beauty and its role in all of this

Another interview for Couplets: a multi-author poetry blog tour! Wendy Babiak is the author of Conspiracy of Leaves. You can read some of the Wonder Woman sonnets referenced below at No Tell Motel:


Joanne Merriam: What is your writing process?

Wendy Babiak: Oh, this is complicated. Where does the process begin? On one level, it’s simple: I might hear in my head a line that feels like poetry, and scribble it in a notebook. Later, when I’m ready to actually sit down and work, I’ll take the notebook, look through and find one or two lines I want to work with, and go from there. My poem “Bitter in New Orleans” happened like that: while we were driving through New Orleans, back for a visit after moving away, I scribbled in my notebook a brief description of a sign for St. Joe’s Bar, and also the line “church spires rise above the shops on Magazine Street like hollyhocks growing among herbs.” Weeks later, back at home, taking a break from maternal duties, I took my notebook to the tub with me, drew a nice bubble bath, and while soaking in it opened the notebook and found those two things. And the poem came from them almost entire. The only thing that changed in the editing process was a bit at the end. (This is not usually the case: most times I make significant changes in the revision process, adding, subtracting, rearranging.)

With the Wonder Woman sonnets it’s only slightly different: the title is what comes first. Something will strike me as an appropriate situation for her, a title will occur to me, (e.g., “Wonder Woman Lassos the CEO”), and I’ll write that down on an index card, which I keep handy around the house. Then, when I’m at my desk, I’ll write the title at the top of the page, the schema along the right margin, and then plug through it, rhyming dictionary in hand, letting the available words lead me along to see what happens, often choosing for a rhyme the least expected word, so that the poem ends up twisting in a direction I didn’t anticipate.

Or sometimes I’ll use an exercise, some kind of prompt or something, just to get things going. It can be fun to have someone else give me a list of words, and, say, make a sentence with each one, then put them together, like a collage. There are fantastic exercises in the book The Practice of Poetry. Or I might decide that I want to have a go at a particular form, with varying degrees of success. I have yet to write a successful pantoum.

No matter how a poem starts, though, I’ll keep it around for a long time, reading it out loud, playing with line breaks, with word choices, trying to make sure the music works. I’m not a slave to meter but I like things to be fun in the mouth and ear, to play with sound and rhythm.

But a significant part of the process takes place away from the page. I don’t think my poetry would exist without it, and that’s a sort of engagement with the world, the material world and the world of ideas. I do a lot of cogitating, while walking, gardening, encountering my fellow humans. I ask myself questions, about identity and the self, about right and wrong, about what it means to be a human, a woman, an American, an earthling. Questions about responsibility. About beauty and its role in all of this. Because really, sometimes, walking about in the world, which is really quite arresting, your perception is practically pummeled out there with one stunning image after another; it’s hard to understand what people get so crazy about, hatefreaks and such, surrounded by all this. That’s the impetus that brings me to the page; the process itself is something I enjoy, but I don’t think I’d do it without the wondering, the awe, and, frankly, the frustration that people aren’t nicer to each other and the place that supports us. Well, I’d still do it without that last crap, but I’d probably have volumes of odes rather than long nonce forms pushing boundaries of what a poem can include and endeavor to accomplish.


Joanne Merriam: What is some writing advice you’ve received, that works for you?

Wendy Babiak: Always read the work out loud. Hang on to poems for a long time before you send them out. Put them away for a few months so that when you take them out to revise they’re new to you, and the rotten spots will be more obvious. Don’t be afraid to push boundaries or say something that might offend someone; edit later. The only way to get to the good stuff is by telling your internal critic to sit down and stfu.


Joanne Merriam: Have you had to sacrifice anything to write your poetry?

Wendy Babiak: Well, on the one hand, no, I didn’t have to sacrifice anything. I’m a kept woman: I don’t have to worry about making money (anymore), which is a good thing since there’s no real living to be made writing poems. Also, office life drives me absolutely insane, and the only marketable skills I really have involve office work, so staying home to write poems and raise kids is no sacrifice (more like salvation). On the other hand, there’s not a whole lot of respect for us poets in the wider world (I’m leaving the mother question out of it so I don’t go into an anti-capitalist rant regarding the lip service spent extolling women’s unpaid work), either, and not just because we don’t make a lot of money at it. We’re generally seen as narcissistic, opium-addled folks of questionable moral fiber. So I don’t sacrifice anything to write my poems, but to publish them, to put myself out there as a poet, requires that I surrender that natural desire to be respected. I went on one of those winery tours with some fellow mothers in my community about a year ago, and was asked by someone who was a scientist, a professor who had recently given up teaching to raise her kids, what I “did.” I said I was a poet, and her eyebrows went up. “Wow,” she said, “You’re the first person I’ve met willing to own that.” There’s also the issue of privacy. I’m not exactly a confessional poet; mostly I engage the world in my work, but I can’t help but do it through the lens of my own experience, my perspective; even when I create a persona, or tell a story, it’s all dripping with me. This is unavoidable with any creative writing. I gave a copy of Conspiracy to my neighbor, figuring that was a good way to give her a crash course in getting to know me (since she seemed interested). After reading it, she commented that the poems were “revealing.” And while I’m happy to make friends this way, the idea of having the book out there among strangers is a strange feeling, indeed.


Joanne Merriam: Do you think writing poetry helps you to understand more about yourself and the world, or is advancing as a poet more about learning how to communicate the things you already know?

Wendy Babiak: Both. Sometimes I do discover what I think or feel about something through the act of making a poem, especially when using the more associative processes I mentioned above. Anger bubbles up spontaneously and unexpectedly, often relating to issues of gender. But some things I know I feel strongly about, and haven’t changed my mind about in twenty years, like the power of love and the unity of everything and the sanctity of the natural world, that will take me a lifetime to get across, if I ever manage it at all.


Check out more poetry-related interviews, reviews and guest posts at Couplets: a multi-author poetry blog tour.

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