Jimmy Santiago Baca’s memoir A Place to Stand, is heartbreaking, harrowing, and ultimately hopeful piece of writing. In his memoir he explores his past and it’s relation to his incarceration and how he ultimately rose from the dehumanizing ashes of the criminal justice system to become an award-winning poet and later went on to found the organization Cedar Tree Inc. which sets out to “transform lives through reading and writing.”
As someone who has experienced personal transformation through creative writing, I clung to Baca’s words as tightly as I hold my own. Yet even still, having had my transformation during a short stint in a mental institute rather than years in a federal prison, I was far more moved by Baca’s story than I was by even my own experience.
There is pure magic in rebuilding a creative life by piecing near-forgotten scraps of humans together with poetry. That magic is evident both in Baca’s exquisite prose in his memoir and through hearing him speak in the documentary version of his experience. The life in his verbal speech and the beauty in his written voice make it difficult to imagine Baca as a young man attacking fellow inmates within the jail. But that is the transformation and the magic. When a person is so moved by writing that their past self is unimaginable, but still tangible, then that is pure pulchritude.
And so for my 3 observations I’d like to focus on transformation and the magic of writing.
- While in the prison there are essentially two Jimmys. There is the outward Jimmy that is hard and cold as stone and the inward Jimmy that still has his humanity and emotional vulnerability. It is the stone Jimmy that attacks others and the human Jimmy that escapes isolation to Estancia. The human Jimmy begins to dissolve into stone Jimmy, the longer he is in the prison.
- Through learning to read and writing poetry, the human Jimmy is rived and reborn and in response the stone Jimmy begins to dissolve.
- After being released from prison and continuing his writing career, Jimmy founded an organization to teach poetry and literacy to incarcerated persons, thus sharing the magic he experienced and helping changing how we think of incarcerated people as a whole
I also have a few questions for Jimmy:
- Have any of your students gone on to prevail in the literary world? Maybe not to the same level of fame as yourself but have you heard of one of your workshop participants continued their writing careers outside of the prison walls?
- Do you see your past as something that you arose against, rose in spite of, or rose because of? Is it a forgive and forget, forgive and do not forget, or do not forgive and do not forget?
- In relation to the above question: if you could change one (and only one) aspect of your past, would you and why?