Conversation with Jimmy Santiago Baca

August 9, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The writer Jimmy Santiago Baca has two new books out this summer: “Healing Earthquakes” which is a collection of love poetry, and “A Place to Stand,” a memoir of his childhood in new co-and his six years in a maximum security prison after being convicted, wrongly he says, of possession of drugs with intent to sell. Santiago Baca taught himself to read and write and published his first poetry while there. Since then his eight volumes of verse have won numerous prizes, including the American Book Award. In 1989 he held the Wallace Stevens endowed chair at Yale University. Thanks for being with us.

JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA, Author, “Healing Earthquakes” and “A Place to Stand:” Thank you very much.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why a memoir, prose, about your past after many years of writing poetry about it?

JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA: Well, there are some things that a writer has to do to move on, and this was one of those things where I had to… In order to go, to broaden out myself as a writer and to sort of expand my wings, so to speak, I had to go… I had to deal with a memoir because it kept getting in the way.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It’s an amazing story. You tell the story of your childhood. You were deserted by your parents. Your grandparents took care of you for a while. Then you ended up in a orphanage and finally in prison. Tell the story of how the… The specific story of how words and language entered your life and helped save you.

JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA: Well, you know, words… Words were like butterflies and I always had spring inside my heart. I speak metaphorically, of course. But words were magical prayers to me. They were single stars that were… That came out of people. In dark times it seemed that words were really special to me. We didn’t really have a lot of books around the house when I was growing up except the bible, and I think that’s about it. Then, of course, I never had any books until I was in county jail, when I took that one book.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us what happened.

JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA: Well, I stole the book from the clerk, the desk clerk, and I took it up to my cell. Late at night I was tearing pages out of it so I could cook up some coffee. Everyone was yelling for their coffee. They were wondering why I wasn’t coming because I was… I was on time most of the time, and what happened was I got… As the fire beneath the coffee can was flaring, I caught a couple of words that I recognized phonetically. As I read more and more, I quit tearing the pages out of the book and I began to read more and more. It was about a man who was walking his dog around a lake. And that triggered phenomenal memories in me of my grandfather and the love I had for him and how we went around the pond with our sheep and dog. Incidentally the man’s name that I was reading later on that night I fell asleep enunciating the name words – words — Wordsworth.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Then in prison you just kept loving words more and more and you started writing to somebody who sent you books. Eventually you had poetry published in Mother Jones Magazine even while you were in prison. How did you go from being almost illiterate to that?

JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA: It was really funny because I didn’t know how to address a letter and I didn’t know how to… I didn’t know people paid for poetry. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing. But a friend of mine came by. I think he was tired… I was charging people cigarettes and coffees to write letters to their mothers and write letters to their girlfriends and poems and so forth, for Mother’s Day. He came by and said, hey, they’re buying poems here. I asked how to address it. I took my shoebox and grabbed a bunch of poems that I had written on baby paper. And I sent them to a place called San Francisco — never expecting to hear back from them. When $300 came in my books at the prison that I was in, I bought the whole cell block ice cream that day. Everyone ate ice cream.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You love language, you say. I’m going to ask you to read a poem in a minute. First tell us how you love language and why. You’ve called it almost a physical thing for you.

JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA: Oh, I love language. I love language. Language, to me, is what sunrise is to the birds. Language, to me, is what water is to a man that just crossed the desert. I remember, as a boy, when grown-ups, they looked like huge redwood trees to me in a storm, or they looked like boats without a map in a bad storm at sea. And the grown-ups in my life were always caught up in dramas. And the one thing that they all had in common was they couldn’t express that storm inside of themselves. And I was so caught up in that drama that I vowed one day I would grasp hold of the power that could evoke their emotions. For me, at least, I wanted to know how to say what was happening to them and I wanted to know….


JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA: I just wanted to know… I wanted to name things.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Read a poem for us where you do name things. This is from “Healing Earthquakes,” your new books of poetry.

JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA: Yes. This is number 18, part one. “Yesterday driving across the bridge with my friend the brilliant orange cottonwood leaves along the river made me think of love. And the red plum tree next to the bus stop bench of enduring resilience, and the brown leaves in the gutter became my disappointments. I imagined a ghostly specter visiting my bedside and piling those brown leaves on my tiny heart. That was when my friend asked me who or what did God give his unending blessings? He expected me to say the innocent, but I replied that God gives his blessings and miracles to what rots and is broken and is crumbling — that which is decomposing. Blessings in the rot, in the dark matter that is breaking apart like a fractured wall, bricks falling to the ground because life wants opened fields, not separation – everything integrating into one black mass of decreation and creation — birthing and dying. In the wound is freedom; in the young crippled boy struggling to step up to the bus, the imperfect. Walls everywhere. Every business has barred windows. Walls, walls. We admire the Mercedes driver with smoked tinted windows. His walls allow no intrusion. But the hitchhiker’s walls have come down. The kid on the street corner with purple locks is saying look at my purple hair. It’s my wall. But walls that fall are where life feasts on miracles or where God lives and does the work of true living.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I love this poem both for the language but also because it seems to express sort of the central theme of your work. Tell me if I’m right about this: The necessity of the walls to fall and the sort of holiness of what isn’t perfect.

JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA: I think you’re right, yeah. I have this passion for what’s not perfect. I have a passion for opening up the heart to the world. I have a passion for people that have the courage to live with their souls on their skin, so to speak.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And for bringing down walls of all kinds, prison walls. You do a lot of work in workshops, walls of racism. You not only write about this but you work on this, don’t you? You teach literacy. You work with people who have been harmed by whatever.

JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA: Yes, yes. I just finished a big workshop at Chino Prison and I have an ongoing workshop at a dance studio here, and I do a lot of things but basically the impetus for the work that I do is generated from a passion that we all need to communicate. I think in the communication is our dance.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You’re writing pretty much alone now. I read that you’ve spent a lot of time in recent years alone. I guess you would have to spend a lot of time working to finish two books that both came out at the same time. Tell us about how you write and why it’s important for you to be alone.

JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA: I think that loneliness really is my intimate companion. I used to try to avoid it. But now I embrace it. I write… I get up in the morning about 5:00 and 5:30 and then I sort of roust about, water the plants, read a little bit, maybe, go outside. I start writing and I write very eclectically. I’m sort of eccentric in the sense that I’ll write a… ten minutes and get up, walk around, sit down, write five minutes, get up, walk around. I’ll do different things according to what I’m writing. With this particular book of poetry, “Healing Earthquakes,” I had a different approach. I sat down and just wrote passionately, a burst, a shower burst so to speak. When I’m writing something else like short stories or a novel, they each have their different approaches that affect me physically and that I follow physically. So that’s how I do it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Jimmy Santiago Baca, author of “A Place to Stand” and “Healing Earthquakes,” thanks for being with us.

JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA: It’s my pleasure. Thank you.