What I Meant to Say

Wendy Babiak's Visions and Revisions


Gender Identity, Body Image, Empowering Women Artists: Playing with Dolls

Several weeks ago Amy King shared a link to Beth Robinson’s Strange Dolls in an email asking us about our own support of fellow women artists; she’d commissioned this talented doll artist (did you know there are doll ARTISTS?) to make dolls of herself and her partner Ana, both with miniature copies of their books (Ana’s first, Amy’s most recent). How cool are they? I was hoping to commission one of myself (with my book) and my daughter, but I’m afraid at this point we simply can’t afford it; as much as I’d like to support other female artists, right now I’ve got to make sure we can keep food on the table. (I’ll have to limit my support to reading their books and writing reviews.) So I’ve been thinking about making dolls myself. I’ve long wanted to make dolls, since I saw, years ago, in a Native American arts magazine, a Lakota doll artist’s work. So I’ve been researching doll making (I’ve already got experience in sculpture, sewing, and beadwork, so it’s not outside my skill set). One of the things that make these particular dolls cool is that they’re ball-jointed dolls, so they can be posed in life-like ways. Turns out there’s a whole subculture surrounding them. Exploring the links at Beth Robinson’s site, and doing more research, I felt like I’d gone down a rabbit hole into another world I’d had no idea existed. These dolls — I’m just talking about the mass-produced ones — go for several hundreds of dollars, and then there are the accessories (clothes, wigs, jewelry, makeup!). Folks pose them and take pictures. I can only imagine what they get up to, especially since, unlike the angels in the movie Dogma, they’re not built like Barbie and Ken. You know, they’re, uhm, anatomically complete. Which is fine. Whatever makes your socks go up and down, I’ve always said, as long as everyone’s of age and consenting. I’m no prude, though I do think, like Sam Harris, that we probably ought to examine our own cultural attitudes toward women’s bodies and sexuality and see if we aren’t simply manifesting the other side of the pathological coin as the Taliban.

One of the most talented and thoughtful of the doll artists I’ve run across online is Marina Bychkova, who makes Enchanted Dolls (do check them out…they have to be seen to be believed), the collectors of which seem almost obsessed. One of her dolls, called State Property, clearly deals with gender politics. A recent blog post shows her investigating the cultural foot fetishes that caused untold numbers of women to have their feet deformed and their mobility hindered. So she’s clearly not unaware of the inequities that have been dealt women in their relations with patriarchy and the burden our biology, in such relation, has been.

Something about all these BJDs bothers me, though. They’re based on the Japanese anime aesthetic, which isn’t exactly realistic. Not that Barbie’s any better, with her wasp waste, twiggy arms, and feet built for heels. (I made my daughter get rid of all her Barbies when she was very young, when I found her in front of the mirror, in her underwear, pinching in the sides of her still-round little-girl belly, clearly trying to make herself like them, and unhappy with her inability to do so.) Even Beth Robinson’s dolls sport elongated physiques, crow heads or no.

The other night, watching an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (a show, remember, made in the 80s), Dr. Crusher was treating a woman who’d pulled a ligament in her neck and shoulder, high diving on the holodeck. And no wonder: she was so skinny she looked like she’d spent time in a concentration camp, bones and tendons showing through her papery skin. The measly musculature probably wouldn’t be able to support a hearty sneeze, much less any amount of G-force, a big head barely balanced over bony shoulders. It’s hard to believe that such anorexia was once considered stylish, and not really that long ago; but it’s true, and I think, culturally, we’re only now coming out of that mass mental illness (now, apparently, we think artificially tanned, slightly greasy, hormonally and surgically altered bodies are sexy…not sure that’s any better, but at least the models get the pleasure of an occasional cheeseburger).

I can’t help but wonder if such weakness has been considered sexy, like the “golden-lily” feet of old China, because it makes women easy prey (something our tight, narrow skirts and heels do, btw, which is why I don’t wear them). I’d like to see someone make dolls in a diversity of healthy, strong shapes. I guess that’s what I’ll do.

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Women, Self-Promotion, Community, and the Real Work

I’m sitting in my cheery breakfast nook, typing on my Neo, listening to soothing music (songs dedicated to Kuan Yin, the Buddhist Goddess of Compassion, we got from a link on Annie Finch’s Facebook page), recovering my center after spending the past couple of days occupied with social networking. This is my second foray into Facebook. The first was aborted due to a policy of my husband’s employer. He’s now self-employed (and learning all about self-promotion himself, and I’m free to be myself as publicly as I choose. And with a book the release of which is immanent, it’s really part of the job description. But it’s something I don’t do without qualms. Part of it IS a safety issue. As the daughter of a criminologist and the wife of a psychiatrist, I’m probably hyper-aware of how sick people can be (so to any relatives or close friends who are wanting pictures of the kids, just ask, and I’ll send you links to private albums).

But it’s not just that. There’s something particularly icky about the feeling self-promotion gives me, a self-centeredness that feels ugly and pretty counter to my personal poetics, which are all about seeing into the perspective of the Other (whether that’s someone of an alien faith or another species), a great world-nurturing, an embrace of the unity of things. But I can’t help but wonder if it’s not just religion’s admonishments that make me feel that way, but also a gender-specific societal conditioning. There was a conversation recently at Harriet about the disparity in the numbers of women being published, and it came down to us submitting in lesser numbers (though the fact that some cultural gatekeepers may exhibit a bias against “women’s writing” or women’s perspectives is evident, given incidents like the recent Publisher’s Weekly book-list fiasco). Considering that the number of women writing is huge (going by enrollment in creative writing programs), the fact that so few attempt publication points to something that needs to be examined (this gender imbalance between production and exhibition is pervasive in all the arts, as illuminated in the recent movie Who Does She Think She Is?). As I confessed at Harriet, I’ve been very lax about it myself, only sending out small numbers of submissions very rarely (all considered, I have an impressive batting average). The book manuscript being published was entered, in earlier versions, in two or three contests only, and then to one press at which, not being widely published, I really had no hope with. Plain View Press attracted my attention with this bit of verbiage: “Despite evidence that relentless violence has taken root worldwide, there is hope and there are artists to show the human face of it.” I sent a query, then a sample, and then the whole thing. It turns out that Susan Bright, my editor, started the press as a feminist one decades ago, branching out to wider social-justice issues later. It’s a testament to the big-tent attitude of contemporary feminism, btw, that she would choose to publish a book of poems written by a housewife.

But back to why women lag behind in self-promotion. Is it a feeling, instilled at an early age, that we can’t possibly be good enough? Or simply that it’s not “nice,” not “ladylike,” to push ourselves on others? Men don’t seem to have much trouble with the idea. Like with most societal phenomena, I’m sure there’s a confluence of contributing factors; it’s helpful to worry about only the ones we can control. So I’m working on my cognitive framework. Taking a page from Eckhart Tolle, I’m examining my thoughts on the matter and trying to see how I can think about self-promotion differently in order to feel more comfortable with it. I know I do NOT want to experience it as any sort of competition. I’ve heard that Sylvia Plath devoted a fair bit of mental space to ranking herself in relation to other women writing poetry; I can’t help but wonder if that contributed to her psychopathology (or was it symptomatic of it?). I know I refuse to see poetry as a zero-sum game. I prefer a cooperative model (as I do with all economies) in which a rising tide raises all boats. For that reason I’m hugely grateful to women like Amy King, who let me, a complete unknown, send her my manuscript, and Joanne Merriam, who so generously introduced me the other day to her followers at Twitterworld, and, for that matter, to Annie Finch, for accepting my friend request and for being a role model for other women poets, a shining example of a woman who has succeeded hugely in the Po-Biz without sacrificing her humanity or femininity (see this post in which she proudly claims the title Poetess). These are talented women who have managed to overcome whatever societal conditioning may have impeded them in the beginning in order to get their writing out there. I’m pleased as punch they see fit to give a hand to someone like me, for whom it’s been a temptation to take the Emily-Dickinson route, leaving my poems bundled in ribbon for my survivors to deal with (my daughter assures me she would), which would be much more pleasant. The world is a mess, though. When Brian was in school at Georgetown (for those who don’t know, it’s a Jesuit school), I read a book from the library, very Catholic (my inherited faith from which it’s well-nigh impossible to fully extract oneself), about the responsibility of the artist. This was when I was about to embark on my senior year of college as a writing major, and I was giving serious thought to what I should do with my art. Later, my study of Buddhism convinced me that my desire to ease the suffering of the world was a valid one.

Like most practices, this is going to be a balancing act, and I must find the sweet spot between not doing enough to promote my work, and becoming so involved in that aspect of it that I neglect the work itself. Because this book is just the beginning. Stay tuned.

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The Universe as Ultimate Dance Partner

In the kind of stroke of serendipity I no longer find surprising in my dance with the Universe, while I posted my last musing on Annie Dillard and a snippet from her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which I hadn’t thought of for years, sitting in my mailbox was my first issue of Isle, the journal of Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment (thanks, Ann Fisher-Wirth, for encouraging me to join!), containing an essay by Julia Ireland, “Annie Dillard’s Ecstatic Phenomenology,” in which she explores Dillard’s attempts, chronicled in the aforementioned book, to learn to really see, not in the active, aggressive, cataloging way we normally approach the world, but a way, rather like Zen, in which the intellect or ego steps aside, shuts up and sits down, and allows reality to present itself to us in all its mysterious selfhood. Dillard calls this “letting go seeing.” Emblematic of this for her is “the tree with lights in it,” which, in a sort of climactic episode near the end of her sojourn, she finally does encounter. (Alas, not so for me, as I say at the end of my poem “Confessing Grief,” “still, I search the trees for one lit up with grace.”) Though simply the attempt, over the past twenty years or so, to approach the world in a receptive rather than dominating way has led me into a relationship with reality that feels like much less of a struggle than what I experienced as a youth. Enlightened? No way. On the path? Who isn’t? Knowing I am, though, sure helps me dance with reality, rather than wrestle with it.

In her article Ms. Ireland discusses teaching Ms. Dillard’s work to her college students in a 200-level course called “Environmental Thinking” in an attempt to get them, eager activists that they are, to understand that it’s not all about doing, that there’s a way of thinking, a way of being, that can change things. A place from which right action flows naturally. This came up recently on the WOM-PO listserve in a discussion about disability rights, and language use, at the conclusion of which I observed that at the root of the issue is compassion, or the lack of it, and that if we figured out how to change THAT, rather than outlawing certain vocabulary or metaphors, then the suffering caused to those with differently abled bodies (or minds) in their encounter with society would automatically be lessened. In my right sidebar there’s a quote from James Baldwin about how we write to change the world, knowing full well that we probably can’t. But as he observes, changing the way people think CAN change the world. Poetry may not DO anything, except, perhaps, provide a lens through which people can see themselves and the world in a different relationship. Clearly this is going to be a slow process. Activists want change NOW, but change that happens suddenly and by force more often than not brings about a backlash, an equal and opposite reaction. Looked at from some distance, a farther perspective, humanity has made significant progress, and there’s cause to hope that we’re on a path toward a future in which every human is recognized for what s/he is, and beyond that, the rest of the ecosystem is equally honored. A long way to go, sure. But we’re getting there. I’m not calling for complacency, but acceptance of the slow, organic (and inexorable!) process of real and lasting change. As part of that Ecology and Literature course I took in college I had to keep a journal, including newspaper clippings that dealt with environmental issues. I remember combing the paper and feeling lucky to find a tiny bit tucked into the back pages. Now the environment is front-page news. Granted, the problems are more significant now, but I can’t help but think that it also shows a shift in consciousness, an increased level of awareness. The same could be said of issues regarding people with disabilities, sexism, people of color, diversity in sexual orientation or gender expression, militarism and colonization. Like I commented at Harriet recently, all these issues are bound to get tied up in a thoughtful poet’s poetics (as they have in mine), because at root they flow from the same source (that lack of compassion again). I’m only 42, but I can remember how things were when I was young, and times, they’ve sure changed plenty, and thank goodness.


While Unpacking, a Funny Thing I Came Across

So we moved. I’m just now starting to feel like I’m above water enough to make a post here. Between the actual logistics of putting everything we own (two bibliophile grownups, two kids, two dogs, two cats, and about 50 houseplants) into boxes, carting them (with help) two-and-a-half hours southwest (with snow!), and then taking it all out again in a new community, which must simultaneously be learned and navigated, while the animals adjust without the help of language and the kids adjust to a new school system (with new flu bugs, yay!), I haven’t really had the presence of mind to meditate on poetics or the process of having my work published, though that, too, has been going on. Yesterday I made the final approvals of text and cover. (And while they were themselves in the midst of their move, Amy King and Ana Božičević were kind enough to provide me with blurbs for which I will be eternally grateful.)

But while I was unpacking some of my books, I flipped through my copy of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a favorite from my Ecology & Literature course in college, and found this bit highlighted, and typed it up and saved it as a draft post:

Tonight I walked around the pond scaring frogs; a couple of them jumped off, going, in effect, eek, and most grunted, and the pond was still. But one big frog, bright green like a poster-paint frog, didn’t jump, so I waved my arm and stamped to scare it, and it jumped suddenly, and I jumped, and then everything in the pond jumped, and I laughed and laughed.

Now, I don’t remember what I was going to say about it (my brain having been traumatized by the stress of moving and the excitement of impending publication). Clearly I found it amusing, though I’m not unaware that, especially if one grants to frogs, in one’s consciousness, the ability to experience emotion, Ms. Dillard’s actions can be seen as kind of cruel. But it’s not like experiencing a little fright killed the little amphibians. And she never said she was a saint.

I remember once, years ago (but years after first reading her work) I saw online a discussion in which a young man reported meeting Ms. Dillard and being shocked to discover that she was a chain-smoker. It seems he thought someone seeking deeper relations with the natural world would somehow be more enlightened. I commented that perhaps she experienced some social phobia. I didn’t say that she’s got good reason to, having to deal with judgmental pricks like him, though I thought it. Really, writers (and poets) do something rather daring, putting our words out there. I suppose we deserve the downside of the attention we’re seeking, though the funny thing is that a lot of us are, in person, a bit shy. I’m looking forward to reading my poetry again, now that I’m once again in a place where that sort of thing goes on, but I’m not sure if I’m ready for it. Maybe I should take up smoking.