Literary Reading – Jimmy Santiago Baca

Last night, September 21st, my family and I visited Emporia State University to hear Jimmy Santiago Baca read. Despite running a bit late (we couldn’t find a parking spot) and my son’s occasionally loud (but good natured!) antics, it was a worthwhile trip. Baca read from some of his prose and talked a bit about his writing and revising process.

I was struck by some of his descriptions, his beautiful reading voice–great pitch and cadence–and what he said in the Q&A at the end about rewriting. He called it “rewriting” rather than revision or editing, termed it “essential.” He said rewriting is a process of going deeper and deeper, down into different dimensions, deeper into yourself. He said it becomes a Buddhist mantra; you come out of yourself, see yourself and your writing clearly. I wasn’t surprised at this characterization of revision; it flows from what he said of his process at the beginning of the reading: “I get an idea and I sit down and run with it.”

That description resonated strongly with me, especially after these last few weeks. Most of what I have written recently has been without a clear shape or purpose in mind beforehand, fragmented; my ideas are small and specific, description-based. I start with a word or a specific image, explore it as thoroughly and in as precise and unique language as I can, and keep circling within and without it until it leads to something else. A chain of ideas, images, feelings, linked by association or resemblance of intuitive leap. It’s a definite process, not as in a set method, but each time a newly-begun exploration. Sometimes it takes a continuous, circling pushing, again and again coming and going through the ideas and the writing and what in myself is a part of it and reacting to it, before the poem makes itself clear and crystalizes on the page. It’s messy, and exciting, and quite a change from how I was writing before.

Since I discovered the event, I’ve been reading some of Baca’s poems online. “As Children Know” has especially stayed with me:

Elm branches radiate green heat,
blackbirds stiffly strut across fields.
Beneath bedroom wood floor, I feel earth—
bread in an oven that slowly swells,
simmering my Navajo blanket thread-crust
as white-feathered and corn-tasseled
Corn Dancers rise in a line, follow my calf,
vanish in a rumple and surface at my knee-cliff,
chanting. Wearing shagged buffalo headgear,
Buffalo Dancer chases Deer Woman across
Sleeping Leg mountain. Branches of wild rose
trees rattle seeds. Deer Woman fades into hills
of beige background. Red Bird
of my heart thrashes wildly after her.
What a stupid man I have been!
How good to let imagination go,
step over worrisome events,
                               those hacked logs
                               tumbled about
                               in the driveway.
Let decisions go!
                               Let them blow
                               like school children’s papers
                               against the fence,
                               rattling in the afternoon wind.
This Red Bird
of my heart thrashes within the tidy appearance
I offer the world,
topples what I erect, snares what I set free,
dashes what I’ve put together,
indulges in things left unfinished,
and my world is left, as children know,
                               left as toys after dark in the sandbox.

The strong, bright image of the first two lines, its parallel rhythms, captivates me. I love how “radiates green heat” and “stiffly strut” make you slow down, feel the syllables, and really see the image. The transition to the floor in the third line implies that this view is out a window; an effective way to set the broader scene while only focusing on important details. And we go deeper into details, the scene in a Navajo blanket. The speaker becomes part of the landscape, the earth beneath the surface of the blanket, with “knee-cliff.” I love how his heart is “Red Bird” and how he uses that merging with the scene in the blanket to draw his inner life into the outer description and merge them. In the final lines, the speaker turns again and contrasts the inner and outer world, grabbing and loosing verbs like “topples,” “snares, “dashes,” “indulges,” giving the reader a kind of “thrashing”, as he says, “my heart thrashes.” The final bereftness of “left as toys after dark in the sandbox,” the vulnerability of childhood invoked, as if large-eyed innocence is looking out at wilder, darker things than it should be seeing, places all that came before in a new, wider context. That new perspective brings me back to the image of “bread in an oven that slowly swells”; that would be an apt description of the realizations, inward and expanding in concentric contexts, that this poem moves through.

I hope to get at least one of Baca’s books of poems. The way he plays with layers of meaning and understanding through images, which I heard in his prose readings, too, is something I want to explore more closely.

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