Humanities Center Feature: Jimmy Santiago Baca and the Freeing Grace of Poetry

Celebrated poet Jimmy Santiago Baca came to BYU for a two-day visit on Thursday January 27 and Friday January 28. His visit included a poetry workshop, a film screening of the award-winning documentary about his life and work, “A Place to Stand,” an English reading series reading, and an interview about social justice and poetry.

Jimmy Santiago Baca is a kind man who wears his years and his brown felt fedora well. He arrived at the Q and A session following the screening of the documentary A Place to Stand with a slight spring in his step. When asked about how the documentary came to be, he said he had rejected the million-dollar deals from Hollywood in favor of a hitchhiking, aspiring film maker named Daniel who arrived on his doorstep in Santa Fe, New Mexico with only a worn copy of Baca’s book and sore feet. Baca gave him his first $10,000 to fund the film and a place to sit, welcoming him into his house and his story. He shared he doesn’t accept literary awards anymore, and he would rather wake up in his own house and have his daughter kiss him on the cheek than wake up in a strange hotel room on his way to a $50,000-an-hour talk. When asked about his recent projects, he casually mentioned he has been working with Morgan Freeman, Al Pacino, and Helen Mirren on a new movie, but he is fine with being fired from the project should it interfere with time spent with his family. “I know what’s good for me,” he said simply. “I’ve found what’s good for my soul.”

His soul—what feeds it, what harms it, how it finds its pieces and parts hidden in between the pages of books—is a central topic in A Place to Stand, and in his poetry. Baca was functionally illiterate when he entered the Arizona State Prison, where he was incarcerated from 1973 to 1978. After stealing an anthology from a jail guard, he “switched on a pen flashlight and opened the thick book at random” under his blanket in his cell. The guard made his rounds on the other tiers; Baca remembers the “jangle of his keys and the sharp click of his boot heels” intensified his feelings of solitude. Baca and the word, alone behind bars. He writes later of slowly enunciating the words in the anthology… “p-o-n-d, ri-pple. It scared me that I had been reduced to this to find comfort. I always had thought reading a waste of time, that nothing could be gained by it.” [1]

He had always been a boy, and then a man, of action. Running away at the age of 14 from the Santa Fe orphanage where he received regular beatings from the nuns and their paddles, moving from couch to couch during his teenage years to stay alive, travelling to the Mexico border and back with marijuana to sell—circumstances beyond his control and a childhood filled with violence and neglect forced Baca to “move out into the world and confront and challenge the obstacles.” “Only [by this],” he writes, “could one learn anything worth knowing.” [2]

But in his jail cell under a hot and scratchy blanket, Baca tasted light. He writes,

“Even as I tried to convince myself that I was merely curious, I became so absorbed in how the sounds created music in me and happiness, I forgot where I was. Memories began to quiver in me, glowing with a strange but familiar intimacy in which I found refuge. For a while, a deep sadness overcame me, as if I had chanced on a long-lost friend and mourned the years of separation. But soon the heartache of having missed so much of life, that had numbed me since I was a child, gave way, as if a grave illness lifted itself from me and I was cured, innocently believing in the beauty of life again. I stumblingly repeated the author’s name as I fell asleep, saying it over and over in the dark: Words-worth, Words-worth.” [3]

He had, at twenty-one, found word’s worth. A few days later, with a stub pencil he had to sharpen with his teeth, a Red Chief notebook on his knees, and the taste of lead in his mouth, he wrote his first words. Through his words, he felt “an island rising beneath [his] feet like the back of a whale.” [4] For the first time in his life, he writes, he had a place to stand.

In his poem “Who Understands Me but Me,” Baca writes of others—identified in the poem only by a repeated “they”—turning the water off and building walls higher; in response, Baca “live[s] without water…[and] live[s] without treetops.” [5] “They paint the windows black, so I live without sunshine, they lock my cage, so I live without going anywhere.” [6] He is given pain, hate, and names— “they say I am beastly and fiendish, so I have no friends”—and is starved of showers, hopes, and brotherhood. [7] “They” take his heart and “rip it open,” but at the end of the first stanza, Baca’s heart beats wildly and proudly still. “Who understands me when I say this is beautiful? / Who understands me when I say I have found other freedoms?” [8]

When reflecting on completing his first page of writing, Baca writes, “For the first time, the child in me who had witnessed and endured unspeakable terrors cried out not just in impotent despair, but with the power of language…Through language I was free.” [9] He was, and is, free to find love for, and from, himself; “I am taken by my failures, astounded by my fears…in the midst of this wreckage of life they incurred, / I practice being myself, / and I have found parts of myself never dreamed of by me.” [10]

Words, language, the soul, and Jimmy’s scribbled poems—graces that climb prison walls and wing up, and away.

The Humanities Center would like to recognize and thank Dr. Francesca Sborgi Lawson for her tireless efforts in inviting, arranging, and hosting Jimmy Baca’s visit.


[1] Jimmy Santiago Baca, “Lock and Key,” from Working in the Dark: Reflections of a Poet of the Barrio, 5-6.

[2] Baca, ibid.

[3] Baca, ibid.

[4] Baca, ibid., 6.

[5] Jimmy Santiago Baca, “Who Understands Me but Me,” from Immigrants in Our Own Land and Selected Early Poems, lines 1-2.

[6] Baca, ibid., lines 3-4.

[7] Baca, ibid., line 8.

[8] Baca, ibid., lines 15-16.

[9] Baca, “Lock and Key,” 7.

[10] Baca, “Who Understands,” lines 19-20, 25.

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