I thought regular readers of Dowsing for Divinity might like to know that I now have a public Instagram account, @birdberrybooks, where I will be posting videos, talks, photos, book reviews, and news of upcoming events and workshops.
A totalising system is one that seeks to subsume all other paradigms within its paradigm, rather than accepting that other paradigms exist alongside it. It regards itself as a complete and universal system which can explain all experience and needs no supplemental systems.
A non-totalising or pluralist system recognises its particularity to its local culture and sees that different philosophies emerge out of different cultural contexts and local histories. A totalising system ignores local contexts or seeks to explain them through its paradigm.
I found myself nodding and smiling in agreement throughout most of this book. The author’s sensible and down-to-earth approach to magic and Paganism was very much in tune with my way of thinking. They  also have an exceptionally clear style of writing, which makes the book a pleasure to read.
The book’s subtitle is “A spirituality that embraces all identities” and the author has done their best to include everyone in the LGBTQIA+ community and heterosexuals too. This book would definitely be of interest to queer Pagans and open-minded heterosexuals. It is not only about queer Paganism, but is about inclusive practice. It is very Wicca-flavoured though, so if Wicca isn’t your thing, you might not like it.
Exploring Queer Paganism
The first chapter explores the meanings of Queer and Paganism. It explains that Paganism, Wicca, and Witchcraft are distinct but overlapping. The second chapter looks at how the standard binary thinking of many Pagans (male/female, light/dark, etc) doesn’t include those of us who don’t fit neatly into a cisgender and heterosexual view of the world. Each section of the discussion unfolds clearly and neatly from the previous section of the discussion. This could be very helpful for those people who still haven’t understood why many (perhaps most) queer people have an issue with the deification of the “masculine and feminine principles”. The next chapter goes on to explore concepts of deity and energy, and how these fit together in a worldview that is not based on the idea of a “masculine principle” interacting with a “feminine principle”.
The second part of the book deals with Magic, and includes an excellent chapter on how magic works (again, very similar to my own ideas on the topic). It also looks at how magic and science interact. The section on the Hermetic principles as described in The Kybalion, which explains how they relate to a queer worldview, is outstanding. This is followed by a chapter on ethics, which was excellent on the topic of magical ethics, but would have been better if it explored the Pagan ethics of life in general.
Living as a Pagan
The third section of the book deals with Pagan life, including living as a Pagan, the importance of balance, how to choose a magical name, and relationships with deities. The chapter on the festivals was disappointing, as it was mainly about the view of the Sabbats as the unfolding story of “the Goddess and the God” which I personally find unhelpful from a queer point of view. It does cover the folk customs associated with the festivals though, so you could build out from these to develop something more inclusive. It explains how to adapt the festivals for use in the Southern Hemisphere, which is good. It also mentions that you can choose to celebrate them on the day when the appropriate seasonal vegetation comes into flower, which I liked. I would have liked to see more information on how to adapt the festivals to be more inclusive of other sexualities (but I have covered this in my book, if you’re interested). The chapter on the esbats and the phases of the Moon was helpful, though.
Meditation and Visualisation
The fourth part of the book covers meditation and visualisation. This includes a technique which the author says is helpful for easing body dysphoria. I have seen this meditation before (and it’s the only technique that I find actually helps me to relax) but I didn’t know it was good for dysphoria, so that’s really useful to know. The section on building an astral temple is also excellent, as it points out that an astral temple doesn’t have to be a building, and can be a grove of trees. I had always assumed that it was supposed to be a building of some kind, and had terrible difficulty building one. I do however, have a grove of trees on the astral, and a rather nice stone circle, either of which could be my astral temple. So that section cleared up a longstanding difficulty for me! The chapter on the chakras is very good (and uses the proper Sanskrit names) but draws on the Western idea of the chakras, which is somewhat different from the Buddhist view of them.
The next section explores magical correspondences, including deities, non-binary deities, queer deities, moon phases and the menstrual cycle (but described in an inclusive  way), orgasm mysteries, the four elements, days of the week, colours, and magical tools. This provides the basis of a system of magic that is properly queer-inclusive. I particularly liked the section on colour symbolism. This section also explains the difference between widdershins and deosil, and why they are different in the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere.
The section on ritual was very helpful, as it goes through how to set up the circle, cleansing the space, calling the quarters, and consecrating the tools and the participants. One caveat on this section though: the author mentions that the high priestess and high priest have absolute authority in the circle (p. 128). I wouldn’t go that far, as they do not have the right to ask you to do something that the vast majority of people would be uncomfortable with, such as French kissing, sex with other people in the circle, or anything massively humiliating. Some of the things that ritual involves may be slightly outside your comfort zone, but that’s why it is a really good idea to have a quick chat beforehand about what is going to happen in the ritual. Other than that, this section is really great and has lots of excellent ideas like having three ritual leaders, one for the God, one for the Goddess, and one for non-binary deity (the Universal, as the author refers to it).
The final section of the book deals with divination, including gematria (finding the magical number of your name), Tarot, runes, scrying, and palmistry. This section was also very good, especially the section on the magical meaning of numbers.
An excellent addition to your Queer Pagan bookshelf
All in all, a very enjoyable read. The book is well-thought-out, and it is very easy to find things again when you want to use it as a how-to guide for magical practice. There were a few typographical errors here and there, but they didn’t detract from my enjoyment or understanding of the book, and they were more than made up for by the exceptionally clear writing style. The author’s lovely drawings also grace the text, and help to explain the magical concepts being discussed.
The book is an excellent contribution to the literature on inclusive and queer Paganism and witchcraft, and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in making their practice more inclusive and welcoming to LGBTQIA+ Pagans.
Where to get the book:
- Amazon.co.uk – Kindle edition, full-colour paperback, or black-and-white paperback.
- Amazon.com – Kindle edition, full-colour paperback, black-and-white paperback.
- Thrift Books – full-colour paperback, black-and white paperback.
- The author’s preferred pronoun is they [Back]
- The male brain also has cycles governed by the hypothalamus [Back]
I was not sent this book for review. I bought it myself and reviewed it of my own free will and accord. Please do not send me books for review, as I generally dislike writing book reviews, and only reviewed this book because I thought it was important and worth drawing attention to.
I have been thinking for a while that we need more liturgical poetry in Pagan traditions. I have been thinking for a while about the beautiful pieces of music composed for the Requiem Mass, and thinking how great it would be to have a Pagan Requiem – something life-affirming, but acknowledging grief and death. So I wrote one. Feel free to use it – please credit me if you do. If anyone feels like composing some music for it, that would be awesome.
A Pagan Requiem
The earth that moved
The air that filled
The fire that flashed
The water that flowed
The body that loved
Are gone, all gone.
Flesh to Earth,
Breath to the winds,
The fire to ashes,
The water to the deep places.
But the spirit remains,
Enfolded in the embrace
Of the gods.
Love is the mystery,
The hidden fire
That moves the world.
A life well lived
Is a fit offering to the gods.
Living with honour,
Weeping with those who mourn,
Lifting up the oppressed.
And creating laughter, joy, and meaning,
This is the blessing of virtue,
The garden of the well-kept spirit,
The strength of the oak,
And the grace of the willow.
Blessed are the mourners,
And a blessing on the one who goes forth
Into the unknown.
The heavens and the Earth weep for them,
And humanity is diminished at their loss.
We who are left behind weep for them,
And they sail across the ocean of our tears.
The season of grief is needful
For the soul’s healing.
And so we weep, and so we weep,
For all that is lost,
For all that we left unsaid,
For the beloved dead.
See the soul-boat’s guiding light
On the oceans of the night
Let the pilgrim soul take flight
Across the river of forgetting
To the place where souls are waiting
For their moment of rebirth.
May they rest in the arms of the Star Goddess,
In the eternal twilight of the summerlands,
The valley of yews, the hall of heroes,
The islands of the blest,
The unknown regions.
And in due time, may they be reborn
Among those who will love them,
And may they flourish.
Love is the mystery,
The mystic marriage
Of matter and spirit,
The hidden fire
That moves the world.
23 November 2016
This post is part of the October Patheos Public Square on “The Spirituality of Sex.” Every religious tradition has rules—spoken and unspoken—around sexuality, and sacred texts come into play as these rules are navigated in dating and marriage. What does your faith tradition really say about the meaning of our sexuality and sexual activity? What role does sex play in the life of the spirit?
Witchcraft traditions such as Wicca are highly visible in the Pagan movement when it comes to sexuality and sexual activity. Though Pagan traditions in general see the body as a blessing, they hold a variety of views on what the proper relationship is between sexuality and spirituality. Wiccans and other witches, however, embrace the holiness of sexuality as a central religious principle.
“The Charge of the Goddess,” penned by Wiccan priestess Doreen Valiente (1922-1999), is a piece of liturgy so powerful that its influence has reached far outside Wicca into spiritual feminism, the sex-positive community, and contemporary Paganism as a whole. When used in ritual, the Charge is spoken by a priestess who is embodying the presence of the Goddess. She says:
And ye shall be free from slavery; and as a sign that ye are really free, ye shall be naked in your rites; and ye shall dance, sing, feast, make music and love, all in my praise.…
Let my worship be within the heart that rejoiceth, for behold: all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals. (DoreenValiente.org)
Many Wiccans and witches believe that all things contain a primal energy or vital life force that moves within and among them. This energy is most easily experienced through sexual activity, especially when it is raised with spiritual intent. Through their sexual intimacy, practitioners can participate in a primal moment of creation: a moment when two divine forces or beings—imagined as a many-gendered God/dess making love with her mirror reflection; or a lunar Goddess and a solar God; or a genderless yin and yang, nothing and something—communed together in an erotic union whose vibrations continue to animate the universe.
Sexuality is a particularly dramatic way to experience the flow of life force, but for some Wiccans and witches, it is not the only way. Sensual communion with nature and nonsexual touch are also places where spiritual energy can flow between two or more beings. To emphasize that this embodied, intimate flow of life force contains sexuality but is broader than sexuality, I use the term eros or the erotic.
I first encountered the idea of the erotic as a spiritual force in Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance (1979). In the 1980s, this important book of ecofeminist witchcraft was many Pagans’ introduction to Paganism and Goddess religion, as well as to the idea that the body and sexuality are holy. In her introduction to the 1999 edition of the book, Starhawk emphasized that the erotic should not be understood solely in terms of heterosexual or reproductive sexuality, nor necessarily always in terms of pairs (as opposed to individuals or groups). Instead, eros is a relational force that is found throughout nature and within the self. She writes:
Sexual reproduction is an elegant method of ensuring maximum biological diversity. […] But to take one particular form of sexual union as the model for the whole is to limit ourselves unfairly. If we could, instead, take the whole as the model for the part, then whomever or whatever we choose to love, even if it ourselves in our solitude, all our acts of love and pleasure could reflect the union of leaf and sun, the wheeling dance of galaxies, or the slow swelling of bud to fruit. (The Spiral Dance 1999, 20-21)
Starhawk is in good company in understanding eros as both an individual and a cosmic principle. Her idea of the erotic echoes other the views of other theologians and spiritual writers of the twentieth century. To name just a few: psychologist and mystic C.G. Jung saw eros as the foundational principle of all relationship; feminist visionary Audre Lorde characterized the erotic an embodied impulse toward pleasure and holistic community flourishing; and progressive Christian theologians Carter Heyward and Marvin Ellison understand eros as a divine principle of desirous connection that motivates justice-making.
Perhaps because of the theology that “all acts of love and pleasure are [Her] rituals,” Wiccans, witches, and many other Pagans are often more accepting of sexual minorities and unusual sexual behaviors than is society at large. When sociologist Helen Berger surveyed American Pagans in the early 2000s, about 28% of Pagans identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual—a much larger percentage than in the United States overall. LGBTQ Pagans can be found in positions of religious leadership in many different Pagan traditions today, and many traditions have rituals to celebrate same-sex partnerships and even group marriages (for Pagans who practice polyamory, a form of ethical nonmonogamy). Such rituals may sacralize temporary partnerships—for example, for a year and a day, at the end of which the commitment may be renewed—while other rituals formalize a lifetime partnership, or even a commitment to seek one another in a future life.
Pagans usually consider sexual activity to be ethical if it is consensual, between adults, and does no harm. Today, Pagans are having important conversations about how to ensure valid consent to sexual activity, as well as exploring the impact of individuals’ sexual behavior on their communities. Because inequality—based on race, class, gender, gender identity, and other factors—is an unavoidable part of living in our society, Pagans struggle with questions about how to best navigate power differentials in romantic and sexual relationships.
Pagan traditions challenge religious traditions that see the body as sinful or as a prison for the soul. Although celebration of sexuality is most central for Wiccans and other witches, sexual freedom and community harmony are important values for many Pagans. Accordingly, the Pagan movement continues to welcome LGBTQ people and other sexual minorities who find themselves unwelcome in their birth religions. For Pagans of many paths, the body is an important site of religious practice, a place in which we can meet divinity flesh to flesh and heart to heart.
Find out more:
After the Orlando shooting, a small group of LGBTQIA Pagans came together to create a ritual for the dead of Orlando. The group is called Wands Up for Orlando. One of the founders, Salvatore Caci, wrote:
Why “wands up”? In the movie Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, after the death of Dumbledore, all students of Hogwarts take their wands and raise them into the air to light up the sky and sweep away Voldemort’s evil curse. Similarly, we want to sweep away the curses of intolerance and violence with the light that shines from our hearts and hands joined together and in support of one another.
Together, we have written a ritual to commemorate the dead of Orlando. We want to emphasise that, as many of the dead may have been Catholics or have had an ambivalent relationship with religion, we are being respectful of that. We performed divinations to check that the ritual would be welcome and needed.
You can sign up for the Facebook event to show your support, and we would love to see photos of people’s rituals (whatever you feel able to share).
The ritual is available in English, Italian, Spanish, French, Polish, and German. We suggest that it be performed between 25 June and 2 July. It can be performed alone or with your group. We have tried to make it adaptable to any Pagan or polytheist practice. Obviously, people can change it if they want to, and we have left plenty of room for personal choice.
It also turns out that fans of Harry Potter came together for an Orlando vigil at Wizarding World, and raised their wands. Luis Vielma, who was killed in the shooting, worked there.
Outline of the ritual
Our ritual begins with creating your sacred space in your usual way.
This is followed by asking your beloved dead, ancestors, spirits, deities, to bless the ritual. Deities who seem appropriate to this ritual are La Llorona and Baubo, Dionysus and Antinous – all queer – but choose whichever deity or deities you have a relationship with.
We will then pour a libation into a bowl, offering it to the queer ancestors.
Light a candle (one candle per person is even better).
We will then offer a prayer for the LGBTQ / Latinx dead, and read the names of the dead.
This is followed by a declaration of intent to build LGBTQIA community – both within the Pagan community and more broadly.
There will then be a reversion of offerings – sharing the libation with the Earth and the ancestors and deities and spirits.
Each participant can be given a white ribbon to represent the unity of all the colours of the rainbow.
There will then be an inclusive sharing of wine.
On Sunday night I went for a walk with my beloved in the beautiful evening light. The rain had cleared, and the low summer sun was illuminating everything in a lovely dreamy gold. The sort of light that makes everything look as if it is lit from within. And because everything was freshly washed, it all looked brighter. The scent of roses and mock-orange filled the air, and the birds were singing. The trees hung over the path and formed a tunnel of green leaves.
At moments like that, when divinity shines within all things, I feel reconnected, refreshed, renewed. You might call it a moment of grace.
Can we reclaim the word “grace” from its Christian connotations? Certainly. Grace means something to be thankful for, something that is praiseworthy, desirable, elegant, right, and fitting.
grace (n.) late 12c., “God’s unmerited favor, love, or help,” from Old French grace “pardon, divine grace, mercy; favor, thanks; elegance, virtue” (12c., Modern French grâce), from Latin gratia “favor, esteem, regard; pleasing quality, good will, gratitude” (source of Italian grazia, Spanish gracia; in Church use translating Greek kharisma), from gratus “pleasing, agreeable,” from PIE *gwreto-, suffixed form of root *gwere– (3) “to favor” (source also of Sanskrit grnati “sings, praises, announces,” Lithuanian giriu “to praise, celebrate,” Avestan gar– “to praise”).
Sense of “virtue” is early 14c., that of “beauty of form or movement, pleasing quality” is mid-14c. In classical sense, “one of the three sister goddesses (Latin Gratiæ, Greek Kharites), bestowers of beauty and charm,” it is first recorded in English 1579 in Spenser. In music, “an embellishment not essential to the melody or harmony,” 1650s. As the name of the short prayer that is said before or after a meal (early 13c.; until 16c. usually graces) it has a sense of “gratitude.” As a title of honor, c. 1500.
The etymology of the word grace includes Greek charisma:
charisma (n.) “gift of leadership, power of authority,” c. 1930, from German, used in this sense by Max Weber (1864-1920) in “Wirtschaft u. Gesellschaft” (1922), from Greek kharisma “favor, divine gift,” from kharizesthai “to show favor to,” from kharis “grace, beauty, kindness” (Charis was the name of one of the three attendants of Aphrodite) related to khairein “to rejoice at,” from PIE root *gher- (5) “to desire, like” (see hortatory). More mundane sense of “personal charm” recorded by 1959.
Earlier, the word had been used in English with a sense of “grace, talent from God” (1875), directly from Latinized Greek; and in the form charism (plural charismata) it is attested with this sense in English from 1640s. Middle English, meanwhile, had karisme “spiritual gift, divine grace” (c. 1500).
And Charis was one of the three attendants of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. These attendants were known as the Three Graces:
In Greek mythology, a Charis (/ˈkeɪrɪs/; Greek: Χάρις, pronounced [kʰáris]) or Grace is one of three or more minor goddesses of charm, beauty, nature, human creativity, and fertility, together known as the Charites /ˈkærᵻtiːz/ (Χάριτες [kʰáritɛːs]) or Graces. The usual list, from youngest to oldest is Aglaea (“Splendor”), Euphrosyne (“Mirth”), and Thalia (“Good Cheer”). In Roman mythology they were known as the Gratiae, the “Graces”. In some variants, Charis was one of the Graces and was not the singular form of their name.
Grace is also related to renewal and a sense of being right with the world and the divine. It isn’t on a list of ancient Roman virtues – the nearest concept is Laetitia, meaning “Joy, Gladness, The celebration of thanksgiving, often of the resolution of crisis.” I could certainly settle for Laetitia as a name for the feeling I was having.
But I am reassured by the idea that the Three Graces or Charites were definitely pagan. Among the Lacedaemonians, there were two Graces, Cleta (“Sound” or “Renowned”) and Phaenna (“Light” or “Bright”). The fact that a feeling of grace can be created by harmonious sounds and soothing light makes these names seem particularly apt. Splendor, Good Cheer, and Mirth also seem apt descriptors. And the more modern meaning of elegance and harmony also fits in with these ancient concepts of grace. I can think of several people whom I think of as being graceful in the way they interact with others.
So I think we can reclaim the word grace to mean the beauty and harmony and radiance of Nature and the feelings of awe and gratitude, wonder and joy and healing evoked by that beauty.
And we need these moments of blessing and grace to rest and renew when the magic runs out, when we are heartbroken by senseless slaughter, when sections of the Pagan community are being disappointing about gender.
[Please note: spoilers ahead, especially for the prequel, The Fifth Sacred Thing.]
When I bought my copy of City of Refuge, I was trying to have low expectations. I can only imagine that writing a sequel to a well-received, bestselling book like The Fifth Sacred Thing more than twenty years after its initial publication must have been an intimidating task. Would the sequel remain true to the characters we loved the first time around? Would the story still resonate despite changes in our political climate? Would the book simply come off as too idealistic for me—now twenty years older myself—to take it seriously?
Well, I lost a lot of sleep the week I read it. I didn’t stay up all night, because I am the parent of a toddler and I value my sanity; but I stayed up till the wee hours four nights in a row because I was desperate to learn what happened next. Dare I say it? I could barely put it down.
Now, I’ll admit that neither City of Refuge nor The Fifth Sacred Thing is going to win prizes as literary fiction. The Fifth Sacred Thing suffers from the didactic, “teachy/preachy” quality that’s typical of utopian/dystopia sci-fi. The book’s setting is drawn in broad strokes: the United States government has collapsed and its remnants are controlled by a corrupt, fundamentalist, militaristic Christian sect. The land once known as California is in severe drought, and water is a scarce resource. But within the border of the former San Francisco, witches and other community-oriented, earth-loving people have formed a lovely but fragile consensus-based society that is harmoniously integrated into the local ecosystem.
Starhawk uses the metaphor of homeopathy to suggest that a tiny, representative fragment of a just society, when inserted into an unhealthy society at the right place and time, can have a healing effect that ripples out from the point of contact. In The Fifth Sacred Thing, this principle describes how the peaceful people of former San Francisco survive an army invasion and, after terrible and bloody loss of life through nonviolence resistance, convert the ill-treated soldiers to their side. In City of Refuge, this metaphor continues as main characters Bird and Madrone travel to the crumbling metropolis of former Los Angeles. There, while the converted army turns and marches on its former masters, they attempt to set up a safe place for refugees from the city who would otherwise be executed or slain.
City of Refuge is still a utopian/dystopian novel. It has parts where characters lecture each other in order to get across important background information about economics, permaculture, pedagogy, and other issues. Yet it does its teaching more smoothly and with more self-awareness than The Fifth Sacred Thing. The Fifth Sacred Thing was written by an activist in her forties whose daily work included regular direct action—no doubt an intense and polarizing place from which to write. City of Refuge was written by that same activist in her sixties, and seemingly from a place of greater reflection and humility.
At an American Academy of Religion conference I attended about five years ago, Starhawk spoke about her work with the Occupy movement. She remarked on the potentially insurmountable challenges that Occupy faced in its attempt to exclusively use a consensus-based decision-making process. As she wrote in her blog around the same time:
Sitting down in the public square to Occupy and protest an unjust system attracted the very people most impacted by the injustice, some of whom are badly wounded in ways that make it very hard to organize and live together. When your own needs are overwhelming, and unfulfilled, it’s hard to see that other people might also have needs. When you’ve had no voice, and somebody offers you a platform to speak and an audience, it can be hard to step back after your allotted two minutes and let others speak. When you’ve dulled your pain for years with drink or drugs, you can’t easily go cold turkey and stop using. […Consensus] requires someone with a linear thinking mind to facilitate, who can keep a kind of outline in their head of topics, subtopics, points A B C and D. When people come to it with the pent-up anger of years of disempowerment, it can simply compound frustration. When the voices in your head compel you to tell the world about the impending arrival of the Space Brothers with the Mysterious Blue Geodes and you theory about how it all relates to the Mayan Calendar, being told you’re off topic just doesn’t cut it.
The idealism of City of Refuge is noticeably tempered with real-world experience. Consensus works pretty well in a well-fed group of people who have been trained their whole lives to use it; but what about on the streets with a group of starving strangers, some of whom are in poor mental and physical health and all of whom are scared and angry? There are moments when Bird and Madrone’s project simply goes off the rails, and there is no magical solution, no deus ex machina to make things right.
People die a lot in City of Refuge: adults and teenagers and children. The book presents problems to which there are no solutions, at least not in this storyline. And although there are moments of hope—perhaps even a “happy” ending—some threads are simply left unraveled.
The book also has moments of black humor that warn the audience against reading it or its prequels as strictly ideological. The Fifth Sacred Thing used nonviolent resistance as a central plot point, and many readers have assumed that Starhawk is rigidly committed to nonviolent protest. In City of Refuge, however, Maya—the character whose life story most resembles Starhawk’s—states firmly that she was never a pacifist. When challenged on her past advocacy for nonviolence as a response to invasion, she snaps, “That was a vision. I never claimed it was dogma for all occasions.”
Later, when a group of enslaved farmers is being liberated, we have what initially looks like a stereotypical utopian/dystopian teaching moment: a farmer asks how they will run the farm without hierarchy, and a member of the liberating army launches into an explanation of collective ownership. Rather than listening avidly, however—as one would expect if this were a typical scene in the genre—the starving, exhausted farmers talk amongst themselves, cry, or stare off into space in total shock. The lecture falls on deaf ears—a lesson, perhaps, in the need to give ideology second place behind compassionate response to human need.
This is what I mean when I say that City of Refuge is humble. It is not a book that present itself as knowing the answers to climate change, racism, classism, sexism, religious intolerance, or economic exploitation. Its beautiful witch heroes are compelling, but they are also sometimes naïve, wrong, or just plain foolish. Its villains, in turn, are not wholly evil, though some are quite bad; in fact, some apparent villains turn out to be needed allies for the liberating army. City of Refuge does not present situations or people in black and white terms. It acknowledges brokenness and does not always insist that that brokenness be fixed. Instead, it allows for love, and for uncertainty.
City of Refuge portrays earth-based spirituality, permaculture, sacred sexuality, nonhierarchical decision-making, collective ownership, and other politically-charged concepts. As an engaging novel, it is an enjoyable way to introduce yourself or a loved one to these ideas—and in that way, it serves an ideological purpose. However—and this is what makes City of Refuge so much better than many utopian/dystopian novels—it refuses to present these ideas rigidly or dogmatically. City of Refuge is deeper than a simple dramatization of Starhawk’s politics. For that reason, this book belongs not just in the hands of Pagans or activists, but in the hands of any reader who is struggling with the realities of this frightening historical moment. Humbly, City of Refuge offers us not simple answers, but instead a variety of ways forward to explore and perhaps make our own.
by Sarah Sadie and Yvonne Aburrow
Sarah and Yvonne decided to write a different kind of blogpost – a conversation. Since we are both poets, we had a conversation about poetry.
Yvonne: For me, a poem starts to build up like a pressure inside me, and then it bursts like a bubble and I get the first few lines and start writing, and then it all comes out in a big rush. Later, I start to refine it, rearranging the lines here and there – but most of my editing is pretty light after the first rush.
What’s your experience?
Sarah: This is what I love about conversations–my process is almost completely different from yours! For me, I will sense a moment–almost like a scent or texture to the day, the hour, that brushes my skin like a spider web…and I have to try to catch at whatever that moment is, put it down on the page in language. It really does feel like having a seventh or eighth sense, in a way. A poem can be just one of those–or sometimes it is a series or combination, that I build over time ,editing lines, switching stanzas around. I work it along for a number of days or weeks…and when I can’t take it any further (Plath: “I simply cannot see where there is to get to”) I set the draft aside for a couple of months. By the time I pull it out I’ve mostly forgotten it and the fresh reading shows me where the trouble spots, the faultlines are.
Do you try to write poetry regularly, to keep yourself searching for that sense of “pressure” or do you wait for it to come to you?
Yvonne: That’s a fascinating process. I often write small pieces of prose in response to the beauty I see all around me, and I suppose those could get turned into poems, and I think that’s my “poetic eye” responding to the world. I used to write poetry more frequently – but lately I’ve been more focused on writing prose. I once wrote a poem about my process where I likened it to the bends – bubbles rising from the depths. Perhaps my process has changed and I need to discover what the new process is.
I do write poetry for ritual and that tends to be more “written to order” (and create spoken poetry extempore in ritual) but even that has waned of late. Maybe I should stop waiting for it to come to me, and seek out the Muse a bit more actively. I have a fairly strong image of my muse – a dark man who lives in a cave (probably also my animus).
Do you feel that you have a Muse?
Sarah: Before I answer that question… 😉
I really like the word you use above : response. Because poetry (by extension, any art) is a response, it is part of a conversation between the writer and the larger world–and just writing that I realize how much our writing is a form of listening. And we have a response-ability that can grow, shift, change as we do over the years. When you say “Perhaps my process has changed and I need to discover what the new process is” I shout YES–with two new books out this year, I feel I’ve tapped out a bit. Need to open to the next thing.
A book of poems feels like an album to me–Prince’s death (and Bowie’s, before that) have me thinking about similarities between how I feel about creating a book and how they created albums. There are the individual songs, and then there is the overall vision–the sum is greater than the individual parts. Beyonce’s Lemonade is an immediate contemporary example as well. (btw, isn’t it fascinating how people are picking up on the polytheist content of Lemonade).
In the years that I was Poet Laureate of Madison, Wisconsin, I also wrote poems to order and I found it–at that time in my writing life–a welcome challenge. The City gave awesome and random writing prompts (the rededication of a replica Statue of Liberty; a poem to introduce a political scientist who specializes in polling procedures; a poem for Obihiro, Japan among others)–and deadlines to boot!
Poems and spellwork are very closely related. Very, very closely, imo. So are poems and theology, for that matter.
As for my muse–yes, I have one. Also male (I would love to see an anthology of women (and men) writing about and to their male muses. It’s about time to balance the record on this). He is a reclusive character–I only catch glimpses once in a while. Just as often, I am writing to particular friends or family members–a poem sometimes (often) feels like an old-fashioned letter, to me.
I’m extremely restless with myself as a writer these days…to be a text artist in a visual age is not easy. I’m trying to understand where I go next–it feels very much like walking blind through thorns, at the moment.
What about you? Do you have a next writing project you’re launching into?
Yvonne: Yes, I’m currently working on a book about the inner work of witchcraft (that’s the working subtitle). There will be a fair amount about embodied spirituality and responding to Nature, as well as energy work, how the circle is a microcosm, visualisation, meditation, and so on.
I was interested by what you said about being a text writer in a visual age. I suppose we can take some comfort from the way that poetry is the most visual form of writing. I also know one poet who illustrates his work with photo-collages. And then there was Kahlil Gibran, who accompanied his poems with his own drawings. I was never quite sure how the drawing related to the poem, but it was interesting.
I completely agree that poetry is related to theology and magic; they use the same twilight mode of consciousness. Spells and ritual words often take the form of poetry – Doreen Valiente was very good at that. I wish people would study a little and find out about different meters and poetic devices such as assonance and the caesura though. And theology is sometimes poetic (and ought to be more often). Alison Leigh Lilly springs to mind as someone who writes poetic theology. I think also that poets, like comedians, see connections that others have missed. Both comedy and poetry are sacred arts, showing the world hidden connections and undercurrents.
Is that what you had in mind?
Sarah: Wasn’t it Victor Anderson who said that “White magic is poetry. Black magic is anything that works.” ? I agree completely that people who write spells and rituals as poetry would do well to study the craft–it is an aspect of craft like any other and the more adept you are, the stronger your ritual will be.
I also really like what Seamus Heaney wrote (I’m paraphrasing here and not doing it full justice, but the idea comes across): that a poem is like the paper bird we tape in the picture window–it’s not a real bird, but it causes the birds outside to veer their course. A poem isn’t “real life”–but it can cause us to swerve a bit. It has an effect. An impact.
It may be that poetry is as close to my religion as any recognized Pagan tradition. And I’m okay with that.
Great conversation–thank you!
Yvonne: Poetry as religion – I’ll drink to that! For me it is a sacred vocation, and one that no-one can take away from me. One is a witch in community, one has a job title conferred by an employer: but one can be a poet without approval or sanction from anyone else. Even a child writing their first poems may call themselves a poet. I love that.
And poetry as magic: definitely! A poem can transform your perspective and perceptions, it can be an incantation (did you ever hear Yeats reading The Lake Isle of Innisfree? It’s like he’s reading a spell), it can be an invocation to change the world.