I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Jimmy’s partner, Stacy, had given birth only a few days before I flew to Albuquerque to meet him, so I felt touched that he could find the time for me. And not only for me: from our meeting place we drove to a poetry slam featuring local high-school students. Jimmy’s shadow, or perhaps the opposite of a shadow, is like a great wing for young poets in the barrios of northern New Mexico. His dedication and enthusiasm have given inspiration, and tools to turn inspiration into action. Despite the strength of his influence, many of the young poets have found their own voices. Not to acknowledge these voices would be to deny a large part of Jimmy Santiago Baca’s work, beyond the printed page.
My favorite poem at the slam was Damien Flores’s “I Left,” which he read with astonishing confidence and presence.
Have you seen her?
I left her right here,
have you seen her?
Mommy and daddy made me in the back seat of their Camaro
while at the drive-in movie theater.
The Omen trilogy was playing, so they named me after it.
Though I was named after a devil, I was born to an angel,
but that’s beyond the point.
I need to find her.
I’m getting worried
like in my younger days,
when I’d fall asleep beside her
and awaken with her not there.
But she’d always come back,
and when she did, she’d hold me in her arms,
span her wings,
and we’d fly to the peak to watch the
sun set over the west mesa horizon.
Have you seen her?
The sun has yet to set in over a year now
and my life has been so overrun by fear and anxiety
but all of that will finally cease
once I find her.
I left her right here,
lying in her bed at Healthsouth hospital.
Stroke at forty-five left her wings snipped at the tips.
I left her right here
While the IV dripped
liquid life into her veins.
And before I left,
she told me
she wanted a plate of enchiladas and a coke,
not one of those plastic bottles,
but one of those thick, heavy glass half liters
that you could only get from the Farmer’s Market
and the enchiladas had to be from the original coffeehouse
down in Barelas.
And before I left,
she told me
that she loved me.
Wait, I’m confused, I’ve heard rumors
that she grew fresh wings
and joined the legions in the cumulonimbus.
I’ve heard rumors that la bruja’s owl stole her away
and is keeping her in the bosque,
but those are just rumors.
I raise my eyes and voice to the clouds,
constantly praying that I’ll find her,
but my prayers go unanswered.
Have you seen her? You’ve had to see her.
I pray as I walk my daily pilgrimage
through life with bleeding and blistering feet,
but my prayers go unheard.
You have to help me find her.
Those clouds I’ve raised my eyes and voice to
have blackened and storms hold my eyes
like hailstone marbles.
Please, help me find her,
I’ve lost my angel.
No matter how loud I scream them,
my prayers go unheard
my prayers go unheard
my prayers go?
Adam Fuss You know, my girlfriend many years ago had a Xerox of your poem that begins “Then I met you Gabriella in a drafty house in Vassar.” That poem burned into me: it’s cinematic. You watch your life together form, and then the child.
Jimmy Santiago Baca You’re going to get to meet some of my family in a little bit. You’ll meet the son that I just birthed.
AF How old is the child in the poem now?
JSB He’s 19 years old.
AF Oh my God!
JSB I found out timing is very important, especially in the birthing room. Adam, what do you do?
AF I’m a photographer. I specialize in camera-less photography. Which is to say that if you take photographic paper, or the film, and imagine that camera means “dark room,” once you’re inside there, you can do what you want. You can bring light in—
JSB You can paint with light.
AF You can paint with light or put materials in direct contact with the paper. I work a lot with water. With camera-less work you make the picture rather than take it.
JSB (looking at a book of Adams photographs) This one of the snake is radiating energy: it looks like a snake underwater, but it also looks like a DNA structure, suspended somewhere in the galaxy. I really like these. Sometimes I’ll be running and a snake will come out of the brush, and it will touch my feet as it moves past me, and it takes my fear away. So I can run better. Go home and face the world’s problems. I need to put my feet in a barrel of snakes, man. In Spanish, when a guy’s real drunk, they would say. “Andando en viboras,” walking on snakes. (laughter)
Backstage at the Albuquerque Poetry Slam.
JSB See that kid? He was in a gang drive-by shooting; his brother got killed, but the kid hid.
AF An anonymous shooting?
JSB Yeah, his mother’s a crack lady; he’s a street kid, the whole nine yards. So I go in there about a year ago, and I tell him, “Come on man, nobody’s going to sympathize with you.” I tell all of them: “Quit fucking with me, read poetry, go to museums, look at the art, get back here and if you are really raging, I want you to write it. It’s all about you voicing that there’s a reason why all this happened.” I walk in a year later and the kid says. “I don’t know if you remember me, but I wrote a couple of poems like you asked me to, I would like to give you these poems.”
AF How do you feel about that?
JSB It happens all the time. Brings me to the verge of crying.
Jeffrey Poston, executive director, “Write. Read, Succeed”: Because of Jimmy Santiago Baca, “Write, Read. Succeed” has reached over 400 students at 20 schools … (applause)
JSB I feel so honored here, among the future poets of America. I guarantee that in this crowd there are ten or 15 poets who are going on to write books that I, in my happy old age, am going to sit back in my little cabin and read one day.
A lover must liberate his lover
must free her of lies to be entirely honest
a lover’s heart must be a page turner book, filled with familiar feelings, of trust, dreams
a lover’s mouth must fit her mouth, like two fingerprints perfectly matched in a crime of obsession for each other
Two lovers bring the story to life that resides in each other’s hearts, and the living of those stories lifts the two lovers into heights where only the eagles fly
Fly over the different colored scape
Fly over the different cultures
Fly over dark and brooding days
Fly both of them, even when she is on stage and dancing and she keeps it under her wings, as she raises her arms
and later when she is talking to someone she says
oh, oh yes my love
or, oh yes my husband
yes, my sweetness
and referring to the other half of her heart.
(Outside, after the poetry slam.)
JSB Over the last 20 years. I’ve had hundreds of workshops in different blighted areas, and I’ve raised over one and a half million dollars to buy books. We sell CDs and the money goes back into the books. See those kids dancing over there?
AF They are amazing, their movements are just extraordinary. It’s like their own language. It looks like writing from some Middle Eastern hieroglyphic.
Jimmy, in that poem, “Gabriella,” you swear to all living things that you won’t abandon your son. Looking back on your connection to the mother of that son, it also felt as if you would never abandon her. You’d found something that was essential, like water. Since then you’ve separated from Gabriella. Looking back on that poem, and on that time in your life, how do you make sense of it?
JSB The more I’ve come in from the margins of society toward the center of it, speaking and teaching at universities, going to Hollywood, the more choices come at me, and attached to each of them is an issue of abandonment. You find yourself in a theater crowd in New York, two days later you are in east LA talking to three thousand Latinos, and the day after that you are meeting with the studio executives at Paramount. And attached to each of those opportunities in life is this unspoken thing that everything is expendable for your ambitious ascent into legitimacy. I just couldn’t do it. I have passed up very nice offers at Ivy League universities, and I couldn’t work in Hollywood anymore because I don’t want my sons growing up in that environment. A lot of my decisions have been based upon this real simple thing: I come home at night and I know that my children are in bed, asleep, safe. If that’s what I have at the end of the day, then I am really okay. And yes, I’m not married to Gabriella anymore. I probably made all the mistakes anyone could make. It’s sort of a man thing. I did walk away from everything, but I said to her, I will always take care of you. And I do to this day. It is really hard sometimes, but I like keeping connections. Because my life is really lonely, and it’s really hard. Maybe it comes from not having a father. But I don’t know what it’s like to have somebody to depend on. I do know what it’s like to have people depend on you. And I don’t know what the explanation of love is, except I dearly love those people who have saved me from myself, who have saved me from the worst fate of all.
AF That particular part of the poem is an extraordinary finding of home. Of love. Of self.
JSB I think that’s right. I’ve often wondered to myself why I write: it’s the only thing that I truly go back to every day, religiously. I write because it shows me how to love people, respect people, how to be a decent mother-fucker, you know? It really keeps me in line.
AF Well I hope you don’t stop writing then! (laughter)
JSB It’s a great gift. But the issue of abandonment—I could never do it. And yet so many of my friends abandon their people.
AF Their people. Their Gabriellas.
JSB They abandon their Gabriellas. We have to work through the issues of attachment and compassion. When we work through those issues, we get marked, we get spit at, but at the end of that, trees light up, the dawn sings to us. There’s a real strong, nurturing, protective impulse in me. I mean, I witnessed my brothers’ murders, my mother’s murder, my father’s murder. And oh, man it’s like, Yea, I’ll abandon you now, you’re dead, right? But I’ll never abandon my belief in that nurturing spirit that thrusts itself through all the roots in spring, the one that absorbs itself in a quiet humility in winter. I’ll never abandon that belief that in us is a flame that can go in a thousand directions; we don’t have the right to direct it, but we have to keep it lit, for each other. You know, you’re an artist. You know exactly how fucking hard it is to survive, to take care of people you love and still keep your book in mind, and all this other business stuff. You know, when I was a child, I was in love with this girl, and she thought I was nothing. I said, I’m going to write about you in tomorrow’s paper. I wanted to give myself some sort of power. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t write, it was the fact that I said that out loud to her.
AF You’d already figured out that words or writing had power.
JSB Yeah, writing has the power to go into demonic places and find the sanctuary that they were hiding from you. In every demonic temple, there is one space that is sacredly innocent. And that’s what writing takes you to. That’s what you have to go into the labyrinth and find. I’ve been a drunk, I’ve been a dope fiend, I’ve been homeless. And one thing that keeps coming back to me is the strong belief and deep respect for those people who have done the work that they should be doing with themselves.
AF The processing of their pain? Or the strength to look at it?
JSB I think the processing of the pain allows us to get up and look in the mirror and give a half smile, a humble one. You are actually working with all of your relations: everybody in your life. That allows you to be there for them, to recognize their beauty, their pain. And that’s what I wanted in my life, that connection, that recognition that what was in me was more so in others. Not one of us does a good job of it, but the really beautiful moments, when you recognize something in another person, wow. I go back to my writing speechless every time.
AF You said earlier today that you’ve been spending time by the river, alone. Alone?
JSB A whole year alone. It was incredible.
AF I feel like if I could sit by the river and just listen, that I could learn everything. But the establishment of family and place and belonging—when you go away for a year, how do those two things marry?
JSB My kids would come to see me once a month, and I told them, “You guys know I love you with everything I am. Everything I have is yours. I’m becoming a Buddha. And I want you guys to respect me for that.” And they said, “Go pops, you fucking crazy nut, go.” And they left me alone in my little one-room place up in the mountains. And I went back and I talked to the gods. I went back to the tree. I had fallen in love with this woman. And we used to go up there and she would dance under that tree at night. And I would say my prayers and we would bless ourselves with the water. So I went back there and every day I went and fed the spirits. For one year, I got up—it was still chilled with dew on the windshield, and I would wake up singing and praying and I’d go to the river, in snow, rain, wind. I would run in a T-shirt and shorts, and punish myself, and then go sit by the river and cry. And then go back to the place and write an ecstatic type of poetry.
AF Jimmy, tell me about crying. I don’t want to say it like that, I’m sorry. (pause) I mean, men are taught not to cry. And I’ll keep that door closed as efficiently as I can, until the door smashes open by itself, and then I can cry, because I can’t stop myself. I feel in your poetry, you’ve really gone in, you’re in touch with that pain stock. I want to know how you can cry.
JSB (pause) I think it’s pretty easy for me to cry. I cry because there is so much beauty. Like when I was up there in front of all those kids, I could have easily cried. Easily.
That poem that you like, “Gabriella”? “I’ll never abandon you” was my vociferous cry to the world, that no matter what happens that no matter what I lose in the process or gain in the process I will not abandon you. Ever. And literally, I’m on the verge of crying most of the time. I can go into a prison where I’m sitting with men—I’ve done this scores of time—and in 20 minutes I’ll have these men weeping. I cry in order to throw all the idols down the well. You’ve got to cry. I love theories, but I’m not real heavy on approaching a project by bringing some outside influence into it. I strip myself down of all expectation and tap into its natural process, somehow bridging that with this thing called “words.” Becoming a participant. The more we get out of ourselves, the higher the art.
AF The cave paintings in Lascaux, France, from around 20,000 BC—they’ve drawn the animals in such a way that it is as if they are in the animal.
JSB You know, the discipline of the poet is to get inside the animal and write from there. Or get inside the heart of the experience, and write from there. And the discipline of a prose writer is to swirl around it like a wind. It’s a real difficult process—
AF Observe, observe, observe.
JSB I’ve literally spent days with my eyes closed, trying to imagine the photosynthesis process of grass. Fucking days. And I got there, where I was the grass blade, and I felt the sun coming in and bubbling in me, and I felt myself organically reaching up to it. After that, touching a friend of mine on the back of the neck, the skin was a miracle.
AF Was the river preparation for what you just said?
JSB It was a step toward that, yeah. I wanted to use the river as a channel for healing, and I was determined to use it as my focal point. I was deeply in love with the woman and I let her go. I said, “Go. You can go, now go.” And I went back to the river and I said, “Now you gotta help me get to another place. I’m going to stay here until we work this out.” And doves and cranes and trees and fish and coyotes and deer—everything helped me. Everything was there. I needed it when I needed it. And I recorded it when I needed it. And it worked. I go back there a lot because there’s this latent energy that exists beneath an image, that if worked hard enough, opens itself up. And when it opens itself up, you reaffirm your reason for writing and living. So I’m going back there to see if I can open up the passageways to the metaphor again. Because that’s where the real energy lies.
AF There are stanzas in your book Martín and Meditations on the South Valley that describe what you just said. “The child comes as softly as snow falling across the perfectly even field of his fate, makes his tracks in directions, knowing.”
At Jimmy’s house, in Albuquerque.
JSB In the indigenous culture, it can happen in any medium, in dream or in reality, but the explosion means, number one, a calling, and number two, it’s a sheathing of the old self and a birth into the new self. If you’ve read any Native American, Chicano, Mexican … they all describe how the incipient activity takes place in a person’s change of life, there’s the big boom! With me it was in a huge dream, but it wasn’t a sleeping dream. I was dreaming with my eyes open. It’s like a vision. Its the spirit that continues on through the universe.
I got a phone call this morning from a Flathead Indian; we are going to fish the Snake River with him and his tribe up in Montana. He’s done too much drugs and alcohol, but good lord this boy can write. This is him:
Rain pushing down upon me, drops, splashing, sparkling.
Rays of sun entering globes of water.
Heat touches me in between drops.
Time breaks down. Perspective loses. We awake moment to moment.
The more we become aware, the more we—discover, now.
This is Montana stillness. I want to see how an Indian says stillness.
Long quiet summer days of possible silence, and activities made up and planned.
Sitting in Earth, buzz of crickets jury, soft winds rustling hair, smell of clover and grass.
Dusk overtakes my eyes, shade by shade.
Small last moments, as the bugs still fight the night.
Sounds pushed out thickly. Asleep is to grasp peace.
Where do you fit in Indian? Where do you matter Indian?
Where are you happy Indian? Where are you less sad Indian?
Where are you Indian?
Day to day our edges blur as we try to forgive ourselves. Tracks across the plains of our undiscovery.
AF That’s clear, and straight.
JSB He is trying to figure his way back, with writing.
AF How did you find him?
JSB There is a woman nurse. She brought him in a book of mine. And he read it, and said he wanted to know if I would read his work.
If you just give people books … I knew a guy in prison, Charles Lewis. I put a book in his hand. And he got killed because on his way to the prison library, he refused to get out of the way of a gang. He said, “I’m going to the library to look at some poems by this T. S. Eliot guy, get out of my fucking way. You want to take me out to the field so we can fuck around, you want to do some drugs, you want to go fight; I don’t want to do it. I want to go the library, and the library’s behind you. I want to go through.” And the guy said to him. “Then go motherfucker, go.” And he goes, and the guy stabs him to death. Just like that.
(pause) A lot of instances like that in my life.
AF On the way over here I was listening to your CD, The Thirteen Mexicans. The poems sound so angry, and intense and clear. I thought about that first book that you stole in jail. Where is that book now?
JSB I’ve got it. I’ll give it to you. It’s a great gift.
JSB No, no, no, I’ll give you this book. It’s the Chicana History, the one I stole. I was working at the emergency room on the weekend, it’s when all the warriors come in, bullets in legs and stuff like that. It’s a good time not to work, because everyone’s so crazy, all the nurses are rushing, and the doctors are yelling, and guys—drunk, beat up, shot, knifed. So I took off to the director’s office and there was this book. It was the first time ever I’m seeing somebody that looks like me, in a book. So I stole it, and the next day, I’ve got all my buddies around me outside on the cinderblock fence where we were eating Lionel’s hamburgers, saying “Check this out guys!” You don’t have a way of articulating it and you don’t know how to conceptualize it, but you have the feeling. My God, people know I’m here, I can be important. The only model that you have for seeking your importance in life is rebellion. Or defiance. Because nobody ever showed me an image of me being peaceful, that I could live with. Or someone who was completely strong with love. I’d seen pictures of a passive Chicano with his hat off and some guy looming over him on a horse, pointing to the fields. Or in church, the Mexican had his sombrero hanging down his back, his head bent.
AF Images that carried a subtext, which was, “Shut up.”
Tell me about your dad.
JSB My dad was a young man in Pinos Wells and his father, my grandpa, was from Chihuahua in Mexico, and my grandma was from the Quari tribe here. My dad was voted the person in the village most likely to make it, and good Lord, he tried so hard to make it. He went to Santa Fe, he wore a suit, he was hired by Governor Cargo, and he tried so hard that at the end of every workday he went to the nearest bar and got completely drunk, because it was the only time that he could speak his language. He’d call out screaming, half drunk, in his native language. Then he’d wake up, and he’d go to work again.
AF Where is he buried?
JSB He’s buried up in the prairie, in the village.
AF Do you ever go there?
JSB No, I haven’t gone there. I’m going to go. I promised him that when I was ready because I didn’t go to my grandmother’s or my grandfather’s funeral—I would go there and bury books in each of their graves. So that I would end the cycle. I’m just going to say. “Here, this ends the story,” and pour them a glass of tequila, have a sip with them. Go to the next grave, and say. “Here are the two books. This is part of my faith, and destiny’s over.” And then go to the next one. And cry and eat the dirt from each grave, a little bit of it. Then look around for one of the cactuses there, pull a big spine off, prick my finger, squeeze the blood, prick the next finger, squeeze the blood … That puts our hands, that we touched this reality with, behind us. And it continues to hold us together in the reality that goes that way when we go this way.
AF It feels like you’ve been planning this freedom ritual for awhile.
JSB A long time. Yeah, a long time. And I keep saying, I’ll go next week, but I won’t do it.
AF Do you want me to remind you?
JSB Call me. I’ll go. I will do it with my baby. Me and Stacey and my baby boy, Isai.
AF We live as flesh and blood, but there is something I found in your poetry that speaks to another world. In “Gabriella,” there’s the line, “Ah, mejito, you are a long green tree in another world.” And all through the work that I’ve read, there’s a sense of the spirit world, the metaphysical world. The time when you baptized yourself and an owl appeared. You called it your grandmother. When did you first understand that you, Jimmy, could be part of that other world? When you write, it feels as if you’re permeable to that world. You actually find it as real as the world. When did you first get an intimation that there was this other dimension?
JSB When I was growing up, there was no security. I would hear my ancestors talking, my aunts and uncles about whether we’d have a place tomorrow to live. Everybody was carrying around this secret care that what we have is only tenuously in our grip. None of us knew what was going to happen to us. My grandmother clung so tightly to the church—she’d beg God, Please, please don’t let us be tomorrow without food or shelter. My uncles were big guys, mixed bloods, and they would get really drunk. And I would think, “The world is falling apart. It’s falling apart again.” There would be these huge fights. Those I could handle. Because I knew that my uncles would be lying in their blood, outside in the yard, asleep. But what I could not handle was when late at night my dad would come grab me out of bed and put me in the car. I knew then, that we didn’t have any future. We had no place to go. We were going nowhere. There was this invisible monster tearing us apart it was killing us off, one by one. My grandmother was cool because she was completely religious. But why couldn’t one person have enough emotional integrity to be able to weather the storm, and say, “We are going to start by crocheting quilts and sell them, and bring back our money.” It was always, We gotta wait over here for this white farmer to pick us up to go work today. So I would go with my uncles to work in the field, and my sister would be working next to me, and the white guys would come back from school and say, “Hey, look at that spic’s ass, let’s go fuck her real good.” And I felt like taking a hoe and breaking the motherfucker’s head. But, my grandpa would say, “Don’t you dare say anything. Ever. You’ll get all of us fired.” Every day I dreaded working. I dreaded that fucking car coming down the road. It was a red Impala, with all those guys in it saying, “Hey, Mexican, hey, whore, come suck my cock.” And I would be like. “I’ll suck your fucking cock, you sonofabitch.” And my sister would jump up and say. “No, get back to work, right now.” And I’d be like, “Fuck these people.” But my idea of submission and defiance didn’t work for me. The only thing that ever worked for me was like that poem that says, “Words are like raindrops,” and it was the heat between the raindrops that carried the soul. I felt the heat, and it was motherly heat. It was womb heat. And when I played with the arrangement of words, it was like creating power. It was respecting myself. Because we had been taught to destroy ourselves.
AF So that arranging of words, that bringing together thoughts, symbols, energy, that was like a door?
JSB Yeah. The arrangement of words also rearranges the score of your soul. It’s makeup. That’s what I’m going to do in the mountains, go back to just the arrangement of words. You see things differently after that. It’s almost like the fountain of youth. Emotionally and spiritually.
Adam Fuss is a photographer who works primarily with the 19th-century processes of photogram and daguerrotype. His semi-abstract images of the natural world have been included in numerous solo and group exhibitions internationally. The first survey of his 15-year career opened in September at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and travelled to the Kunsthalle Bielefeld, the show’s organizing venue. Fuss, born in London, lives in New York.
Originally published in
Featuring interviews with Marina Abramovic and Laurie Anderson, Paul McCarthy, Christian Marclay and Ben Neill, Jesse Reiser & Nanako Umemoto and Andrew Benjamin, Jimmy Santiago Baca and Adam Fuss, Aryeh Lev Stollman, Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulciniby and Bette Gordon, and Elliott Sharp.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee