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.

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