Thursday, May 15, 2008

Jimmy Santiago Baca

My friend Emily fell in love with Jimmy Santiago Baca's poetry, and as is her custom when such things happen, she wrote him to tell him about it.

He wrote back.

Thus began a long and fruitful correspondence. He had started a foundation to bring literacy programs to prisons. She helped edit an anthology of prisoner's writing. She even invited me to write a crit of one of the pieces. My mother, a poet herself, wrote one too.

In all the time Emily has talked about Baca, I never read any of his work. I read the interviews she emailed me. I visited his site. I checked out his bio. But somehow I never read a poem or story.

So when Emily arranged for Baca to come to RI for a series of readings and workshops, I decided to go check him out myself.

I arrived at the reading at AS220 late. I was coming from a meeting and slipped in the back of the room and sat on the floor.

Jimmy read 3 poems and told stories between them. He is a great story teller. His poems are stories, too, drawing you deeply into the emotional core of what he is talking about. He read one, El Gato, about a man who saw hope and love and need in his infant daughter and at that moment turned from a life of violence and despair. I was breathless hearing this poem. The hope of the world is contained in this poem.

Afterwards, Emily invited me to join them for a late supper and I almost didn't go, but at the last minute, said yes.

I sat next to Jimmy and spent the next hour or so listening to him telling stories about his life. Emily laughed afterwards about the look on my face as I listened. I don't know what I looked like, but I know how I felt. I hung on every word. All I kept thinking was, this guy is a miracle. This guy's life is a miracle. God has pulled him from the abyss and I am sitting here, in a restaurant in Providence, witnessing a miracle of God's love.

What is the miracle? If you read Jimmy's bio, you learn that his life was shit. Prison, drugs, a completely dysfunctional family. It was bad. Like, so bad you can't imagine how anyone can drag themselves out of it, bad. Hearing him talk about his past was bizarre. The stories made my hair stand on end... and yet, there he was, this beautiful spirit. This big LOVE. This man who wants to help people who are desperate. This crazy-talented writer.

I think only God can pull off a transformation like that. I felt like I was sitting next to a miracle and it made me want to fall to my knees in gratitude.

I cried in the car on the way home. I thanked God in my prayers. I spent the next day in a fog.

At dinner, I told Jimmy that I think there are sometimes defining moments of transformation in our lives. That if we live a life open to them, these moments can change us forever.

There have been a few of these for me.

In every case, I suspected that something big was happening, but I didn't know exactly what. I suspected these moments had meaning far beyond what I could discern. That they were signs of some huge shift.

Now I add one more:

The night I had dinner with Jimmy Santiago Baca.

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