This Sunday a man in a straw fedora stood outside of Books & Books in Coral Gables, holding a prime parking space in front of the store, and saying to no one in particular: “I can’t believe they’re going to let that guy Jimmy Santiago Baca read here. Can you believe it?”
He looked familiar, recognizable in the way that an actor is, or maybe someone you’ve seen on the back of a book. He laughed, his eyes squinting under heavy brows, his teeth showing above a trimmed white beard. He was Jimmy Santiago Baca.
Inside Books & Books, organizers—wanting to start the Livestream of the day’s event on time—were looking a little abstracted. Then Baca walked in from the sunny courtyard with a congenial smile. “I’m so happy to be here! Oh, it’s time? Could someone get me a café con leche?”
Pitluck began by reading some of Baca’s poems, and then telling the packed room that Baca’s work had a profound effect on him when he first discovered it as a high school student. “What kind of effect could poetry have on a sixteen year old?” he rhetorically asked. “This is not ‘But soft! What light through yonder window breaks!’ poetry—this is rust under your fingernails, dust in your eyes, blood in your mouth poetry. This is poetry that was forged in a maximum-security prison in Florence, Arizona.”
He talked about receiving an advance reading copy of Baca’s latest book, Singing at the Gates, and said: “I read it in one sitting. It made me blush in some areas, made me feel capable of murder in others, and, as with all his other works, I couldn’t stop, I had to read it in one sitting, start to finish.” That’s when Pitluck contacted Baca’s publicist to try to arrange a meeting.
Later Baca told his version of events, saying he agreed to a meeting after reading Pitluck’s writing and feeling an immediate, visceral connection with him. The two men spoke of Baca’s early days as a poet, when he was an inmate just discovering the power of language, and came into possession of a book of poems by William Wordsworth. “I fell in love with language through Wordsworth.” He said at that time, his ear was so attuned to the colloquial use of ‘word’ (as in: Is that right? Word) he initially believed the poet was a gangbanger.
He described getting stabbed by fellow inmates who felt threatened by his newfound obsession with reading and writing, and a pivotal moment when he realized that he had to consciously choose non-violence. “I heard a voice. The voice said if you [kill], you’ll never be a poet.”
Later the subject of fame and fortune arose. “I don’t mind going through this world, living under the sun and working hard, with the gift and the blessing of being able to write a poem every morning,” Baca said. “I don’t need the appearance on Oprah: I’ve been invited! I don’t need all the stuff that normal people need, because I’m not normal. I never had a family: I had to learn how to be a father, I had to learn how to be a husband. I had to learn how to hug. For the longest time, when I met my two older boys, they would ask me: Why does your body shake when you hug us? It was something I couldn’t get rid of. Doctor friends said: Well, it’s because you were never hugged. You were taught that your body was a weapon.
He talked about driving a fellow poet home after a reading, a reading so powerful the poet was embraced afterwards by every member of the audience, his shirt drenched with their grateful tears—only to hear the whole event lambasted on NPR on the ride home. He related an anecdote about time spent with Grace Paley and Denise Levertov, citing the two poets and activists as writers he feels a true affinity with. “It’s the shirt with the tears I want to be wearing,” he explained, smiling. “Not the accolades on NPR.”