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.Singer Joan Baez Shares Poetry at Hometown Reading

Legendary activist finds her voice with free-verse speech

music in the park san jose

Joan Baez made a career singing folk songs, which are, by loose definition, centuries old and anonymously penned. The selfless quality of her artistry—which was deeply interwoven with her political activism—made her an icon of the 1960s and beyond. It did not, however, give the world the kind of window into her mind and personal life we tend to expect from singer-songwriters’ lyrics. 

That has all been changing in the past few years as Baez, now in her early 80s, has worked to tell the story of her six-decade career. The star formally retired from performing live in 2019, but several creative projects (and, thank goodness, the very occasional concert) have followed. 

With the express desire to leave an honest legacy, Baez facilitated the creation of I Am a Noise, a 2023 documentary film directed by Karen O’Connor, Miri Navaksy and Maeve O’Boyle. She gave the filmmakers full access to her family’s storage unit, which was packed with decades’ worth of archival treasures.

Then there was the 2023 release of her charming book of upside-down drawings, Am I Pretty When I Fly? The cartoons therein are a delightful counterpoint to “Mischief Makers,” an ongoing series of portraits of inspirational figures Baez has been sharing in public exhibitions.

Photo of Joan Baez
SPEAKING OUT Both her poetry book and the documentary “I Am a Noise” pull back the curtain on the singer’s experience of dissociative identity disorder. Photo by Dana Tynan

The latest surprise offering from Baez’s trove is her debut collection of poetry, When You See My Mother, Ask Her to Dance. Now on tour promoting the book, she stops on the Peninsula this Friday for a reading and discussion sponsored by Kepler’s Literary Foundation.

The event, taking place at Hillsdale High School in San Mateo, has been billed as Baez’s “hometown” stop. The singer was born in 1941 in Staten Island, New York, and moved often through her youth—even spending a year in Iraq when her father took a job as a physicist at the University of Baghdad.

But she lived the better part of her formative years in the Bay Area, where her family ran a boarding house, and she has long considered Northern California her home. (Famously, she staged her first anti-war protest at Palo Alto High School in 1958, when she refused to participate in an air raid drill.)

It is not rare for an artist to begin curating their legacy around the phase of life Baez has reached, but the transparency with which she has approached the process feels radical. Both the documentary and now her poems pull back the curtain on the singer’s experience of dissociative identity disorder, which she describes as “developing multiple personalities as a way of coping with long-term trauma” in a note at the start of the book.

Baez explains that she wrote most of the book’s poems in the 1990s as she embarked on extensive therapy surrounding childhood experiences with sexual abuse.

Baez’s willingness to discuss mental illness is, in itself, brave; but what is even more refreshing is the singer’s absolute refusal to internalize any kind of stigma. She embraces the workings of her mind with optimism and love, writing, “Some of the poems in this collection are heavily influenced by, or in effect written by, some of the inner authors. Together we were swept up effortlessly in a tidal wave of imagery and words.” 

Jacket of Joan Baez’s new poetry collection

The poems that follow live up to this promise. They take on many forms, voices and themes. Sometimes, Baez writes as the woman the public more or less knows. As a mother, she writes, “All unprotected was he. / But I did not see, I did not see.” Then, as a lover, “Ah! That’s it! / All the men and boys / I made love to / were covered in gold leaf.”

But then there are “the inner authors,” whose poems are labeled with their own bylines. “The Rosy Trumpeteers,” for example, is “by Yasha” and tells the story of a woman with “a face of Aztec ancestry” being slain with a saber “through her velvet heart.” The cast of characters in these poems extends to old dogs, wide-eyed deer, cuckoo birds, ghosts and more. In some ways, Baez is as far as possible from her familiar milieu of acoustic guitar folk ballads here; in others, the spirit of those songs is clearly present.

This version of Joan Baez, a poet making whimsical art of her neurodivergence, unsettles almost everything the public knows of her. Where Baez the folksinger solemnly carried the weight of the civil rights movement alongside fellow activists, Baez the poet is openly fragile, fanciful—even child-like.

In When You See My Mother, Ask Her to Dance, we see the artist confronting more personal darkness than she has ever revealed to us; at the same time, it is her eye for light and fantasy—dancing—that shines through. Ultimately, this poetry debut recasts the icon as a far more complex woman than even her greatest fans could have imagined.

Joan Baez in Conversation with Angie Coiro takes place May 31 at 7pm in the Hillsdale Theater at Hillsdale High School in San Mateo. Tickets are $32+.

Addie Mahmassani holds a PhD in American Studies from Rutgers University. Her first book, a feminist history of the folk revival, is forthcoming with Iowa University Press. 

Addie Mahmassani
Addie Mahmassani is a poet based in Santa Cruz. She holds a PhD in American Studies from Rutgers University-Newark and is currently an MFA student in creative writing at San Jose State University. There, she is a Teaching Associate as well as the lead poetry editor of Reed Magazine, California's oldest literary journal. She also surfs, sings and loves a part-sheepdog named Lou.


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