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NM poet pokes and jabs in his new book

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Jimmy Santiago Baca (Courtesy of Jimmy Santiago Baca)

When he was working on his latest collection of essays, Jimmy Santiago Baca would often smile as he got up from his desk to make a cup of coffee.

“Why are you smiling, Papi?” his daughter asked.

“I’m smiling because I just wrote an angry paragraph,” the poet and screenwriter replied.

There is no shortage of angry paragraphs in “Laughing in the Light,” the first book of essays Baca has written since “Working in the Dark,” published in 1994.

Baca will be doing a virtual reading from his book at 6 p.m. on May 28, via Collected Works bookstore in Santa Fe. To join the reading, click here:

In the preface to his book, Baca focuses on the differences between the present and the world as it was when he wrote “Working in the Dark.”

“It’s all coming to light now: sexual scandals, the racism and gender inequity, the deplorable white-only roles, and it’s a good thing that it’s finally coming out in the open,” he writes.

“But change is slow to come; the white billionaire who turns everything he touches into a disease, who destroys with every step, who spews venom on everything he sees – you know him, you see him as owners of golf courses and hotels, owners of hate radio stations and hate newspapers, and shareholders in private prisons, and political lobbyists for petroleum and pharmaceuticals,” he continues.

Baca doesn’t pull any punches in his 31st book. Still, he compares the process of writing it to rough-housing as a kid with friends.

“I took this opportunity to poke and jab. But I did it in a playful manner,” he said in a telephone interview.

Jimmy Santiago Baca’s new collection of essays, “Laughing in the Light.”

Later on in the conversation, Baca turns the metaphor of writing “Laughing in the Light” into jogging. After selling three books to the University of Houston’s prestigious Arte Público Press, the largest U.S. publisher of contemporary and recovered literature by U.S. Hispanic authors, Baca said he was ready to take a break and have fun with his essays.

The author, who became a poet while serving six years in prison for a drug-related offense, wanted to “jog in the foothills” and “limber up and stretch.”

The essays compiled in “Laughing in the Light,” published by the Museum of New Mexico Press, are decidedly nonlinear.

“The book is quite circular,” said Baca. “It circles back on itself like a vortex.”

In one chapter, Baca is teaching creative writing to prisoners around the country. In another, he’s enjoying the cocaine-fueled life of a Hollywood screenwriter, with all the attendant pleasures – or temptations – of Tinseltown.

Reading the essays in “Laughing in the Light” is like getting off a ride on a roller coaster. It takes a few minutes to ground yourself.

Could one man have lived so many lives?

Baca’s essays take the reader on a tour of the underworld where you meet drug and arms dealers, local hoodlums, Hollywood players and others who enjoy rubbing shoulders with a convict-turned-poet in the hopes that some authenticity will rub off on them.

“With one leg in the dark underworld of shot-callers and the other leg in the world of poets, I thought I was in control, that I could handle both worlds, merge into one wildly brazen presence that showed the world how bad I was … I kept yo-yo-ing back and forth until I realized decades had gone by and I had to take a stance for the straight life,” Baca writes in perhaps the most moving essay of the book, “Ponte truchas (or Getting Real).”

But unlike many who descend to the underworld, Baca made it back to tell the stories of the characters who resided there, most now deceased. He credits his children with keeping him alive. Baca has two grown sons in their 30s from his first marriage, and a daughter and a son, 14 and 12, respectively, from his second marriage.

In his quest to get real and straight, Baca found solace in his northern New Mexico heritage. After walking away from the bright lights of Hollywood, the screenwriter needed to slow his racing pulse with land and family.

“I needed the quiet of the prairie hawk in my blood, I needed to sit with a grandma and clean Estancia pinto beans on her kitchen table and help her make tortillas, I needed to hang around the old women and men working in their fields and porches and sheds hammering metal parts and repairing rooftops and digging out acequias,” writes Baca. “I needed life.”