Visiting Writer Emphasizes the Importance of Political Poetry
Award-winning poet Jimmy Santiago Baca shared his thoughts on political poetry, read some of his poems and answered audience questions as part of the English department’s annual Visiting Writer program.
This event, which took place at King’s College in the Burke Auditorium in McGowan Hall, was open to the public.
Baca read four of his poems, all of which he described as being political poetry, throughout the course of the hour-long reading.
He opened the reading with “I Am Offering This Poem,” a genuinely beautiful and warm poem that welcomed the audience just as effectively as Baca’s thanks for the hospitality. It also provided an excellent transition into his discussion of the importance of doing what you love, American poetry and the value of political poetry.
Baca said the lifestyle of constantly working until you drop in order to make money is one that he doesn’t understand, because it seems to work best for those who value money.
“But since I don’t have any, I have no measurement of money; I don’t really value it,” Baca said. “I believe that money follows you if you’re doing the things that you love to do.”
Baca used to be a Hollywood producer. He had a Rolex, an Armani suit and “an expense account that some people don’t make in five years,” and he said he thought he was perfect because of that.
“I was the furthest from perfect,” Baca said. “I was 31 years old, making money I’d never dreamed of, and I was the worst human being you ever met, but I thought I was perfect.”
Baca then had a breakdown and quit his job, which is something he sees as a kind of blessing.
“It’s the greatest, most romantic breakdown ever,” Baca said. “Lost me everything I ever had, but I loved it because it took me in the direction I wanted my heart to go.”
Writing poetry, especially political poetry, is what Baca loves to do, and it’s something he believes is very important. Poetry doesn’t cost anything to write, and there are no requirements that a person must fulfill in order to write poetry. His one criticism of American poetry, however, is that it shies away from political poetry.
“The biggest thing I’m trying to tell you is that poets today, many people that I love, that I truly respect, are terrified when you mention political poetry to them,” Baca said. “This is the only place in the world that that occurs in poets. Political poetry is normal in every other country in the world except here.”
He told the story of a Norton Anthology that was supposed to feature one poet from every country. At the end of the project, every country’s poet had been in prison and they were all seen as heroes. The only country whose poet had not been in prison was America, and the American poets in prison had been denied access to the anthology.
Baca said that political poetry will one day be in curriculums and books, and become more visible than it is today. He said that it’s a good thing, because political poetry will enrich poetry and the American tradition.
“When you ignore politics, and you have access to young, brilliant minds, what happens?” Baca said. “You’re suddenly surrounded with dilemmas and chaos and anarchy that you don’t know how to understand. If you read poetry, you would. Because it seems that political poetry is the only thing that’s unadulterated.”
Baca then spoke of the idea of giving your life for someone else, dying for someone because they were threatened and how amazing such a statement is. It’s something he hears from the people he works with who were involved in gang activity. When Baca hears someone say they would die for someone, he can’t help but wonder if they realize the depth of what it is that they’re saying.
“This is stuff that came out of Greek wars and mythology,” Baca said. “You would die for this gentleman because he’s your friend? Think for one second how many friends would die for you. Isn’t that an amazing comment?”
He spoke of how books and movies often portray this idea in the context of war, and the fraternity between soldiers who survived combat together. Baca said it’s unfortunate that this idea of caring for someone so much that you would give your life for them has to come out in the horrors of war, and not in everyday life.
“Why can’t we do that here, now?” Baca said. “Why can’t we create a sort of landscape where we feel obligated for each other’s welfare? But it’s not that way. It’s ‘I’m going to step on you as hard as I can to get that money first, because whatever money’s out there is not going to be in your pocket and I’ll do everything I have to do [to get it.]’”
Baca then read his poem “El Gato,” which is about a young man who quit doing drugs. Baca works with people like this every day, and he felt it was important for the audience to understand that what made this young man quit living that kind of life was not an abstract thing: he wanted to give his life for his child.
It was a truly moving poem, and Baca read it with such passion and emotion that the audience was able to empathize with the young man. The room was utterly silent, the audience captivated, throughout the entire reading of the long poem, which chronicled the young man’s life by ages.
The poem also reinforced Baca’s sentiments about political poetry and how important it is because of what such poems can show the world about the reality of other peoples’ lives.
“That was a political poem on how we disenfranchise our children,” Baca said when he had finished reading it.
Baca’s next poem tackled racism, which was something Baca spoke passionately about. He emphasized the fact that racism doesn’t appear solely in obvious displays such as name-calling. It also appears in how the system favors certain groups over others, which was the type of racism exhibited in his poem, “As Life Was Five,” a truly heartbreaking piece.
This autobiographical poem told of the moment when Baca watched his grandfather suffer at the hands of racism by being called “stupid” because he couldn’t speak English; by being refused a loan that could help him save his farm because he wasn’t white. It was the moment when Baca, as a young boy, first realized racism existed.
He spoke passionately to the audience, encouraging them to take a stand against racism and not accept it as a part of everyday life.
“Don’t be nervous about it: solve it, challenge it, get in its face,” Baca said. “Don’t live in a country that’s unjust. Celebrate a country that can fight for its democracy. That’s what I say. Step up and fight for it, and you won’t believe how beautiful that feeling is.”
Baca said its people like those in attendance that make him proud to be an American.
“You are strong people in this room, I know you are. I can tell you are. It’s people like you that are going to make this country true to its democratic spirit, I know it. And so it’s a great honor to be here. Thank you for inviting me.”
The audience then had an opportunity to ask Baca questions, the first of which was about how to write political poetry.
Baca said it’s important to read political poetry from all over the world in order to write it. He suggested the audience read poets from China, Latin America and Mexico, all of whom are being imprisoned or killed for their work. He said over 500 writers have been killed in Mexico alone by the cartels.
“You’ve got to turn against it at some point,” Baca said. “You’ve got to say enough is enough.”
He added that doing political work is just as good as writing political poetry, and to combat things such as racism, it’s something as simple as standing up for others when they’re being insulted or called names.
“It doesn’t take much to do that, except a thing called courage,” Baca said.
He told the story of how, when he was at a reception where he was to be rewarded $250,000 by a philanthropist, he walked out when the man insulted African-Americans. People couldn’t understand how Baca could walk away from a quarter of a million dollars. For Baca, he said the money wasn’t important to him.
“I’ve never been blessed with so much happiness in my life,” Baca said. “Like I needed that 250 to make me happy, or to be a better family man or to write better poetry. No. All you need is your heart, that’s it, and you can do political poetry. Just read.”
Baca was also asked questions about his own poetry. One question was about the length of his poetry, and how to best keep an audience captivated throughout a longer poem.
“I revel in the short poem,” Baca said. “I love short poems. You write long poems for two reasons: you’re either fiercely in love with somebody, or you fiercely hate somebody. One of the two. But when you’re not either in love or hate someone to the extreme, short poems are good.”
He was also said that he tends to avoid the conventions of both spoken word and traditional poetry. Instead, he tries to write to accommodate the goal he has mind. He said he wrote a book for high school students and college first-years and sophomores in order to get them to feel like they could write, so he used longer poems to show them that writing poetry isn’t an intimidating undertaking.
“Poetry is speaking with God, and it will never go away,” Baca said.
Before he concluded for the evening, he read one more poem, “Tire Shop.” When he finished reading the poem, he emphasized the importance of following your heart and what makes you happy instead of just living life to chase the dollar. He recalled how many movie executives he worked with in Hollywood would constantly be away climbing the Alps or doing other such activities because they wanted to experience life, which was something money alone couldn’t give them.
“It doesn’t take a brilliant genius to be a millionaire,” Baca said. “That’s very easy. It’s just boring, to focus your time when it’s limited on earth, on making this green paper. If you really think about it, you’ll see how absurd that system is. How about focusing your time on having the greatest experience you can have while you’re here?”