When Jimmy Santiago Baca was 20, he was convicted of drug charges and sentenced to prison. He was illiterate when he arrived at the Arizona State Prison. When he got out five years later, he was well on his way to becoming one of America's most celebrated poets.
Baca writes about oppression, love and migration, and his poems range from just a few lines to many pages.
A new anthology of his work called Singing at the Gates tells the story of his life in poetry, from prison to renown. The anthology begins with a series of letters Baca wrote from prison to a woman named Mariposa. The letters are themselves poems, and are some of the first things he ever committed to paper as he learned to read and write.
Jimmy Santiago Baca spoke with NPR's Arun Rath about his long career. You can hear Baca read from two of his longer poems, Singing at the Gates and Rita Falling from the Sky, below.
On the Mariposa Letters
When I was in prison a man named Will Inman, who had one of the first bilingual journals along the border, called Illuminations, introduced me to a woman named Mariposa, the butterfly. And as we began to write letters to each other, I think American poets reveled in the epistolary form and for myself it became the resource and the instrument by which I would excavate my voice. I must have written at least a thousand letters to her.
On being illiterate as a young man
Not knowing how to read and write is only the top of that morbid state of being. Not knowing how to read and write leads to not knowing where windows come from, how cars are made, how people pay for cars. Not knowing how to read and write is only the top of the problem, because behind that wall you don't know anything and how anything operates in society, and that's the nightmare.
On those who helped him learn to read
I had people from the outside sending me books. I had people from death row giving me the books that they were reading after they read them. I had correspondences with other writers that were writing me after I learned how to write. It was phenomenal.
On the origins of his style
Because I studied Byron and Wordsworth and Coleridge then I went to — Oh, my God, I just love those Russian poets — I was searching for a voice to come out of me that had the imprint of my own culture, that had the imprint of my own people. Not Latino people but Chicano people. People de Norte Mexico.
I was looking to permutate in such a way that I could give honor to my grandmother by expressing her experience. A grandmother who never got paid more than a dollar a day for picking in the fields. The work that I began very early on was a homage to those who were silenced by oppression. My job was to get up on my feet and continue forth, and I did that through language.