Free Verse

The ex-con, poet and screenwriter of Blood In, Blood Out, Jimmy Santiago Baca, decided to write the story of his life after hearing one too many Hollywood script doctors say they had this book they were going to write, as soon as they finished this one last project. The last time he heard that excuse, he walked right out of a producer's office and, without even calling his agent, drove out of L.A. to start work on A Place to Stand. "I got in my Jeep and kept going," Baca says. "That one book is not going to be the one I wish that I would have wrote when I'm dead."

And what a story it is. Baca was abandoned by an abusive drunk of a father and a mother who tried to pass for white by marrying into a wealthy, bigoted family. He stole cars, got in fights and even fell hopelessly in love. Reading his book, one gets the feeling that, despite his assertions to the contrary, he would not have gone straight after he made enough money dealing drugs. Then, after a drug raid left one officer wounded, Baca got five years in prison, and things changed.

"Every block had one or two tiers reserved for special cases: Nut Run for the mentally disturbed; lockdown cells for suspected gang members; the Dungeon for dangerous psychos; isolation cells with degrees of deprivation; and then maximum-security and protective-custody cells," Baca writes. "For various reasons, I would eventually visit all of them." Inside, one quickly sees how any two-bit criminal becomes either capable of cold-blooded murder or a corpse.

To survive such an environment, one needs to discover inner strength and the power of honest introspection. Baca found his in solitary confinement, where instead of going mad, he somehow used the dank isolation of his cell as an aide for meditation, to revisit his boyhood memories. When the warden refused to allow him to take his GED classes, an illiterate Baca simply taught himself to read and write. He began to create his own poems and to correspond with writers outside prison. "There was something wrong with so many people in prison, and the vast majority of them not being violent," Baca says of the drive to write. "There was something really wrong with the system, really wrong with it."

Then one day, out in the exercise yard, as he was beating a man simply because he didn't want to share cell space, something kept him from using the shank in his hand. "While the desire to murder him was strong, so were the voices of Neruda and Lorca," he writes, "praising life as sacred, and challenging me: How can you kill and still be a poet?"

"Any kind of reading at all civilizes you," Baca says. "What reading does is allow you to see the world through other people's needs and…expectations."

Now that he's served his time, Baca publishes books, sells screenplays, teaches creative writing and is involved in many community projects, hoping to pass on whatever magic he found in poetry that allowed him to contribute to society rather than dying young. Spread the word.

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Dylan Otto Krider