She's also just received a 2012 Minnesota State Arts Board Grant, which she'll use to bring relevant and accessible poetry to non-profit organizations through workshops and presentations. Her website has a lot more information, including details about her poetry books, and she also maintains the blog Wendy's Muse.

You describe yourself as a “performance” poet, with a passion for “bringing poetry into fresh, unique venues.” With more and more poets seeming to be drawn to the Web as the primary outlet for their writing, why is it so important to stay connected to the “real world” and the places where people meet face to face?

The first time I memorized a poem instead of reading it from the page, I felt a deep connection to the audience. I could see the expressions on their faces and feel their empathy. It was so profound and uplifting, that I decided to continue memorizing my poems. One of the dysfunctional aspects of our modern culture is loneliness. So many of us have chosen to move away from our families and neighborhoods or are no longer connected; we no longer sit around the fire and tell stories. For me, art is one of many excuses to be together. It is life-affirming and life-saving. To know you are not alone, to speak your truth aloud, to be heard. It’s what we’re made for!

What are some of the most unlikely places you’ve performed in? Do people at different venues, let’s say a bar versus a church, or a private home versus a parking lot, react differently to the work you present, or is there a similar connection you make with the various audiences?

Ending up in a parking lot was probably one of the most unexpected venues I have ever performed in! Bars are different in that you have to really grab their attention. I performed sensual poems at a hip hop bar in Santa Fe where young people were waiting for the hip hop to start. It was a relief to hear the audience settle down to listen. You have to judge your space and what best suits it. I prefer more intimate spaces because I can feel the audience responding. Sample Night Live was a formal stage with a spotlight in my eyes and I had to “act” out to an audience I couldn’t see. People still loved it but it didn’t fill me the same way. It felt more like entertainment and less like sharing.


You do much more than just bring your poetic voice to audiences, you also help people find their own authentic voices through your Writing Circles for Healing workshops. There’s always been a need for this, but I’m guessing in these troubled economic times it’s even more necessary. How therapeutic is writing poetry?

We don’t always write poetry unless it is specifically a poetry class but I always use poetry to jump start spontaneous free writing. Poetry is one way to access the intuitive, creative right brain and we free write in order to silence the critic in the left brain. I choose poems that are contemporary, relevant, accessible, and dynamic. As I get to know the participants, I intuit what poems to bring, which ones will have the most impact.

The workshops are amazing. I create a safe, intimate space as we don’t critique; we write, read and listen, and people share their deepest feelings. During workshops, people laugh and cry and reveal things that they have never revealed before, people have break-throughs on the spot. It is an honor for me to be able to witness that and to share my love of language in the written form. There is a meaningful poem for each of us and it is a joy to see someone resonate with someone else’s words.

You also work with at-risk youth and the homeless, especially through the “In the Shelter of Words” project, where students collaborated on a multi-media art installation. What kinds of transformations were you able to witness in these young people as they got involved in the project?

There were students who told me it helped them with depression and that it gave them a voice. Students who didn’t attend school on a regular basis were attending the days of the workshop. Because the students’ reading scores went up, I was hired to come back. To be seen and heard as a teen in the community can be a big risk. The project gave them a way to interface without being on stage and it gave them a sense of empowerment and pride.

All of this work in the community dovetails nicely with the themes of healing, growth, inner strength and transcendence that run through your poetry, whether it’s the stories of everyday women finding their voices in your collection “transparencies of light,” or the various incarnations of love found in “Ceremonies of the Spirit.” Do you take as much inspiration from the people you work with as you give through your writing?

Yes, oh yes! I am inspired by people’s stories, their unrelenting courage during difficulties, their willingness to be vulnerable and to share their crises, their desire for self-awareness, their need to feel validated and connected. As they say, we teach what we need to learn. I created Writing Circles for Healing to facilitate my own healing and by being connected, deeply if briefly, it has.
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