An Interview With Jimmy Santiago Baca
In April, as part of Chicano/Latino month, Jimmy Santiago Baca visited campus. Jimmy Baca is the author of numerous books of poetry, a collection of essays and poems (Working in the Dark), and a movie (Blood In, Blood Out). He is currently finishing a novel and writing a second screen play. What follows is part of an interview conducted by BernaDette Wilson.
BW : You know, Mr. Baca, people don't appreciate someone when they have written something. Sometimes when I am trying to write from the heart they say I have to make it more structured. Do you find that? Maybe it's different because you are an author.
JB : Not really.
BW : No? You have to put it in a neat format?
JB : The publishers in New York have a real problem with that kind of thing. We're talking about two kinds of problems for a writer. First, you have to decide how you are going to write and whether you are going to compromise . . . write the way you're really going to write or whether you're going to write to write the way they want you to write when it comes time to publish. If you choose writing the way you want to write, then you're going to have to be a damn good writer because you're basically defining the landscape of smoke with the heart in it. You know it's extremely difficult to do, but it's really not that difficult. It just takes a lot of faith, a lot of faith to write what's in the heart, and if you go the other way in New York, they really want you to write in a bloodless, very formulaic manner that would appeal to the greatest mass of people.
BW : Yes.
JB : And writing for great masses of people, you're not looking for answers as much as you are titillating the boredom of your readers. They're just bored when they read something; you have to give them something -- like a nice meal. You feed them, but you don't want to. Instead you should disturb their sleep, and writing for yourself you disturb people's sleep and dreams. It becomes a magical ritual because it takes language back to its primal source like an earthquake, which is to know the world. There's nothing like a good poem for having fun.
BW : Really?
JB : I love good poems. It makes the day fun.
BW : Wow.
JB : I've been all over the world, around a lot of great people. I've been to great parties, but there's nothing like having a good poem. For me, a good poem is like having my stockbroker call and say that my stock just went sky high.
BW : You kidding me?
JB : That's how a poem is.
BW : That's because you are a poet.
JB : Yeah. Makes me happy.
BW : Last night you said it took you two years to write a book you were working on because you were writing in isolation. I like to write -- I don't know -- by myself and away from people. But it kinda hurts me inside because it seems as though I'm trying to get something out on paper that I can't define.
JB : It hurts, huh?
BW : Yeah. It hurts me to write.
JB : I know. It hurts me too. (They both laugh.)
BW : It's a painful interaction with myself trying to go into myself -- trying to find out what I want to say. It's a long process for me. I was wondering if you can give me tips to .....
JB : Get around it?
BW : Yeah. And when I write, it's always like I should revise everything. It's like nothing is ever good enough, or I can't even satisfy some people at all. It's damaging to me, and I think I've gotten to the point where I can't want to write because I don't know if I have anything to say worthwhile. How do you know when you have something to say worthwhile or different or ....
JB : I don't. I don't think anything I've ever written is original.
BW : I think the way you write is original.
JB : There comes a point where the whole aspect of hurting to write is .... I envy you.
BW : No, I envy you. Trust me.
JB : I envy you because it's a cool thing to be able to hurt when you write because that's where power comes from, and when you quit hurting when you write, that means you're writing from a space where you have to work that much harder to get the power and momentum to write. When you write from a place where you have a lot of pain, and it's hard for you to write, you have so much power at your fingertips to be able to give the words -- to infuse the words with meaning, and if I have a beautiful mansion on the ocean, and I want to write another book, and I want it beautiful, I can sit there and write about the ocean and that would be really pleasing to me -- or about people on the beach or whatever, but to be hurting or be in great joy is to have a really beautiful power at your disposal. All that energy to be able to write with .... amazing. That's really how you get great, great poems and great books, from people who have all that energy behind the book, and they just have to tell you. They have to say it. You know? And the problems that you run into are to try to have all that energy and pain and whatever come together. You have to communicate something to the world and the problem that you have is that you've been taught as a civilized woman that there are forces out there that are going to critique what you're going to write.
BW : Yes.
JB : And you don't want to look like a fool and step on the toes and hurt them, but as a writer you have to make a choice about either closing down your system and not write what's in your heart or to open the system up -- all the valves open -- and kick ass. And then they are going to have to deal with you. I don't think, just looking at you, I don't think there's anything you can ever write that would hurt anybody. Just looking at you, I don't think that you could write anything that would hurt people -- even if it is about anger and pain. You understand? There's nothing you write that could be that bad.
BW : Thanks.
JB : I could imagine people who are dangerous -- like when you read a book written by a Nazi guy, and you look at it, and you know that the guy is well-educated and went to all the best schools. You kinda look at him and wonder. But you realize what the person is really saying is to divide all people and hate certain people. That's bullshit. Someone like you, a woman in Minnesota, to sit down and write something -- you may wonder who cares? But it's like a big tree on the river. Some people are afraid the tree's going to fall on them, so they start creating this havoc about how the tree's going to fall. People should have never planted it. And then other people go there as lovers and lay under the tree and look at the river. You understand? It's all about how much fear people have. I mean you can't control that. You can't control if I'll be afraid of you. And if you wrote something, I might be terrified of you and say that it was bad, or I might be in love with you and read what you said and say, "oooh this is incredible." Right? You can't control my fear. But, you can control you're writing. So the best thing you can do as a writer is to just let it go. Let it go because .... because we have so many people who don't let it go, and you'll be doing a justice to us as readers.
BW : I can't help but notice you use a lot of metaphors to explain things.
JB : I love metaphors. Just what do you want to know about metaphors? I don't really know what I'm talking about.
BW : You don't know how much I admire you and your writing because I didn't like poetry until I read your book. It was something I was able to identity with. I feel like I know you.
JB : I'm honored. Well, some of the rhythms I used in my work are Black rhythms. Some of the Chicanos say, "How come you use Black rhythms?" I tell them I do because I was living with Black folks, and I get part of their soul into my soul, and I love their language. I love it. It's a great gift, you know. So, when you were reading the book, you might have picked up on this kind of rhythm. Where I come from, people were in a color spectrum between really light skinned to really dark, and that's because for three hundred years there's been a lot of Black people. Even during the slave days, they would escape and run to the Southwest where they couldn't be enslaved, and lots of Black guys would marry. That's maybe another aspect of why you like the book because the experience I talked about is very close to yours and yours is very close to mine.
Copyright 1995 Kaleidoscope. Write Place. Volume 6.