, Research Paper
Originally published in Callaloo–A Journal of
African-American and African Arts and Letters,
Winter 1994, Volume 17, Number 1
"POETRY IS WHAT WE SPEAK TO EACH OTHER"
An Interview With Jimmy Santiago Baca
By John Keene
This interview was conducted by telephone from Charlottesville, Virginia, on August
KEENE: Mr. Baca, in your book of essays, Working in the Dark: Reflections of a Poet
of the Barrio, you speak at length and eloquently about how the school system
completely failed you–and how it fails so many young people, especially so many young
people of color–and how you had to teach yourself, as a young adult and while in prison,
first to read and then to write. Reading and writing, especially writing poetry, were
vital to you in the beginning: you were using poems to survive, to barter for things among
your fellow prisoners. Would you please tell me more about your early development as a
BACA: Well, with a question such as yours everything seems to overlap like in a
philosophy class when you start talking about life. In terms of my development, I’m not
sure whether I needed to breathe more, or to write poetry more: you see, that’s the kind
of urgency that was upon me. I sometimes don’t know if I would have been able to continue
to breathe had I not been able to read poetry, because I came upon poetry in much the same
way that an infant first gasps for breath.
KEENE: I see.
BACA: I don’t know if I would have lived had I not found poetry. When I began to read,
I began very slowly, and a religious man had sent me these books that had English and
Spanish on opposing pages. The material was very rudimentary, elementary, kind of
religious teachings. Now what happened was that I would read most of the day and into the
night, and I would pronounce the language aloud. I pronounced adjectives and adverbs and
nouns and prepositions and so forth aloud, and then early in the morning I would wake up
and begin to write in a journal.
KEENE: What sorts of things were you recording there? Mere words, thoughts,
BACA: I was writing things that I remember doing as a kid and as an adult and so forth.
And what happened was that, in a place like prison where all sensory enjoyment was
deprived, language became more real, more tangible than bars or concrete, than the
structure of buildings in the landscape. So I began to read, to read and write in the
sense that, metaphorically, I wrapped myself in this cocoon of language, and when I came
back out, I was no longer the caterpillar: I was a butterfly.
KEENE: I am interested in that caterpillar stage: what were those first poems like?
When you would write letters for other convicts or recite these first poems for your
fellow prisoners, what were the effects on them and on you?
BACA: Well, when I would read to the convicts, there was a sense of awe, my awe, their
awe, and at the same time a sense of vulnerability, of my, our vulnerability. In other
words, language had such a tremendous power, and then, in many instances with convicts,
language was the very tool that had been used to destroy them and their families.
BACA: For example, when their mothers and fathers had gone into offices to ask about
taxes and didn’t know how to speak English, they were assaulted with English, by this same
language. It was their mothers and fathers who had gone to courts and not understood the
English language and were too proud to ask for interpreters. You see, the pride of these
people comes from the fact that they had been living on this land for anywhere from 500 to
2000 years. They had a direct family lineage of living on the land, and of the many
catastrophes and tragedies that occurred in their lives, one could trace most directly to
their inability to understand the English language.
KEENE: In a way your circumstances as well?
BACA: Absolutely. And then, years later, here’s this man in prison who’s reading poetry
to these convicts, and it’s cosmoses away from how they understood it, how they had
encountered it before. Now it was celebrating who they were and their hearts and their
heritage and their languages and their culture.
KEENE: In what languages were these early poems? Were they primarily in either English
and Spanish or were they a more complex mixture, a reflection of your background, your
community? I remember reading somewhere of your mentioning some songs that passed down to
you that were a mixture of Spanish and Tewa.
BACA: I was trilingual. I was writing phonetically the Indian language, Spanish, and
English. I was writing phonetically because the furor of my thoughts boiling over mandated
that I just write from sound.
KEENE: And so now the convicts looked at the function of language, at poetry,
differently, coming from this fellow convict, this young poet?
BACA: Exactly, they looked at it with a sense of awe, that it was an amazing gift that
God had given me. It was something that few of them could fathom and that all of them
praised. Interestingly enough, I get letters from time to time from convicts who were in
prison with me, and the one underlying current that travels through all of their
correspondence–and that I was blind to at the time, because I was consumed and absorbed
by the language–is that whatever it is I was doing was tremendously inspiring for
KEENE: You do realize this now, don’t you?
BACA: Sure, now that I’m a bit more seasoned and have put some distance between that
time and this time, I look upon it very pleasantly that I was able to fulfill that role
through language, through poetry, and really inspire those who were lacking all faith and
KEENE: Earlier you said that your first journal entries were of memories of your
childhood. You say in one of your essays that "I draw my poetry from the night, from
the culture of night where our daily selves are transformed." Would you discuss this
quote with me and talk about how you went from simply writing poems to assembling your
early chapbooks and selecting the work that comprised Immigrants in Our Own Land
BACA: Well, Immigrants in Our Own Land was the first book of my poetry that was
published by a larger press, by Louisiana State University Press at first, and now by New
Directions. But let me talk about it this way: there are two sides to life. There’s the
side of life that is mandated by the mores and etiquette of society, and that particular
life is extremely simple to understand and define. You know, you buy a new car, you get a
good job, you have a nice car or house, and you try to become a family man if that’s your
bent, and it’s very simple how that whole thing is structured. That whole system is
structured such that within it are these long veins of racism and bigotry and injustice,
and they’re very simple to pick out. You can simply sit in any courthouse in the United
States today, sit in any courthouse and all day the judge sees cases, and at the end of
the day you’re going to say, fine, there were two hundred people that went through court
today, one hundred were black, and they were all sent to prison.
BACA: Ninety were brown and they were sent to prison. Ten were white and they were
freed. It’s easy to figure all this out. So then you go to another place, to a banker, and
then you realize that he has some suspicions about you because you don’t fit the mold that
he comes from, and so you’re not given the loan that you would like to have to put an
addition on your house. So it’s very simple if you go about society to the various
institutions and sit and witness it. The other side of life, however, is a bit more
complicated and concerns what happens in our souls, what constitutes all the cosmic and
spiritual clashes that rearrange the plates of our spiritual landscapes. To me all of this
is much more interesting than what happens during the day. And so I really try to pay very
close attention to the intuitive voice that travels through the canyons of the bone. I
don’t try to harvest my poetry from what happens in society’s institutions as much as I
try to reap the poems from what’s happening behind the boundaries of society.
KEENE: Please elaborate.
BACA: In other words, while Clinton may stand up and speak about the tremendous freedom
that we have in this country, there has never been a time that we’ve had more writers in
the United States who are in prison and who are kept incommunicado. Their tablets and
pencils and everything have been taken from them. There’s never been a time when there
have been more of these people in solitary confinement, in the dark, than there are today.
So that’s sort of what I’m talking about by "darkness"; I’m really interested in
the things that happen in the dark, in the culture of the dark, meaning that, of their own
power and force things are bound to come up like the wheat in the sidewalk.
KEENE: How would you relate this to what you have also written, which is that one
should not place inordinate trust in critics, nor give oneself over to academic mindgames,
but instead believe in a poetry, that follows the "maddened drum of one’s own
passions"? How too does myth fit in here? What is its role for you? How is background
structured around metaphors that may or may not have been lost and how have you used those
metaphors to bring yourself into humanity, into humanness, as a man, as a poet, as a
BACA: I firmly believe that there are those myths that pertain to a society, and then
there are those myths that pertain to an individual. One of the interesting things,
though, is that either type of myth never dies. And the interesting thing about myths is
that there are psychological and spiritual and emotional myths that are just as real and
buried as the dinosaur bones we’re discovering today. We’re having to redefine the history
of the evolution of who we are. Those same myths are very, very alive in us and the more
that we discover them, the more we discover our own journey.
KEENE: As human beings, people, poets?
BACA: All. Where we come from and where we go. And I also strongly believe that when
you discover a myth in yourself, you cannot approach it with a formulated or prefabricated
critique, you cannot template it. What’s going to happen is that you discover a myth or a
symbol, in the same way that a child discovers its mother, not so much through the mind,
but through the sensors, through the mouth and the nose and the fingers and hands; this
personal mythology really does sustain one, as much as infant’s discoveries enable breast
feeding. Myths and symbols, we never become adults in their presence. We’re always
children in awe of them, and those are the things truly that give us insight into the
darkness that we go through. It’s strange because we live in a society that says myth and
symbol have been replaced by science. You really see it at a place like Los Alamos here
and at other science centers around the country.
KEENE: Science has assumed the former sway of myth, religion?
BACA: It’s all being replaced by scientists who are pursuing the ultimate, who want to
crack the ultimate secret, and it’s strange because if you go visit Los Alamos–and in Los
Alamos you can visit a lot of them–when you go to the houses of many of these scientists,
you realize that these are people who have lost their myths. These are people who have
lost their symbols, you know. The way that you can tell this is simply by walking through
their homes. You see that they’ve created their lives out of order, in revenge against the
KEENE: You seem to be saying that science as seen through the lives of these
scientists, through the world that they structure, becomes a masculine entity. Opposed
perhaps to the feminine, the humanities. Science in this sense is hard, clean,
BACA: Well, the atmosphere is very antiseptic and sterile, an abysm that you walk
through when you visit their lives. Everything is interpreted through science, and you’re
sort of left with a dryness in your mouth, as if you’d just taken a tablespoon of castor
KEENE: For this sort of world-view, we might speak of its binary opposite as that which
is soft, shifting, blurring, emotional: the arts, humanities, poetry. In both your poems
and your essays, you talk about the duality of yourself as a poet, about the feminine side
that informs your writing of poetry. Your discussion of this interested me because I don’t
very often hear men talk about this idea of their duality. Will you say something more
about all of this, as it sort of relates to this whole notion of having lost the notion of
myth and mothering, and these signs and symbols that really go back to the beginning of
BACA: A remarkable thing occurred to me when I came upon language, and I really began
to provoke language to decreate me and then to give birth to me again. What I experienced
was this: when you approach language in this being-reborn sense, you approach language in
the way that the Hopis approach language, which is that language is a very real living
being. That’s how I approach language. I approach it as if it will contain who I am as a
person. Now, when language begins to work itself on you and make certain demands of you,
it begins to ask you to risk yourself and walk along its edge. When it does that and you
do that, the Yoruba people in Africa have a symbol that they create, and it’s made out of
bamboo-leaves, gold, and rosary beads on it and so forth, and it curls up on itself. This
symbol has a thick base so that it’s almost like a gourd. It curls all the way around
itself and goes back into the thick base, this is the gift that they give men who have
given birth to themselves.
KEENE: Which is what happened with you.
BACA: Which is what happened with me–I gave birth to myself. You have to understand
that what I’ m saying, it came before Robert Bly’ s Iron John, it comes before all
of this mainstream computer-chip valley stuff that they’re putting out for the male white
corporate executive. All of this birthing and the femininity in the men is a very
indigenous characteristic I’ve seen practiced since I was born. I’ve seen men do it. And
simply, what happens is that they begin to nourish themselves. They begin to nourish
themselves, taking their sustenance from mother earth and all the things that they see
about them. In other words, direct observation of the world around them comes into them,
and they may not be as smart bookwise as most people…
KEENE: Which does not matter.
BACA: … But there’s a tremendous feminine characteristic in them that is directly
geared toward nourishing and sustaining generation after generation of people who are
threatened from all sides. I can distinctly remember when we didn’t have anything to eat,
as a child, when my grandfather would begin to sing all these songs. And the songs surely
but surely would end up taking our hunger away. Or, I remember that we had windstorms that
were so terrible they would come and knock barns down, knock houses down, and my
grandmother would hold me against her chest where I could hear the vibrations in her
bones, in her chest, because she was a small Apache woman. She would begin to hum these
deep, deep hymns, and the vibrations in her bones were a male song that was sung to me as
a little child: do not be afraid of the wind, the wind will not come in here. And then we
also believed in different gods outside, the wind gods and the wind spirits and stuff. And
so I was terrified, but when her singing began, I was being given masculinity through my
grandmother’s singing and femininity through my grandfather’s singing. And then when we’d
go to the fields to work, my grandfather would always tell me how beautiful it was for a
man to be gentle with mother earth, how she was our mother and how when we handled the
plants we were handling a young woman.
KEENE: If only this were our usual view of things! Society has lost much of this,
however. Would you say that the people of your generation–and I am thinking here of
Chicano, Indian people–would you say they received this knowledge and passed it on or is
this something that needs to be retaught among the younger people?
BACA: I think it needs to be retaught because I think, for all of us, our history is
such that it’s still very recent. Let me give you an example. Black folks had a system of
slavery that was imposed upon them. Now we have lots of scholars who have studied all of
this extensively. One of the strange things about our history as the Chicano people is
that we still live under a slave system that nobody wants to recognize, and it’s very
strange that during the hearings for the Attorney General, a lot of those people were
saying, well you can’t come in and be a judge since you have these two people working for
you that you haven’t paid taxes on. And it’s strange that that’s multiplied about 10
million times across the country; there’s an awful lot of us who are being paid $8 a
KEENE: But is that slavery?
BACA: Nobody wants to call it a system of slavery. Many of these $8-a-day workers are
people who have lived here for many hundreds of years. But it’s like, I mean, I can go out
on the street right now and pick up four Chicanos and pay them, tell them I’ll give all of
you guys five bucks each if you work all day. And chances are they’re going to say okay
because they don’t have any food and they have to pay the bills. They’re completely at the
mercy of these employers. So the whole system is still very much part of our contemporary
reality. The interesting thing about your question is that the answer is yes, I do need
to, we all need to re-educate our children to the indigenous values that we hold as a
people, that have made our heritage what it is and sustained us up to today. The good
thing is this: as I said before, this history has been fairly recent, because it was in
the 1950’s and 1960’s that we made these mass migrations from what we call the
"campos," the villages, the pueblos. We all came in from the villages and
pueblos about 1950 and onward, so our urbanization has been rather recent, and so when I
go to schools to talk to young kids and I begin to speak about the indigenous values,
almost all of them shake their heads because they instinctively feel that it’s real, it’s
that close to them.
KEENE: So you’re saying that much of this empowering, sustaining knowledge still
BACA: The basic threshold, the cornerstone, is in all the people. We simply have to
reaffirm that by telling the people that it’s okay to come home now, you can return
because we really miss you. You don’t have to give away your identity, your culture, your
language, your dances, your songs, your poetry, your paintings to become an
"assimilated" white Anglo male. You don’t have to do that anymore. You can come
back home and be successful in this society and still offer it all the resources that come
from your culture.
KEENE: You write of having wanted to remake yourself as " the blondest hair,
bluest eyed" Chicano out there and of how you felt when the people in the barrio had
begun to mock you, how you could not understand why you were trying to do this, how they
saw right through you. But the flip side is that there was only one other world left to
you, the world that led you to prison and leads so many of our young people to crime and
imprisonment. I know you are now working with organizations like the Puente Foundation.
How have you been able to enrich the lives of these young people so that they do not
experience such powerful self-loathing?
BACA: When I’m working here on my farm by myself, I become privy to the most
extraordinary beauty that’s provoked through language, and I’m left many times just
weeping and thinking, how can I carry this ephemeral substance and place it in another
child’s hands? One of the wonderful things about the Puente Project is that when all the
kids come together, hundreds and hundreds of them, I get to share all of this with them.
And instead of reflecting back to them what mainstream society has done for 500 years,
which is to say, "You’re a lazy Mexican who sleeps under a cactus with a mule,"
I reflect back to them the extraordinary beauty that they are. There’s no feeling like it
in the world! It’s a very palpable feeling that begins to come out of their stories; say
there’s a thousand of them, and I’m standing down on this podium below, in this big, huge
lecture hall, and there’s no experience quite like it when all those thousand kids begin
to just have this love for themselves flow down.
KEENE: You are teaching them to be reborn, to be reborn in love of themselves.
BACA: Right, and for the first time in your life you realize what it must feel like to
be born as a child and have a society built around your values–an extraordinary feeling
of being very close to God at that moment. And I never had that feeling before, ever. As
I stood there speaking for the first time for an hour on the tremendous beauty that they
represented, on their inheritance of all of this, on what they embodied, I’ d begin to
feel an extraordinary sense of belonging to this society. Experiencing this, remember this
is a very invigorating experience that keeps me writing more and more. The first time, the
minute I walked out of the hall, the feeling left me. I was again this anonymous person
without a face or without a culture.
KEENE: I remember your anecdote in which you talk about being on a panel with the
daughters of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and you mention how not a single
Chicano student stood up to ask a question, even though they outnumbered the black and
white students thirty-to-one.
BACA: True. You see, the thing that we’ve been taught as a culture is that it is much
better to keep your silence and not try to overreach yourself because when a people have
had everything taken from them–we had our land taken from us and our culture and our
language, and there’s not much else left to take except our pride–so in order to keep
your pride you don’t overreach yourself. You should become a plumber and not a doctor,
become an electrician and not a lawyer. Because if you don’t make it, you’re going to
shame the family, and we can’t live with that kind of shame. All we have is our pride, so
what I’m basically asking the young Chicano people today is to please break the silence
and you will see that your feelings are reaffirmed a million times throughout the day by
other people who feel the same way. We’ve been taught that silence is best, because
language was one of the primal enemies, and if we could just keep quiet, we would be able
to protect ourselves. And so, the great call of the day in the square, the town-crier, was
"Do not say anything." So consequently when anybody came to the door, most of
the people would run to the back room and would not say anything. They wouldn’t even
answer the door.
KEENE: Which is not so very different from other cultures like African-American
culture, where a tradition of "speaking out," affirming one’s name, identity,
and humanity, was always considered very dangerous, yet people bravely did so.
BACA: But we’ve also been taught that to speak our feelings is something that verges on
arrogance. And since our culture has a really strong strain of humility in it, very few of
us stand up to speak when called upon.
KEENE: But you continue to speak, through your poems, your work with students, through
other means. You worked on a film not too long ago and you describe the experience of
returning to one jail where you’d been incarcerated, and of how, as you drove up, you were
physically revolted by seeing one of the guards who used to inflict these unspeakable
cruelties against you and the other convicts, but then you also describe how, as you were
making this film, you went through whole series of feelings, and how at the end you really
began to be able to deal with the men who were there, imprisoned. What was the toll of
making this movie? How had you worked through all those conflicts of having once been part
of that society where you were now seen as completely different?
BACA: Quite frankly I was stunned by how extensive the system had become! You have to
understand that the prison system alone in California has a budget greater than
three-quarters of the nations on the face of earth.
BACA: The budget of California prison systems alone is larger than that of
three-quarters of the nations on the earth. Think about it. It’s just one state out of
fifty in the United States. Also, on any given day, we have more people in prison than we
have in the school systems in America, and it’s mounting daily. The funny thing is that
this year so many people went to prison, but what we have to understand as a nation is
that we have trained millions upon millions upon millions of convicts and spit them out of
the prison system. We’re not changing or improving things! Out in society, we never want
to think about this. We are going through the same thing that we went through with the
nuclear plants; there were people traveling the country to tell of what might happen if a
nuclear plant did malfunction. But people did not want to listen. Unfortunately, what
makes matters worse here is that there’s nobody in this country walking around talking
about what’s happening when the prison systems malfunction. Yet we have all of this
plutonium that we’ve stored in the sense that every man who comes out of prison is capable
of tremendous chaos and carnage.
KEENE: But am I wrong in stating that if you criticize the prison system, the penal
system, if you call for reforms, if you aim toward dealing with this complex of issues and
talk seriously about rehabilitation, about improving every aspect of our educational
system and about instilling esteem and self-knowledge in the minds of these young people
that you’ll be accused of being soft on crime, of being the stereotypical knee-jerk
liberal? How can you frame this question without appearing to be "soft on
BACA: Well, I think it’s an indignation to the sensibilities of a civilized human being
to walk into a place like I walked into in California and see fifteen thousand kids–and
they’re kids–who are not in prison yet but on their way, fifteen thousand kids who’ve
been given one foot of airspace around their bunks, and to top it off, the washing
machines and the dryers for these fifteen thousand are made and manufactured by the same
people who made and manufactured the death camps in Germany.
KEENE: Oh my! [whispers]
BACA: At that prison, you can look across the street and see Exxon, and you start to
think about what happened in Alaska, about how we will never really be told about the
tremendous loss of wildlife, the destruction of nature there. At that same prison, you can
look across the other street and see this amusement park which has the biggest
rollarcoaster in the world. Then you realize then and there that the rollercoaster is set
for thrills; you see, we put our kids on it and they get a thrill out of life. Look either
way and you realize that it’s all about money. Exxon will take the entire country if it
has to. And then you look into the prison system and see that 85% of the children are
black and brown, and then something horrible begins to turn in your stomach: you realize
that instead of anything changing, the evils that beset the society have become so
sophisticated at camouflaging themselves that you begin to sense this terrible doom about
it all, that things won’t change, that there is no going back. I could only say to those
people who would ask for more prisons to be built that at no time in the history of this
country has anyone ever been able to point to any study or circumstance which affirms that
prisons have helped better society’s problems or reduce crime. And we have never ever
tried any other alternative for the very reason that there’s so much money in the penal
system, it’s a business. To give you an illustration: when I was in prison, the
legislature would set aside money for a $250,000 conditioning system, right?
BACA: And I would see the trucks from my cell window arrive with the air-conditioning
unit, and the next day the air-conditioning unit was gone. It was GONE, never to return.
Neither the Federal Government nor the state nor civilians could hold those prison
officials accountable for anything that they did and do. It’s in the contracts! For
instance, half of the food that was brought to prison–like, let’s say, a truckload of
chickens–would be sold on the black market! And this happens everywhere! Half of the
guards were bringing in guns and selling them to the inmates, bringing in half of the
drugs in prison, half-kilos of cocaine and heroine every week! Everybody knew who they
were; this was just the way the system worked. You asked "how do you frame this
idea," and systems work the same way: how do you frame a system where it works, where
it’s able to give you the kind of picture that you can live with, and yet it doesn’t
confront you, so what’s wrong with it? It becomes okay.
KEENE: Accepting things as they are is always easier; it requires nothing from
BACA: Look at Bush’s son. At the Republican convention, they asked him if he was going
to return that $6 million to the taxpayers, and he smirked into the camera and said,
"Are you kidding me?"
KEENE: [Laughs] You end up having to ask who the criminals are, what behavior is
criminal? You do come to see how power and money frame all questions and issues.
KEENE: I want now to explore another idea that informs your experience and your poetry,
which is "Chicanismo." One of your charges to yourself is "to remain true
to my reality that in doing so I may honor my people and pay full homage to their
spirit." All your books of poetry seem to carry this as their unspoken theme. Would
you just talk about "Chicanismo" and what it might mean for younger people?
BACA: Chicanismo…is a state of being, which has to do with compassion and humility
and patience and love. For example, I’m writing this novel which takes place in an
orphanage, and in one of the scenes this Chicano boy is pushing this Indian kid into the
shower, so that he has to wash. The Indian kid refuses to wash, however. And when little
Daniel, the Chicano boy, pushes him into the shower and realizes that there’s blood on the
boy’s body, on his buttocks, he realizes that the Indian boy has been raped.
BACA: Yes. And what Daniel does is take the sponge and the soap and begin to wash the
boy, because the boy refused to wash for some weeks. So Daniel begins to wash him, and
there’s a point in the description of the paragraph of these two characters where Daniel
gets on his knees and begins to wash the boy’s feet.
KEENE: How incredible!
BACA: What I’m saying through this symbol–for the Chicano and the Indian are both
Indians–is that the little Chicano kid is washing the body, the feet of the Indian boy
who has been raped, and I think as a society–I’m only speaking of the Chicano
people–what we have to do now in order to get back to the idea of Chicanismo, of who we
are as a people and what we can become, I think we first have to go through the grieving
stages of what happened to us as a people; that in fact many, many members of our families
have assimilated and are ashamed of where they come from. This is true, too, of the black
experience; there may be many black folks who are ashamed of their skin…
KEENE: The skin, the past…
BACA: The Chicanos are ashamed of their black culture by which I mean that we wear this
despised aspect of ourselves around our culture; and what I’m saying is, we must grieve
first then go through an act of contrition, in the sense that Daniel washed the Indian
boy’s body. It’s not good enough just to simply grieve. You have to act, because when you
act on grief, grief becomes forgiveness of oneself. You then begin to stand up, and you
become immensely stronger then to go on your journey to decide who and what you’re going
KEENE: This is such both a powerful image and statement. also, the washing of the body,
of the feet alludes to Scripture.
BACA: The Bible.
KEENE: Another area of our heritage. So one could say that through Chicanismo you begin
to resolve the problematic dichotomy between what you received from Spain and Spanish
culture, from Europe, and what you inherited from these Indian cultures that have been
raped, suppressed, written out of the record. I have noticed throughout your essays and
poems that you do look back to the Indio grandfather as a source of great strength.
BACA: I do. What’s interesting about a people who have been colonized is that the
dominant society does such an extraordinary job of taking away their rituals. Because once
you can take away those rituals, you really have done ninety percent of the work. Keeping
these rituals alive is where poetry then becomes very important. There’s been this huge
reaction in academia, especially in the English departments, this incredible backlash that
says black literature, brown literature, and red literature is no good, any you must stay
with our literature, now the white European literature.
KEENE: As if those other literature’s were not our cultural inheritance as well.
BACA: I was privy to these notions in tow outlandish cases, one in San Diego and one in
Santa Fe, where two tenured professors had written letters saying that black culture and
brown culture and red culture and Asian culture were nothing but backwash swamps better
left alone. And those professors who sent those letters were given tremendous amounts of
money to go around the country on the lecturing circuit. So, you see, an awful lot of
people supported these views. These two were held up as heroes. All of this is really
extraordinary to me!
KEENE: Such scenes become typical, especially with the current reaction against
"political correctness." You ask that you and that your culture receive respect,
you ask that these authorities examine more closely what informs their own world view, and
people become hysterical.
BACA: Yes. Many of their criticisms are based on the European, Eurocentric view
that the works of a writer like Toni Morrison or of indigenous people deal heavily with
heritage and family and roots and culture.
KEENE: These texts are only sociology and history, not art; they’re too
BACA: These critics say that writers such as Morrison, such as the indigenous writers,
are simply invoking the maudlin sympathy of their not-very-smart readership. It’s not
really literature: this is what Mark Strand intimated when he was here at a talk, that
women in the Southwest are not really writers. In a recent London Times, there is a
piece by a writer who had just visited the Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe on the Lower East Side.
He talks about this hoopla of indigenous writers, of people of color reading poetry, and
asks if this is supposed to make us think that they’re poets! It was a real bubblebath of
humorism. The guy ended up saying that the only poets that America has ever had and will
ever have are Ginsburg and Burroughs. He broke down the rest of American poetry with
statements like, "the blacks, they make people cry but they’re not poets," and
so on. Now two weeks after I read this, I’m invited to the University of New Mexico to
speak to a writing class. Most of the white kids in the class are saying to me, "I
can’t published because I’m white." So I ask them, "Does that mean, because
you’re white, you should get published?"
KEENE: That’s a twist in perspective!
BACA: And they said, "Well, yes!"
KEENE: [Bursts into laughter].
BACA: Then the professor herself tells me, "I change my last name to a black name,
you know, so that I can get published."
KEENE: A black name?
BACA: That’s what she said. So I said, "Does it work?" And she replied,
"Yes, it works." I thought, is this what you’re teaching your students? I’m
astounded by what’s going on in the English departments, what professors are promoting; on
the one hand, that you would have to take people’s names to get published, but on the
other hand, you have to be white to be a good writer. Now the interesting thing about all
of this as I was going to say was that, when we as poets and writers go deep into our
past, number one, it’s extraordinarily difficult to deal with the pain, because it all has
to do with revelation, and when I dig deep into my past and go to my roots to try to
uncover the metaphors that are going to sustain me spiritually and emotionally and that
are going to put me in the center of the universe feeling comfortable, what’s happening is
that I have a history and a heritage and a culture that I’m reaping so much from, and I
realize that in doing that there are some people who have NO heritage, who have no
culture, other than the culture of money. You know what I’m saying?
BACA: This amazes me. It’s so sad, in a way, because I don’t ever want to disrespect
the gift of poetry. When writing a novel, I know what God has given me is an enormous
journey that is so enriching and I don’t want to mock or criticize those who don’t have
it; but, I don’t understand why, if someone can’t buy something with money, then they must
try to destroy it. In other words, poetry in the Chicano world, in Chicanismo, is such an
inherent part of one’s living that it does not consist of extracting the sympathy of
anyone. It’s a part of one’s living as much as a bull in a field and a rainbow in a sky
and the woman in the morning who’s singing. All are the different threads in the weaving
of one’s life, you know?
KEENE: Chicanismo then is an essential part of the fabric of your poetry and
BACA: Right. When you live in this Chicano world, poetry is what we speak to each
KEENE: Your poems and essays often feature startling images–and "startling"
at least to me–of the sort that in Neruda or Paz have been called "surreal" but
that, as you have just said, are really not "surreal" but which actually arise
from the life that you have lived and are living.
BACA: Yes! It comes out of the hands that people work with and the language that they
speak with and the food that they eat. All of the poetry that Neruda wrote was not so much
"surrealism" as it was "hyper realism." In other words, Europe called
it " surrealism" because of the Europeans minds bent to hide things within
something. Neruda came from Chile, and people there have a tendency to show things, as the
ocean shows things, because they share their land with the ocean. It’s a hyper realism
where "here" is the abundance of who we are.
KEENE: Which is how Garcia M?rquez has described the mythopoetic reality of Macondo,
of the Patriarch’s rule, of the return of the most beautiful drowned man in the
BACA: You know. And when you can live this and not have somebody exploit this
abundance, then you feel trust, you trust enough to show people this; but when you show
people things and they begin to exploit, then you’re forced to hide it. It’s funny how
literature is a meandering stream that comes out of this large lake that’s called society,
which means that you cannot divorce literature from society. One of the most interesting
examples of the recent trend to do just this involved Carolyn Forche’s anthology Against
Forgetting. W. W. Norton had asked her to do an anthology of world poets. Well,
she put it together, and some people were very, very disturbed that she had included as
America’s foremost poets many people of color, and many people who had done prison time.
Forche has gone on to say that, in every single instance, every single poet that she
picked from other countries had been in prison, and many of these poets were considered
heroes, to some extent, by the people. Except in America, where those hailed as great
poets usually have never walked within a planet’s distance of prison.
KEENE: But she was not saying that one has to go to prison to be a great poet, nor
championing imprisonment, was she?
BACA: Not at all. She said that the condition of who constituted great poets in America
was very disturbing for her, because ultimately the people that she did pick were people
who had prison experiences, not because she went for that but because that was just part
of the information that the poet carried in his bank.
KEENE: Well, the people who have told us what we should and should not read and have
created these various curricula and great books programs have always sort of championed
writers who have been men of means, of leisure, who really didn’t even have to work, let
alone serve any prison time. Oh, we have Oscar Wilde, Antonio Gramsci, Martin Luther King,
Jr., and others, but not too many. Perhaps the imprisoned were not writing years ago, but
to dismiss their experience out of hand is perverse, because there has always been all
this other experience out there, much of it up until recently unexplored. Perhaps it was
never even reaching the page; or if it was reaching the page, it was suppressed; or, as
you say about Santa Fe, it was exploited so that the people who actually live it and write
it receive no credit while other people are coming along and claiming these elements,
these experiences as their own.
BACA: Yeah, it’s a funny thing, and people should know that there’s no turning back
now. Because, what little these writers from indigenous cultures have, there’s no stopping
their writing now; and anybody who proposes to try to stop black writing or proposes to
try to stop Indian writing or Asian writing is really clinging to a very threadbare coat
that’s going to tear, you know?
KEENE: Right. We’re not going to turn back, no matter what.
BACA: It’s just not going to happen. Suddenly you have a very unsettling kind of
tragedy that’s set into those people that believed the lie for so long, and it’s my belief
that poetry in its ultimate sense really tries to go for the pulsating vein of reality in
the landscape or society. You can’t write poetry unless it’s the kind of poetry that sings
and praises truth.
KEENE: As your poetry does. I have really just two further questions I want to talk out
with you. The first is that, with the publication of Black Mesa Poems, and with Martin
and Meditations on the South Valley, you have become a famous poet, so to
speak. You are asked to read all over the country, and younger poets and writers recognize
your name: you have what we might call " marquee value." How has this fame
affected your sense of being as a poet, your poetic sensibility, and also how has it
affected the way that you approach poetry? Has there been any effect?
BACA: Okay. Well, let me just say that we constantly find ourselves having to
compromise ourselves for society. Our society says we’ll give you this, but you have to do
that. You want a position in this department, you have to move here, you have to do this:
we constantly have to give up things and that’s okay. I can understand that give and take,
I can understand that. On the other hand, as a poet I realized very, very early on that I
would love to have been able to teach at a university…
KEENE: Like most well-known American poets…
BACA: I would love to have been able to have medical insurance and so forth; but I, as
the poet that I am, I really had to stay home with my two children, write poetry here, and
endure poverty in the cruelest sense of the word. I really had to beg, borrow, and steal
dimes to get enough gas to make it, to buy milk and so forth, for many years. But that was
the playing field that I had chosen for myself, my terms. When I was cold and my baby was
cold, we were cold together. And when my baby and I walked out in the snow in the morning,
we did it together: I wasn’t somewhere teaching, I wasn’t cashing a check, I was there,
and we had enough apples stored away and potatoes that we were going to eat supper. The
thing about poetry is that early on I came to it in prison in such a way that society was
not going to accept me, so I then had to bring society to me through my poetry. I had to
write the kind of poetry that was accessible and yet which would not compromise my
experience, so that society would say, "Oh we understand what he’s writing about, and
we think that the poetry’s okay."
KEENE: This is how it happened.
BACA: Yes. So once I was able to set that up, I went on this journey where I began to
just write from my own voice, and the strange thing is that when I encountered offers
along the way–like with the film Bound By Honor when I was immediately offered
other films, for millions of dollars–I turned them all down to come back to my farm.
Basically, I was penniless. I had said in Bound By Honor what I wanted to say, and
I had made enough money on that to do some of the projects that I wanted to do. But when I
came back home, I was basically broke and I had to start over again.
KEENE: With your poetry and other film scripts and projects?
BACA: Yes. I’m currently finishing a novel and working on a book of poetry, but all of
those things have been done on my terms, not out of pride or arrogance but mostly because
I am so interested in the journey of self-discovery that I’m on. Despite the demands I
encounter, I still find myself pretty much out here on this farm alone, and I can devise
my own journeys, pick the tools I need, and go after things other people wouldn’t go
after. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that what has occurred over these past few
years hasn’t changed me much. What it’s really reaffirmed is that the work I was doing
before is the work I should be doing and I’m doing it now.
KEENE: So many people would love to be able to say what you are saying and mean
BACA: You know, it’s a very hard way to go and it’s not heroic in any sense of the
word, but it is fulfilling. You do get up in the morning and feel a real power sense of
the tree and the yard and the grass growing and the sun coming up, and you feel yourself
very much a part of that whole, tenuous existence in the world, and it’s not structured
around a paycheck or insurance or tenure or grades or a new car. It’s really sustained by
a sense of appreciation for one’s breathing and getting up and saying, "Hi, how are
you?" and "Let’s have a cup of coffee": the real small, simple pleasures in
KEENE: These small, simple pleasures run like motifs throughout all your poems, all
BACA: Yeah, the real, small pleasures in life. The idea of just seeing a man in prison
who’s condemned to die: I come out of the shower and it’s 9 o’clock and I see him napping
and I look at his face, and there’s a look on this man’s face, on the face of a man who’s
going to die, that I think is more important for me than to go to work in a prison system
and get brownie points. I would much rather go back to the cell and write about what I saw
on the man’s face. You know?
BACA: And my life has always been sort of like that, about unendingly learning
about all the mistakes I made and never being so stupid as to not try to learn something
new from my children or from the earth or from friends. And then sort of translating all
of that into a book.
KEENE: Would I be wrong in assuming that to be your philosophy of writing?
BACA: Well, I really don’t think much about the poetry that I write or much about my
writing except that if it feels really good to me, if it feels like I’ve hit on a
jugular– ’cause I’m around a lot of sheep and bulls and horses, and I know blood, I know
hearts, I know a horse’s eyes, I know a dog’s tongue, I know those things very intimately,
I know those things. And when I feel a poem, I feel for that: I feel for the dog’s tongue
and the horse’s eye or the bull’s chest, you know, and if I feel, if I can feel it in the
poem, then the poem’s okay.
KEENE: You’re underscoring in different words the charge you gave to other poets, to
"reject the killing safety of literary workshops and universities, and don’t fear the
BACA: In a nutshell, the indication of a good poem, I think, is very emotional; every
jagged emotion has a song all its own. You know the Navajos have a tradition: when a man
or a woman go traveling, they come back home and they stand in the center of the teepee or
the hogan where they live, and they repeat their names seven times. And if the repetition
of the name is clear, then they’ve come back with their name intact– no one has stolen
their name. No one has stolen their souls, so to speak. And in a society that thrives on
stealing souls, I feel pretty good that I can stand up in my little place and repeat
"Jimmy Santiago Baca" seven times and it’s done very clearly and then I pray
before my altar and I’m okay for the day. I can start to work.
KEENE: This is very inspiring to hear! I think both the people who already know your
poetry and those who are unfamiliar with your work will really be able to appreciate what
you have been saying here, because in talking about the specifics of your own life and
art, you are extending feelings and experiences that are common to us all.
BACA: Yeah. Poetry transcends all colors and cultures, and ultimately beats from the
red heart. You show me someone without a red heart, and I’ll show you someone who’s not a
human being. [Bursts into laughter]
BACA: I do believe the poet’s job in the real sense of the word is to always be there
where the emotional and psychic and spiritual earthquakes are happening, and to be strong
enough to be able to sing in those big chasms. The poet’s job is to be at the
BACA: I don’t know if you’ve ever been at a place where there’s been an earthquake, but
let me just say it this way: I went with my two children to a place out by where there’s a
bird refuge, where thousands and millions of birds come. And we were messing around,
trying to cross this river, but they had this long fence strung across the river. It was
something very strange that day because my son, my youngest one, immediately fell to the
earth and began to play in the sand. My other son began to cross the river, clambering
sideways across it, and I followed him, the river rushing beneath, and what was
extraordinary about that time, that day was that I had another friend with me, and he
began to sing songs; but we began to comment, all four of us, that the space seemed to be,
seemed to have been cleared and sanctified in some strange way. It was that our movements
were slower, our words were more sincere, there seemed to have been the breath of great
mother earth expelled from that particular point, and two days later, the epicenter of an
earthquake was there, right there.
KEENE: What a story!
BACA: I don’t know what poets’ jobs are except that we need to get to the epicenters
before they happen, so we can participate in that power. Not be the victims of it. I want
us to participate in the power of an earthquake before the earthquake happens; I want us
to be part of the process of that power coming up, and then, when those earthquakes occur,
we understand them in a human sense. When things happen to human beings’ lives, we can
then write about them.
KEENE: Well, you know, I can’t disagree with that.
BACA: You know what the Navajos say again, right? They say that when it’s a drought,
you learn to live very dryly, you become drought. And when it’s really, really rainy, then
you become rain. So that’s how I think as a poet.
from Callaloo 17.1 (Winter 1994). Online Source: The Official Jimmy Santiago
Baca Homepage at http://www.swcp.com/~baca
News Letters on the Air
Speaker: Our guest today is poet, Jimmy Santiago Baca. Jimmy Santiago Baca is the
author of six books of poetry, most recently Black Mesa Poems. Poets often speaks
of poetry as having saved their lives, but in Santiago Baca’s case, the statement is not
mere metaphor. At the age of 18, he was an illiterate, serving time in prison for drug
possession, and in an interview with New Letters managing editor, Robert Stuart, Santiago
Baca says it was his discovery of the possibilities of language that transformed what
appeared to be a doomed life. The people who know and love poetry most, says Jimmy
Santiago Baca, are those who like himself, desperately need it.
JSB: You dive into the metaphor of language, and you hit your head on the bottom, and
you taste your own blood, and you taste your own mortality in language. You realize
suddenly that you’re here, just as the Aztecas would say, "like a flower." And,
you sort of mourn that. Writing is a form of mourning, in which you sing happy songs. One
of the really absurd assumptions that runs rampant in this country is that the people who
know about poetry, the people who truly understand poetry, the people who are the prophets
of poetry are those in the academic levels are those who write it. Well, I am the peddler
of newspaper, and I will tell you what the real news is. That the people of academia who
teach poetry know almost nothing about it. And, the people who write poetry, who are
truly, truly apprentices of poetry, in the way that Blake was, are so blinded by its
light, that they are participating in the process, that they don’t have time to stand back
and say, "Oh, well I couldn’t tell you what the centimeter beats are on this. Their
bodies are participating in it. Do you stop when you are making love to a woman and say,
"let me tell you exactly what the metabolic process is that is happening right now.
No you don’t.
Speaker: Jimmy Santiago Baca was born in New Mexico in 1952. He tells Robert Stuart
that he thinks of himself as a Chicano, although his parents were of Indian and Mexican
JSB: Being a baby from those people that I come from, I was born and immediately after
being born they said, "We cannot take care of you, we have no means, there is nothing
here." So they said, "Go, go to an orphanage. Go live with your grandmother. Go,
do something." So, I went to live with my grandmother, and my grandmother said, (she
was 60 or 70% blind from glaucoma and cataracts) and she said to me, "I can’t take
care of you, so you have to take care of yourself. I can give you some beans and some rice
and some corn, and that kind of thing, but I can’t do much for you." So, I grew up in
the very, very early years gaining my values from the black trains that passed the Pueblo,
from the eagle that flew and landed, from the hummingbirds that came on the fence, from
the dogs and the horses, all the trees, and looking at the seasons and the cycles. My
first sense of structure in this particular reality, in this universe, came from
everything else around me, and included in kind of realm of that value system was of
course my grandmother singing her songs, and my uncles coming in from the mountains with
wood. The people were not apart from that universe, they were part of that universe.
Speaker: This was in fairly rural New Mexico?
JSB: Yes, rural, rural New Mexico. So, yes, and then from there, the government came
and said "you cannot stay with your grandmother because you’re not going to school,
and you have to learn how to speak English." I was taken to the orphanage, and I
spent a good deal of time in the orphanage.
Speaker: This whole sense of basically no identity in this country shows up a lot in
your poems. You have, I know, one particularly powerful poem about your father, about
reading the death certificate after your father had died. He had been labeled as white on
the death certificate.
JSB: That one was an interesting poem because that is one of the few poems that
actually happened. That was a very interesting poem, because my father did die, he did
die, and I think one of the reasons why he did die the way he did was because he was very
bound like the earth, very red like titanium rock slab in New Mexico. And, everybody in
his life said he was white. He had this terrible, terrible grief in him when anybody would
see him. A terrible grief. It was an animal grief, that means weep and grind his teeth.
But, he’s not white, he would tell me, "I’m not white mejito, no soy blanco. Mira, mi
piel es cafecito como la tierra Madre Sagrada, ancina." And, I would look up to him
and say, "Poppe, I know you’re brown, I know who you are." And, he would say,
"Well, why when I go out there, everybody says this?" I remember when I was a
boy, and the Gillette fights would be on T.V., and he would drink like nine beers, and
then he would begin to look at me with that crazed Apache look, and say, "I’m not
like them." And, I would look at these white starched shirts and these ties, and I
think, that’s not you. I remember you Poppe, you were the boy who used to get the water
out of the well and haul it up the mountain, and you had a song, and now you’re dribbling
saliva, you’re so drunk, it’s falling on your chest, and you’re mumbling that you’re not
like them. So, here’s a poem called … this is number 26.
Jefe, todavia no saben. On the color of race on your death certificate, they have you
down as "white." You fought against that label all of your short life, Jefe.
Now, they have you down as white. They had you down when you lived. Down, because you were
too brown. Dead on arrival when you try to be white. You were brown as dungy whiskey
bottles, brown as the adobe dirt. You shattered those bottles against death now. You are
white. Under specify suicide or homicide, I scribbled out accident, and wrote in suicide,
I scribbled out white and wrote in Chicano. I erased ’caused by aspiration of meat,’ and
wrote in ‘trying to be white.’
Speaker: This is New Letters on the Air. Jimmy Santiago Baca ran away from the
orphanage when he was eleven years old, and began an odyssey of street life that
culminated in his prison sentence. The poet is fascinated with other people’s lives, and
that in his experience, gangsters tend to be great lovers of poetry.
JSB: When you see gangsters being jailed, and if they have something to say, it’s
always a quote from a poet. I mean, I happen to believe that poetry was the mother, in
oral poetry of the people. The mothers held their little babies in their arms and sang the
songs. And, when these men decided to do what they had to do, and cross that line that few
of us cross, and they decided to take someone else’s life. It was through the force of
poetry that this strange red, this strange red light that is worn on all sides evenly,
just like a cradle with a spirit, that they said, they believe in the verse and the lyrics
so much that they said, yes, you have committed an injustice, and boom, you either live or
die. But, I believe that acts that are committed, that break laws, the great acts that
assist the laws of the human spirit, whether they’re legitimized in Washington or not, are
acts that are done according to those mysterious laws of poetry.
Speaker: A kind of over-riding aesthetics that these people inherently understand.
JSB: I think it’s what we call the "infant cry" in poetry. The cry that
infants have that make a mother get out of bed in the middle of the night, you run to the
baby. I think all of us have that instinct of mothering deep in us. And, when a poem cries
out to us loud in its verse lines, there is something in us in the darkness that rises and
comes to it. I was trying to find a metaphor for the creative spirit in poets. What makes
us stay up and write, and what makes us so enormously happy in so much rumination? Why are
we so happy? And, my son and I were at the Isleta Pueblo, and I was pushing him on the
swings, and his little sneaker was scraping the dirt so that he could stop on the swing,
and he uncovered the face of a frog, a dehydrated frog. We carefully exhumed it and safely
put it into my baseball cap and took it home, and added it to my alter of things that
meant something to me. Some men bring back emmy awards, I bring back dehydrated frogs from
the Pueblo. It’s called Toward the Light.
A few inches beneath ground surface, my son heeled up a frog. It died in leap toward
light. Cooked, brittle hooked hands scoop of dirt beneath this black flat belly. Nostril
slits flared with that last heave toward the light to the faint warmth of spring. Back
legs shoved at dense dirt, pushed, pushed up, up, until exhausted, o-o-o-old frog, let its
legs and arms go limp, small toes fanned out, alas, back sigh, scoop. And, then it rested
its broad gullet down gravely, severe mouth, and died in the grimaced leap at light, just
an inch above ground. I pick it up. Sand grains tick inside its hollow shell. Eyelids,
dark scars. Blunted snub nose. Olmec King unearthed by my son’s sneaker, I enthrone in my
baseball cap, and bring home, set next to other desktop jewels. There, by the monarch
butterfly, obsidian stone, pi?ons, pine cones, pebbles, buttons, pens, eagle feathers,
withered rosebud, robin’s egg, tuft of sparrow’s nest cotton, welcome Olmec King, welcome
to my humble museum where each thing conveys an aspect of my own journey toward the light.
JSB: This is a nice one to my first son, Antonio, Since You’ve Come .
You make a thousand expressions of distaste and indifference. Like a bored Prince,
unimpressed with our performance, you scream and we stagger out of bed, grumbling at the
unmerciful rule of our emperor. We become fortune tellers guessing what you desire. We
become dwarfs at your service, jugglers of toy bears and r