Saturday, April 26, 2008

Interview With Jimmy Santiago Baca

Jimmy Santiago Baca is a brilliant and gifted writer. As with most great poets, Baca says so much in a few words, evoking place and emotion sparingly, precisely, beautifully. His ecstatic poetry is reminiscent of Walt Whitman, but Baca's voice is definitely his own and absolutely unique. After enduring and surviving a harrowing childhood in New Mexico, Baca was sentenced to a maximum security prison where he discovered poetry and his own voice: He came out of a prison a writer.

Since then he has had many books published, including an inspiring and often heart-wrenching memoir, A Place to Stand. His book Healing Earthquakes: A Love Story in Poems is unlike anything I've ever read—a novel in poems. Healing Earthquakes is not something you want to read haphazardly. You cannot read it with the television on, the radio, the stereo. Read it with attention, love, for the purpose of seeing and feeling treasure in every word.

Since Baca got out of prison, he has conducted hundreds of writing workshops in prisons, community centers, libraries, and universities throughout the country. In 2005, Baca founded Cedar Tree, a non-profit organization working to "empower impoverished and imprisoned people through literacy." He has recently completed two documentaries, Moving The River Back Home and Chino, about the power of writing and poetry with marginalized students and prisoners.

I first heard of Jimmy Santiago Baca after I had been home ill for some time. I saw a piece about him on television. He talked about learning to read and discovering poetry. When he started writing poetry, he said, it was like wiping away ashes from his tongue and discovering a jewel. That was exactly how I felt about writing! He said poetry saved his life. Sometimes when I read Baca, I feel like his poetry is saving my life.

I hope you enjoy this interview. By the way, if you purchase Baca's books from his website, you can get signed copies. You can also find audio files on his site and listen to Jimmy read some of his poems.

Kim Antieau (KA): You essentially taught yourself to read when you were in prison. It seemed like the letters you wrote to Harry really helped accelerate your reading and writing skills. Is that true? Did you ever see him or write to him after you left prison? Do you think he knew what the correspondence meant to you? (Harry was a religious man who wrote to Jimmy while he was in prison)

Jimmy Santiago Baca (JSB): Yes, having someone like Harry, a real live person reading my words, helped me write. Never met him or wrote him after prison. Yes he knew.

KA: One of the things I like about your writing is that it seems very passionate, very engaged. It’s not stale or stoic. It seems personal. I admire your ability to do that. Your heart is in your words. It that difficult for you? Or does it come naturally? Is it cathartic or painful? (I ask this because I often write about personal issues, not in poems but in essays, and sometimes after they’re published or posted, I feel exposed and vulnerable.)

JSB: No, I pour my heart into my words to a fault, all natural, neither cathartic or painful, more like exhilarating, tunneling the caves of the minds and striking gold veins in the dark.

KA: I love Healing Earthquakes. How long did it take to write? Did you just sit down and these lines would pour out of you? Or did you plan each line or each section? Is it based on your life? I remember in your memoir one of the poems you wrote in prison was called "Healing Earthquakes."

JSB: Not long at all to write, maybe a few months. Yep, they poured will. I wrote it every day, somewhat similar to my life...sort of undulates in and out of my experience.

KA: You’ve written poetry, a memoir, fiction. Do you like writing one better than the other? Is your process different for each?

JSB: I lovvveeeeeeeee poetry. Each discipline demands its own process...some you write early in the morning, others in the evening, others in bursts and others contemplative....

KA: I like knowing how other writers write. Do you write every day? Every week? Do you take long breaks and come back to it? Do you write in an office, at a desk, at a kitchen table?

JSB: I hardly write, maybe once every two weeks. I've sometimes quit writing for three or four years, just read. I write everywhere when I write, mostly libraries though.

KA: Can you tell us about your work with Cedar Tree? The mission of Cedar Tree is to “develop an appreciation for the written word in underserved populations, primarily prisoners, families of prisoners, and at-risk youth.” I was reading about all the projects on the website. There’s a prison literacy project, youth literacy project, environmental literacy project, and online literary project. Plus you’re doing films. How’s it going?

JSB: Ahhh Cedar Tree. We do so much community service—establish libraries, facilitate workshops, books drives, scholarships, work with teenagers, prisoners, film docs., edit and air them and have people everywhere weep and laugh and share their joy and sorrow with you.....we have made a huge impact on a hundred thousand lives...

KA: You’ve completed work on two documentaries: Moving The River Back Home and Chino. Did you want to tell us about these movies?

JSB: They are about the power of reading and writing to change lives...

KA: I’ve been reading some of the poetry posted on the online forum and the responses to those poems. I noticed when the forum first started some of the criticisms could be quite harsh, almost personal. That seemed to change as time went on, as though the writers and readers were learning and teaching themselves what kind of commentary was constructive. Do you think that’s what happened? When you teach writing and do workshops, especially in prison or with at-risk youth, do you have to talk to them about being able to criticize and be criticized without it turning into something personal and then potentially dangerous?

JSB: I've always taught people to suggest rather than criticize...

KA: I read your memoir. I remember wondering how a person survives what you survived. Physically, emotionally. I don’t think I could have done it, at least not without becoming bitter and angry. You’ve created beauty. Do you know how you did that? Is it an ongoing struggle? Were you able to avoid the mistakes your parents with your own children?

JSB: I am probably a great parent—at least everyone who know says so—and yes, I've avoided many mistakes my parents made and yes, it is an ongoing struggle to maintain my life at the level I wish it to be at....especially in a world bent on destruction.

KA: The land and environment is very important in your writing. Right now the Southwest is in a severe drought. And the U.S. government is building a wall across the desert. My husband and I spend about a month of the year in AZ writing, resting, and documenting what’s happening at the border. It feels like a police state south of Tucson. Is any of that spilling over to New Mexico and up as far as Santa Fe?

JSB: Yes it is spilling over—in fact, my new novel coming from Grove in the Fall is all about that border issues.

KA: Is there anything you’re reading now that you’re excited by? Do you have a favorite poem or poet?

JSB: I read all kinds of books, find the best ones hidden away on bookstore shelves. I'm not much of a NY list book reader.

Thank you so much, Jimmy!


RR2 said...

His poetry sounds incredible. I'll definitely look for a copy of one of his books.

Anonymous said...

I just finished reading A Place to Stand and was very touched by the gut wrenching conditions and triumph of the human spirit of his life. His ability to find his voice and write with such honesty and beauty in prison is beyond comprehension. It is truly a testamony to overcoming any hardship with hope instead of bittetrness.

All work copyright © Kim Antieau 2008-.