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Tucson Weekly Life Sentences

Poet Jimmy Santiago Baca took a hard look at his life, and became an artist.

By Charlotte Lowe

APRIL 6, 1998:  HOW DO YOU become one of America's most well-known poets, headlining this weekend's annual Tucson Poetry Festival?

First you have to learn to read and write. Not so easy if you're raised in a New Mexico orphanage and on the streets...Nor if you're 20 and near-illiterate, and serving a 10-year sentence for drug possession. But Jimmy Santiago Baca stole a guard's university textbook and, sounding out the words, taught himself the basics. Later he wrote his first poem on a Red Chief tablet in the Arizona State Prison in Florence.

Baca was wild and the poems that came out of him in prison were climbing the walls, as in this exerpt from "Steel Doors of Prison":

Then another door locks behind you.

This door is your cell door. A set of bars,

Paint scraped, still as cobras in gray skins,

Wrapping around your heart little by little....

His first book of poems was published in 1979, the year before he was released from prison after serving six years of his sentence. In Working In The Dark, a book subtitled Reflections of a Poet in the Barrio, Baca writes: "I was born a poet one noon, gazing at weeds and creosoted grass at the base of a telephone pole outside my grilled cell window. The words I wrote then sailed me out of myself...."

The writers Baca read--Denise Levertov, Grace Paley, Pablo Neruda, Jim Harrison--became his mentors on the page. As for someone actually going over his work with him, Baca only recalls sending poems "to some well-known poets who said, 'You can't write like this. You can't put everything in, all these metaphors and all this passion, like an Amazon Jungle.' "

This didn't deter Baca. "I thought, I've been erased in my life until now. I might as well follow the heart." Baca's legendary roll started after his prison release, first with poetry readings throughout academic Arizona and later on the national poetry circuit. Late poet Denise Levertov called him "one of the most naturally gifted poets I've ever known."

Baca published several books of poetry, including What's Happening, Immigrants in Our Own Land, Black Mesa Poems and Martin & Meditations on the South Valley.

Within 10 years, Baca had won the American Book Award; the National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship for Poetry; the Volgelstein Foundation Award; the Wallace Stevens Fellowship from Yale University; the Hispanic Heritage Award for Literature; the Regents' Lecturer Award from the University of California, Berkeley; and the Pushcart Prize. In 1995 he was featured on an hour-long segment of a Public Broadcasting Service series called The Language of Life With Bill Moyers, on the lives and works of contemporary writers.

Baca also wrote the screenplay for Bound by Honor, filmed in California's San Quentin prison. He's as famous as a poet can be in this country.

But five years ago, he decided to go home to Albuquerque, New Mexico. "They were offering me fancy cars and a big house by the beach," he recalls in a telephone interview from Albuquerque, where he lives with his dogs and two sons, 11 and 14 years old.

He turned down the fast lane, and all its trappings. "I pretty much live like a hermit. I live by myself and I write. If you let yourself fall into becoming a speaking voice for people, spending all your time touring, it takes a lot to get back to writing," says Baca. "One of the reasons I quit publishing five years ago is that I don't think writing is a banner for a cause. It's more about the soul than the mind. We have enough people protesting, and so (few) writing pure poems."

This year Baca expects four books that came out of his isolation to be published by Grove Atlantic. They include The Erotic Poems; a novel called In The Way Of The Sun; a book of essays; and a book of short stories. He's also completed two screenplays: one for Showtime ("my roots story," he says), and the Pancho Gonzales story for MGM.

His life in Albuquerque includes walking dogs, picking up kids, making dinner and always, writing. The active poet declares he's never had a job: "They offered me teaching jobs at universities, but I thought it wasn't time. I had things to write."

In one of his journals, he writes: "Question: When do you write poems? Answer: If an infant cries, you pick it up."

Baca still does readings, and says the work he plans to read at the Tucson Poetry Festival will be culled from "three or four knee-high stacks of poems I have here." A popular reader, Baca has been the two-time World Poetry Slam Champion at the Taos Poetry Festival in his home state.

"I've got to go up and defend my title again this year. But this will be the last time," he says. "I don't think slams are very good for poetry. All that cheering and shouting. Poetry demands solitude."

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