Prison Poet 

Jimmy Santiago Baca's school of hard time.

Once, when we had a few drinks under our belts, I asked Jim Harrison how he could be such a good poet and not be a fairy. My question got a guffaw, but it was meant for more than laughs. So many great poets--Whitman, Rimbaud, Ginsberg, Corso, Lorca and Langston Hughes, to name just a few--were gay, that it sometimes seems like straight guys are ill-suited to the form.

If you take the premise a step further, it becomes hard to imagine any tough guy, any man's man (in the old sense of the term) as a poet. How could he be? And why would he want to be? (This isn't to say gays can't be tough, of course; in a bar brawl between rough-guy poets Bukowski and Rimbaud, I'd put my money on the fag.) Indeed, tough poets are a rare breed.

Both a brawler and a bard, Jimmy Santiago Baca is one of those rare exceptions. As he tells us in his new memoir, A Place to Stand, Baca's life was no picnic. Growing up in poverty in northern New Mexico, Baca learned all about alcohol, violence, racism and despair. Abandoned by his parents and scarred by a shitty childhood, he embarked on a life of petty crime and missed opportunities. Sold out and screwed over by family, friends and lovers, business associates, court-appointed shysters and himself, Baca spent much of his adolescence in jail, culminating in a five-year prison term served in the state pen at Florence.

When he entered Florence at the age of 21, Baca was illiterate. He could not read his own court documents and had to ask a court officer to read a letter from his girlfriend. When he left prison, not only was he reading and writing, but he was doing it exceptionally well.

Considering what Baca went through, it's a miracle he made it out alive, much less a winner. But win he did, including a yardfull of awards for his poetry. Locked up, he became a poet, and poetry saved his life.

As brawny and brilliant as its author, A Place to Stand is a triumph. And in a world where many of the best poets are gay, it's a compliment to joke that Baca's no joto, he just writes like one.

More by Jim Carvalho

  • Sensei and Sensibility

    Two outsiders take readers inside Japan.
    • Aug 8, 2002
  • Life on the Line

    A new CD and photography book provide a glimpse of life on the U.S.-Mexico border.
    • May 30, 2002
  • Musical Underworld

    An American explores the gritty world of the 'narcocorrido.'
    • Apr 25, 2002
  • More »


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Readers also liked…

  • My Heart Can’t Even Believe It

    An excerpt from Amy Silverman’s new book exploring the challenges and joys of raising a child with Down Syndrome
    • May 12, 2016
  • Bathed in Light

    A 75th-birthday exhibition pays tribute to Harold Jones’ long career in photography
    • Oct 15, 2015

The Range

Two New(ish) Businesses to Visit During the Street Fair

Streets of This Town: Faces of Tucson

The Weekly List: 16 Things To Do In Tucson In The Next 10 Days

More »

Latest in Book Feature

  • Mystery Mastery

    Tucsonan Shannon Baker's new novel is getting her compared to Craig Johnson, C.J. Box and Linda Castillo
    • Sep 8, 2016
  • The Daughters

    An excerpt from a novel by Adrienne Celt
    • Aug 4, 2016
  • More »

Most Commented On

  • Reinventing Dillinger

    Ryanhood and Artifact Dance Project create a music-dance piece about Tucson’s favorite gangster
    • Mar 23, 2017
  • More »

Facebook Activity

© 2017 Tucson Weekly | 7225 Mona Lisa Rd. Ste. 125, Tucson AZ 85741 | (520) 797-4384 | Powered by Foundation