Some poets don't live in ivory towers. Some don't even come close. New Mexican bard Jimmy Santiago Baca started out on a tougher road than most before clawing his way out of adversity on a bridging torrent of words. Despite ensuing laurels as a poet -- from numerous literary awards to Yale's coveted Wallace Stevens Chair -- Baca didn't just grow up looking at the backside of human existence from a front-row seat. He was always right there in the arena, fighting for his life.
Abandoned by his mother and alcoholic father as a young boy, Baca became a ward of the state, shunted through orphanages and juvenile detention centers before drifting into drug dealing as a young adult. He finally landed in an Arizona prison -- 21, illiterate and a fighter -- and it was there that he began a personal transformation far more profound than the average person could ever hope to make. That story is the subject of Baca's unflinching new memoir, A Place to Stand, which he'll sign, along with a new book of poetry, Thursday at the Tattered Cover LoDo.
Baca simply credits a good attitude with helping him pull through. "Adversity can either breed cynicism or optimism. I choose to be optimistic," he maintains. "If I didn't go with that attitude, I don't know who I would have become. Poetry tends to see light in murkiest dark." But even more so, Baca's chosen medium of transformation initially provided him with a legitimate voice, one capable of lifting him out of nothingness. "I'd already been censored from every other forum. I had no friends, no social circles. My peers turned their backs on me. Citizens ostracized me. And poetry is the only thing you can't really use to buy or pay somebody off."
One still has to wonder how a jailed drug dealer turns to poetry. "It's like learning how to drive a car," he explains. "You know how your grandpa took you out on the prairie road and just let you go? That's how poetry was for me -- it's that ancient grandfather thing. It's like Neruda moved over and said, 'Here, Jim, now you take the reins on this buggy.'"
Not that he doesn't appreciate his found affinity for wordsmithing. "The more experienced I become in the affairs of survival day to day, the more I do see it as gift," he says. "But it's a hard-earned one; I have to ply my trade well. If a fisherman catches lots of fish, you say that's a good fisherman. But most people don't see all the work the fisherman puts into it -- the way he varnishes floors, keeps all the screws tight, all the work he has to do before he can set up his sails. People see my poems like bounties of fish. They don't see how I keep up the boat."
How does he do it? "I just have to be true to myself, look into the mirror every morning. How I live during that day determines the condition of the boat. If I'm honest with you, if I'm fair with other people, if I conduct myself in way that I feel good about myself -- all of that goes into the craft of poetry."
But it's not an easy life. He's admittedly still living a lean existence, miles away from the nearest ivory tower. "Money will not make a good poet, and rarely does a good poet make money," he says. And, that taken, Baca believes poetry's integrity hasn't degenerated into commerciality yet. "There are way too many hardened, grizzled poets, like Jim Harrison and Sherman Alexie," he notes. "They'll never let poetry become the dainty ballerina of the money brats."
And neither will Baca, who's comfortable being who he is. "I'm the half-nekkid prophet banging on door at 6 a.m., asking for breakfast," he says. And that will just have to do.
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