It's hard to talk about Jimmy Santiago Baca without repeating the well-worn tale of how he became a poet. It's a familiar story, but a great one, the kind of story that never gets tiresome no matter how many times you hear it. After all, Baca's biography has several elements every fine tale should have—a troubled past, a tragic mistake and, most important of all, an intoxicating conclusion combining redemption and grace.
Here are the bare bones. To put it lightly, Baca started out on the wrong track. Raised partly by his grandmother, he was sent to an orphanage in Albuquerque at a very young age. Baca ran away several times, roved the streets, got in plenty of trouble, and spent a lot of time in juvenile detention. At 17, he was charged with murder, spent three months in jail, and was eventually found innocent and released. At 21, his luck—if you can call it that—finally ran out when he was sentenced to five to 10 years for selling drugs. Given his difficult life up to that point, it's not surprising that Baca was largely illiterate when he entered Arizona's Florence State Prison, a hardcore maximum security facility in which rapes, beatings, drugs, gangs and racial strife were all a standard part of the bleak institutional ambiance.
In prison, however, Baca finally learned how to read and write poetry. As he puts it, "I had a choice between picking up a shank and picking up a pen." Thankfully, for his own sake, he picked up a pen. When he got out, Baca's poetry, against all odds, began to get published, and it struck a raw nerve in the culture at large. The rest, of course, is history.
In recent years, Albuquerque's native son has branched out as a writer. Although Baca still composes poetry, a couple years back he penned a gripping memoir called A Place to Stand. Last year, he released a well-received collection of short stories called The Importance of a Piece of Paper. When I talked to him last week, he was busy on the last chapter of a novel called A Glass of Water, which, if all goes well, will probably be released early next year. "I'm trying to figure out how to kill off my favorite character," he says, laughing.
Baca will make an appearance at Bookworks (4022 Rio Grande NW, 344-8139) on Thursday, March 17, at 7 p.m. "I'll read from the short stories," he says, "and also from the new novel."
For Baca, writing a novel has been a tricky business. "It's kind of like trying to learn to do a high-wire walk on a windy day," he says. "For me, poetry is like placidly fishing along a creek. Writing a novel is more like an extreme sport, like snowboarding down Everest."
A Glass of Water tells the story of a heavyweight Chicano boxer named Vito who Baca describes as "a cross between Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali." Vito comes from a family of migrant workers. Much of the story revolves around his dead mother, a talented singer. "It's also about border crossings, Mexicans, Chicanos, poor whites, oppression, how people integrate into society, how they don't," says Baca. "Vito has a lot of politics. He's going to piss a lot of people off."
Baca did plenty of research for the novel, visiting with migrant workers in the fields, and traveling to cities around the country to watch boxing matches and mix with fighters. The title of his book comes from some of the experiences he had while conducting this research. In the novel, this image functions as a kind of symbol for rejuvenation.
"You know," he says, "I'd be out there in the field with these women and their kids would run up with a glass of water, and these women just appreciated that so much. Then I'd be checking out these boxing matches and see these fighters. They could hit the canvas six times, then get a drink of water and be ready to fight the lion again."
Despite his obvious facility with words, Baca insists he doesn't enjoy writing all that much. Talking to him, you get the impression that he got off on researching his novel more than he enjoyed writing it. "I love life too much," he says. "I love hunting, fishing, gardening. Show me a whale, and I'll go wrestle it, pry its mouth open and see if it has any cavities."
During our conversation, I tried to insist that he must get something out of writing. "Yeah, a headache," he said stubbornly. "That's what I get out of it. I don't know. Some days are better than others. I love words. And it's nice to sort of nurture the hours. They're sort of bare and leafless in the beginning. You might wonder whether the drought killed them, but then buds appear and one day there's a rose. I like the small surprises, I guess, the little literary lights that explode across the blank page. I like turns of phrase. I like watching characters come alive."
I suggested to him that part of his stubbornness in admitting how much he gets out of writing might come from his famous life story, that maybe he was tired of hearing the tale of his troubled past and ultimate redemption. "Well, you know," he says, "I think I need to write, otherwise I'd be robbing banks. But this whole obsession with lifting writers to a level where they're almost sitting at the right hand of God, what kind of bullshit is that? For me, writing is kind of a mundane exercise. It's real close down to the earth, like muddy boots. I try to do it as an act of humility. I just go out to the field and steal some apples, get a watermelon and sit in the shade. I don't have any comment beyond that."