Cameron Conaway discusses poetry-performing gangbangers, freedom, social justice and attentiveness with Jimmy Santiago Baca.
Things in the world can go down like this:
Your parents can abandon you at a young age. You can be convicted on charges of drug possession and spend six and a half years in prison. You can be an incarcerated poet, submit to a literary journal, and begin a relationship with a renowned writer like Denise Levertov, who helps you land a home for your first book. You can win the American Book Award and go on to be a person who inspires thousands around the world. But you can’t be the whole shebang because Jimmy Santiago Baca’s got it covered. He’s a man’s man because he is a man who is himself.
Baca is a poet all contemporary poets study, but it’s his life story and the way he, as he wrote to me via Facebook message, can “roam the world with a monk’s eye deep in solitude” that is perhaps the greatest lesson he can teach young writers and young people in general. I lucked out and caught him when he settled from roaming. Let’s get to it:
CC: Jimmy, many of our readers know your work and know it well. Let us roam elsewhere. Tell us: What has your monk’s eye been viewing? What topic or subject or thing in the world has most recently caught your interest?
JSB: Well, not viewing but attentive to‑the other day my tire was low, and I went into town to fill it up with air. I got to Trujillo’s gas station and asked the elderly lady inside to use her air. For 50 cents I could use it, and I went outside and unraveled the hose—snarled and knotted on the ground. I aired up my tire and very carefully looped it around an old 1920′s steel tractor wheel rim. A voice in my head said, If it’s all you do today, learn how to carefully and consciously loop this hose around the rim. It felt good to do something so simple and yet so attentive and focused. When I went inside and gave her 50 cents, she smiled wide and sad, Thank you for wrapping the hose. I nodded, walked out feeling good about having done such a small thing that imparted such large meaning to my life.
Yesterday I sat in my chair in my cabin watching a butterfly fluttering high above near the rafters. My daughter had pointed it out to me earlier. Hours later, now that I sat in the chair, it was still there, fluttering against the window pane, which is long as a cathedral window, at least 20 feet high. I wondered why it didn’t come down to the open sliding door and fly free; instead it stayed up there for hours on end fluttering against the pane, always floating a few inches down and then going higher again, as if expecting that going higher and higher would release it somehow. Go lower, I thought, and you’ll free yourself. Through the pane, faraway at the peaks I could see three black eagles circling, and I thought heights are for them, not for us—not for my butterfly spirit. I spent a good part of my life fluttering at the heights seeking freedom. Only when I descended into my own life, my own darkness, my own humility, did I find it.
CC: Jimmy, some poets I’ve talked to refer to you as the “master of the workshop.” You’ve facilitated workshops with small children, adult males in correctional institutions, high schools throughout and beyond Arizona and everywhere, and with everyone in between. What is it about the workshop that keeps you so enthralled? Can you tell us one workshop memory you’ll never forget?
JSB: Workshops allow me to serve the community and give back the gift I was given—mainly, the freedom to express my self. I’m not interested in the bullshit literary aspects as much as I am in melting the cage bars that confine the human soul. I try to make meaning from the misery and sorrow oppressed peoples suffer.
I’ve seen it all, brother. I had a kid once, a gangbanger who had shot another kid at a park over a girl. He suffered from severe depression; anyway, I worked with him, and once let loose, he wrote volumes of poetry. I invited him to come read with me at SFCC, Santa Fe Community College. I read. And then I was followed by a line of stupid and ridiculous poet laureates from Santa Fe, the fine-tuned type manufactured to uphold the status quo and blind themselves to injustice—that kind—anyway, this kid goes up and reads, and as he’s reading about an attempted suicide in his mother’s basement home, a woman’s voice from the back of the crowd shrieks, and she rises frantically and rushes the stage. It’s his mother, and she’s weeping that she didn’t know she didn’t know she didn’t know—they weep and embrace on stage—THAT’S WHAT POETRY IS SUPPOSED TO DO—the refined poets sat there stunned not understanding what was happening. It was lovely.
CC: Jimmy, issues of social justice have long been at the heart of your work. What are some of the hot “breaking news” issues about which you currently feel passionate?
JSB: Immigration. Prison reform. Education. Spirituality…
CC: Thanks for taking some time out for us, Jimmy. We will all continue learning from your past, present, and future works.
JSB: Thank you, brother, keep in touch.
Main photo courtesy of Jimmy Santiago Baca.