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[whitespace] Jimmy Santiago Baca Unguarded: Jimmy Baca started writing poetry when he was in prison--in the middle of taking a shower.


Language on the Line

For Jimmy Santiago Baca, poetry is the ultimate act of self-creation

By Louise Brooks

IT'S CLEAR from Jimmy Santiago Baca's voice that he hasn't done an interview in five years. Talking on the phone from his home/office in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the poet seems happy to talk, is constantly laughing along with his comments, and he expects an interviewer not only to ask questions, but to answer them as well.

Baca has been sticking close to home in recent years, passing up teaching opportunities in order to "live among the coyotes and the horny toads, and track down a roadrunner to see where its nest is. That gives me pleasure, I can write about that. So that's what I do. I try to not distract myself with Madonna's newest CD."

Over the past two decades Baca has gained recognition, numerous literary awards and chairs at Yale and Berkeley for his lyrical volumes of poetry (Immigrants in Our Own Land, Martín & Meditations on the South Valley, Black Mesa Poems). His vision focuses on the arid, impoverished, searingly beautiful Southwestern landscape of his youth. Much of his poetry and autobiographical writing (Working in the Dark: Reflections of a Poet of the Barrio) also focuses on the continual rebirth of himself through poetry. He does not describe an easy, blissful emergence, however. His is a wrenching, painful birth from which the poet emerges, ragged, bloody and squinting in the light.

"It really is beautiful to encounter pain," Baca says, "because right behind the pain is God waiting, you know? Right behind the pain is the pool with the fish. I'm a fisherman, by the way. If you have to follow a small channel of water for five miles in the heat, and you come to a really beautiful pool, and there's some trees, and you see all these incredible fish? There it is, man. That's the journey. But we gear this whole society, everything we have, and everything we do, to go away from pain."

Reviewing the details of Baca's life, there is plenty of pain to look at. He grew up in New Mexico, largely by himself, spending some time in an orphanage. He points out, however, that his self-sufficient childhood gave him a huge freedom of imagination and exploration.

"Left to the resources of a child's innocence," he says, "I think it's really amazing what can happen."

He remembers one hot summer afternoon, roaming around town, and meeting a bum in an alley behind a restaurant. "I just kind of looked at him, and his whole face was filled with memories and experience, but I remember thinking he was so poor and so solitary and so lonely and such a destitute character, and yet, when that guy sat down on the ground and pulled out a harmonica, it was the most beautiful song I had ever heard."

Hitting the streets as a teenager with few resources and no education, Baca soon ended up in prison on drug charges. It was in prison that Baca stole a book of Romantic poetry and taught himself to read and write. It was a process he compares to putting on glasses for the first time, and discovering he'd needed them his whole life. He remembers the first poem that he wrote during this time.

"I was naked in the shower. I was in prison, and I think I was reading Turgenev. I soaped myself up, and all of a sudden I got hit with a lightening bolt. You know how they call it the 'muse'? I call it the 'Mohammed Ali left hook.' These lines came to me, and I ran out of the shower naked and the guard hit the alarm button, because you can't run, you know?

"Besides, there goes a naked Mexican running down the hall, what are you going to do? He hit the alarm button, and I ran into my cell with soapy hands and stuff, and wrote down these six lines of poetry. And then of course, the soap got in my eyes and reality came back and I had to rush back to the shower to wash the soap off. But at that point I think I was classified as a nutcase."

The poem was a response to a group of senators who had come touring through the prison the previous day, examining the aftermath of a riot. Baca's first poetic refrain was: "Did you tell them, that hell is not a dream, that you've been there, did you tell them?"

A Natural Act

BACA IS IN Santa Cruz in large part to work with at-risk youth. He'll give workshops with homeless teens, inmates at Soledad State Prison and kids in a juvenile detention center. Partly, Baca believes that poetry gives voice to individuals who might otherwise remain silent. He writes about the silence that he witnesses in the Latino community, a silence he terms "protective." He argues that when Latino kids grow up hearing that their community is filled with nothing but drugs and crime, and they know this not to be true, they learn to mistrust and remain silent around the society that tells them this.

Baca says his work with kids also keeps his own voice strong.

"Let me give you an example; there's dead languages that you study in classical language departments that are never used. And then there's the language that you hear on the street corner, or the language that you hear on Wall Street, or the language that you hear during the Beat generation, or the rappers, or techno people. You have all these different kinds of languages that are immediately describing the lived experience of people that are [living] now.

"I don't dismiss the academic and scholarly sectors of society," he continues. "I go listen to what they say, and I read what they write. But it's not near as exciting as hearing language invented from experiences that have truly been lived, almost, in many cases, on the verge of dying. I've never heard a professor stand up and say, 'I'll give my life for this.' And yet I listen to these kids and they say, 'I'll give up my life, I put my life on the line with this poem about my mom.' And I'm like, 'Wow.' That keeps educating me about where my poetry should be."

Ultimately, for Baca, poetry becomes a personal process of representation and creation. "If I'm making a sandwich, and I'm peeling an avocado, as a poet I represent myself; and if I pay attention to what I'm doing with the avocado and I write a poem about the avocado, then representing myself is representing the avocado--I am the avocado. Poetry extends in ways that don't limit it. It gives you a brief view of the intense beauty of life." Through the act of writing he also constantly re-creates himself; he becomes a man capable of healing some wounds and humble enough to accept that others cannot be healed.

"You can't write poetry and be an asshole," Baca claims. "Not while you're writing it. You can be an asshole after you write it. I've heard some really bad poems in my time, but I'll bet you the person felt like a saint when he or she was writing it. So I'm saying that the act of writing poetry is a beautiful act."

He starts to laugh. "It's like seeing a dog pee on a fire hydrant. It's just so natural, so normal, it's just the way it goes."


Jimmy Santiago Baca reads Wednesday (April 4), 2:30-4pm, Cabrillo College, Rm. 456, free; on Sunday (April 8), 2-4pm, Watsonville Public Library, free; and Tuesday (April 10), 7:30pm, Bookshop Santa Cruz, $3 donation. For more info call 831.462.1889.

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From the April 4-11, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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