Poet/novelist Jimmy Santiago Baca takes hold of words and the world around him - Albuquerque Journal

Poet/novelist Jimmy Santiago Baca takes hold of words and the world around him

Book of the Week

Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15-Oct. 15, celebrates the contributions of Hispanics to the history, culture and achievements of the United States.

The novels and poetry of Chicano writer Jimmy Santiago Baca, an Albuquerque resident, are examples of the range of those contributions.

Baca’s many literary accomplishments spill over with incredible physical energy, whether the subjects are sexual or fraternal relationships, as they are in his recent novel “American Orphan” or visions of wildlife in a new poetry collection, “No Enemies.”

The novel, based on many events and people in his life, demonstrates Baca’s extraordinary command of words. “I’m in love with language and I’m in love with words. It’s second nature for me,” he said in a phone interview. “When I was working on the novel I was particularly attentive to the words I was using in trying to create a story.”

In the novel’s text, Baca explains the power of words in paragraphs separate from the story line. That separation allows the author to talk to the reader as if the writer is an actor stage-whispering to the audience.

He tells how he sculpts the story and how his choice of words enrich it: “I push, provoke to see how far I’ll go. I let the words do their work. No matter what I say before I think, I carry a simple but deep faith that the outcome will be positive,” Baca said.

The novel’s protagonist is named Orlando Lucero. Even before he’s released from prison at age 22, he tries to learn the meaning of love.

That learning curve begins with the imprisoned Orlando exchanging letters with their searing promises to Lila, a woman in North Carolina. He thinks he’s madly in love with her.

After his release, Orlando joins up with Lila and tries to understand this new reality. “Life is more than words in a letter, a lot more,” Orlando says.

What’s remarkable about Orlando’s/Baca’s intelligence, heart and drive to do the right thing is that those qualities come from a man strong enough to overcome years shuttered in prison, in juvenile detention, in an orphanage.

Baca compared the literary aspect of writing the novel versus writing poetry in his new collection “No Enemies.”

“The novel is more of a deliberate intellectual exercise for a desired end,” he said. “The poetry I entrusted my craft to feeling the words. They’re different approaches. I don’t know if it worked or not, but I did what I did.”

The poems in the collection “No Enemies” are divided into six categories.

In the “Education” category, a hard-hitting untitled poem seen from the viewpoint of Baca in educational outreach: “Inside a portable classroom in Atlanta, Georgia/Mexicans and Chicanos sit at desks,/do nothing, no books, sit there./I tell them I’m a visiting poet,/ask what they’ve been doing all year,/They say,/every day, all year, sit here,/no teachers ever showed up.”

In the “Wildlife” category are a group of poems, some in tribute to the buffalo. Here is a stanza from “Buffalo Poem”: “… Buffalo are coming/in New Mexico, where I am, I see them/friends call they see them too -/New Hampshire woods, Seattle shoreline,/Indiana mountaintops, Minnesota lakes- …”

Besides being a poet and novelist, Baca is also an essayist, a screenwriter and an educator. The author of 20 books, he is the recipient of numerous awards and honors such as the American Book Award for “Martin & Meditations on the South Valley” and the International Prize for his memoir “A Place to Stand,” which was made into a documentary film that aired on PBS in 2018.


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