What I Meant to Say

Wendy Babiak's Visions and Revisions


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Blog Tour: My Writing Process

I was invited to participate in the My Writing Process blog tour by none other than Rosebud Ben-Oni, who was also responsible for my participation this spring at Split This Rock! on a panel with her and a few other amazing women. And who facilitated my conversation with poet Metta Sama about the natural world, which you can find on my “Works Online” page above. If she keeps this up I’m going to have to dedicate my next book to her or something. You can find her discussing her own writing process here.

1) What are you working on?

I’ve got three major projects that I’ve been juggling for a while: my next poetry manuscript, Perennial, an ongoing exploration of the intersections between divinity, the natural world, and our relationships with both, viewed through a feminist lens; a speculative fiction novel, which I like to describe as post-dystopian, that’s narrated by a minor Irish goddess and includes a minor character who’s a descendant of Elvis; and the final entry in the Wonder Woman series, an epic poem in verse that follows her journey of self-discovery after she’s lost her Power Cosmic and left the Justice League. I hope to publish this and the sonnets (which I think I’m done with) together as a chapbook.

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2) How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?

Frankly, not having read everything that’s out there, I can’t promise that it is. But I’ve cultivated a pretty authentic, and therefore unique, voice. My heritage is incredibly mixed, and I let my writing reflect that. I’m pretty sure you’re not going to find anyone who flavors their work with quite the same blend of pop culture and natural philosophy and old school theology that permeates mine. I deal with some pretty heavy material: the rape of the natural world, our seeming inability to recognize each others’ humanity, the unavoidable catastrophe(s) that is our future on this planet. But still manage to employ humor, find hope, and enjoy the astounding beauty to be found in the present moment. Also, I practice poetry with traditional forms (I recently wrote a sonnet for my son’s 18th birthday, a villanelle entitled “A Mother Laments That They Refuse To Learn From Her Mistakes,” and a rondeau in honor of the first hummingbird sighting of the year), but also enjoy practicing both free verse and innovations like collage and erasure. And I’ve made my own innovation, a rather ambitious form I’m calling Poetic Resonance Imaging, a hybrid of the sestina and the crown of sonnets. I’m about to begin my fifth. They’re pretty exhausting. I use the same 14 words, 15 times.

3) Why do you write what you do?

That’s a really hard question to answer. It’s not that I haven’t thought about it: it’s that there are too many answers. My Wonder Woman poems were initially written as me laughing at myself for imagining that I was going to save the world with poetry. Because that was why I wrote my earlier work. Conspiracy of Leaves (my first book of poems, published with Plain View Press in 2010) is an earnest attempt to wake people up to the reality of what we’re doing to each other and the world, and how different things could be if we instead approached each other and the world in a loving manner. Which clearly seems laughable to some people, so I thought I’d do so preemptively. There’s a litany of reasons for why I’m writing the novel, but here are a few: because I enjoy the characters and the world I’m building, to enlighten people about the dangers of biotech, to inspire people with the beauty of Permaculture. And to see if I can actually DO it. The poems? Asking a poet why she writes poems is like asking someone why she breathes. It’s just something that happens to make life possible.

The Poetic Resonance Imaging form I developed as an attempt to create a form of poem that could be more like a novel. Something into which you could pack multiple subjects and have them bounce off each other.

Blogs happen usually when I’ve read something about things going on in the world that makes me want to explode. I blog to release that energy, to keep it from seeping into or blocking my other work.

4) How does your writing process work?

I’m afraid I’m still in the process of cultivating diligence. My life pulls me in so many directions. I have two teenagers (which means there’s some very bright light at the end of the tunnel in terms of balancing the mothering & the writing), I garden (and it’s summertime!), and because I don’t work outside the home, many people think that means I have all the time in the world to volunteer. Also, I have poly-autoimmune syndrome, and so I have to make yoga and other forms of self-care a priority or I won’t be meeting ANY of my responsibilities, much less getting any writing done. So I don’t write a lot. But I do think a lot about writing (what are my characters going to do next, or what will the subject of my next poem be) while I’m busy with the dishes or on the mat, and I read in snatches whenever and wherever I can. I carry a small notebook in my purse, and I scribble a line when it floats into my head. Later, I take that out when I’m ready to write a poem, and see where it leads me. I will also sometimes just do exercises (I have several books of such things). Sometimes the results are worth keeping.

The process for my mega-form, Poetic Resonance Imaging, is a little more formal. It starts with a title, and an epigraph. Then fourteen words, preferably some that rhyme, and many that can be used in more than one way (like words that can be both nouns and verbs). For the first one I wrote, the list was provided by my husband. For this next one I’m about to start, the list was provided by my daughter (she seems proud to be participating in my process, and I have to say I’m excited to see her taking an interest…and it’s a great list!). The next thing I do is read the dictionary entries for each of the words. If you’ve got to use them 15 times, you’d better know every usage. And it’s amazing how many usages some very common words have. (You should check out the entry for “water.”) Then I write the first section (each section is a numbered, stand-alone poem), ending each of the 14 lines with one of the words from my list. That determines the order of the list. So then I make an index card with the words, and I label them (a, b, c, d, etc.). I have a chart that I follow, with fourteen columns filled with letters, a — n, changing position in the folding pattern you’ll find in the sestina. So when I go to write the subsequent sections, I use the index card with the words and my chart, and I transcribe the end words in the right margin, and then sit down to write the lines that reach them. I never try to write more than one section a day, but once I sit down to write one, I don’t get up until it’s finished. I want them to be as coherent but unrelated as possible. The point of the form is to juxtapose poems dealing with different subjects in an attempt to discover relationships between them that may not be apparent at first. Reality is, after all, one big meatball. As John Muir said, everything is hitched to everything else. And my intuition tells me that if we perceived the relationships between things more accurately, everything would make more sense. And we might behave more sensibly.

Writing to the end words, of course, is the actually tricky part. And I do it largely by relying on what my psychiatrist husband would call my unconscious, fast-thinking brain mode (vs. the slower, analytic mode that follows rules and indulges in stereotypes and prejudgments). Not that I necessarily write it fast. In fact, sometimes I take quite a while sitting with my notebook in my lap, staring. But I approach it prayerfully, meditatively, often distracting my conscious mind with doodling or visual observation of unrelated phenomena (I have a beautiful view from my window…did I mention I garden?), and what floats up in this almost-dream state usually surprises me.

If anyone would like a copy of my chart, just ask. I’d be happy to share it.

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Don’t miss next week’s posts by Jenn Jackson and Zig Zag Claybourne:

Jenn M. Jackson is a “Jill” of all trades who writes, educates, and activates all in the name of making the world a better place. She blogs at Water Cooler Convos.

Zig Zag Claybourne writes or has lewd thoughts about his wife, sometimes simultaneously. He can be found blogging at Rehumanize Yourself. 

 


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The Problem With Single-Motive Thinking And The Zero-Sum Game

So unless you live under a complete media-free rock (in which case I don’t think you’ll be reading this), you’ve heard about the killings in Isla Vista last weekend, and probably also about the media shit-storm(s) that followed. Because that’s what media does…it feeds the violence-for-display beast, and then gasps loud and long about what might have caused each instance of violence-for-display, pitting single-motive thinkers against each other in click-producing battles that fill the media moguls’ coffers but do little to bring the general public to a greater understanding of the cultural forces that are making life in America (and around the world) feel more and more like the world intimated by one of my favorite bumper stickers: “Where are we going, and what are we doing in this hand-basket?”

So you’ve got gun-rights activists fearing that this is some kind of false flag to justify someone coming for their guns, mental-health-care advocates imagining that this is simply a case of failed psychiatry, gun-rights opponents imagining that if they just got rid of the guns everything would be okay, and feminists pointing out the deep misogyny displayed in the killer’s manifesto and YouTube videos, some insisting that to talk about mental health is a mistake. While the truth is, as always, complex and involuted and known probably only by God and the young man who killed himself after taking out the innocent victims of his twisted thinking. (And there’s an aspect that too few are discussing, which is the overculture’s obsession with sex, as if it’s some magic key to happiness. I’m quite sex positive, but y’all, it’s not all that. When you’re done basking in the afterglow, the laundry still needs doing.)

For the past few days I’ve spent a fair bit of time (which sometimes felt like an important investment, and sometimes like a waste I had to ask forgiveness for during my evening prayers) on Twitter, reading and participating in the #YesAllWomen and #YesALLWhiteWomen hashtags. And several things are pretty clear to me. There are a fair number of men who get their panties in a bunch at any implication that women have it pretty hard at the hands of men, who seem unable to grok that when we try to bring attention to rape culture (which, yes, is a thing that affects all women, whether they’ve actually been raped or not, because violence exists on a spectrum and being subject to it triggers fear, and the possibility of the extreme end of it exists even at the lesser end) we are not trying to say that all men are rapists, but that a minority of repeat offenders make it miserable for all women to one degree or another. And guess what? Rape culture makes things miserable for many men and boys, too. If you need to hear such a thing from a man to believe it, watch this excellent TED Talk about how violence IS a men’s issue. This guy’s really smart, and gets intersectionality, something I’ll talk about later.

 

Also, that some women are just as unable as too many men to grasp the point of the hashtag, and feel the need to pipe up with “this is sexist, I’m not a feminist because I don’t hate men” (ladies, your misogynistic conditioning is showing). And at least as frustrating as the women who won’t consider themselves feminists because they’ve bought into the backlash idea that feminism=man-hating (guess what? I’m a feminist and I love my husband, and more than that, my husband is a feminist, too, and only a fool would accuse him of having a vag…he’s got a power rack in the basement that he uses on a regular basis), are the white women who refuse to examine and check their own privilege and insist that women of color bringing up the fact that, for example, Native American women are three times as likely as white women to be raped, are trying to derail rather than deepen the conversation. Thus was born the #YesALLWhiteWomen hashtag, and if you’re a white feminist, you really ought to be quiet and scroll through it, practice some empathy (just like we’re asking of men at the other) and try to understand someone else’s experience and how things you do or say may be contributing to someone else’s suffering. To admit that there’s a Venn Diagram of oppression and that some people exist in the intersections doesn’t diminish the fact of your own suffering, and when we can do this and do our best not to be oppressors, it gets better for everyone.

 

Just as the Marxist who comes in and bashes an indigenous woman for being a capitalist overlord because she likes vintage Chanel ads because it’s all about CLASS and not gender or race, white women who can’t share the spotlight with women of color suffer from simplistic, zero-sum thinking. There is enough attention to have all the conversations that need to happen, and when we go ahead and let them happen, without defensiveness, without fear that in the attention economy we’re going to get the short end of the stick, we might actually end up discovering that, <gasp> we are all human beings, that we all suffer in one way or another, and that when we humble ourselves enough to admit that we sometimes contribute to the suffering of others, we can start to change our ways and do what Christ calls us to do. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, y’all. We just need to participate in it, by loving each other. The zero-sum game is a construct, not reality. There’s enough food, enough attention, enough love to go around, especially since all three are things that we can cultivate. One key value that indigenous cultures on this continent share and the settler culture suffers from the lack of is the value of cooperation. When we cooperate instead of compete, we can actually increase the available resources. Empathy can also be cultivated (reading other people’s stories helps), and if we had more of that, events like the recent killings would become a thing of the past. We might find ourselves living in a world that seems more like Heaven than the Hell we’re speeding toward in this whacked basket. Let’s make it so.


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Patriarchy Is Poison, Y’All

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Seriously? I had trouble coming up with the title for this post. I must have typed in at least fifteen possibilities. Who wants to hear me harp about the evils of male supremacy again? The truth is, spring has finally arrived up here, the sun is shining, sap is running, I saw my first butterfly of the year yesterday, and I want to be outside in my garden. So this will be brief. But I’ve been reading around online, and it’s hard not to want to chime in. With my recent disillusion with the Orthodox church impelled largely by the stench of patriarchy that permeates it, I may be overly sensitive to stories that trip that wire. But dang it, when in a short space of time I read this story of men in the protestant churches abusing their power over children and this one about whether women should be allowed to teach the Bible to male students (the overwhelming answer is “no,” but they didn’t ask any of the people who might’ve said “yes”), and this one about the Nigerian schoolgirls who’ve been kidnapped and apparently forced into sexual slavery, my boundary for crap I can digest without purging some in the form of a blog post is exceeded and I just have to say, enough. Patriarchy is poison, y’all. And as the author of that last story points out, it predates religion, which is why the atheists who insist that we should just get rid of religion and everything will be hunky dory are so wrong. (Did you ever notice how male the lineup of the New Atheists is, btw?) Religion didn’t create patriarchy, patriarchy poisoned religion, because it poisons everything. It’ll poison a marriage if you let it, it poisons government, it poisons education, it poisons the business world, and yes, quite obviously, it has poisoned just about every religion on the planet. Even Zen Buddhism hasn’t escaped it. Heck, even Wicca has its share of male dogmatists who try to tell women who’ve inherited matriarchal family traditions that they’re doing witchcraft wrong. Really.

So what’s the antidote? Talking about it, clearly, is good medicine. I see more and more men seeking to be allies, and that’s incredibly heartening. But I see others digging in their heels, and not just those in older generations (otherwise I might be tempted to employ patience and just trust that it would fade away as all the old geezers died off). Part of the problem is that the male supremacists have done a good job of convincing people that feminism = female supremacy. That we’re man-haters. That our male allies are gender traitors or somesuch. But it doesn’t. Feminism, as the bumper sticker says, is the radical notion that women are people, too. And should be treated as such. And that’s all we want. We want partnership. And remember: patriarchy isn’t just about men dominating women, it’s also about richer, more powerful men dominating the poor and less powerful men, too. Patriarchy is, essentially, the idolization of force. So feminism seeks to liberate everyone, male and female alike, from this confining culture that tells everyone how they must conform in order to be accepted and to prosper. God has created us each with the imago dei within, and we can be true to that best when we support each others’ flowering without rejecting this or that trait because it doesn’t jibe with preconceived notions about what is masculine or feminine.

There. I feel better now. I’m going outside to play in the dirt.

 


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All I Want for Mother’s Day

I know I’m jumping the gun a little bit, but I just received confirmation in email of my reservation for Mother’s Day brunch (I got my request in early because this place fills up…local, scrumptious, organic food creatively prepared), and I thought this year I might have time to finally commit to memory Julia Ward Howe’s Mother’s Day Proclamation so I can declaim it at the table, though I’m not sure I could do it without crying. My son turns 18 the week before Mother’s Day, and we’ll have to register him for selective service. Not that the thought of other mother’s sons going to war doesn’t also bring me to tears. Do you know the poem? We all should:

Arise, then, women of this day!

Arise, all women who have hearts, Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!

Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

From the bosom of the devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: “Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.” Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war, Let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.

Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means Whereby the great human family can live in peace, Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar, But of God.

In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask That a general congress of women without limit of nationality May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient And at the earliest period consistent with its objects, To promote the alliance of the different nationalities, The amicable settlement of international questions,

The great and general interests of peace.


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That Didn’t Last Long, Or: My Intolerance for Intolerance

I tried. I tried really hard to be Orthodox. So much of it felt lovely. But there were these dark shadows nibbling at the edges. The biggest of them sported a familiar shape: patriarchy. Male supremacy has smeared its dirty fingerprints all over everything about it. Dig into the patristics and you’ll discover the worst kind of misogyny. Women told they should feel shame for their very nature. Beyond not having our calls honored, not being allowed into any part of ministry beyond baking for coffee hour. The author of our liturgy may not have denied the existence of our souls, but he and his brethren sure said plenty of nasty about us. 

But every shadow has a bright spot. I followed my husband into Orthodoxy, and he followed me out of it into feminism. He used to take quiet umbrage when I used that f word, when I fingered patriarchy here or there as the underlying source of some problem in our culture. Now, having done his best to participate in this most patriarchal of religions, he gets it. It was too much even for him. As part of our recovery from our attempts to embrace orthodoxy and its inherent misogyny, we read Sarah Bessey’s blessing of a book, Jesus Feminist. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It made me cry, tears of relief. Yes, yes! Please.

The other thing that bugged us was the church’s stance against marriage equality. It’s not like we ever endured a homily about the evils of same sex attraction or anything. It was never spoken. But once, at the diocesan family retreat, sitting at a table with some priests, discussing the possibility of my son’s entering seminary, I voiced a desire to see more of the spirit of John the Baptist afoot, to see godly men speaking truth to power. And one priest piped up with praise for our bishop having written a screed against New York’s legalizing marriage equality. Really? I asked. Is that what we need to be worrying about? What about dropping bombs on children? How easy it is to worry about someone else’s sex life instead of confronting the military-industrial complex that makes our lives easier. But almost since the beginning there has been complicity between orthodoxy and empire. It goes on. Well, it can go on without me.

The real beauty part is that now I’m feeling free again to continue to explore my spirituality outside the confines orthodoxy imposes. The spirituality of my indigenous forebears, for instance. The green magic of my Celtic roots. Don’t get me wrong: I’m still very much a Christian. But what that means is so much more flexible and fluid and life-affirming than what these small-minded men have so far imagined. I know it has everything to do with love, and any Christianity that says I can’t love every one of my neighbors as myself is a false Christianity in my book.


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Another Unexpected Turn of Events

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If you’ve followed me and my meandering spiritual path (which, since it occupies a significant chunk of my mental space and therefore my poetry, has been a rather public one, which I have not let make me feel I couldn’t take whatever turns I was led to take, following the small, quiet voice that leads me), then you may or may not have seen coming what just happened. I surely didn’t.

So several weeks ago, since our pastor (at a congregational church we had joined about a year and a half ago, after my husband and I had both separately had our conversion experiences, his involving calm and rational intellect and mine hallucinations and vomiting, because that’s the way I roll, y’all — really, when in “Poem In Which I Address Richard Dawkins As Dick I say my soul “has grabbed me by the neck/ and thrown me down,” I’m not kidding) had announced that he was going to deliver a sermon about Martin Luther and the glories of capitalism, my husband decided we ought to check out the Greek Orthodox Church downtown, since already he and the boy (who grows a pretty excellent beard, btw), had been feeling pulled to Orthodoxy. Hubby had actually been baptized and christmated as an infant into a small Orthodox sect at a Carpatho-Rusyn Catholic church in Pennsylvania, as his father had been, and his father before him. A church actually part of the Greek Rite. And they were both craving weekly communion. And I rather failed to see the point of communal worship without it, myself.

And the church we went to was beautiful. And the liturgy was beautiful. Mostly standing, mostly sung. Long story short, we changed churches. And a few weeks into it, I’m thinking, really? Orthodox? I was facing the decision, whether or not to undergo the sacrament of chrismation, to officially convert. You might imagine what could give me pause.

And then, taking a rare moment on Twitter, this comes across my feed, shared by Milkweed Press, the press I’m intent on having publish my second book of poems, because the place the excerpt talks about, Maaloula, had just seen some of the violence that continues to tear apart Syria. And it felt like Godstuff. So much so that I chose St. Thekla as my patron, and I was chrismated two weeks ago. So that’s what happened. I’m now an Orthodox Christian. Me, who had poems published when I was still in Shreveport in American Atheist Magazine and Free Inquiry.

There’s a reason I call this blog “What I Meant To Say.” And God really does have a great sense of humor. And now I give an even bigger crap about what happens in Syria.

Keeping My Word

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Keeping My Word

I said I’d wear the obnoxious floral bike shorts if managed to raise $1,000 for the Southern Tier AIDS Program. Well, my generous friends and family gave over $1,200 to sponsor me in today’s ride, so here’s the proof. The shorts did not go without comment, you can trust.

Thanks to everyone who gave, as well as to those who let me know they couldn’t afford to give right now (times are hard!) but wished me well. We had a great day, and raised a whole bunch of money (over $200K!) which will go directly to helping people in our area.

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