Poetry
4:16 pm
Sat January 4, 2014

Jimmy Santiago Baca, From Prison To Poetry

When Jimmy Santiago Baca was 20, he was convicted of drug charges and sentenced to prison. He was illiterate when he arrived at the Arizona State Prison. When he got out five years later, he was well on his way to becoming one of America's most celebrated poets.

Baca writes about oppression, love and migration, and his poems range from just a few lines to many pages.

A new anthology of his work called Singing at the Gates tells the story of his life in poetry, from prison to renown. The anthology begins with a series of letters Baca wrote from prison to a woman named Mariposa. The letters are themselves poems, and are some of the first things he ever committed to paper as he learned to read and write.

Jimmy Santiago Baca spoke with NPR's Arun Rath about his long career. You can hear Baca read from two of his longer poems, Singing at the Gates and Rita Falling from the Sky, below.


INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On the Mariposa Letters

When I was in prison a man named Will Inman, who had one of the first bilingual journals along the border, called Illuminations, introduced me to a woman named Mariposa, the butterfly. And as we began to write letters to each other, I think American poets reveled in the epistolary form and for myself it became the resource and the instrument by which I would excavate my voice. I must have written at least a thousand letters to her.

On being illiterate as a young man

Not knowing how to read and write is only the top of that morbid state of being. Not knowing how to read and write leads to not knowing where windows come from, how cars are made, how people pay for cars. Not knowing how to read and write is only the top of the problem, because behind that wall you don't know anything and how anything operates in society, and that's the nightmare.

On those who helped him learn to read

I had people from the outside sending me books. I had people from death row giving me the books that they were reading after they read them. I had correspondences with other writers that were writing me after I learned how to write. It was phenomenal.

On the origins of his style

Because I studied Byron and Wordsworth and Coleridge then I went to — Oh, my God, I just love those Russian poets — I was searching for a voice to come out of me that had the imprint of my own culture, that had the imprint of my own people. Not Latino people but Chicano people. People de Norte Mexico.

I was looking to permutate in such a way that I could give honor to my grandmother by expressing her experience. A grandmother who never got paid more than a dollar a day for picking in the fields. The work that I began very early on was a homage to those who were silenced by oppression. My job was to get up on my feet and continue forth, and I did that through language.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Arun Rath.

When Jimmy Santiago Baca was 20 years old, he was convicted of drug charges and sent to prison. He was illiterate when he arrived at the Arizona State Penitentiary. But by the time he walked out the door as a free man, he was already on his way to becoming one of America's most celebrated poets. A new collection of Baca's poems tells the story of that transformation and the long career that followed. It begins with a series of letters that he wrote from prison to a woman named Mariposa. Baca and I spoke in December.

JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA: These are excerpts from the Mariposa letters - Number 77: Though in prison, though I rage at times at the ignorance and stupidity and coarseness and cruelty behind bars at keepers and kept, I turn to you feeling the air that I breathe, air churned darkly and heavy with steep systems. And though I say nothing, walking early through prison mornings, my voice you hear cannot be drowned out because by you giving me your great spaces of love and filling them with my love, my voice cannot be drowned out.

RATH: Can you tell us about the woman that you are writing these letters to?

BACA: When I was in prison, a man by the name of Will Inman, who had the first bilingual journal along the border called "Illuminations," introduced me to a woman named Mariposa, the butterfly. And as we began to write letters to each other, I think Americans - American poets reveled in the epistolary form. And for myself, it became the resource and the instrument by which I would begin to excavate my voice. I must have written at least 1,000 letters to her.

RATH: How did you end up in Arizona State Prison?

BACA: Possession with the intent to distribute and a gun battle with the DEA on the border.

RATH: So you're serving a five-year sentence, right?

BACA: Five to 10. And no parole, day for day, no good time.

RATH: And you did not know how to read and write when you went to prison, right?

BACA: Not knowing how to read and write is only the top of that morbid state of being. Not knowing how to read and write leads to not knowing where windows come from, how cars are made, how people pay for cars. Not knowing how to read and write is only the top of the problem because behind that wall, you don't know anything and how anything operates in society. And that's the nightmare.

RATH: I think it's just remarkable for a lot of people that may read your poetry and know nothing about you the fact that you actually - you learned to read and write in prison, and the earlier poems in this book are some of the first things you actually committed to paper.

BACA: Yeah, yeah. I had people from the outside sending me books. I had people from on death row giving me the books that they were reading after they read them. I had correspondences with other writers that were writing me after I learned how to write. It was phenomenal.

RATH: I'd like you to read another poem. This one - number 145.

BACA: Page 19. OK. Number 145. Remember that these are excerpts from the letters we exchanged. By the black gates of each night, I sit, glancing at the lights of the city, listening to night talkers and pick up the scrappings of their lives. Wow. I love that. I just love it.

RATH: Does it take you back?

BACA: It's like eavesdropping - yeah - it's like eavesdropping on the sorrows of others and then after - in the silence of their lapsed discussion, I come in and I pick up the scraps on the ground. Wow. Beautiful.

RATH: You know, something that struck me with your poetry - and you have to forgive me if I'm stereotyping you as a poet - because I would have expected, for some reason, I mean, because your Latino background, there would be more of a Spanish sound. And I'm hearing a very strong Anglo-Saxon feel and the alliteration and the kind of like angular cragginess of the prose.

BACA: Dude. That's like a kick in the crotch, man. Come on.

(LAUGHTER)

BACA: Come on.

RATH: I'm sorry.

BACA: Don't be comparing me to that - to Anglo-Saxon poet. Come on, man. What's up with this?

RATH: Well, the coarseness and the cruelty, the...

BACA: Is this a conspiracy? What kind of bull (bleep) we got going on here?

(LAUGHTER)

RATH: I meant no offense.

BACA: No, that's OK. Listen, because I studied Byron and Wordsworth and Coleridge, then I went to the - oh, God, I just love those Russian poets - I was searching for a voice to come out of me that had the imprint of my own culture, that had the imprint of my own people. Not Latino people but Chicano people, people de Norte Mexico. I was looking to permutate in such a way that I could give honor to my grandmother by expressing her experience - a grandmother who never got paid more than a dollar a day for picking in the fields.

The work that I began very early on was a homage to those who were silenced by oppression. My job was to get up on my feet and continue forth, you know? And I did that through language.

RATH: You know - and I feel those lives that are cut short - in your work over the years, you know, going through this anthology, it comes out in more detail. The poems seem like they're more narrative poems, longer poems that delve into these lives in more detail.

BACA: It's true. That's absolutely true. I have long poems, short poems. I have metaphorical poems. I have the majestic poems. It sort of covers the entire range of 40 years in different types of - I treated the poems differently with each approach.

RATH: Before we let you go, can we just get you to read maybe one or two more poems?

BACA: Let me just give you a shout-out here with the - the title of the book is called "Singing at the Gates." And let me just read a page on that, OK? All right. No pope nor priest could more enhance my life than machica smiles and Incan eyes. Those startled sparrow eyes peering over papa's nesting shoulder, entering the santuario. Her father's back to me, the brown baby girl hugging his neck, her face pressed against his white shirt collar.

As it has been for a thousand years for Mayans and Incans and Aztecas and Mexicanos and Chicanos and cholos and homies, we've carried and carry our infants through government massacres, forced marches off our lands, to the present and fiestas and low-riding gatherings, our children clinging to our arms and bodies for safety, a continuous unseen line from beginning of our mestizo birth walking across America all the way to the...

RATH: And that's Jimmy Santiago Baca reading the beginning of the long titled poem from his new anthology, "Singing at the Gates." You can hear Baca read more of this poem and others at our website, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.