For many political poets it all begins on 9/11 but for me the date 9/9/01 is a more important personal date since that was the day I read Jimmy Santiago Baca’s A Place to Stand. I already knew Baca’s poetic work and was a huge fan of the film he scripted, Blood In Blood Out: Bound by Honor, but reading his autobiography definitely changed my definition of poetic struggle as it was my first exposure to a poet who had to wrestle with the word in a non-academic setting. In the end, it gave me hope that I could become a poet myself through a combination of rigorous reading (of everything I could find- poetry collections, anthologies, essays, speech technique, dramatic monologue, memorization techniques, literary biography, graphic novels, performance texts, et al.), attending community poetry workshops, and hitting every reading/open mic I could find.
I’ve wanted to thank Mr Baca for that inspiration for a long time but the opportunity never materialized since he doesn’t do many open poetry events in NYC or the Bay Area. Trust me, I’ve tried.
That was rectified today with a visit to the Alameda Juvenile Center alongside Central Coast Poet Garland Thompson and Jimmy Santiago Baca for an opportunity to read poetry and talk to the youth inside.
While this has been in the works for a while I haven’t blogged about it for a few reasons
a) it wasn’t an open to the public event
b) a million things can go wrong when you visit an incarceration center and there is no such thing as a “confirmed visit”
c) I don’t like to blog about things that might happen and prefer to just let em play out
We read for two different groups of young males. One was in an open recreation room setting with about 60+ in the room. All the guys, part of the maximum-security unit, were respectful and in genuine awe of Jimmy as he spoke to them about his past experiences, current projects and future endeavors. It was amazing to see Jimmy reach these kids with the same stories he was sharing with me just a few minutes ago. No need to exaggerate or change his tone, all he did was talk his truth and every ear in the place was open to his message.
I was only slated to be an observer and hear Jimmy read his work to the population who deserve it the most. This, by itself, would have been more than enough for me. So it was an amazing honor to have Jimmy ask me to read some poems with him. Yeah, having Jimmy Santiago Baca intro me as a fellow poeta to the guys was beyond surreal.
Good thing that Garland (who I knew back from the NYC days) was hanging with me, waiting by the sidelines, and also sharing his work with the guys.
We then visited another group of guys in their own unit. Just like the previous group, they were fascinated by Jimmy’s stories and enraptured by his presence. We didn’t have as much time with them as the other group but did have a chance for a longer Q&A session. While they were asking their questions, I was scanning the room for signs of hardened criminals, true hard-cases, but all I could see was young men with bright faces looking for some real guidance and straight truth. During the Q&A, one asked about our writing processes and I got to tell them about my quest for publication and how I’m making it happen poem by poem, chapbook by chapbook, and showed em copies of Anywhere Avenue and (the just completed) Palimpsest which prompted him to ask me for a copy of a chapbook. This led to a bunch of the guys asking for one and before I knew it I had handed out like 18 copies.
I was thanked later on by one of the literacy volunteers, who also asked and got a chapbook, for coming in and sharing with the guys. She then told me that this was also a max-security group of younger men, some already tried as adults. I thought again about the look on their faces when Jimmy was speaking, how much light was in them as they were given copies of Jimmy’s poems, novels, and essays. It’s hard to imagine that as the face of America’s prison industrial complex but that could be their reality, if left alone. I’m glad that someone like Jimmy can bring them words of hope so that their struggle for survival become a road to some kind of acceptance. I know it sounds so cliché and altruistic but the alternative is to imagine all these lives thrown into the gears of a cruel machine that will teach them only to inflict and receive violence.
One visit isn’t enough to change that grim outlook, but it’s a start, and if I have the chance, I’ll go back again and share more poetry.
This may all sound very heavy, which it is, but it’s also full of a lot of hope and reward. Not the kind of reward where someone walks up to you and tells you that your poetry just changed their life, or that they want you to feature at a big gig, or give you an automatic book contract. No, this is about community building and if you think about the rate of return then you’ll get depressed. If you think that poetry is your ticket to some magic big time, then you’ll be let down. If you think that the audience will applaud your craft, then you’ll be seriously let down. But if you can step outside of your self and let the poems speak for themselves, if you can trust that even in the darkest places there are eyes looking for beauty and ears wanting music, if you can ignore your self-doubt and fight to make the poem alive, and expect absolutely nothing back, then you will understand what I call beautiful.
Who Understands Me But Me
By Jimmy Santiago Baca
They turn the water off, so I live without water,
they build walls higher, so I live without treetops,
they paint the windows black, so I live without sunshine,
they lock my cage, so I live without going anywhere,
they take each last tear I have, I live without tears,
they take my heart and rip it open, I live without heart,
they take my life and crush it, so I live without a future,
they say I am beastly and fiendish, so I have no friends,
they stop up each hope, so I have no passage out of hell,
they give me pain, so I live with pain,
they give me hate, so I live with my hate,
they have changed me, and I am not the same man,
they give me no shower, so I live with my smell,
they separate me from my brothers, so I live without brothers,
who understands me when I say this is beautiful?
who understands me when I say I have found other freedoms?
I cannot fly or make something appear in my hand,
I cannot make the heavens open or the earth tremble,
I can live with myself, and I am amazed at myself, my love, my beauty,
I am taken by my failures, astounded by my fears,
I am stubborn and childish,
in the midst of this wreckage of life they incurred,
I practice being myself,
and I have found parts of myself never dreamed of by me,
they were goaded out from under rocks in my heart
when the walls were built higher,
when the water was turned off and the windows painted black.
I followed these signs
like an old tracker and followed the tracks deep into myself
followed the blood-spotted path,
deeper into dangerous regions, and found so many parts of myself,
who taught me water is not everything,
and gave me new eyes to see through walls,
and when they spoke, sunlight came out of their mouths,
and I was laughing at me with them,
we laughed like children and made pacts to always be loyal,
who understands me when I say this is beautiful?