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Birth of a Poet
A writer’s work is influenced by life experiences and his or her interpretation of the world. In Jimmy Santiago Baca’s A Place to Stand, he gives an autobiographical account of his
childhood and eventual incarceration in prison. Baca makes the journey from illiterate youth using violence to survive the harsh realities of prison life, to a poet with a sense of purpose in life. While in prison, Baca is sent to solitary confinement more than once.
This greatly influences
his growth as a person and as a writer.
“More than anything else, I loved open space” (Baca 104). This realization hit him as he was on the bus to the prison he would spend the next five years of his life. Baca’s first time in solitary confinement proved to be the hardest. With the days only broken up by the daily meals pushed through a slot in his cell door, he had nothing but his own thoughts to keep himself company in the darkness.
Baca went through a gamut of emotions during his 30 days of solitary confinement that tested his sanity. From nightmares of the fight that put him there, to paranoia about crawling rats, insects, and other prisoners about to come through the walls, Baca had to somehow fight his growing panic and make it through the seemingly never ending aloneness. After trying to exercise to stem the boredom and to stay sane, he eventually fell into a depression and just laid there letting time pass.
After hitting rock bottom, he could keep living in despair or look for ways to get back up.
Being placed back into the general prison population was like being given a new lease on life. After his senses being deprived for so long, even the random sights and sounds of the prison looked good. “My new beginning had a real sweetness to it; I was eager to start doing my time from a whole different vantage point” (Baca 126). Not yet a writer, but with more of a sense of being happy just to be alive.
Baca started his second period of solitary confinement with the view that he survived it the first time, so could do it again. Instead of the darkness and loneliness of isolation being treated as a terrifying prospect, Baca used this time to remember and reflect on his past. What was at first just a way to pass the time, thinking about the past strengthened Baca’s concentration and grew into something more. “I’d never gone into my memories so vividly before. I felt more outside my cell than in it” (Baca 134). He became so immersed in his memories, that the past and present became a confusing jumble. The waking dream always ending in the lonely dark cell.
Emerging from the isolation cell this time, Baca felt a change within himself. “I was seeing things as if for the first time because something was different inside me” (Baca 155). He wanted to attend the prison school to get his GED. Despite being on his best behavior, he was denied this chance at his reclass hearing. Without the time in solitary confinement, Baca may have acted out against this with violence, but he instead protested silently by refusing to work and doing little more than stare at the bars of his cell. “It was the first time I felt I was accomplishing something, even though I couldn’t see why” (Baca 166). In this seemingly small way, he was taking control of his life as much as one can in a prison setting. Being led to his third stint in isolation, Baca felt a sense of his own self worth for the first time in his life (Baca 168).
This third time in solitary began with a difference. Whereas the first two began as a result of violence, this one began as a result of sticking up for himself and what he thought was right. Not resorting to violence, which was what everyone expected, turned out to be the most powerful thing he ever did (Baca 169). As before, Baca played back the memories in his mind, but went deeper within himself. He faced the pain of his past. Facing his emotions, both good and bad, was a step in the healing process and brought him the realization of why he did what he did to end up in isolation again. “I could never again tolerate the betrayals that had marked my life, stretching back to my earliest years” (Baca 175).
Out of isolation for the third time, and with a kick start from a kind stranger named Harry who volunteered to write to a prisoner, Baca began the process of teaching himself to read and write. Writing became a way for Baca to let his emotions out and released the good and bad experiences hibernating within (Baca 189). This was the beginnings of a writer. Memories dredged up during the weeks in isolation could now be put down on paper in the form of journals and poetry. As time in isolation forced Baca to grow as a person, Baca’s poems grew more complex and conveyed more emotion the longer he wrote.
Baca again found himself being sent to solitary confinement. For a five week stretch, it was to Reclass, then the cell, then to isolation for a day, over and over. He had already tore himself down and built himself back up the previous times. Now isolation was seen as a place to meditate and think about the writings of others. He memorized poems and went over “plots, characters, styles, and descriptions of landscapes in novels” (Baca 193). By studying other writers, he was better able to develop and hone his own style.
Written years after his stay in prison, Baca’s feelings of his life during that time are seen in his poem “Who Understands Me but Me”. They turn the water off, so I live without water, /they build walls higher, so I live without treetops, /they paint the windows black, so I live without sunshine, /they lock my cage, so I live without going anywhere, /they take each last tear I have, I live without tears, /(lines 1-5). Prison took his freedoms away and tried to bring him down to nothing, seeking to control all aspects of his life.
deeper into dangerous regions, and found so many parts of myself, who taught me water is not everything, and gave me new eyes to see through walls, and when they spoke, sunlight came out of their mouths, and I was laughing at me with them, we laughed like children and made pacts to always be loyal,
who understands me when I say this is beautiful? (32-38) In an isolation cell, the aspect of prison that provided the least freedom of all, Baca found himself, which is a freedom in itself.
Works Cited: Baca, Jimmy Santiago. A Place To Stand. New York: Grove Press, 2001. Print.
Baca, Jimmy Santiago. “Who Understands Me But Me”. Poetryfoundation. Poetry Foundation. n.d.
Web. 12 July 2010.
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