Online Interviews with Jimmy Santiago Baca
Originally published in Callaloo--A Journal of
African-American and African Arts and Letters,
Winter 1994, Volume 17, Number 1
"POETRY IS WHAT WE SPEAK TO EACH OTHER"
An Interview With Jimmy Santiago Baca
By John Keene
This interview was conducted by telephone from Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 2, 2993.
KEENE: Mr. Baca, in your book of essays, Working in the Dark: Reflections of a Poet of the Barrio, you speak at length and eloquently about how the school system completely failed you--and how it fails so many young people, especially so many young people of color--and how you had to teach yourself, as a young adult and while in prison, first to read and then to write. Reading and writing, especially writing poetry, were vital to you in the beginning: you were using poems to survive, to barter for things among your fellow prisoners. Would you please tell me more about your early development as a poet?
BACA: Well, with a question such as yours everything seems to overlap like in a philosophy class when you start talking about life. In terms of my development, I'm not sure whether I needed to breathe more, or to write poetry more: you see, that's the kind of urgency that was upon me. I sometimes don't know if I would have been able to continue to breathe had I not been able to read poetry, because I came upon poetry in much the same way that an infant first gasps for breath.
KEENE: I see.
BACA: I don't know if I would have lived had I not found poetry. When I began to read, I began very slowly, and a religious man had sent me these books that had English and Spanish on opposing pages. The material was very rudimentary, elementary, kind of religious teachings. Now what happened was that I would read most of the day and into the night, and I would pronounce the language aloud. I pronounced adjectives and adverbs and nouns and prepositions and so forth aloud, and then early in the morning I would wake up and begin to write in a journal.
KEENE: What sorts of things were you recording there? Mere words, thoughts, feelings, memories?
BACA: I was writing things that I remember doing as a kid and as an adult and so forth. And what happened was that, in a place like prison where all sensory enjoyment was deprived, language became more real, more tangible than bars or concrete, than the structure of buildings in the landscape. So I began to read, to read and write in the sense that, metaphorically, I wrapped myself in this cocoon of language, and when I came back out, I was no longer the caterpillar: I was a butterfly.
KEENE: I am interested in that caterpillar stage: what were those first poems like? When you would write letters for other convicts or recite these first poems for your fellow prisoners, what were the effects on them and on you?
BACA: Well, when I would read to the convicts, there was a sense of awe, my awe, their awe, and at the same time a sense of vulnerability, of my, our vulnerability. In other words, language had such a tremendous power, and then, in many instances with convicts, language was the very tool that had been used to destroy them and their families.
BACA: For example, when their mothers and fathers had gone into offices to ask about taxes and didn't know how to speak English, they were assaulted with English, by this same language. It was their mothers and fathers who had gone to courts and not understood the English language and were too proud to ask for interpreters. You see, the pride of these people comes from the fact that they had been living on this land for anywhere from 500 to 2000 years. They had a direct family lineage of living on the land, and of the many catastrophes and tragedies that occurred in their lives, one could trace most directly to their inability to understand the English language.
KEENE: In a way your circumstances as well?
BACA: Absolutely. And then, years later, here's this man in prison who's reading poetry to these convicts, and it's cosmoses away from how they understood it, how they had encountered it before. Now it was celebrating who they were and their hearts and their heritage and their languages and their culture.
KEENE: In what languages were these early poems? Were they primarily in either English and Spanish or were they a more complex mixture, a reflection of your background, your community? I remember reading somewhere of your mentioning some songs that passed down to you that were a mixture of Spanish and Tewa.
BACA: I was trilingual. I was writing phonetically the Indian language, Spanish, and English. I was writing phonetically because the furor of my thoughts boiling over mandated that I just write from sound.
KEENE: And so now the convicts looked at the function of language, at poetry, differently, coming from this fellow convict, this young poet?
BACA: Exactly, they looked at it with a sense of awe, that it was an amazing gift that God had given me. It was something that few of them could fathom and that all of them praised. Interestingly enough, I get letters from time to time from convicts who were in prison with me, and the one underlying current that travels through all of their correspondence--and that I was blind to at the time, because I was consumed and absorbed by the language--is that whatever it is I was doing was tremendously inspiring for them.
KEENE: You do realize this now, don't you?
BACA: Sure, now that I'm a bit more seasoned and have put some distance between that time and this time, I look upon it very pleasantly that I was able to fulfill that role through language, through poetry, and really inspire those who were lacking all faith and hope.
KEENE: Earlier you said that your first journal entries were of memories of your childhood. You say in one of your essays that "I draw my poetry from the night, from the culture of night where our daily selves are transformed." Would you discuss this quote with me and talk about how you went from simply writing poems to assembling your early chapbooks and selecting the work that comprised Immigrants in Our Own Land ?
BACA: Well, Immigrants in Our Own Land was the first book of my poetry that was published by a larger press, by Louisiana State University Press at first, and now by New Directions. But let me talk about it this way: there are two sides to life. There's the side of life that is mandated by the mores and etiquette of society, and that particular life is extremely simple to understand and define. You know, you buy a new car, you get a good job, you have a nice car or house, and you try to become a family man if that's your bent, and it's very simple how that whole thing is structured. That whole system is structured such that within it are these long veins of racism and bigotry and injustice, and they're very simple to pick out. You can simply sit in any courthouse in the United States today, sit in any courthouse and all day the judge sees cases, and at the end of the day you're going to say, fine, there were two hundred people that went through court today, one hundred were black, and they were all sent to prison.
BACA: Ninety were brown and they were sent to prison. Ten were white and they were freed. It's easy to figure all this out. So then you go to another place, to a banker, and then you realize that he has some suspicions about you because you don't fit the mold that he comes from, and so you're not given the loan that you would like to have to put an addition on your house. So it's very simple if you go about society to the various institutions and sit and witness it. The other side of life, however, is a bit more complicated and concerns what happens in our souls, what constitutes all the cosmic and spiritual clashes that rearrange the plates of our spiritual landscapes. To me all of this is much more interesting than what happens during the day. And so I really try to pay very close attention to the intuitive voice that travels through the canyons of the bone. I don't try to harvest my poetry from what happens in society's institutions as much as I try to reap the poems from what's happening behind the boundaries of society.
KEENE: Please elaborate.
BACA: In other words, while Clinton may stand up and speak about the tremendous freedom that we have in this country, there has never been a time that we've had more writers in the United States who are in prison and who are kept incommunicado. Their tablets and pencils and everything have been taken from them. There's never been a time when there have been more of these people in solitary confinement, in the dark, than there are today. So that's sort of what I'm talking about by "darkness"; I'm really interested in the things that happen in the dark, in the culture of the dark, meaning that, of their own power and force things are bound to come up like the wheat in the sidewalk.
KEENE: How would you relate this to what you have also written, which is that one should not place inordinate trust in critics, nor give oneself over to academic mindgames, but instead believe in a poetry, that follows the "maddened drum of one's own passions"? How too does myth fit in here? What is its role for you? How is background structured around metaphors that may or may not have been lost and how have you used those metaphors to bring yourself into humanity, into humanness, as a man, as a poet, as a Chicano?
BACA: I firmly believe that there are those myths that pertain to a society, and then there are those myths that pertain to an individual. One of the interesting things, though, is that either type of myth never dies. And the interesting thing about myths is that there are psychological and spiritual and emotional myths that are just as real and buried as the dinosaur bones we're discovering today. We're having to redefine the history of the evolution of who we are. Those same myths are very, very alive in us and the more that we discover them, the more we discover our own journey.
KEENE: As human beings, people, poets?
BACA: All. Where we come from and where we go. And I also strongly believe that when you discover a myth in yourself, you cannot approach it with a formulated or prefabricated critique, you cannot template it. What's going to happen is that you discover a myth or a symbol, in the same way that a child discovers its mother, not so much through the mind, but through the sensors, through the mouth and the nose and the fingers and hands; this personal mythology really does sustain one, as much as infant's discoveries enable breast feeding. Myths and symbols, we never become adults in their presence. We're always children in awe of them, and those are the things truly that give us insight into the darkness that we go through. It's strange because we live in a society that says myth and symbol have been replaced by science. You really see it at a place like Los Alamos here and at other science centers around the country.
KEENE: Science has assumed the former sway of myth, religion?
BACA: It's all being replaced by scientists who are pursuing the ultimate, who want to crack the ultimate secret, and it's strange because if you go visit Los Alamos--and in Los Alamos you can visit a lot of them--when you go to the houses of many of these scientists, you realize that these are people who have lost their myths. These are people who have lost their symbols, you know. The way that you can tell this is simply by walking through their homes. You see that they've created their lives out of order, in revenge against the mothering symbol.
KEENE: You seem to be saying that science as seen through the lives of these scientists, through the world that they structure, becomes a masculine entity. Opposed perhaps to the feminine, the humanities. Science in this sense is hard, clean, perspicuous, rational.
BACA: Well, the atmosphere is very antiseptic and sterile, an abysm that you walk through when you visit their lives. Everything is interpreted through science, and you're sort of left with a dryness in your mouth, as if you'd just taken a tablespoon of castor oil.
KEENE: For this sort of world-view, we might speak of its binary opposite as that which is soft, shifting, blurring, emotional: the arts, humanities, poetry. In both your poems and your essays, you talk about the duality of yourself as a poet, about the feminine side that informs your writing of poetry. Your discussion of this interested me because I don't very often hear men talk about this idea of their duality. Will you say something more about all of this, as it sort of relates to this whole notion of having lost the notion of myth and mothering, and these signs and symbols that really go back to the beginning of humankind?
BACA: A remarkable thing occurred to me when I came upon language, and I really began to provoke language to decreate me and then to give birth to me again. What I experienced was this: when you approach language in this being-reborn sense, you approach language in the way that the Hopis approach language, which is that language is a very real living being. That's how I approach language. I approach it as if it will contain who I am as a person. Now, when language begins to work itself on you and make certain demands of you, it begins to ask you to risk yourself and walk along its edge. When it does that and you do that, the Yoruba people in Africa have a symbol that they create, and it's made out of bamboo-leaves, gold, and rosary beads on it and so forth, and it curls up on itself. This symbol has a thick base so that it's almost like a gourd. It curls all the way around itself and goes back into the thick base, this is the gift that they give men who have given birth to themselves.
KEENE: Which is what happened with you.
BACA: Which is what happened with me--I gave birth to myself. You have to understand that what I' m saying, it came before Robert Bly' s Iron John, it comes before all of this mainstream computer-chip valley stuff that they're putting out for the male white corporate executive. All of this birthing and the femininity in the men is a very indigenous characteristic I've seen practiced since I was born. I've seen men do it. And simply, what happens is that they begin to nourish themselves. They begin to nourish themselves, taking their sustenance from mother earth and all the things that they see about them. In other words, direct observation of the world around them comes into them, and they may not be as smart bookwise as most people...
KEENE: Which does not matter.
BACA: ... But there's a tremendous feminine characteristic in them that is directly geared toward nourishing and sustaining generation after generation of people who are threatened from all sides. I can distinctly remember when we didn't have anything to eat, as a child, when my grandfather would begin to sing all these songs. And the songs surely but surely would end up taking our hunger away. Or, I remember that we had windstorms that were so terrible they would come and knock barns down, knock houses down, and my grandmother would hold me against her chest where I could hear the vibrations in her bones, in her chest, because she was a small Apache woman. She would begin to hum these deep, deep hymns, and the vibrations in her bones were a male song that was sung to me as a little child: do not be afraid of the wind, the wind will not come in here. And then we also believed in different gods outside, the wind gods and the wind spirits and stuff. And so I was terrified, but when her singing began, I was being given masculinity through my grandmother's singing and femininity through my grandfather's singing. And then when we'd go to the fields to work, my grandfather would always tell me how beautiful it was for a man to be gentle with mother earth, how she was our mother and how when we handled the plants we were handling a young woman.
KEENE: If only this were our usual view of things! Society has lost much of this, however. Would you say that the people of your generation--and I am thinking here of Chicano, Indian people--would you say they received this knowledge and passed it on or is this something that needs to be retaught among the younger people?
BACA: I think it needs to be retaught because I think, for all of us, our history is such that it's still very recent. Let me give you an example. Black folks had a system of slavery that was imposed upon them. Now we have lots of scholars who have studied all of this extensively. One of the strange things about our history as the Chicano people is that we still live under a slave system that nobody wants to recognize, and it's very strange that during the hearings for the Attorney General, a lot of those people were saying, well you can't come in and be a judge since you have these two people working for you that you haven't paid taxes on. And it's strange that that's multiplied about 10 million times across the country; there's an awful lot of us who are being paid $8 a day.
KEENE: But is that slavery?
BACA: Nobody wants to call it a system of slavery. Many of these $8-a-day workers are people who have lived here for many hundreds of years. But it's like, I mean, I can go out on the street right now and pick up four Chicanos and pay them, tell them I'll give all of you guys five bucks each if you work all day. And chances are they're going to say okay because they don't have any food and they have to pay the bills. They're completely at the mercy of these employers. So the whole system is still very much part of our contemporary reality. The interesting thing about your question is that the answer is yes, I do need to, we all need to re-educate our children to the indigenous values that we hold as a people, that have made our heritage what it is and sustained us up to today. The good thing is this: as I said before, this history has been fairly recent, because it was in the 1950's and 1960's that we made these mass migrations from what we call the "campos," the villages, the pueblos. We all came in from the villages and pueblos about 1950 and onward, so our urbanization has been rather recent, and so when I go to schools to talk to young kids and I begin to speak about the indigenous values, almost all of them shake their heads because they instinctively feel that it's real, it's that close to them.
KEENE: So you're saying that much of this empowering, sustaining knowledge still remains?
BACA: The basic threshold, the cornerstone, is in all the people. We simply have to reaffirm that by telling the people that it's okay to come home now, you can return because we really miss you. You don't have to give away your identity, your culture, your language, your dances, your songs, your poetry, your paintings to become an "assimilated" white Anglo male. You don't have to do that anymore. You can come back home and be successful in this society and still offer it all the resources that come from your culture.
KEENE: You write of having wanted to remake yourself as " the blondest hair, bluest eyed" Chicano out there and of how you felt when the people in the barrio had begun to mock you, how you could not understand why you were trying to do this, how they saw right through you. But the flip side is that there was only one other world left to you, the world that led you to prison and leads so many of our young people to crime and imprisonment. I know you are now working with organizations like the Puente Foundation. How have you been able to enrich the lives of these young people so that they do not experience such powerful self-loathing?
BACA: When I'm working here on my farm by myself, I become privy to the most extraordinary beauty that's provoked through language, and I'm left many times just weeping and thinking, how can I carry this ephemeral substance and place it in another child's hands? One of the wonderful things about the Puente Project is that when all the kids come together, hundreds and hundreds of them, I get to share all of this with them. And instead of reflecting back to them what mainstream society has done for 500 years, which is to say, "You're a lazy Mexican who sleeps under a cactus with a mule," I reflect back to them the extraordinary beauty that they are. There's no feeling like it in the world! It's a very palpable feeling that begins to come out of their stories; say there's a thousand of them, and I'm standing down on this podium below, in this big, huge lecture hall, and there's no experience quite like it when all those thousand kids begin to just have this love for themselves flow down.
KEENE: You are teaching them to be reborn, to be reborn in love of themselves.
BACA: Right, and for the first time in your life you realize what it must feel like to be born as a child and have a society built around your values--an extraordinary feeling of being very close to God at that moment. And I never had that feeling before, ever. As I stood there speaking for the first time for an hour on the tremendous beauty that they represented, on their inheritance of all of this, on what they embodied, I' d begin to feel an extraordinary sense of belonging to this society. Experiencing this, remember this is a very invigorating experience that keeps me writing more and more. The first time, the minute I walked out of the hall, the feeling left me. I was again this anonymous person without a face or without a culture.
KEENE: I remember your anecdote in which you talk about being on a panel with the daughters of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and you mention how not a single Chicano student stood up to ask a question, even though they outnumbered the black and white students thirty-to-one.
BACA: True. You see, the thing that we've been taught as a culture is that it is much better to keep your silence and not try to overreach yourself because when a people have had everything taken from them--we had our land taken from us and our culture and our language, and there's not much else left to take except our pride--so in order to keep your pride you don't overreach yourself. You should become a plumber and not a doctor, become an electrician and not a lawyer. Because if you don't make it, you're going to shame the family, and we can't live with that kind of shame. All we have is our pride, so what I'm basically asking the young Chicano people today is to please break the silence and you will see that your feelings are reaffirmed a million times throughout the day by other people who feel the same way. We've been taught that silence is best, because language was one of the primal enemies, and if we could just keep quiet, we would be able to protect ourselves. And so, the great call of the day in the square, the town-crier, was "Do not say anything." So consequently when anybody came to the door, most of the people would run to the back room and would not say anything. They wouldn't even answer the door.
KEENE: Which is not so very different from other cultures like African-American culture, where a tradition of "speaking out," affirming one's name, identity, and humanity, was always considered very dangerous, yet people bravely did so.
BACA: But we've also been taught that to speak our feelings is something that verges on arrogance. And since our culture has a really strong strain of humility in it, very few of us stand up to speak when called upon.
KEENE: But you continue to speak, through your poems, your work with students, through other means. You worked on a film not too long ago and you describe the experience of returning to one jail where you'd been incarcerated, and of how, as you drove up, you were physically revolted by seeing one of the guards who used to inflict these unspeakable cruelties against you and the other convicts, but then you also describe how, as you were making this film, you went through whole series of feelings, and how at the end you really began to be able to deal with the men who were there, imprisoned. What was the toll of making this movie? How had you worked through all those conflicts of having once been part of that society where you were now seen as completely different?
BACA: Quite frankly I was stunned by how extensive the system had become! You have to understand that the prison system alone in California has a budget greater than three-quarters of the nations on the face of earth.
BACA: The budget of California prison systems alone is larger than that of three-quarters of the nations on the earth. Think about it. It's just one state out of fifty in the United States. Also, on any given day, we have more people in prison than we have in the school systems in America, and it's mounting daily. The funny thing is that this year so many people went to prison, but what we have to understand as a nation is that we have trained millions upon millions upon millions of convicts and spit them out of the prison system. We're not changing or improving things! Out in society, we never want to think about this. We are going through the same thing that we went through with the nuclear plants; there were people traveling the country to tell of what might happen if a nuclear plant did malfunction. But people did not want to listen. Unfortunately, what makes matters worse here is that there's nobody in this country walking around talking about what's happening when the prison systems malfunction. Yet we have all of this plutonium that we've stored in the sense that every man who comes out of prison is capable of tremendous chaos and carnage.
KEENE: But am I wrong in stating that if you criticize the prison system, the penal system, if you call for reforms, if you aim toward dealing with this complex of issues and talk seriously about rehabilitation, about improving every aspect of our educational system and about instilling esteem and self-knowledge in the minds of these young people that you'll be accused of being soft on crime, of being the stereotypical knee-jerk liberal? How can you frame this question without appearing to be "soft on crime"?
BACA: Well, I think it's an indignation to the sensibilities of a civilized human being to walk into a place like I walked into in California and see fifteen thousand kids--and they're kids--who are not in prison yet but on their way, fifteen thousand kids who've been given one foot of airspace around their bunks, and to top it off, the washing machines and the dryers for these fifteen thousand are made and manufactured by the same people who made and manufactured the death camps in Germany.
KEENE: Oh my! [whispers]
BACA: At that prison, you can look across the street and see Exxon, and you start to think about what happened in Alaska, about how we will never really be told about the tremendous loss of wildlife, the destruction of nature there. At that same prison, you can look across the other street and see this amusement park which has the biggest rollarcoaster in the world. Then you realize then and there that the rollercoaster is set for thrills; you see, we put our kids on it and they get a thrill out of life. Look either way and you realize that it's all about money. Exxon will take the entire country if it has to. And then you look into the prison system and see that 85% of the children are black and brown, and then something horrible begins to turn in your stomach: you realize that instead of anything changing, the evils that beset the society have become so sophisticated at camouflaging themselves that you begin to sense this terrible doom about it all, that things won't change, that there is no going back. I could only say to those people who would ask for more prisons to be built that at no time in the history of this country has anyone ever been able to point to any study or circumstance which affirms that prisons have helped better society's problems or reduce crime. And we have never ever tried any other alternative for the very reason that there's so much money in the penal system, it's a business. To give you an illustration: when I was in prison, the legislature would set aside money for a $250,000 conditioning system, right?
BACA: And I would see the trucks from my cell window arrive with the air-conditioning unit, and the next day the air-conditioning unit was gone. It was GONE, never to return. Neither the Federal Government nor the state nor civilians could hold those prison officials accountable for anything that they did and do. It's in the contracts! For instance, half of the food that was brought to prison--like, let's say, a truckload of chickens--would be sold on the black market! And this happens everywhere! Half of the guards were bringing in guns and selling them to the inmates, bringing in half of the drugs in prison, half-kilos of cocaine and heroine every week! Everybody knew who they were; this was just the way the system worked. You asked "how do you frame this idea," and systems work the same way: how do you frame a system where it works, where it's able to give you the kind of picture that you can live with, and yet it doesn't confront you, so what's wrong with it? It becomes okay.
KEENE: Accepting things as they are is always easier; it requires nothing from us.
BACA: Look at Bush's son. At the Republican convention, they asked him if he was going to return that $6 million to the taxpayers, and he smirked into the camera and said, "Are you kidding me?"
KEENE: [Laughs] You end up having to ask who the criminals are, what behavior is criminal? You do come to see how power and money frame all questions and issues.
KEENE: I want now to explore another idea that informs your experience and your poetry, which is "Chicanismo." One of your charges to yourself is "to remain true to my reality that in doing so I may honor my people and pay full homage to their spirit." All your books of poetry seem to carry this as their unspoken theme. Would you just talk about "Chicanismo" and what it might mean for younger people?
BACA: Chicanismo...is a state of being, which has to do with compassion and humility and patience and love. For example, I'm writing this novel which takes place in an orphanage, and in one of the scenes this Chicano boy is pushing this Indian kid into the shower, so that he has to wash. The Indian kid refuses to wash, however. And when little Daniel, the Chicano boy, pushes him into the shower and realizes that there's blood on the boy's body, on his buttocks, he realizes that the Indian boy has been raped.
BACA: Yes. And what Daniel does is take the sponge and the soap and begin to wash the boy, because the boy refused to wash for some weeks. So Daniel begins to wash him, and there's a point in the description of the paragraph of these two characters where Daniel gets on his knees and begins to wash the boy's feet.
KEENE: How incredible!
BACA: What I'm saying through this symbol--for the Chicano and the Indian are both Indians--is that the little Chicano kid is washing the body, the feet of the Indian boy who has been raped, and I think as a society--I'm only speaking of the Chicano people--what we have to do now in order to get back to the idea of Chicanismo, of who we are as a people and what we can become, I think we first have to go through the grieving stages of what happened to us as a people; that in fact many, many members of our families have assimilated and are ashamed of where they come from. This is true, too, of the black experience; there may be many black folks who are ashamed of their skin...
KEENE: The skin, the past...
BACA: The Chicanos are ashamed of their black culture by which I mean that we wear this despised aspect of ourselves around our culture; and what I'm saying is, we must grieve first then go through an act of contrition, in the sense that Daniel washed the Indian boy's body. It's not good enough just to simply grieve. You have to act, because when you act on grief, grief becomes forgiveness of oneself. You then begin to stand up, and you become immensely stronger then to go on your journey to decide who and what you're going to be.
KEENE: This is such both a powerful image and statement. also, the washing of the body, of the feet alludes to Scripture.
BACA: The Bible.
KEENE: Another area of our heritage. So one could say that through Chicanismo you begin to resolve the problematic dichotomy between what you received from Spain and Spanish culture, from Europe, and what you inherited from these Indian cultures that have been raped, suppressed, written out of the record. I have noticed throughout your essays and poems that you do look back to the Indio grandfather as a source of great strength.
BACA: I do. What's interesting about a people who have been colonized is that the dominant society does such an extraordinary job of taking away their rituals. Because once you can take away those rituals, you really have done ninety percent of the work. Keeping these rituals alive is where poetry then becomes very important. There's been this huge reaction in academia, especially in the English departments, this incredible backlash that says black literature, brown literature, and red literature is no good, any you must stay with our literature, now the white European literature.
KEENE: As if those other literature's were not our cultural inheritance as well.
BACA: I was privy to these notions in tow outlandish cases, one in San Diego and one in Santa Fe, where two tenured professors had written letters saying that black culture and brown culture and red culture and Asian culture were nothing but backwash swamps better left alone. And those professors who sent those letters were given tremendous amounts of money to go around the country on the lecturing circuit. So, you see, an awful lot of people supported these views. These two were held up as heroes. All of this is really extraordinary to me!
KEENE: Such scenes become typical, especially with the current reaction against "political correctness." You ask that you and that your culture receive respect, you ask that these authorities examine more closely what informs their own world view, and people become hysterical.
BACA: Yes. Many of their criticisms are based on the European, Eurocentric view that the works of a writer like Toni Morrison or of indigenous people deal heavily with heritage and family and roots and culture.
KEENE: These texts are only sociology and history, not art; they're too political.
BACA: These critics say that writers such as Morrison, such as the indigenous writers, are simply invoking the maudlin sympathy of their not-very-smart readership. It's not really literature: this is what Mark Strand intimated when he was here at a talk, that women in the Southwest are not really writers. In a recent London Times, there is a piece by a writer who had just visited the Nuyorican Poets' Cafe on the Lower East Side. He talks about this hoopla of indigenous writers, of people of color reading poetry, and asks if this is supposed to make us think that they're poets! It was a real bubblebath of humorism. The guy ended up saying that the only poets that America has ever had and will ever have are Ginsburg and Burroughs. He broke down the rest of American poetry with statements like, "the blacks, they make people cry but they're not poets," and so on. Now two weeks after I read this, I'm invited to the University of New Mexico to speak to a writing class. Most of the white kids in the class are saying to me, "I can't published because I'm white." So I ask them, "Does that mean, because you're white, you should get published?"
KEENE: That's a twist in perspective!
BACA: And they said, "Well, yes!"
KEENE: [Bursts into laughter].
BACA: Then the professor herself tells me, "I change my last name to a black name, you know, so that I can get published."
KEENE: A black name?
BACA: That's what she said. So I said, "Does it work?" And she replied, "Yes, it works." I thought, is this what you're teaching your students? I'm astounded by what's going on in the English departments, what professors are promoting; on the one hand, that you would have to take people's names to get published, but on the other hand, you have to be white to be a good writer. Now the interesting thing about all of this as I was going to say was that, when we as poets and writers go deep into our past, number one, it's extraordinarily difficult to deal with the pain, because it all has to do with revelation, and when I dig deep into my past and go to my roots to try to uncover the metaphors that are going to sustain me spiritually and emotionally and that are going to put me in the center of the universe feeling comfortable, what's happening is that I have a history and a heritage and a culture that I'm reaping so much from, and I realize that in doing that there are some people who have NO heritage, who have no culture, other than the culture of money. You know what I'm saying?
BACA: This amazes me. It's so sad, in a way, because I don't ever want to disrespect the gift of poetry. When writing a novel, I know what God has given me is an enormous journey that is so enriching and I don't want to mock or criticize those who don't have it; but, I don't understand why, if someone can't buy something with money, then they must try to destroy it. In other words, poetry in the Chicano world, in Chicanismo, is such an inherent part of one's living that it does not consist of extracting the sympathy of anyone. It's a part of one's living as much as a bull in a field and a rainbow in a sky and the woman in the morning who's singing. All are the different threads in the weaving of one's life, you know?
KEENE: Chicanismo then is an essential part of the fabric of your poetry and life?
BACA: Right. When you live in this Chicano world, poetry is what we speak to each other.
KEENE: Your poems and essays often feature startling images--and "startling" at least to me--of the sort that in Neruda or Paz have been called "surreal" but that, as you have just said, are really not "surreal" but which actually arise from the life that you have lived and are living.
BACA: Yes! It comes out of the hands that people work with and the language that they speak with and the food that they eat. All of the poetry that Neruda wrote was not so much "surrealism" as it was "hyper realism." In other words, Europe called it " surrealism" because of the Europeans minds bent to hide things within something. Neruda came from Chile, and people there have a tendency to show things, as the ocean shows things, because they share their land with the ocean. It's a hyper realism where "here" is the abundance of who we are.
KEENE: Which is how Garcia Márquez has described the mythopoetic reality of Macondo, of the Patriarch's rule, of the return of the most beautiful drowned man in the world.
BACA: You know. And when you can live this and not have somebody exploit this abundance, then you feel trust, you trust enough to show people this; but when you show people things and they begin to exploit, then you're forced to hide it. It's funny how literature is a meandering stream that comes out of this large lake that's called society, which means that you cannot divorce literature from society. One of the most interesting examples of the recent trend to do just this involved Carolyn Forche's anthology Against Forgetting. W. W. Norton had asked her to do an anthology of world poets. Well, she put it together, and some people were very, very disturbed that she had included as America's foremost poets many people of color, and many people who had done prison time. Forche has gone on to say that, in every single instance, every single poet that she picked from other countries had been in prison, and many of these poets were considered heroes, to some extent, by the people. Except in America, where those hailed as great poets usually have never walked within a planet's distance of prison.
KEENE: But she was not saying that one has to go to prison to be a great poet, nor championing imprisonment, was she?
BACA: Not at all. She said that the condition of who constituted great poets in America was very disturbing for her, because ultimately the people that she did pick were people who had prison experiences, not because she went for that but because that was just part of the information that the poet carried in his bank.
KEENE: Well, the people who have told us what we should and should not read and have created these various curricula and great books programs have always sort of championed writers who have been men of means, of leisure, who really didn't even have to work, let alone serve any prison time. Oh, we have Oscar Wilde, Antonio Gramsci, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, but not too many. Perhaps the imprisoned were not writing years ago, but to dismiss their experience out of hand is perverse, because there has always been all this other experience out there, much of it up until recently unexplored. Perhaps it was never even reaching the page; or if it was reaching the page, it was suppressed; or, as you say about Santa Fe, it was exploited so that the people who actually live it and write it receive no credit while other people are coming along and claiming these elements, these experiences as their own.
BACA: Yeah, it's a funny thing, and people should know that there's no turning back now. Because, what little these writers from indigenous cultures have, there's no stopping their writing now; and anybody who proposes to try to stop black writing or proposes to try to stop Indian writing or Asian writing is really clinging to a very threadbare coat that's going to tear, you know?
KEENE: Right. We're not going to turn back, no matter what.
BACA: It's just not going to happen. Suddenly you have a very unsettling kind of tragedy that's set into those people that believed the lie for so long, and it's my belief that poetry in its ultimate sense really tries to go for the pulsating vein of reality in the landscape or society. You can't write poetry unless it's the kind of poetry that sings and praises truth.
KEENE: As your poetry does. I have really just two further questions I want to talk out with you. The first is that, with the publication of Black Mesa Poems, and with Martin and Meditations on the South Valley, you have become a famous poet, so to speak. You are asked to read all over the country, and younger poets and writers recognize your name: you have what we might call " marquee value." How has this fame affected your sense of being as a poet, your poetic sensibility, and also how has it affected the way that you approach poetry? Has there been any effect?
BACA: Okay. Well, let me just say that we constantly find ourselves having to compromise ourselves for society. Our society says we'll give you this, but you have to do that. You want a position in this department, you have to move here, you have to do this: we constantly have to give up things and that's okay. I can understand that give and take, I can understand that. On the other hand, as a poet I realized very, very early on that I would love to have been able to teach at a university...
KEENE: Like most well-known American poets...
BACA: I would love to have been able to have medical insurance and so forth; but I, as the poet that I am, I really had to stay home with my two children, write poetry here, and endure poverty in the cruelest sense of the word. I really had to beg, borrow, and steal dimes to get enough gas to make it, to buy milk and so forth, for many years. But that was the playing field that I had chosen for myself, my terms. When I was cold and my baby was cold, we were cold together. And when my baby and I walked out in the snow in the morning, we did it together: I wasn't somewhere teaching, I wasn't cashing a check, I was there, and we had enough apples stored away and potatoes that we were going to eat supper. The thing about poetry is that early on I came to it in prison in such a way that society was not going to accept me, so I then had to bring society to me through my poetry. I had to write the kind of poetry that was accessible and yet which would not compromise my experience, so that society would say, "Oh we understand what he's writing about, and we think that the poetry's okay."
KEENE: This is how it happened.
BACA: Yes. So once I was able to set that up, I went on this journey where I began to just write from my own voice, and the strange thing is that when I encountered offers along the way--like with the film Bound By Honor when I was immediately offered other films, for millions of dollars--I turned them all down to come back to my farm. Basically, I was penniless. I had said in Bound By Honor what I wanted to say, and I had made enough money on that to do some of the projects that I wanted to do. But when I came back home, I was basically broke and I had to start over again.
KEENE: With your poetry and other film scripts and projects?
BACA: Yes. I'm currently finishing a novel and working on a book of poetry, but all of those things have been done on my terms, not out of pride or arrogance but mostly because I am so interested in the journey of self-discovery that I'm on. Despite the demands I encounter, I still find myself pretty much out here on this farm alone, and I can devise my own journeys, pick the tools I need, and go after things other people wouldn't go after. So I guess what I'm trying to say is that what has occurred over these past few years hasn't changed me much. What it's really reaffirmed is that the work I was doing before is the work I should be doing and I'm doing it now.
KEENE: So many people would love to be able to say what you are saying and mean it.
BACA: You know, it's a very hard way to go and it's not heroic in any sense of the word, but it is fulfilling. You do get up in the morning and feel a real power sense of the tree and the yard and the grass growing and the sun coming up, and you feel yourself very much a part of that whole, tenuous existence in the world, and it's not structured around a paycheck or insurance or tenure or grades or a new car. It's really sustained by a sense of appreciation for one's breathing and getting up and saying, "Hi, how are you?" and "Let's have a cup of coffee": the real small, simple pleasures in life.
KEENE: These small, simple pleasures run like motifs throughout all your poems, all your writings.
BACA: Yeah, the real, small pleasures in life. The idea of just seeing a man in prison who's condemned to die: I come out of the shower and it's 9 o'clock and I see him napping and I look at his face, and there's a look on this man's face, on the face of a man who's going to die, that I think is more important for me than to go to work in a prison system and get brownie points. I would much rather go back to the cell and write about what I saw on the man's face. You know?
BACA: And my life has always been sort of like that, about unendingly learning about all the mistakes I made and never being so stupid as to not try to learn something new from my children or from the earth or from friends. And then sort of translating all of that into a book.
KEENE: Would I be wrong in assuming that to be your philosophy of writing?
BACA: Well, I really don't think much about the poetry that I write or much about my writing except that if it feels really good to me, if it feels like I've hit on a jugular-- 'cause I'm around a lot of sheep and bulls and horses, and I know blood, I know hearts, I know a horse's eyes, I know a dog's tongue, I know those things very intimately, I know those things. And when I feel a poem, I feel for that: I feel for the dog's tongue and the horse's eye or the bull's chest, you know, and if I feel, if I can feel it in the poem, then the poem's okay.
KEENE: You're underscoring in different words the charge you gave to other poets, to "reject the killing safety of literary workshops and universities, and don't fear the jagged emotion."
BACA: In a nutshell, the indication of a good poem, I think, is very emotional; every jagged emotion has a song all its own. You know the Navajos have a tradition: when a man or a woman go traveling, they come back home and they stand in the center of the teepee or the hogan where they live, and they repeat their names seven times. And if the repetition of the name is clear, then they've come back with their name intact-- no one has stolen their name. No one has stolen their souls, so to speak. And in a society that thrives on stealing souls, I feel pretty good that I can stand up in my little place and repeat "Jimmy Santiago Baca" seven times and it's done very clearly and then I pray before my altar and I'm okay for the day. I can start to work.
KEENE: This is very inspiring to hear! I think both the people who already know your poetry and those who are unfamiliar with your work will really be able to appreciate what you have been saying here, because in talking about the specifics of your own life and art, you are extending feelings and experiences that are common to us all.
BACA: Yeah. Poetry transcends all colors and cultures, and ultimately beats from the red heart. You show me someone without a red heart, and I'll show you someone who's not a human being. [Bursts into laughter]
BACA: I do believe the poet's job in the real sense of the word is to always be there where the emotional and psychic and spiritual earthquakes are happening, and to be strong enough to be able to sing in those big chasms. The poet's job is to be at the epicenter.
BACA: I don't know if you've ever been at a place where there's been an earthquake, but let me just say it this way: I went with my two children to a place out by where there's a bird refuge, where thousands and millions of birds come. And we were messing around, trying to cross this river, but they had this long fence strung across the river. It was something very strange that day because my son, my youngest one, immediately fell to the earth and began to play in the sand. My other son began to cross the river, clambering sideways across it, and I followed him, the river rushing beneath, and what was extraordinary about that time, that day was that I had another friend with me, and he began to sing songs; but we began to comment, all four of us, that the space seemed to be, seemed to have been cleared and sanctified in some strange way. It was that our movements were slower, our words were more sincere, there seemed to have been the breath of great mother earth expelled from that particular point, and two days later, the epicenter of an earthquake was there, right there.
KEENE: What a story!
BACA: I don't know what poets' jobs are except that we need to get to the epicenters before they happen, so we can participate in that power. Not be the victims of it. I want us to participate in the power of an earthquake before the earthquake happens; I want us to be part of the process of that power coming up, and then, when those earthquakes occur, we understand them in a human sense. When things happen to human beings' lives, we can then write about them.
KEENE: Well, you know, I can't disagree with that.
BACA: You know what the Navajos say again, right? They say that when it's a drought, you learn to live very dryly, you become drought. And when it's really, really rainy, then you become rain. So that's how I think as a poet.
from Callaloo 17.1 (Winter 1994). Online Source: The Official Jimmy Santiago Baca Homepage at http://www.swcp.com/~baca
News Letters on the Air
Speaker: Our guest today is poet, Jimmy Santiago Baca. Jimmy Santiago Baca is the author of six books of poetry, most recently Black Mesa Poems. Poets often speaks of poetry as having saved their lives, but in Santiago Baca's case, the statement is not mere metaphor. At the age of 18, he was an illiterate, serving time in prison for drug possession, and in an interview with New Letters managing editor, Robert Stuart, Santiago Baca says it was his discovery of the possibilities of language that transformed what appeared to be a doomed life. The people who know and love poetry most, says Jimmy Santiago Baca, are those who like himself, desperately need it.
JSB: You dive into the metaphor of language, and you hit your head on the bottom, and you taste your own blood, and you taste your own mortality in language. You realize suddenly that you're here, just as the Aztecas would say, "like a flower." And, you sort of mourn that. Writing is a form of mourning, in which you sing happy songs. One of the really absurd assumptions that runs rampant in this country is that the people who know about poetry, the people who truly understand poetry, the people who are the prophets of poetry are those in the academic levels are those who write it. Well, I am the peddler of newspaper, and I will tell you what the real news is. That the people of academia who teach poetry know almost nothing about it. And, the people who write poetry, who are truly, truly apprentices of poetry, in the way that Blake was, are so blinded by its light, that they are participating in the process, that they don't have time to stand back and say, "Oh, well I couldn't tell you what the centimeter beats are on this. Their bodies are participating in it. Do you stop when you are making love to a woman and say, "let me tell you exactly what the metabolic process is that is happening right now. No you don't.
Speaker: Jimmy Santiago Baca was born in New Mexico in 1952. He tells Robert Stuart that he thinks of himself as a Chicano, although his parents were of Indian and Mexican ancestry.
JSB: Being a baby from those people that I come from, I was born and immediately after being born they said, "We cannot take care of you, we have no means, there is nothing here." So they said, "Go, go to an orphanage. Go live with your grandmother. Go, do something." So, I went to live with my grandmother, and my grandmother said, (she was 60 or 70% blind from glaucoma and cataracts) and she said to me, "I can't take care of you, so you have to take care of yourself. I can give you some beans and some rice and some corn, and that kind of thing, but I can't do much for you." So, I grew up in the very, very early years gaining my values from the black trains that passed the Pueblo, from the eagle that flew and landed, from the hummingbirds that came on the fence, from the dogs and the horses, all the trees, and looking at the seasons and the cycles. My first sense of structure in this particular reality, in this universe, came from everything else around me, and included in kind of realm of that value system was of course my grandmother singing her songs, and my uncles coming in from the mountains with wood. The people were not apart from that universe, they were part of that universe.
Speaker: This was in fairly rural New Mexico?
JSB: Yes, rural, rural New Mexico. So, yes, and then from there, the government came and said "you cannot stay with your grandmother because you're not going to school, and you have to learn how to speak English." I was taken to the orphanage, and I spent a good deal of time in the orphanage.
Speaker: This whole sense of basically no identity in this country shows up a lot in your poems. You have, I know, one particularly powerful poem about your father, about reading the death certificate after your father had died. He had been labeled as white on the death certificate.
JSB: That one was an interesting poem because that is one of the few poems that actually happened. That was a very interesting poem, because my father did die, he did die, and I think one of the reasons why he did die the way he did was because he was very bound like the earth, very red like titanium rock slab in New Mexico. And, everybody in his life said he was white. He had this terrible, terrible grief in him when anybody would see him. A terrible grief. It was an animal grief, that means weep and grind his teeth. But, he's not white, he would tell me, "I'm not white mejito, no soy blanco. Mira, mi piel es cafecito como la tierra Madre Sagrada, ancina." And, I would look up to him and say, "Poppe, I know you're brown, I know who you are." And, he would say, "Well, why when I go out there, everybody says this?" I remember when I was a boy, and the Gillette fights would be on T.V., and he would drink like nine beers, and then he would begin to look at me with that crazed Apache look, and say, "I'm not like them." And, I would look at these white starched shirts and these ties, and I think, that's not you. I remember you Poppe, you were the boy who used to get the water out of the well and haul it up the mountain, and you had a song, and now you're dribbling saliva, you're so drunk, it's falling on your chest, and you're mumbling that you're not like them. So, here's a poem called ... this is number 26.
Jefe, todavia no saben. On the color of race on your death certificate, they have you down as "white." You fought against that label all of your short life, Jefe. Now, they have you down as white. They had you down when you lived. Down, because you were too brown. Dead on arrival when you try to be white. You were brown as dungy whiskey bottles, brown as the adobe dirt. You shattered those bottles against death now. You are white. Under specify suicide or homicide, I scribbled out accident, and wrote in suicide, I scribbled out white and wrote in Chicano. I erased 'caused by aspiration of meat,' and wrote in 'trying to be white.'
Speaker: This is New Letters on the Air. Jimmy Santiago Baca ran away from the orphanage when he was eleven years old, and began an odyssey of street life that culminated in his prison sentence. The poet is fascinated with other people's lives, and that in his experience, gangsters tend to be great lovers of poetry.
JSB: When you see gangsters being jailed, and if they have something to say, it's always a quote from a poet. I mean, I happen to believe that poetry was the mother, in oral poetry of the people. The mothers held their little babies in their arms and sang the songs. And, when these men decided to do what they had to do, and cross that line that few of us cross, and they decided to take someone else's life. It was through the force of poetry that this strange red, this strange red light that is worn on all sides evenly, just like a cradle with a spirit, that they said, they believe in the verse and the lyrics so much that they said, yes, you have committed an injustice, and boom, you either live or die. But, I believe that acts that are committed, that break laws, the great acts that assist the laws of the human spirit, whether they're legitimized in Washington or not, are acts that are done according to those mysterious laws of poetry.
Speaker: A kind of over-riding aesthetics that these people inherently understand.
JSB: I think it's what we call the "infant cry" in poetry. The cry that infants have that make a mother get out of bed in the middle of the night, you run to the baby. I think all of us have that instinct of mothering deep in us. And, when a poem cries out to us loud in its verse lines, there is something in us in the darkness that rises and comes to it. I was trying to find a metaphor for the creative spirit in poets. What makes us stay up and write, and what makes us so enormously happy in so much rumination? Why are we so happy? And, my son and I were at the Isleta Pueblo, and I was pushing him on the swings, and his little sneaker was scraping the dirt so that he could stop on the swing, and he uncovered the face of a frog, a dehydrated frog. We carefully exhumed it and safely put it into my baseball cap and took it home, and added it to my alter of things that meant something to me. Some men bring back emmy awards, I bring back dehydrated frogs from the Pueblo. It's called Toward the Light.
A few inches beneath ground surface, my son heeled up a frog. It died in leap toward light. Cooked, brittle hooked hands scoop of dirt beneath this black flat belly. Nostril slits flared with that last heave toward the light to the faint warmth of spring. Back legs shoved at dense dirt, pushed, pushed up, up, until exhausted, o-o-o-old frog, let its legs and arms go limp, small toes fanned out, alas, back sigh, scoop. And, then it rested its broad gullet down gravely, severe mouth, and died in the grimaced leap at light, just an inch above ground. I pick it up. Sand grains tick inside its hollow shell. Eyelids, dark scars. Blunted snub nose. Olmec King unearthed by my son's sneaker, I enthrone in my baseball cap, and bring home, set next to other desktop jewels. There, by the monarch butterfly, obsidian stone, piñons, pine cones, pebbles, buttons, pens, eagle feathers, withered rosebud, robin's egg, tuft of sparrow's nest cotton, welcome Olmec King, welcome to my humble museum where each thing conveys an aspect of my own journey toward the light.
JSB: This is a nice one to my first son, Antonio, Since You've Come .
You make a thousand expressions of distaste and indifference. Like a bored Prince, unimpressed with our performance, you scream and we stagger out of bed, grumbling at the unmerciful rule of our emperor. We become fortune tellers guessing what you desire. We become dwarfs at your service, jugglers of toy bears and rattlers, musicians continually winding up the music box, and after all of it, you simply shut your eyes and go to sleep. We have never loved anyone more then you, my child.
Speaker: I had read, as well, I think it's well known that you evidently taught yourself to read and write while you were in prison. You were roughly how old at that time?
JSB: Well, we speak of cultural prisons. I was probably in prison in my mothers womb.
Speaker: How about the state penitentiary? (Laughter)
JSB: The state penitentiary? Oh, that prison, oh-oh, I remember prisons in my life, that one. I went into prison when I was 18, and that was a classic OK Corral standoff, shootout sort of thing.
Speaker: In what way?
JSB: I escaped. I was the one that escaped, because I grew up in the desert, and this big shoot-out occurred in the desert, right? So, I knew the desert, it was night. They had helicopters there, and jeeps and sharp shooters from the FBI. With all of that, and they had us surrounded for hours, it was that old primal Geronimo listening to the weeds and the dust that got me past their roped off areas. And, I ended up a thousand miles away a couple of days later. But, there I am, in front of the judge who was saying "You miserable creature, we know you didn't shoot the FBI man, we know you didn't sell the drugs, but you wasted our time, so you're gonna get 50 years for that. And, if we wanted to, we could say you shot the FBI man, and because you're the only Mexican that we caught. You're the only Chicano near the border. You're it." And, I thought, well, how can this man do this? How could this lawyer do this. How could these people do this. What is it with these people. So, I went to the prison, and I said, "I want to learn how to read and write, and get my GED." That was it. It was a classic stand-off that the guy said, "No problem, go to the kitchen for six months." I did. Ho, lo and behold, I come back to the reclassification committee, and I say very proudly, 'O Sir, I have completed my duties in the kitchen, and I would love to have my first grammar book now, give me a schedule so I can go." And, he stood up to me and said to me, "What do you blank, blank, blank, think this is you little blank, blank, blank. You get your blank, blank out in the fields, and if I ever hear out of your blank, blank mouth again, you're gonna go straight down to security." That was it! Something in me tore, something in me ripped, searingly through my spirit. As deeply as possible as a human being can be hurt and betrayed, it happened. It was something, something deep happened, and I stood there, and I looked at him, and I knew it was one of those momentous moments in time that changes our lives and, I looked at him, and I said to him, "I will never work for this prison system as long as I am here, ever." And, therein began the struggle. They put me in lock-up, and for the next four to five years, they did almost everything they could do to humiliate me. They beat me, they ....
Speaker interrupts: How, through all of that, were you able to learn to read and write through all of that? What I'm wondering is what was the process of actually learning in the prison?
JSB: I think what happens, is that, well, there are practical things, like a man by the name of Harry from Phoenix, sending my first grammar book. Because, he worked for the Good Samaritan Home, helping the homeless, and he randomly picked my name out of inmates who didn't have anybody to visit, and asked me what I needed. I wrote him, and he sent some paper and a grammar book, and so forth.
This was one of my first love poems, written while I was in prison, entitled, I Am Offering This Poem.
I am offering this poem to you since I have nothing else to give. Keep it like a warm coat when winter comes to cover you, or like a pair of thick socks, the cold cannot bite through...I LOVE YOU. I have nothing else to give you, so it is a potfull of yellow corn to warm your belly in winter. It is a scarf for your head, to wear over your hair, to tie up around your face...I LOVE YOU. Keep it. Treasure this as you would if you were lost and needing direction. In the wilderness Life becomes when mature, and in the corner of your drawer, tucked away like a cabin or hogan in dense trees come knocking and I will answer, give you directions, and let you warm yourself by this fire, rest by this fire, and make you feel safe...I LOVE YOU. It's all I have to give, and all anyone needs to live, and to go on living inside when the world outside no longer cares if you live or die. Remember, I LOVE YOU.
Speaker: So, more or less, you did it on your own. Through the few books and the paper that you were able to get a hold of in prison. You developed your own sense of language. I mean, you had it obviously with you, but you began writing and reading in a kind of personal effort.
JSB: I think what sustained me, what actually made me write, what made me pursue, there are many folds to this flower; but, I think that two or three of the most important ones were that I had a blinding reverence for life in its loving form, and I had a blinding terror of life in its violent form. And, those two extreme poles, I found myself literally scattered between those two poles of terror of life and love of life, that language I began to beckon and beg, I began to beg like a dog at the back door of words. I would beg that these words to please give me sustenance in the same way we feed our body food, please give me something to live, and it was that cataclysmic faith, it was the Armageddon of love and faith, and all of that. The idea of fatality that life will end today, and I must have one truth, and it really literally could have been, because I had contracts on me to be killed because I refused to quit writing and so forth. Well, I begged that I live, or at least let me say one thing in life, let someone know I was alive, let someone know that Jimmy Santiago Baca came to earth. Please let me leave something.
Speaker: What were your models at that time for being a poet?
JSB: What sustained me through the darkest periods, when I thought I might die, I was having nervous breakdowns, were the Mexican poets and the Spanish poets who unceasingly gave passion to the work, gave passion to the language. They didn't write poetry that said, "Well, I went down to the store..." No, they said, "I MUST go to the STORE ! And, it was at these weak moments when I felt myself fragmenting in my entire existence, falling away like sand through my fingers. I couldn't keep it together. It was falling away from me. I would passionately open up Pablo Neruda, Federico Garcia Lorca, Jaime Sabinez, and these voices would say to me, "Fight Santiago, you get up and fight, don't let the darkness take you. Hijo d'su. Y despues de leer como un poeta como Neruda, me levante, y va uno recio adelante. To translate that, I said, after reading Pablo Neruda, I would stand up and give this hardy howl, woof, woof, come, I'm ready.
Speaker: I can see that in your writing too. Your writing is full of that kind of energy.
JSB: Yeah, so it's the passion. And, it's the passion in American poets that I look for. It's not the passion of the street corner gibberish, but the true passion when you look at the poets work, and really believe that his life or her life is on the line. It's that. We don't have that because we are so fully fulfilled with all the conveniences. So, if I don't do the poems, so what, I'll go down to the cafe and have me a bagel, some Corona beer, I can do it later, right? Well, these poets said, "If I don't finish this poem," you know, "there's gonna be four or five miners that die tonight in the mines. I HAVE to finish this poem.
Speaker: It's a matter of life and death?
Speaker: This is Fresh Air Radio broadcast. Jimmy Santiago Baca was formed by the years he spent in prison. He recently returned to prison, but it wasn't to do time, it was to make a movie. Baca wrote the screen play for the new film, Bound By Honor, about Chicano life in East L.A. Baca also has a part in the film as a prisoner. Baca is part Chicano, part Native American. He grew up in an orphanage and on the streets. He spent several years in prison on drug charges. It was in prison that he learned to read and write. He had a couple of poems published in Mother Jones Magazine while he was behind bars. Since getting out, he's had books of poems and essays published, and has won the Before Columbus National Book Award, the Wallace Stevens Fellowship from Yale University, and the Push Cart Prize.
Speaker: Baca lives in Albuquerque with his family. He went to San Quentin to shoot the new film, and he was surprised at how he reacted to being back in a prison.
JSB: What surprised me was my response to the hyper-reality of it all. You'd think that after . . . during the filming of the film in San Quentin, I sort of went crazy with going back in. And, one day, as Taylor Hackford was shooting a scene, I had had enough. I walked right in front of the camera and stopped the shooting, and I said that I was leaving. He said, why, we need you, you can't you're one of the actors. I said, "well, I can't deal with it anymore." So, he allowed me... he was kind enough to give me a place where I could just take a few days and start writing this book to deal with the emotions that I was feeling. As I began to write this book, entitled, "Working In The Dark" I tried to figure out what my response was, what I was feeling in prison. It was a shock to me that I had lost... I had been out of prison twelve years, but I had lost all sense of being out, being a free man, having a farm and doing all of the wonderful things that I do in life. I had forgotten all of that, and I had just plunged back into the abyss of being a convict. I felt a lot of hatred coming back and a lot of nightmarish grief and a lot of anguish.
Speaker: You have had a pretty rough life. Let me just run through with you some of the things that have happened to you in your life. You were born of both Chicano and Apache descent. Your parents divorced and abandoned you when you were 2 years old. Why did they abandon you?
JSB: "Well, the reasons for that are many. I mean, mostly historical reasons that have to do with colonialism and the fifties, after W.W.II, you know when they had this huge enmasse of homesteaders who had settled and had taken all the land from us, and the Courts were reaffirming the robbery, and they were legitimizing it. You had all these peoples who were starving, during the great droughts. You know, in Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas. People were moving. So, the reasons are many, but I suppose that my father was trying to prove that he was an American. He was forced to come to the urban centers to work. My mother, on the other hand, went the other route and was trying to marry an Anglo so that she could be accepted or feel like she was acceptable.
Speaker: But why did they abandon you?
JSB: Well, for the reasons I just explained. For all those reasons, economic reasons. There may have been no money. The reasons of the drought in the pueblos, the reason of them coming to the cities and wanting to assimilate into America, you know? For those reasons, they left me with my grandma. I guess the reason they abandoned me was that they couldn't, they didn't know how to take care of themselves. The enemy was that they couldn't ...that they didn't know how to take care of themselves. They were being assaulted and assailed from all sides. Well, you know, when that happens, how can you cope with taking care of kids when you can't even take care of yourself?
Speaker: How did you end up in an orphanage?
JSB: I was taken there because the authorities thought it was bad influence to be around the people of my Pueblo. They thought that I should learn how to speak English and be a Catholic.
Speaker: Did you identify more as Native American, or Chicano, or both? Or, did it matter?
JSB: Well, you find out that despite all the catastrophic ..., the cyclones, and all the whirlwinds occurring around me as a child, I found that the safest place to be was on the playground with the kids. And, it's funny because the little white boys who were there from the mountains, and the black kids and the Chicano kids, and the Indian kids, all sort of became.. their ethnicity became neutral. Because, when you're poor and abandoned, you're swinging on a swing with a kid or sliding down the slide, or in the pool, or in the merry-go-round, or teeter-totter, you don't think so much where the kid is from or where he's at, because it seems that the similarity and experiences dissolve differences in ethnicity. And, so we were all just a bunch of kids who were there. You know, suffering from the same situations and enjoying the same benefits.
Speaker: So you left the orphanage when you were twelve? Did you run away, or did they release you? What was the story?
JSB: Well, I ran away a lot of times. I had this problem, as Arudas says in one of his poems, I had 'little tiny flames' shooting out from my heels... as most children do. But, I ran away many times. I ran away a little less. But, they were going to send me to Boystown, and I ran away.
Speaker: When you were twelve?
JSB: Ultimately, I just never came back.
Speaker: So, where did you live? How did you live?
JSB: Well, you know, I hustled... I mean, I didn't really hustle that much, I really depended on the kindness and the generosity of my people. And, I lived with many friends and families. They would give me a meal and they would give me food. The hardest part about living on the streets as a kid is when the rest of the kids are in school, and the grown-up adults have gone to work, and you are left with the very ancient, or the handicapped, or the invalids. You sort of people the world with them, and you begin to think there must be something wrong with you too, that you're one of the damaged ones.
Speaker: My guest is Jimmy Santiago Baca. He wrote the screenplay for the new film, Bound By Honor. His latest book is Writing in the Dark, Reflections of a Poet in the Barrio. This is Fresh Air. My guest is writer, Jimmy Santiago Baca.
Speaker: How did you end up in prison?
JSB: Ah, they had a law in 1972 and 71, that said...it was a ridiculous law, it was primarily responsible for breaking the boundaries of prison room and for rooming and celling 3 or 4 people to a cell which is very crazy, but I was in the vicinity where the commission of a crime took place, and since it was re-election, it was a Mormon judge, Mormon lawyers and all that, and it was re-election time, and everybody in that town hates Mexicans and that whole thing. They really did take a tour de force on this, and took everybody that was there, when everybody knew it was one person's fault. But, they gave a friend of mine 50 to 90 years. They gave my girlfriend 3 solid years in a maximum security prison. And, she was from the Julliard School in New York. She was practicing music, and had nothing to do with anything. Neither did I for that matter. But, anyway, you know how that goes. They rounded up a bunch of people and the spectacular news of the day was this and that, and so it was a real life line for the judicial system in Yuma, Arizona in that heyday.
Speaker: What were the charges?
JSB: Drugs, possession, with intent to sell, to distribute.
Speaker: Were you dealing at the time?
JSB: Of course not. The judges knew that and the lawyers knew that. They all knew it, it was just that...they said to me, "Look, this is how America works. You know, you waste our time, you're going to get worse. Plead guilty, you know, and we go on to the next case, and we'll be easier on you.
Speaker: How old were you the first time you were sent to prison?
JSB: I was 18.
Speaker: And, you couldn't read?
JSB: Well, no, you know, functionally illiterate. Anybody can read "it" or "you" or "a", "and", "but", but it's quite another thing to ... It's not so much the fact that you can read or not read. I couldn't read, but it's what happens to an individual who is not able to read. What condition does that person fall into?
Speaker: Well, did it ever bother you before then that you couldn't read? Were you embarrassed by it?
JSB: Never embarrassed.
Speaker: So, tell me more about how being in prison led you to start reading.
JSB: Well, you know, I wanted to go take my G.E.D., and they refused to let me take my G.E.D. They wanted me to work, so I told them, "I'm not working until I get privileges to go to school." And, that was it. We stayed at that impasse for the entire time I was in prison.
Speaker: Were you punished for your position?
JSB: Of course! I was punished very severely, many times. And, I never did work though, I am proud to say.
Speaker: Did you get to study for your G.E.D.?
Speaker: So how did you start to read?
JSB: Well, there was a guy named Harry, who was a good samaritan in Phoenix, who wrote me a letter saying what do I need for Christmas. You know, he picked my name out of a hat and said, you know, it's Christmas time, you don't have anybody to visit or anybody, so what would you like? And, I told him, could you send me a book, an English and Spanish book" so I could learn what verbs are, and nouns and stuff. And, he did. And, I took off. I got a bunch of books from the other convicts, and I started reading and writing. I started writing letters and poems, and reading for the convicts. They gave me coffee, cigarettes, pencils and tablets, and I started a very thriving ordering system.
Speaker: Do you remember anything you wrote, any of the letters or poems that you wrote for other people inside?
JSB: I remember the first stanza I ever wrote in my life, that I think has carried some fire to it. I was in the shower, taking a shower, and it struck me, and I ran out naked, ran down the terre, ran to my cell and jotted it down with wet, soapy hands.
Speaker: What was it?
JSB: It was just a 4-line, 3-couplets. It was, "Did you tell them hell was not a dream, and that you'd been there, did you tell them?" And, they came because we had a visit from a group of citizens to prison. And, they sort of went around, they sort of walked around without taking stock of very much. I mean, you know, mostly it's just the impotent routine of people just coming to take a look and walking out. And, you know, "Did you tell them that hell, that you've been there and that hell is not a dream, did you tell them?" It seemed to me to resonate with something that was volcanically brewing beneath me somewhere.
Speaker: Were you able to read to someone after you wrote it?
JSB: Ah, no... except for the birds, the trees, and the air, the dust and the sun outside my window.
Speaker: How much did you want somebody else to hear it when you wrote that?
JSB: Well, I had... not very much. I mean, I didn't think I was going to be a poet or a writer. My goal in life was to be an English teacher. So, what I was writing, I wasn't particularly gunho about having people hear it, or even read it, because I didn't think I was a poet, I didn't think I was a writer, I was simply trying to grasp the language. And, in doing so, I kept a journal. I kept many journals. And, it wasn't until Mother Jones; I sent three poems to them. I didn't know how to put the stamp or the address on the letter or anything, but I did send them three poems, and they published the poems internationally and sent me $300 bucks, and I was like, wow!
Speaker: So, was the $300 held for you until you were released?
JSB: No. I put it in my store. I bought ice cream for the whole cell block.
Speaker: You treated everybody?
JSB: Yeah, since everybody had been supporting me for a few years, I decided it was my turn and give them something.
Speaker: Could I ask you to read a poem from your collection Immigrants In Our Own Land and Selected Early Poems. The poem is called, "Cloudy Day." First tell us when you wrote this.
JSB: Well, I remember I was standing outside, I guess it was about 1977 or 78, something like that.
Speaker: You were in prison?
JSB: Yeah, yeah.
Cloudy Day. It is windy today, a wall of wind crashes against, windows clunk against, iron frames as wind swings passed broken glass and seeds. Like a frightened cat and empty spaces of the cell block. In the exercise yard, we sat huddled in our prison jackets, on our haunches against the fence.
And, the wind carried our words over the fence. While the vigilant guard in the tower held his cap at the sudden gust. I could see the main tower from where I sat, and the wind in my face gave me the feeling I could grasp the tower like a corn stalk and snap it from its root of rock. The wind plays it like a flute. This hollow shoot of rock. The brim guarded with barbed wire with the guard sitting there also, listening intently to the sounds as clouds cover the sun. I thought of the day I was coming to prison, in the back seat of a police car. Hands and ankles chained, and the policemen pointing to them. "You see that big water tank there, boy? The big silver one out there sticking up. That there is prison." And, here I am, I cannot believe it. Sometimes it is such a dream, a dream. When I stand up in the face of the wind, like now, it blows at my jacket, and my eyelids flick a little bit while I stare disbelieving. The third day of spring, and four years later, I can tell you how a man can endure, how a man can become so cruel, how he can die, or become so cold. I can tell you this, I've seen it every day, every day, and still I'm strong enough to love you, love myself, and feel good.
Even as the earth shakes and trembles, and I have not a thing to my name, I feel as I have everything, everything.
Speaker: Was that written for a person?
JSB: It was written for me.
Speaker: You've been out of prison for twelve years. Tells us something about what your life is like now. You live on a farm?
JSB: Oh, it's exciting! I go to Mexico City in two days. I am going to meet Octavio and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Cartajela, and I am writing feverishly. And, I've got some wonderful books that I'm working on, and I read a lot. I've got incredible children, and I've got... You know what I was doing this morning? I was planting flowers. I was starting a garden. Me and my children were planting flowers. And, there was a peacock, I don't know where it came from, but it flew into my yard, and my horse was gone. I don't now where my horse went. You know, I'm up to my neck. I got invited to the New Orleans Jazz Festival, and I've got all of these program for kids who are barefoot and hungry and illiterate. And, I'm working with them. I can't really ask for much more right now. I'm busted broke, but what are you gonna do about that? Right? I mean, I've got everything else but money, so I'm not complaining.
Speaker: Jimmy, thank you a lot for talking with us.
JSB: You're welcome, thank you very much for inviting me.
An unedited interview with Jimmy Santiago Baca (JSB) by
Rudy Miera (RM).
Feburary 14, 1993
RM: In my opinion I consider your poetry medicine, poetry of healing. How if affects yourself after you right. Would you care to comment on that?
JSB: I'll comment on that indirectly. There's this thing, there's this very debiliting reality that happens in the institutions in America and it has something to do with all this hub-bub about political right thinking and European thought and all this other stuff, and that is that, specifically with Chicano literature and Chicano works, poetry, and theater, and movies and so forth, and that is, that somehow if you order the books of the Chicano poets and Chicana poets and writers you're gonna be tainted with something that's inferior. You're not getting the best education. You're not getting the best of what's to offer in the way of thought, and feeling, and philosophy, and point of view, and so forth. And, a lot of that has to do with two things, and you can see a reflection of it in the Black culture, Black culture with Alex Haley and people before him with Marian Barach and other people is that they were able, a long time ago, to start to deal with the pain of being slaves and having their women raped by the white male, right? But, there's a tendency in our own Chicano culture where our kids are going to school now in high schools and universities feel that the only books that are written by Chicanos and Chicanas that they think they're not getting the best. So we might as well go with the great white model. And the reason that they have the tendency to do that, unconsciously, is because most of the poets that are working, writer's that are working from the Chicano culture, are working with things that are happening with them and their own experiences, and their vision for the future, and their history, and their past. And all of that entails information as one thing, but when the information that you're getting inside your body has become extremely painful. The thing about Chicano literature that's so difficult is that it's something that's just for the mind. It's just not for the brain. You can read a book by Whitman, Walt Whitman, Izra Pound, TS Eliot, anybody like that . . . you can get that kind of poetry and feel okay about it but when you begin to get a book and you read the book and it affects you personally, your own archetypal sense of what your emotions are, and where you live, and your place in the world. And those books deal profoundly with the pain that your ancestors have gone through and what you're going through. Then the question arises, whether or not you're able to deal with that pain, whether or not you want to face that pain, or whether or not you want to try to heal yourself. And consequently, as a poet whatever I deal with in my work ultimately has some pain to it because I am of a colonized people. White males did rape all my Indian grandmothers, all my Indian mothers, all my Mexican mothers, all my Mexican sisters. They did rape them and for me to be able to literally dive into that and feel that is very very painful. But on the other side of that, I have to come out of that with an extraordinary sense of healing, and I do heal myself. And there's a lot of Chicanos in school today that pretend and don't even want to get close to our books because of the pain. There's a lot of professionals that won't even order the books because it shows their past in a very dim dim light. They're not important anymore. They're not the role models. They're not the ones that we're pursuing to be like. Because we're dealing with something entirely different. Something that we're discovering as we write about it. So consequently what happens is that the pivot, or the gravitational point of the power structure in a classroom like in a literature classroom turns from the professor to the student, and not only then becomes really really uncomfortable, it becomes extremely painful. In essence you have people that are experiencing deep emotional traumas and healing those things. Now does that belong in the classroom? I don't know. I would have it in my classrooms, yes. I think if we added a little more humanity in the classroom and less regurgitation for grades I think we'd be a lot healthier.
RM: In a way it seems you're talking about a type of literature that has no precedent, no model. It's like mestizo literature, right? In your latest book, in Working In the Dark, por ejemplo, you've got essays that turn into poetry, and then short stories, there's journal entries, do you think that's a characteristic of Mestizo literature?
JSB: I think each of us has to choose our own way of dancing. It's very well understood how we model what we print off of the European type. A book should be like this and a thought should be like this. Almost to the very last editor, ultimately all of us have to come up to this person and everything that we do has to be riddled with observations. They must stick to the criteria of the European. Now in the Indio culture and the Mejicano culture it's okay if poetry moves you to a point where you stand up and you cry out loud. It's okay to weep, it's okay to grab your child and feel deep deep compassion and embrace your child. And I find that I do that, and I find that I allow myself to do that, and I find that I've allowed myself to dance the dance that I want to dance. And so, I may have an essay, and then I may go onto poetry, I may go ahead and do this. And what my problem is that life in it's truest sense follows the spontaneous organic cry of life. And when we try to structure that it becomes very dangerous because we have to ask ourselves, "who are we structuring it for, what's it doing to us as a person?" I do believe in craft and I do believe in structure and all of that. But I also believe that when you're seventeen years old, and you're in high school, and you happen to be a Chicano, and for the last five hundred years they have written that you're worthless and you're no good, I think that then and there you must put craft and structure aside, and give the ultimate cry of beauty for that individual - that, "I am beautiful, and I can dance, and this is who I am, and listen to me." That transcends and supersedes any of the craft bullshit that goes along with, "my goodness, what a wonderful writer he is, I suppose." I would much rather have the acceptance of a young Chicana going to UNM that weeps over the book at night and says, "this is the book I'll keep on my bedstand." As opposed to some professor in New Hampshire saying, "goodness me, what wonderful sentence structure," you know? Chale, man.
RM: So you say form follows function. It's the ideal of the corazon, where it's coming from originally, right? You use whatever shape is needed to express that original feeling.
JSB: I'm not saying that spontaneity, if it's a deep enough emotion that comes from a deep enough place in the heart has it's own inherent structure. It's the kind of structure that a mountain has, that we don't see but a painter sees. It's the kind of structure that a beautiful whale has when it surfaces for air, we don't see the structure, we don't see the craft in that. It's organic, it's universal, it's cosmos, right? But that's what I do in Working In the Dark. I try to figure that cosmic craft that swells in the bones when you hear a beautiful song or when you see an incredible tree. There's something deep there that has nothing to do with the way a New York editor thinks about it, you know? And has everything to do with the last fifty billion years of the earth's existence. That's craft.
RM: You're known for giving some extremely strong and inspiring readings. In one sense do you think that some of your writing is a script for performance? In other words, what's the relationship between the written word and the spoken word?
JSB: I think that topic lays good ground work for controversy because I fall on both sides of the fence and I can hear someone saying, "my goodness, you're one of those comprising fools," right? But I have a right to say that as opposed to many other people because I come from a dual culture, I have a dual personality, yo soy European and American, right? I come from the Vigen de Guadalupe, and from Tezcatlipoca, and from all of these great gods and goddesses, that have to do with duality. I am a dual person. So on the one hand, I have heard people whisper their poetry and demand that not one single pieho in the hair move, right? Nothing, that you do not even breath, you must seize breathing while I read. On the other hand, I've been in certain areas in the South where Blacks scream and music breaks the sound of the silence, and in the lower East Side, and in California where people begin to hold hands, and chant and become part of the poem, and all the barriers are broken. See, you have two sides of that. You have the English tea room where you must sit quietly and sip your tea and then you have this extraordinary visionist dance around the fire, with the full moon groaning and the earth opening up and men and women groaning with it, in the poem. So where you fall in that is entirely up to your cultural orientation. If you come from that school in Europe where you can't even breath while the poem is being read, that's okay it has it's merits. But, if you come from a group of people who have been oppressed and colonized and who have this deep deep deep need to communicate their deepest feelings. And when Lorca reads and someone yells out and says, "yeah! ¡Simone, odale que si!" you can't criticize that person who has been institutionally shut up in a dungeon for five hundred years. What do you expect somebody's who's coming out of the darkness to say when he hears a great great song? You can compare it to the metaphor of a culture that's been in the dungeon, in the darkness, that's never been allowed to speak. And when that culture comes out into the broad daylight and they see a great great horse running across the fields, the children are going to say, "oh, mira, mira caballito, mira,," as opposed to a gentleman with his tweed coat on, who's smoking his pipe and he simply gives a small muffled chortle. We have two different ways of accepting that, but I tell you what, if we in turn can get five Englishmen and stick them in the dungeon for thirty days. I guarantee you when they come out if we play Bach that they're going to cry and say something more than just breathe.
RM: Gritando instead of commentating, right?
JSB: Yeah, you have to take all of that into perspective. Not just come up with these ridiculous essays that these companies in New York, I mean very specifically these hooty tooty companies that say, "we're the greatest in the world," you know, these poets who pose and come out and say, "you're not supposed to do this and you're not supposed to do that." Well that may be fine for people who have not been oppressed for five hundred years. When you have people coming out of the darkness you have to give them because they've earned the right to cry out their emotions.
RM: How do you feel about the influence of place? I mean, Nuevo Mejico, even though we're part of Atzlan, we're even different than California, Arizona, or Colorado and so on. What is the influence of place in your work?
JSB: The influence of place on me is when I used to go as a little boy, I was in the orphanage, and I would go into the church and I was never one to understand what was going on. I didn't know why they crucified Jesus. I didn't know why the priest was raising the chalise. I didn't know nothing. But I did know that in the (illegible) matter if I let all personality, and all ego and everything just kind of float away like old seaweed moss and just let my body indulge in the sensual stimulation, in the religious ritual that I was doing . . .
RM: Smelling of the incense.
JSB: So I'd smell the incense and I saw the sunlight coming through the stain glass and behind it I saw the shadows of pigeons. They were bickering over whatever this other pigeon had eaten. And behind me all these ratty little kids with mocos coming out were singing latin verses. They were all garbled. And there was incense, and everybody was there, and you could hear the little hush of rosary beads, and the murmuring of old viejas in the back, right? All of that together became, to me, grander than the finest Gregorian chant. It became something sublime and spiritual that shuddered the soul.
RM: A natural symphony?
JSB: Yeah, a natural symphony of the soul. So that when I was able to go outside, I experienced the same thing. I'd smell the cedar, I saw the dew on the roses, I saw the warm softness of the gravel, and the deep deep greeness of the grass. And I allowed myself to fall in love with the land and I allowed the land to infuse my being with meaning. And when the land, in it's physical composition, when the chemistry of the grass and weeds would constrict that night with the cold, or when the sun came out and they opened themselves up and they let all these residues out, the smell. And you could really feel the soft leavening of the earth, like masa, like harina, begin to open up and begin to feel the fingers of the air working the leaves. And it was occurring in me at the same time. So I was in love with the earth. The earth was in love with me. And I was not there like some dam car salesman saying, "now look it's a great fuckin' day, now this motor has a V-7, got new tires, and it'll get you 32 miles to the gallon." I didn't care about any of that. I didn't understand where cars came from. I didn't even know where this man's suit came from, how this man ever got to the point of selling cars. All I did know was that this incredible tree was throwing out all these grasshoppers and if I could catch one grasshopper . . . I was participating in the ritual of what we Chicanos call, es mi paiz. I knew the trees, I knew the dust, I knew the pebbles, I knew the bush, it was mi paiz. And when I went to a certain point where the smells were alien where I no longer knew the scent of stones, I knew I was in someone else's paiz. Not because of fences but because everything became alien to me. And I call it my land because I'm intimately a part of the trees, and the smells, and the touches, and the sights of this land.
RM: Martin was a poem that was born and labored at the old house in Sedillo, que no? Now you've moved here, is there any difference writing in the shadows of Black Mesa as opposed to the old Sedillo house?
JSB: No it's just different . . . I mean, it's all just different. You have to understand that one place doesn't necessarily mean that it constricts itself to only one theme. One place is, as Blake would say, in a pebble the universe exists. So, in my southwest, I have all the cosmos. It's simply, this place demands I profoundly go on this journey to see the things a thousand different ways. That's what a place is. That's why you fall in love with a place, you begin to appreciate it's just not one thing. That in the wind I've heard the most deepest songs of mourning and grief. And in the wind I've also heard the highest highest epiphanies of joy and connection. There's a million songs in the wind in my pais. You know, I try to just tune into one and another time I tune into another one. So I have everything here.
RM: Would you care to talk about authors from Nuevo Mejico, like maybe Robert Gish? Are there any particular favorites? And why?
JSB: Well, when you ask a question like authors you immediately bring in red light, red light, danger, danger, alliances, alliances, right? Oh oh if I work for the university I'd better not talk bad about this guy because he's going to invite me here, right? Oh oh, oh oh I'd better not talk bad about him because so and so belongs to the Chicano culture, right? Oh oh, oh oh he's going to invite me to a reading, that's a thousand bucks I'll get. Oh oh, oh oh maybe he'll publish my book here, right? You talk about everything else that has ultimately brought true literature in danger. If I was to speak about great poems that have moved me and great literature that has moved me, I would have to say that a number of people that are greatly respected are nothing but a bunch of chumps. The only reason they're respected is because they have such an incredibly defined network, within organizations that care nothing about true poetry. They care nothing about true literature. Those networks are so strong that they've been suffused with everything else, all the other interests, except the interest of what a good poem is.
RM: So politics have entered literature?
JSB: The politics of literature have made true poetry an endangered species. You know what I'm saying? So if you ask me, who are the people that I truly respect for just the poetry, just the work that they've done and not what they're going to do for me, not that I may insult them, or that they're going to blacklist from going to do a reading at, say UNM, right? Oh my god, I can't say this because I may not become a teacher. Oh my god, I mean, and I'm not even going to say that's uncouth for you to even talk about. That shows your uncivilized barbarity, right, for you to even bring up that topic. Well, that's the great silent haunted specter that we all writers face in our interviews - you can't say certain things - because if you do you may not get invited to come read here, you know? Now on the other side of that coin is this, anybody who tries to be a writer, anybody who truly wants to be a writer or a poet, and never makes it, is always haunted by the writers who do, by the writers who write great, because great writing is not something that you can ignore. You read it and you either grit your teeth with envy and avenge yourself by becoming more powerful in your English department or you thank God that the person has been able to endure the gift, and has disciplined himself, or herself, so they were able to be there when the poem came, right? You become very generous with your spirit, not a mean spiteful spirit, right? So, I don't envy those who try to destroy poets and good poetry because they have to sleep with their own demons. Like in Beethoven, the one who always wanted to be Beethoven in that movie. You know that movie?
RM: Oh, Amadeaus? The other composer, Salieri, Antonio Salieri.
JSB: Yea, Salieri. Salieri is a perfect perfect role model for 99% of the people who profess to teach and know what poetry is. They have such extraordinary envy and they do such mean spirited things to people, you know? I see this from where my position is on a farm where I have to feed my dogs and I have to worry about paying bills, and I have lovely lovely children and an extraordinary woman, Beatrice right? And wonderful friends, I have great Chicano friends, wonderful Chicano friends, and great White friends and Black friends and everybody, we're all this big huge wonderful family, that just is wonderful, right? And then you fall into these other political worlds where peoples interests is not that for poetry but all these little spiteful things, you know? And it just makes me sad, more that anything else it makes me sad. People actually know nothing about me. To this date, I've heard that I make four million dollars a year. I've heard that I'm a bank robber. I've heard that I've got seven thousand mistresses . . . I don't know . . . everywhere I go people have heard stuff. That so and so publishing company turned me down, that I turned them down. All these incredible rumors abound, right? And wait till the movie comes out, even more are going to abound, right? And then this other book comes out, even more are going to abound. The reason I think they abound is because I have so little to do with trying to pose myself as one of the pedigree poodles in that world. You know? I'm simply a man. Trying to learn how to be a better man as I live day to day, trying to speak the truth, trying to be respectful, trying to do the things that I think would make my life better.
RM: What about young writers, like we were talking about earlier, that the Ink Slinger had published some of the young students over at Alameda Junior High in Santa Fe?
JSB: Well, one of the things that I'm doing now, I'm doing with you actually, is going back into my community and working with students in high school. I think that one of the obligations if you're going to stand up in front of anybody and say, "I'm a poet and I'm a writer," I think that writing is half of it, discipline is all of that, trying to write the best that you possibly can, giving everything you have to that. The other side is that you have to give back to your community. I honestly believe that. I don't say that from a political perspective, I say that from a humane perspective. That as a human being, you have to go back to the high schools, to the community centers, and groups of kids and work with them to allow them to find their voice. Allow them to understand who you are and take away the myth that you're special, right? I never thought that either. I thought that it was enough to go onstage and mouth things off. I thought it was enough to send energies that we have to take care of the children. I thought it was enough to write about these special issues. And it's not enough. I think you have to go out, hands on, and work with children, help them write, help them find the voice that you were blessed with, that you work hard to do. I think you have to try to work with them and that's why a magazine like this honors me by allowing me an interview. Because in its pages they have children's poetry. They deal with issues that I think are the heart of poetry and that's life.
RM: Would you care to talk about the novel at all? How long have you been working on it?
JSB: I've been working on it in my head for a long time. It's taken me down a different route and it's teaching me so many things. The thing about novels as opposed to poetry is that novels familiarize you with the most intimate secrets of human beings. You realize ultimately that the most difficult thing to do is to realize that we all have the same secrets and they're subtly charged in different ways, but to get at this deep secret that's held in the heart of a seven year old boy and the dichotomies that occur. You know what it is? Poetry is a flower, it's a rose, say a white rose. And fiction is a white rose that somehow became black. You know? It shows you the human distortion and it's that distortion that makes our fragile beauty so wonderful.
RM: Do you feel that having the larger space, the bigger canvas, of a novel has been a source of self discovery?
JSB: Oh yea, it's amazing. It's a sense of self discovery in the sense that I always thought that a white rose was a white rose because I was a poet. I've thrown myself into poetry. I've always been in this pure world of such extraordinary beauty. You can find a poem and work on it., You work it and you distill it. You distill it to it's most pure form. I mean purity in the sense of all of that we do as human beings and being able to accept those things. Like Eugene O'Neil with the woman on the boat and the man begging to say something that he's afraid to say, and she says, please tell me. And the man says, could I smell your panties? And the woman takes them off, gives them to him and she says to the man, "ultimately anything that is human is never filthy," right? That's what you do as a poet. You try to get into that world where it's the most extreme beauty that humans have. Fiction, on the other hand, is you think that a rose is white or red. You think that a red rose is a red rose and you go looking for it. You go through all these different journeys and ultimately you come to the garden and you find that all these red roses got pink petals and all the blue roses got green petals and you're like wow this is all of humanness, it doesn't have Gods touch. This is humanity left to it's own resources and then you realize the beauty that we've created with that. It's like, my God, we actually got a black rose and put white petals on it, isn't that amazing? That's what fiction tells you. You have to accept that and you realize in accepting it that it's so simple. You know? It's so simple to see that your grandfather, when he gets up in the morning, is mortal. And when you're around somebody as great as Van Gogh, that he actually farted when he got up. I mean, that's the human condition, that's the black rose with the white petal, it's not perfect. It's not supposed to be this way but it is. And great fiction is what allows us to accept our condition in the most profound humanity . . .1 like that.
RM: Do you think you'll do more novels after this, or will you go back to poetry, or work in both? You've had to stop writing poetry while you're doing the novel, right?
JSB: Somewhat, yea. I think you have to give yourself totally to one thing. You know? You have to sacrifice and surrender to it and if you don't you're a fool for not. You know? It's like saying you can drink wine and tequila at the same time.
RM: Not a good ideal.
JSB: Not a good ideal, right? So why don't you stick with one if you're going to drink one and not drink too much. The other side of that coin, is when I'm working on my novel, I work from about nine to one. And I know that I would be a romantic hero if I worked from nine o'clock, around the clock, for five days straight, come out with my hair frizzed like Einstein. But I'm not into jumping off bridges. I'm not into having nervous breakdowns. I'm not into any of that stuff. So, I really try to discipline myself and take care of myself because if the novel says to me - number one, you're foolish enough to want to attempt it - number two, come and sit down and work. I have to be sensible enough to take care of myself so I can bring the best of who I am to it, you know? And carve it out. So I go running, I play with my children, I take them to school, we mess around, I pick them up. I try to let life enter me and ultimately and hopefully it will go out from me onto the page, you know? There's something that happens here, I don't know what, but there's this circle, there's this reciprocal, reciprocity that occurs, that allows all of what we're doing to be organically mulched. So that something comes out of it, you know? Something that's real.
RM: So essentially, you've spread this out over a long period of time, maybe a longer period of time than anything, except maybe the screenplay, you worked on the movie for a long time, right?
JSB: I worked on the movie four years. The novel I'm working on now, I've had it in my head for a long time, and I just attempted it, and I've taken stabs at it. But, now I'm really well into it. I'm over half way there. So I'm there, you know?
RM: How about the movie? Do you want to talk about it at all?
JSB: The movie I worked on four years, I'm the executive producer, I act and I wrote it and that's the first of many movies I hope to make. I don't know, maybe not, but I'm still going to write them. But the movie itself deals with the questions of my Chicano people and our place in the world. But I don't really think about the world and what others are going to think about. I've got real real profound questions that I have to answer for myself, in this movie. And it's amazing because it's a totally different genre, it's a totally different means, and expectations, and demands that it puts on you. So again, you have to metamorphosis, you have to go from lizard to butterfly, from butterfly to bird. You have to be totally different. Everything is different that's demanded of you. All the requirements are different. You work with machines, you work with people, it's very collaborative, you know? You work with musicians, with actors, people who have their own brains and souls, you know, their own needs. So it's a whole different, whole different world.
RM: Collaborative in a way?
JSB: It's only collaborative. If you're not going to be collaborative then get out of town. I don't believe in this, "well, I'm the writer guy and if you're not going to listen to my vision, hell with you." It doesn't work. That's the romantic thing, fine, it's not going to work that way. It's ultimately the great bridge where you have to meet other people and work with them. Whites, Blacks, I don't care if you're Green, you've got to work with people, you know? All of you. It's the sensible thing. What the movie does then is break down the barriers and show you like Jungian principle says that we're all ultimately of communal myths . . . the same . . . we're all humans. But, getting back to the ideal of movies. I worked on it for four years, it was very difficult. But, I've posed questions for myself personally. What does this mean to me? What does this mean for a Chicano kid to grow up and what happens in that particular man's soul, in that woman's soul. It was a very personal journey, and now it's going to go out to the world, and now you're going to see how personal it was. Some people may be insulted by it. Others may be changed by it. I certainly have gone through some deep questioning in my own life. I question myself a lot.
RM: I remember reading somewhere, "in the struggle between us and society, and other people, we create rhetoric but in the struggle between us and God we create poetry".
JSB: I think the ideal of struggle . . . ahh . . . I've always struggled but it's not been struggling with the artistic errors or with polemical politics. I don't know anything about capitalism. I don't know anything about Marxism. All I know is that there are twenty babies at St. Joseph's hospital that were put up for adoption, and nineteen of them happened to be brown, and the only one that was white was taken out within thirty minutes to be adopted. That's all I know. Why don't people like us? Why don't people take us? Why are we falling apart as a culture? What's happening to our families? I can't put isms on hunger. I can't put isms on taking a sixteen year old kid and throwing him in prison for fifty years. There's no philosophy, that for me, is able to encapsulate that grief, that horror, you know, that injustice. I can't. I have to approach it . . . innocence becomes the monster. I have to approach things innocently. Innocence becomes the monster because it's the thing that doesn't believe. Innocence is the thing that doesn't accept. Innocence is the thing that believes all people should be treated equally. Innocence is not an ism. Innocence is this horrible horror lurking beneath the bridge and when people try to cross it it reaches up and shows the worse thing about yourself, you know? So that's how I approach things that I do in my life, with a sense of innocence and if anything drives my heart it's innocence.
RM: And do you feel it's been basically untouched . . . even through the years?
JSB: Oh I've been abused by the system. I mean, I've gone through the horrors of it all. I've been shot, thrown piss at, cursed, and mocked, drug through the streets, and beaten. Anything you can imagine that would insult the spirit, I've endured. I've endured mentally. I've endured it. I've got the scars. I've got the tears. I've got the grief. And out of all of it I still don't accept that I'm a victim of it because I've never gone into anything as a victim of anything. I've welcomed the challenge for these brutal police to beat me. Try it you fucking punks, and they did, but it's been innocence. You know what it is? It's the innocence, I love the way you said the challenge between God and you is personalized, it's innocence when you see a little horse being born, and I have horses, and you see a colt being born. You look at it and you see it's legs and it's fur all matted with the vaginal juice of it's mother. It's just amazingly overwhelmed by the life it was thrown into and then you see the tiny pink hook that is so delicate, it's like a woman's tongue, when she's panting, with her greatest lover under the full moon, you see the hoof quivering. And when it touches the ground to get up you realize then and there that the only impulse and the only right to do anything in life is out of that innocence to get up and run. That's it, there's no other reason for doing anything, you might as well die, just die. Who the hell has justified being able to go to a factory and work for fifty years putting labels on soup cans? Let's just call it murder because it's murder, it's spiritual murder, and we should all start again by watching a mother give birth to the colt and watching the colt rise. That's orgasm. That's coming. That's love. That's sex. That's everything we're horrified by, there it is. And when that little guy, that little woman, gets up, that horse, we see them actually get on their feet trembling, their only impulse is to jump with joy, to leap with ecstasy. That's all they can do because it's an extraordinary sense of love and life and everything that means who we are, it's explained in that act, right? And then after that, after we get to see that, we're totally lobotomized emotionally because then they take that young little colt and they make dog food out of it, right? That's how we are as human beings, whenever there's beauty, whatever we do, we ultimately have to destroy it and kill it and we even do that to ourselves. We had to do it to ourselves first in order to do it to others. In the same sense that if I'm abused sexually as a kid I'm more than likely going to abuse someone else, right? Which is true, right? Which I haven't been but, it's that same syndrome, you have to do it to yourself. First of all you have to experience that you've never been loved as a child then when you grow up you, as an adult, never love anybody else. You have to break the cycle. You can't allow yourself to be fucked around by people anymore, meaning systems, institutions. You can't allow yourself to go to UNM and have them say since you're a Chicano we're not going to give you any books because that may trigger pain in you, you certainly don't want to deal with pain because if you deal with pain it could humanize you and if they humanize you, you might be horrified with what we're trying to do with you and we never want that to happen, right? So drink a lot of Coors man and don't read your Chicano poets.
RM: Are there any personal rituals that you go through before you sit down to write poetry, or work on the novel? Do you go out and have to connect, with say, that innocence?
JSB: I do a lot of exploration. But more and more, I'm shocked to say this, because I never thought . . . I thought I was really cool. I thought I could deal with life, I thought I was heavy duty, but I realize I ain't nothing but bird droppings on a railing, right? But what I do now, what's my corner pole, as the Indians would say about the teepee pole in the center, what's my center pole, the thing that allows me to keep everything else together is praying. Praying to my santos and praying and getting strength from my brothers and sisters. People who lead good lives. I get a lot of strength from them and without that I can't write, I can't live, I can't do nothing. So, what rituals do I have? I think the center of all the rituals that I have is l pray. And from prayer comes my poetry and my fiction and my movies and my life.
RM: Do you feel that's been one of the components, one of the cornerstones, that has kept the Chicano culture in tact, in spite of all the attacks, and things like that . . . our spiritual side of our being.
JSB: Yea, I think we're very spiritual people. I mean, if you look at the language that we speak, in a family, in a home, three quarters of the language that we speak is spiritually imbued. You can trace it's roots back to some spiritual prayer in the past. You know? Even if it's been secularized, the language. You can trace a lot of what we do, the way our homes are cleaned, the way we cook our food, the way we dress, a lot of that is spiritually oriented. We dress in a very modest fashion because we think it's not good to dress flashy. A lot of times we hold our tongues because we want to let the other people speak and we don't want to speak because we've been taught that silence is something close to God. A lot of the brotherly conversation between Chicano brothers has to do with the relationship towards God, and the earth, and each other. All of that is somewhat religious. It has nothing to do with connections to money or powerful ties. In other words, if you put two guys together and they talk about stock on the New York stock exchange, they're going to be connected by that. Their wives are going to go out together, their families are going to go on vacations because they're business partners. But a lot of Chicano people don't have businesses. So what connects us to each other is our faith in God, our faith in each other.
RM: So, what do you think the role of the Chicano culture will be in the future. Say by the millennium, by the year two thousand, our role, not only in Atzlan, but in the US, in North America, on the American continent?
JSB: Well, we have to come to numerous numerous crossroads. Number one - we must educate ourselves and we must get off this romantic ideal that people are going to do it for us. People won't do anything for us, you know, anything. I mean, power is the most addictive drug in the universe, it always will be, it always has been. If you give me power over you, if you make me master over you, I'm never going to relinquish that because it's more addicting than anything ever in the world. So I'm not going to relinquish power over you if you give it to me. So, we as the Chicano culture have given power to rule our lives to other people. We must stop that. We must educate ourselves and the only way we can love ourselves is to educate ourselves as to truly who we are as a distinct entity, and a distinct culture and how beautiful we really are. And the only way to do that is through education. If you don't educate yourself, you're nothing, you're zip, you're a bad tortilla man, and nobody wants to eat it, right? You must educate yourself because once you do, and I don't mean going to the universities and blah blah blah, I mean maintaining the integrity of your cultural heritage by saying who you are publicly in front of anybody in the world and creating the kind of business or art or life that reflects the beauty of who you are as a person. Not by the criteria of those who live outside of us but by the criteria that we create in our own culture. Okay? That's education. If you don't have the books that I want, that are going to reflect me in a beautiful way, screw you. I'm going to go buy my books, bring them to class and say, "you can read that, but I'm going to read this, and I'll read that later but I'm going to read about me and my culture here, first, then I'll read your book," you know? That's what I want, because I'm not going to be able to read anybody and appreciate anything unless I can appreciate myself. It starts from you, man, so don't expect people to help you, they're not going to help you, man. The worst thing in the world that anybody would ever do is give you books about yourself.
RM: What about that ideal about whose standards and stuff like that? Like, por ejemplo, the way the literary establishment takes a look at Chicano writing. Do they have any criteria to even be able to judge it or value it?
JSB: They have very little, very little, so many of them are terrified.
RM: Do you think they're threatened because they don't understand?
JSB: Well of course. Say that I worked with . . . say that I worked with making these dainty little black shoes all my life as a cobbler. All of a sudden I'm giving this lecture, right, about shoes, all these Bostonian shoes, with the buttons and everything, you know? All that stuff, right? I'm giving a talk, right, and all of a sudden this guy walks in with a pair of moccasins, right, and I'm supposed to know what tribe they come from, what the designs in the beads mean, this whole thing about that, right? I'm going to be so terrified that I don't know it that I'm going to tell the people who are listening to me, "that's nothing, that's uncivilized, those are not shoes, he's a troublemaker," you know? You know what I'm saying? Let me see the other side of this thing. Here's something, when somebody who has the credentials, "I've got a Ph.D., I've got this, I've got that", speak, it's okay to disagree with them and say, "well, we don't agree with your ideals on this but we do agree that in planning our city you can have nice homes here. We don't agree with this, we don't really want an aquifer throwing water out of our . . . out of here", right, and that's okay leave it at that. And then you have a Chicano stand up and say something about how he would like his barrio to be organized, right? They will not disagree with us on the merits of our own thinking, they must morally shade us, with words like radical, or "he's from the outside", "he's an outsider", you must insinuate that his ideals are not good. It's something in his character that is bad. So, if I was to stand up in front of somebody else and say . . . let's talk about literature. The other person's ideals, they may disagree with, but with me it becomes a moral corruption. "Oh, he doesn't like our literature because he's morally corrupt . . . he wants to overthrow us . . . he wants to kill us . . . he wants to burn our houses . . . that's why!" But, why don't they say it about Neil Bush in Denver? Or anybody else in that culture, right? Why can't they just take me on the merits of my thinking and agree or disagree with that? Why do I have to then become a threat to them with my moccasins? Just because I bring you beads and all these designs doesn't mean I want to overthrow Bostonians, you know what I'm saying? No! Let me try to explain to you, you don't have to be afraid, I'm not going to try to take your tenure chair, you know? You know what I'm saying? Just because your ignorant doesn't mean I'm here to try to burn your house, you know, in fact I'll even bring you books. You know what I'm saying? Suddenly, I'm morally tainted because I disagreed with you. I mean, I'm not as good as you, I go around nibbling my toenails and murdering or sucking the blood out of cows at night or something, right? Just because of my ideals. They can't accept that my ideals might be as important as theirs. But that not only holds true with European culture, that holds true with Mexican culture because Mejicanos have abandoned us too. We have to admit that we are a singular, distinct, isolated culture who Mexico said five hundred years ago, "leave, go, we don't need you anymore, you're no longer part of us". And, the American culture said, "you're not Americans, you're Mexicans." So, we truly are a very distinct people in New Mexico. And when we set out to speak, maybe the forthrightness of our ideals, and maybe the uncompromising nature of them, really really does make people frightened. But that's no reason to taint us as morally corrupt beings, who are dead set on disintegrating society. No, it's just that we've been left to our own resources so long and we believe in them so much that there's always other things that come into play. But don't do that to us anymore. Don't say that my children are . . . there's something wrong with them because they don't agree you . . . because, that's just not true.
RM: You spoke about your closeness to la tierra. How about the elements of say, this has been a rough year, when you think about it, in terms of fire because in September the morada up in Abiqui was burnt and then a month after that they burnt the healing place, you know Ojo Caliente. Then there was the fire that burnt the old train depot and stuff like that. What is your connection to fire, to snow, to ice?
JSB: Well it's twofold. I mean, our great curanderos have always used fire as an enlightening aspect of our rituals as Chicano people, you know? Fire has helped us. Snow has helped us, we depend so much in the villages on the snow because it brings the water, enriches the fields, and we plant our alfalfa. On the other hand, we have a long long heritage of people burning us out of our villages, of the snow killing our sheep. We have our own trail of tears where entire villages have been run out by United States Cavalry and by people who make laws in Santa Fe. Where women have had to wrap things in their bundles and children and men have had to leave villages that they lived on since before memory. So our heritage has always been twofold in that sense. The elements of the earth have been friends and the elements have also been used by others to bring us some horrible destruction.
RM: How about the connection with running water, you know the spring runoff? Do you feel you're more productive, more prolific, during certain parts of the year? Does that change your sentimento, maybe the tone of your writing, things like that?
JSB: The change of seasons has always marked in me the reaffirmation that I'm not a static human being that should only know one thing. That it's okay for me to be, what the people would say, schizophrenic, they say that. But I've been able to accept the million parts of my personality. And be a child one day at eight o'clock in the morning and at ten o'clock that day be an old viejo, you know? And the seasons of changing, all the various changes that occur in foliage and the climate, have reaffirmed that I too can be that prolific in my own being, and so they reaffirm me as a human being that I have access and I have the right to be as many things as I can or to reaffirm those basic drives in me as a human being that show happiness in a hundred forms, sadness in a hundred forms. I've been very very sad and have wanted to strike out violently. Very very sad and I've dropped to my knees. Very very sad and I've had a woman hold me in her arms. There's a million ways I can express an emotion in me and the various turns of the season from drought stricken crustiness of the llano to the huge waters that pour down from northern New Mexico to the Rio Abajo have shown in me that I can be that too. And if I can be that and I'm writing poetry then why not put that into my poetry too. So, I really do bounce around quite a bit.
RM: How about, say, interaction with Native American culture. Do you know John Trudell's poetry? What do you think of his stuff?
JSB: I respect his work. I respect a lot of gringo stuff. I don't think we can put the color barrier down these days as the defining line of differences. I think that people like Trudell and anglo men like George Evans speak from the same sacred fire, you know? And I would like to be the kind of man who can come to that fire and sing my song too. So, I respect his work as much as I do George Evans, who's a gringo from San Francisco who did his War and Eye Blade and I think they're great great singers, both of them.
RM: What do you still hunger for?
JSB: Not much. I mean, I've pretty much got it all. I've got about eighty cents to my name right now. Right now, as I speak to you, I've got eighty cents, that's all I've got in life . . . and I'm pretty happy. I don't know how to say it, I don't hunger for anything. Because I'm right there on the edge, struggling day to day to pay the bills, to define the angelic energies that swirl around in my bones and give them a name. And it's so beautiful when I can give a name to a certain energy that is part of my raza's heritage, spiritual heritage, that they killed many years ago. The people who came here, the oppressors who came here killed our names, they killed our names and we forgot the names. And as a poet my journey is to go back and try to retrieve those names. Give those energies a name that they had and then they assume the status of gods and goddesses that heal us if we give them a name. So I go into this vast miasma, this cosmic debris, of energy and my people's heritage and what we do as a people that has no name and I try to find a name for it. Like we all knew that we were together as one people but we didn't have a name until we found Chicano. And that was such a cool thing the day you tell your doctor that you're Chicano and she says she's a Chicana and it's so cool because we understand what that energy is. That energy means that we're like each other that we feel that brown softness in the mornings in the winter under the blankets. That we know our breathing comes out of the same earth, of the food that we eat, do you know what I'm saying? It's that kind of crazy thing. So what my chore is, and I'm there, I'm penniless but I'm happy, is to find, to give names to the energies. It's like finding a new star in the galaxy. You get to name the star. I mean, can you imagine if we had to see the moon every night and couldn't know, didn't know, it was the moon, la luna? Wouldn't we go crazy looking at it and not figuring out what to call it? Because when you begin to call and name something then you begin to realize what it is, what it's for, how to have a relationship with it. The meaning of your life comes out to that and so that's what I try to do.
RM: Your name, Santiago, right? When we think of the santo, Santiago is a symbol of a warrior, he's in battle, sees a vision, and is guided by that. What effect do you think our names have on us?
JSB: I think that we're such a religious people. I think that our names are archetypal in the sense that the way Indians . . . see, this is what's so funny that we don't share, right? The Indians give a name, let's just say Running Cloud, to a little boy, or a little girl, because one day the woman had the little girl and the girl was two years old and she didn't have her name yet, her sacred name, and suddenly this cloud was moving so fast across their particular campsite that the little girl came out during the thunderstorm and followed it everywhere. They called her running cloud, right, and it brought a lot of rain that day and fed the corn and it was great. Well, in our culture we know our saints the way the Indios knew Running Cloud. The way they knew that cloud we know our saints. We know that Santiago has all these permeation's to his life. It's almost a vision, we know Santiago, St. Santiago, is a vision and when we see a little child come out of his mother's womb we give a name to that child that correlates with something of the energies that saying Santiago emanated in his life. The curanderos in our culture tell us that Santiago is an indigenous saint as much as it is a Catholic saint. So we know that Santiago had the great gift to make iron or -------. He was one with the horse's spirit. We know that he was a curandero. Saint Santiago roamed in the spirit of the horse.
RM: He was never off the horse.
JSB: Yea, we know that he was one, that he's part horse and so when I grew up as a little boy and I could walk up to a horse and touch it's nose and it wouldn't kick or rear, they called me Santiago, you know? "-arle, here he comes" or when I rode a horse, right? We had that same beautiful indigenous aspect to our names. Names . . . you've got to carry them all your life and so you'd better make sure it's a good name. You know what I mean, it's like carrying a cross or it's like carrying the sun, it's that kind of thing. So, we do have our deep deep ramifications for our names, that are very indigenous, more so than just "let's name him John Doe." Names in a lot of cultures mean nothing. They name their kids and simply don't give a dam. They name them after soap operas which is really amazing, you know? Can you believe that?
RM: In our own culture many times, and we still do it to a certain extent, either the first name or the middle name was after the Saint's day on the day that they were born.
JSB: Yea, but names to us . . . we have the same kind of identification with our names, the spiritual identification that Indians have with their names, you know? Because we do have our curanderos who come bless us and we do have our sacred ceremonies and our names. If you look into our saints, you find out that they're really indigenous saints, who come from the mythologies of the Aztecas, the Mayans, the Olmecs.
RM: In fact, a lot of the original Santiagos were actually . . . well first of all, the were painting on hides and there were some that were probably natives.
JSB: Oh yea! We really do have the biculturalism in our names. But see again . . . how many people have been able to become writers and poets from my culture that have been able to go and research that and bring it back to life? Giving names to those energies again? Very few of us because Chicanos proverbially are so poor and so on and so forth, they don't have the luxury of becoming writers, you know? But we will have it in the future. We are developing writers now, they will have the time to research that and the world will know that our names do have signification beyond soap operas, that our names have the deep meaning of Blue Feather and Grey rock and all those things, you know?
RM: How about the role of dreams in your life and in your writing?
JSB: Well they're very important to me, very very important. I don't know how else to say that except . . . I don't know how else to say that except that dreams have a great deal to do with me and my life.
RM: Have dreams even entered, say the writing of the novel?
JSB: All my dreams.
RM: Do some of those things resolve problems?
JSB: All my dreams enter into my life, you know? I had one last night. I had one last night where the dream dealt with fear. Fear on my part. Fear and innocence. Fear and innocence. I had a very meaningful dream, last night, that enters into my life today, you know? It's a very significant dream. How afraid I am in my dreams indicates to me how strong I must be in this reality.
RM: Do you interpret them yourself, or do curanderas assist you in that, or familia?
JSB: Different things help me you know. I had a part of my dream last night that a woman was on her period and that the drops of blood from her vagina became necklaces, red necklaces, and a policeman came to arrest me because I had run around gathering the necklaces, you know, the white sheets, I had gone around gathering them and they came to arrest me for that and I thought I was going to be put in prison again.
RM: Ahh, the anti-life police.
JSB: Isn't that incredible? What a dream huh? I had gone around gathering the red necklaces, as meaningful to me as a human being, and the police came and I was terrified that I'm going to prison for this, you know? And maybe that's why I went, I don't know.
RM: How about the place of music? I know, I used to read the poetry of Raul Salinas and it's obvious the rhythms in his writings were related to music that he listened to or created or wrote to or whatever . . .
JSB: I think music is very important to me. I think that can be answered in one statement. And simply, that is, that all music, all poetry, all language, everything is sound. That's all, it's sound. It's how you put that sound together then that delivers the message.
RM: How about the vibrations going through your own body when your reciting a poem? Do you feel like you're rehealing yourself each time, maybe, every site and performance?
JSB: Yea, I have to heal myself because if I didn't heal what had happened to me in the past . . . I don't speak about Robert Bly or none of those people because they're healing. They're trying to heal the upper middle class white male, who's proverbially had his nets in life, you know? And quite clearly running society, I don't even want . . . I don't even care about Robert Bly's book on healing, that stuff there . . . and they're such thieves because they steal from the Indians and the Chicanos and they steal from all the cultures to try to heal themselves and to find who they are.
RM: It's a different medicine anyways.
JSB: Yea, it's a different medicine and I guess it's good medicine if they're going to become more judicial in the way they live. But, it has nothing to do with the kind of Jungian that I try to do in my work. And that's just trying to heal myself from being almost murdered and killed, and having my saints burned, and my churches burned, and my house destroyed, and my books burned, and it left me with nothing. I mean, I'm trying to heal that in me. I don't know how to do it. I know that reading Big John ain't gonna do it. You know . . . I mean I've gotta . . . it's not gonna do it for me because what he does is truly for the executive and for the computer chip people who've finally realized gold is boring and they're tired of making money so they've gotta try to heal themselves and stimulate their machismo because they've become effeminate. Empty vessels that mean nothing, absolutely nothing anymore. My life means something. What I do means something but I really have to heal myself because there's so much that has been done to me.
RM: How about the role of myth? To a certain extent you would embody and embrace some of our indigenous and mestizo myths and you also must create your own myths.
JSB: Mythology for me is . . . I think every individual in this world, every Chicano, Black, White, whatever every Asian, everybody has their own distinctive myth. And it's according to how much we fulfill that myth that we're happy or sad, you know? I don't regret having gone through what I've gone through, you know, but, my myth is that it finds me here today, on a very cloudy rainy day, washing clothes and working on my novel and that's a pretty good myth to have because it's kept me in the abdomen of human struggle. That's my myth, to be with people whose hands reach out or with people who when I reach my hands out they're there. Just to be always very connected to people, very close to them, in proximity, and not to find myself in a castle somewhere overlooking humanity as a king. I really wanna be with those people who are living and not those who have ceased to live.
RM: How about your definition on happiness? Do you think that it's the extent to which we live our own myth?
JSB: I really do. Happiness, to me, means the extent to which we accept the multi layered forms of life, you know, and the extent to which we give ourselves to those. It has a lot to do with how much we give. I mean, it's one thing for the richest person to . . . okay . . . there's a woman here, who's a very very rich woman, and I asked her to give some money for a writing kids program and she said to me that she already gave, and she was really righteous. She said that, "I give my Christmas basket to my church, to a poor family every year, for Christmas." So she really gives a basket with fruit in it, to her church, to give to a poor family every year.
RM: So, she really doesn't even connect, even with that.
JSB: No, and she says, "that's what I give," and she was righteous about it, and I was like, "wow, what?" You know, and that was that, so she's not very happy, you know? She's so terribly worried about her money and her status, and she really believes that all emotions can be . . . all emotions can be substantially dealt with through money.
RM: What a mistake.
JSB: I'd say, yea.
RM: How about advice for young writers?
JSB: Please believe in yourself and do not be afraid to work. Just work work work. Writing is nothing but work, just work, work, work, you know, and that's my advice.
RM: How much is inspiration and how much is . . .
JSB: Half. Well let me tell you this, how many times does the most beautiful woman in the world come up to you, and you fall in love with her, and she falls in love with you, and everything works out well? Maybe once or twice in your life? Right? Maybe once or twice you see someone who's so overpoweringly beautiful, that you fall in love with that person, and that person actually does respond to you with great respect and understanding, only like once or twice in life. Well, that's what inspiration is to a writer, once or twice in your life, you're gonna be inspired where everything's gonna work out perfect, right? Your work is gonna fall in love with you, you're gonna fall in love with your work and some divine goddess, or god's gonna come down, is gonna give it all to you on the page, you're gonna have it. But listen, the rest of it buddy, get your kneepads, your elbow pads, get the grease out because you're gonna be working hard. All the way! I mean, it's all work work work. But if it's a love of labor, it doesn't make any difference, does it? If it's a love of labor and it's what you're supposed to be doing, in your own particular myth, then it becomes a great ceremony of living.
RM: How about personal connections to any other poets?
JSB: I have connections with a lot of poets whose names I don't even know but whose work I read I just fall in love with, you know? I fall in love with a lot of poets and I read a lot of poets. And there's some poets that teach at universities that are great, there's some that are gypsy poets who aren't worth a shit. To me it's whatever I'm lucky enough to find because there's so many poets that are great that I don't even know exist or haven't read. So it's just what I can find when I go to the bookstore that I can read, that's great. So, I read a lot of poets and I try to especially find the deep veins of poetry that run in my culture. Umm . . . that are held mostly in our oral culture, that are carried from woman to child to child to man to man to woman, you know?
RM: Do you think we'll ever reach a place again, where at one time we actually had poets in Nuevo Mejico, that everything that they recited was improvised, or mas o menos, I mean they had some stock lines that they would come back to, in fact they used to have poetry duels, you know? Do you think with the renaissance, and by the way what do you think about that? Do you think we're still in Chicano renaissance? You know, they talk about the European Renaissance, that's lasted 150 years, it wasn't this twenty period thing. I know they used to talk about the renaissance in Chicano culture in the 60's and then it was supposedly dead by the end of the 70's, or whatever, I mean that's a fraction of what they talk about in terms of renaissance with the European and stuff like that. How long do you think it'll go on and what do you think?
JSB: Well, you've got a lot of Chicanos, I mean Hispanics, in academia today that are a lot of wimps, they really are, they're wimps. I mean they may be able to beat me up and twenty other people like me but when it comes to celebrating their true culture they sell out so fast it's unbelievable, because the more you can sell out the more upward mobile you're going to be.
RM: Is that what you describe, "losing the voice"?
JSB: You lose the voice and that's the greatest crime against your soul. You know, if you can stand up in front of people and speak of the beauty and the nightmares that you've lived growing up in this world, as a distinct individual, and you can deal with the pain, it makes you that much more beautiful. It's good to share that with other people It's the ultimate meaning of communication. But, if you're going to stand up and ignore where you come from, ignore who your people are, and speak only about the bottom line of what your company made this year, in the first quarter, you have no voice anymore. You've traded it in for a new car. You know, it's a horrible thing to have happen. And so I truly . . . I guess what I . . . I go work with children so that possibly they may salvage their voices from the huge systematized garage of temptations that asks them to lose their voices. They'll give you anything in the world to lose your voice. They'll give you distinction, they'll give you good positions at the university, they'll give you anything you want, but lose your voice, you must lose it, because if you keep it, and you hold it, and you nourish it, and you breath it, and you plant it, and you harvest it, it's going to have influences far beyond your own depth into many many generations that come after you. That's what they're afraid of and that's what makes me celebrate my life even in it's most improvished condition. Is that I've not given my voice away, you know, I've kept it, disregarding the pain and all the shit I've been through I have my voice. You may take my skin, my freedom, shoot me and knife me, and not give me education and never allow me to be judicially treated in your courts, but you may not take my voice! I can speak in my own head if I have to, and you can beat me everyday, as they did in prison, and lock me up in the dungeon, and forbid me to speak, but I have my voice, and inside of me it continues to speak.
RM: In fact, was that the birth of you poem personae?
JSB: Yes! Yes!
RM: I mean when you were in isolation, when you were in a place where your voice was either . . . they tried to ignore it or shut it out?
JSB: Well we're all born without voices. We're not born with a voice, we don't have voices. We're born into this society as a silent creature because it's not our society, it belongs to the rich person, it doesn't belong to us. That bank's not mine, that building's not mine, that house up there's not mine. I have nothing. I have no voice. So, I begin to come into this culture believing I have no voice and that's how I lived and then you're shocked, one day when you realize that there's an opportunity for you to get your voice. It's the miracle when you can realize that there is a Chicano Moviemento, that there are poets singing who we are and you have to grab those threads man because if you don't you're gonna go through life without a voice. You're gonna act like you've never lived, you're gonna die and never know you lived. But once you grab that one thread and it leads you to the great tapestry of your life then you realize that the more you enter that world the greater your voice becomes . . .meaning the more significant your life is, then you can't give it up. You really have the great beauty of discovering your own voice. It's a great thing.
RM: Your dreams feed some of your writing. Do you ever think that your life feeds your dreams, it's like a back and forth process? Do you change in your dreams?
RM: I think that what happens in dreams is that fear, our fear of regular life, how we live, and what we do, all our fears most predominately surface in our dreams. And our dreams show us how best to live our lives without fear. That's what I think dreams do for me. I think they're most metaphorically instructive in helping me lead my life by facing things I'd ordinarily not want to face. And understand those things I'd ordinarily not want to understand. So I think dreams are a strong impetus towards character, in getting character.
RM: How many lives do you think you've lived?
JSB: I've probably lived three, so far, I'm almost certain that I've lived three. I'm almost certain that I've had the choice to live or die three times over powers outside of myself that then came to me, "you don't have to live anymore, so what are you gonna do man?" I've been in a spiritual state of grace where I didn't have to wake up if I didn't want to. And, I firmly believe that you can die when you want to die.
RM: How about an assistant? Do you think you have a guardian angel?
JSB: Yea, very strong. I have a strong higher power.
RM: How about companion spirits?
JSB: I never thought about a companion spirit in that sense, although I do believe that there's spirits in things, like trees and the earth and the rocks. And I do believe that there's people who pray for me. And I think that their prayers become my companions on my journey.
RM: And you can draw on those whenever you need it, is that how it works?
JSB: I don't know if I draw on them consciously but I know that intuition, I know that they're there to help.
RM: How about, have you and Beatrice ever had the same dream?
JSB: Yea, that happened one time.
RM: Yea, almost the same dream, you know?
JSB: Beatrice is very powerful inclined with her spirit, yea.
RM: Do you keep much in touch with other poets, well, you're in touch with Soto, Gary Soto, who are some of the Chicano poets you keep in touch with?
JSB: I keep in touch with a lot of poets, I mean not just Chicanos, but a lot of them. Um, oh gosh.
RM: Do they have you read some of their stuff?
JSB: Yea, over the years, yea. I mean, I keep in touch with lots and lots of poets. They write for one reason or another. Michael Anias, who runs the ------ magazine called this morning and then I talked to Gary and um . . . Jose -----, I mean all these poets I keep in touch with all over the country. I don't write them everyday and I don't . . . it's not a consistent correspondence . . . we talk. George Evans, a great poet, he calls me about once a month and we keep in touch, see what's going down and stuff like that.
RM: Have you called ----- Sanchez, are you still in touch with him at all, or no?
JSB: I haven't seen him. I don't know what ever happened to him.
RM: He had medical problems for a while.
JSB: He came by here about two or three years ago. I gave him fifty pounds, two bags, fifty pounds of green chili, each . . . I never saw him again. I guess the chili was a little too hot.
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