Lamont Poet Jimmy Santiago Baca Visits Campus
December 2, 2011
"For the first time, I had a word ignite an image in my head," explained Jimmy Santiago Baca, recipient of numerous awards for his writing which focuses on themes of identity and social justice, as he recounted the moment at which his "second life" started, in prison.
During a bout of anger, while ripping pages out of a stolen book, he noticed the word 'water' on one of the pages and sounded it out phonetically. This discovery of written language changed his life, Baca said during his evening public reading. Some of the changes were immediate – he taught himself compulsively, learning to read and write, using what resources he could get behind bars. He corresponded from prison with Denise Levertov, then editor of Mother Jones, who printed Baca's poems.
Baca, who teaches in prisons, libraries and universities, energized the packed Assembly Hall with his flair for storytelling and his ability to connect with high schoolers. He read several poems and told stories of teaching college students, of violent encounters during his "first life," and of learning to love others after years of protecting himself from violence and bigotry. The audience awarded him a standing ovation.
The following day, Baca held informal question-and-answer sessions with more than 100 students. There wasn't a dull moment as the group discussed poetry, spirituality, the discovery of new ways of being through "accidental joys," the importance of taking a stand and fighting for human rights, the pleasures of reading, and other topics.
Born in New Mexico of Indio-Mexican descent, Baca was abandoned as a child and initially raised by his grandmother. At 13, he ran away from an orphanage and began living on his own. At 21, he was convicted and sentenced to 5 years in prison in Arizona, where he learned to read and write. His eagerness to learn was perceived as dangerous by prison officials. Baca was placed in isolation and shared the section of the prison with death row inmates before being released.
In 1979 Baca emerged from prison a published writer, receiving national attention for Immigrants in Our Own Land & Selected Early Poems. Baca's works include Selected Poems/Poemas Selectos (2009), C-Train and Thirteen Mexicans (2002), Healing Earthquakes: Poems (2001), Set This Book on Fire! (1999), In the Way of the Sun (1997), Black Mesa Poems (1989), Martín & Meditations on the South Valley (1987), Poems Taken From My Yard (1986), What's Happening (1982), and A Place to Stand (2001).
Interested in learning more?
See the press release about Baca's visit to Exeter…
Read more about Baca at the Poetry Foundation…
Learn more about the Lamont Poetry Series, which has typically sponsored 2 poets a year since Jorge Luis Borges inaugurated the program in 1983…
Find out more about the visits of 2 recent Lamont Poets: Kay Ryan and Robert Hass...
— Nicole Pellaton