There is nothing greater than when a community comes out in force to hear their poet. Mad props to the staff of the Cesar Chavez Library for getting the word out and making sure that all of Salinas knew that Jimmy Santiago Baca was coming to read.
A crowd of 100+ from every demographic you can think of came out ready and eager for Mr Baca. I was very fortunate to be included as one of the readers for the night and was asked to go up first. Reading from Palimpsest, I shared “The Story of How Pigeon Came to Live in City” and “Palipsest: Ghazal.” Both poems went over pretty well considering my voice was very nervous.
Local poet and journalist Marc Cabrera came through next with two very earnest poems. The first felt like a riff off of Miguel Piñero’s “A Lower East Side Poem” as Cabrera was asking that his ashes be spread over the East Side of Salinas. Cabrera’s attention to detail and sincere love of his East Side home came through loud and clear in his poem and gave me an even greater appreciation of Salinas.
Garland Thompson closed out the opening poets with some signature pieces done with a bombastic theater style. Garland was one of the event organizers and had been working tirelessly throughout the weekend to make sure that Jimmy could speak at local youth centers and get to catch some of the sights in the Monterey Peninsula. Much props to him for all his hard work.
Jimmy came out to close the night in the role of poet and story teller. Barb and I were talking this morning about how some poets do such an eloquent job at being able to share the details of their lives and the urgency behind their craft. Elders like Al Robles, Wanda Coleman, Anne Waldman, Amiri Baraka, and José Montoya come quickly to mind. This list isn’t all about elder status, I’m thinking about the great talk Junot Diaz gave recently and how only a little of it was him actually reading from the book and so much was the experience of writing the book. Folks like Roger Bonair-Agard, Suheir Hammad, Javier Huerta, Paul D. Miller, and Chad Sweeney are some other writers who can make writing feel alive without resorting to didatic rehashing.
Back to Jimmy, his stories of survival and cultural pride cut straight to the heart of the Salinas residents. He praised them for their hard work but also pushed them to take another step and be able to claim their identities in both familiar and hostile environments. More than anything, Jimmy speaks the straight-up, el vivo y hecho, the real deal, to communities that have been repeatedly lied to. In return for his honesty, the communities gives him respect and attention so that his poems can have an open space to be absorbed.
The selection Jimmy read from his new collection, Rita and Julia, was epic in its scope but remained centered with a clear speaker living and considering the choices the world gives. A very Whitman-esque turn in Baca’s work that extends the long poem form he has embraced since Martín & Meditations on the South Valley and C-Train and Thirteen Mexicans.
For me, it was an incredible treat to hear him read “I Am Offering This Poem.” It’s been a favorite of mine for years and to see him pull out Immigrants in Our Own Land brought out all kinds of fanboy in me. On the critical tip, Jimmy read the poems from his newest collection and first collection with an ease of voice and writing styles (the poet in control of his craft and confident in his text) while sill maintaining a sense of urgency (the poet offering the poem as a point of discussion, an opportunity for dialogue, that the audience may not take so he must relay in his voice and word choice how critical the message is). If you didn’t see him switch books, you might even imagine that he was reading from the same book which, after seeing some writers endlessly read from their old work or clumsily tripping over their own new text (I’ve been guilty of both crimes), is a level of poetic mastery more poets should be trying to reach.
In the end, it’s all about the transformative power of poetry and how it can affect every life; poetry can get you love, prestige, and acclaim. But poetry can’t do anything if you try to jam it down people’s throats or present it in a laissez faire fashion.
The difference maker? Trust, in your work and in your reader, and faith, in the work and in yourself.
The proof? The life story and rich literary history of Jimmy Santiago Baca.
Jimmy Santiago Baca reads at the Cesar Chavez Public Library