Style Is a Watermelon: An Interview with Jimmy Santiago Baca
At the beginning of May I traveled to northern New Mexico. My trip was motivated by a close writer friend who did a writing retreat with Jimmy Santiago Baca and, since I had previously asked Baca for an interview, this ended up being the best time to do it. I was careful in my interview to avoid terrain that would disengage Baca, and I completely avoided any subject connected to his biography. While interviewing him, I had the sensation of at the same time being with a caustic and unrestrained writer and with an affectionate and committed father; listening to a voice of a wandering and provocative dissident and of a wise and relaxed country man; a voracious-erudite reader and a crazy and incendiary poet. Between the irreverent and the delicate, like navigating a universe between the outcast and the sublime, where there are no labels and each affirmation can be undermined from one moment to another—this is where this interview took place.
Lucía Ortega Toledo: What were your first impressions about the act of writing when you started?
Jimmy Santiago Baca: Wow, thank God for not asking all of this bullshit about prison and crap and being an underprivileged child of orphanage or whatever the fuck they come up with. Tell me the question again, it´s quite peculiar.
L.O.T.: Your first impressions about the act of writing.
J.S.B.: It's a holy act; when I get up every morning, it's an act of sanctity or something. It's got this spiritual aspect to my writing when I sit down. I could be writing about thirty four whores with one Mexican in a cheap motel room doing meth and it's still sacred. I could be laughing, I could be crying. There were times that I sat to write and I stopped and wept for thirty minutes; I couldn't keep going. And there were times when I started to write and it was like I've been on the greatest roller coaster in the world. And there's time when I started to write when I knew that it wasn’t the words that I was inventing; it was the application of words to a certain experience that I was inventing and then, in a sense, I was actually inventing words to fit an experience so there was all these different things happening at the same time.
L.O.T.: In which practical ways does someone teach oneself to write?
J.S.B.: A diary. You keep a notebook every single day and as difficult as it is to do, record the most mundane aspects of your day. Get up in the morning and just record the sun getting up and play games with yourself. Say, "How fast can I describe the sun right now?" and that you look up and it's changed completely and then you do it again and it's like trying to catch a rabbit and you look at the sun, "Oh my God, the shadow's over there. The shadow just crossed the truck. No, they're beyond the truck, now they're on the damn box." And then just get up and just write something really super mundane because what you're doing now is creating a habit and habit is the most important thing in writing.
L.O.T.: How did you find your style of writing?
J.S.B.: If style is a watermelon, consider all the things we could do with a watermelon. We can stick it on our head, we can put our penis in it, we can put a straw in it and make it a juice bar or something, but the actual watermelon itself is style and what we do with it depends on the work that we're doing. If it's really hot and you're out on the field working, put a straw in the watermelon and drink the juice. If you're without your wife for 10 days and you're in bed, get the watermelon, put a little hole in it and go to it, go to business. I read something similar in a novel just recently about the Vietnamese living in Vietnam, what's it called? [The Sympathizer] He was a spy, what was it called? It won the Pulitzer Prize. I just loved this guy [Viet Thanh Nguyen], he's phenomenal. Anyway, he did it, but he did it with the squad, and he made it really funny.
Cormac McCarthy's style, William Carlos Williams, Denise Levertov, everybody has this unique, unique voice and it has to do with their unique way of looking at reality. I don't know what Great Creator gave them the gift that they have. Faulkner, I could go on and on, Arundhati Roy, on and on. When they look at reality, they see it really, really skewered to their sensibility that was shaped by what? By mom, by the environment, by trauma, by sorrow, by whatever, I don't know, but their sensibility was formed by something and they use that sensibility as a sort of fulcrum or epicenter where they can look at reality and it's already prefigured itself according to the style that they're going to write in.
When I see a beautiful horse, Cormac McCarthy sees it running with the wind, and another writer sees the slaughter of horses. The style has so much to do with the experience that we bring to it. Denise Levertov, she had this incredible way of getting under the words to create a mystic moment. Fuck, how do you do that? You can't do it. You have to have your sensibilities born into that, be able to get a mystic moment. William Carlos Williams was able to do that with images, call “the red wheelbarrow”, “the white chicken", or whatever, stuff like that. William Burroughs, it was a drowsy style of an addict's nodding out. Kerouac, just vroom! like Salinger; they just nonstop. Whitman, My God, Man! Whitman, he was like Rivera, the muralist. When he’d set out to do something, he’d covered a lot of ground with it, writing the long sentences and stuff.
I don't think you go to a textbook for that. I think you eat, sleep, shit, cook, make love, cry, and weep, and laugh to get that style. I think that's you and that's what makes it so beautiful. That's why people, like me, can't wait to pick up the next book because it's like who's this now? And who's that now? And who's this now? I just read All the Light We Cannot See. I was floored by that guy. I was floored. How could this guy write this beautiful? Anyway, I said, "Idaho? Who the fuck lives in Idaho that can write this good?" I expect it to be Barcelona or some crazy, beautiful thing, but out in the middle of fucking corn? Give me a break. Who can do that? It's like writers and poets are amazing because, God Almighty, they're just so phenomenal.
For me, style is a mysterious, intuitive, and almost accidental process. Style has so much to do with intuition and little to do with textual facts. It has nothing to do with facts. Open up all the English grammar books you want, nothing. Intuition, oh! That’s what made Arundhati Roy so sublime and that's what made some of the most incredible poets so sublime. Look at Marge Piecy, look at Grace Paley. My God, I mean, fuck! Grace Paley, she went to the park every day with her kids in their buggies and look at what she did! She revolutionized how to protect the park in the city in the biggest city in the world. Man, that's phenomenal, that's writing! Writers... Wow! They're the camera that everybody should be holding, taking pictures of the life around them.
L.O.T.: Did you choose, at some point, poetry as your primary way of literary expression? ¿Are you interested in writing more narrative?
J.S.B.: I love poetry and I would only write poetry because it's the one thing I love. I chose to do the next three novels so I could pay off all the bills, make sure everybody at home is cool and then I'll go back to doing my poetry, which I love. But it's a rational decision to write the three novels.
L.O.T.: Do you have any work in printing out or in process of being published?
J.S.B.: American Orphan, I just finished that. It's about an 18-year-old kid who gets out of the youth authority. I wanted to write a book because I wanted to know how tough it is for a kid to come out in today's world and so I wrote it. It is what it is, it's just a pair of shoes. You put them on and you start walking in them and that's what reading a book is. Some people will like it, some people won't, but I enjoyed the hell out of it. I enjoyed writing it, I enjoyed every aspect of it. The revisions were mostly what I enjoyed, the getting to know the character deeper and deeper, the things that I didn't know were going to happen happened. What was going to become central to the book, I had no clue when I started and I fired two agents over it, two really good agents. I had one of the top three in the country and then the other one is affiliated with one of the top official businesses. I fired that agent too and it was for the best. But I finished the book and it benefited me greatly because it was easier to go to the second novel and the transition was like the two weeks period in the ninth month when you're going to have the baby. That's the most painful time when you're just waiting to have it, waiting to have it, waiting to have it. Shit, that's horrible. Just waiting to have it, waiting to have it, when's it going to come? When's the labor pains going to come? You have labor pains, but you have them for three weeks and you're pissing your pants and you have labor pains and everything. And all of a sudden, ah! And then you run to the table and start the first word and you hear the baby, "Oh, it's kicking me now," and then you’ve got it growing. I love that shit. I love it and hate it, but I love it.
L.O.T.: Regarding your books The Esai Poems, Immigrants in Our Land, and The Lucía Poems, Are they homages to those characters, are they questions and invitations to the reader? What is your relationship with the subjects of your books?
J.S.B.: My relationship to my topics is very personal. I wrote a book called The Esai Poems because he's my son and I wanted to capture part of his growing up. I wrote The Lucía Poems because she's my daughter and I wanted to capture a part of her growing up. American Orphan, I visited at least 20 or 30 facilities with kids who were locked up and my heart broke every time I went in, so I decided to write a novel trying to understand or let the world know what these kids are going through and that’s what I did. It's personal experience.
L.O.T.: In an interview with the poet Kate Ryan, she says, "If one is writing well, one is totally exposed but, at the same time, one has to feel thoroughly masked or protected." How do you handle the fact that your poetry is very personal and autobiographical with your readers and your students, how much of you is exposed?
J.S.B.: Basically, this is what happens when you're the kind of poet that I am; you merge your public and private life into one personification, so there is no public or private when I write. There is just the spirit that I am inhabiting at the moment of composition. Isn’t that beautiful? That's why I keep going back to it, because I mean, I write something and I'm completely subsumed by it. I'm consumed. Consumed it´s an outward thing, subsumed is when something comes inside of you and just completely, completely devours you and takes you away and transmutes your energetic beam, your psyche, into something that you weren't a minute ago. I'm just blown away by its power. It's phenomenal. I love poetry.
L.O.T.: How does someone become a great poet?
J.S.B.: We could do without the "great," how does somebody become a poet? When you put stuff in front of it, we know what it really means is how many people have given that person awards and a person normally gets awards from people who we have attired our taste to their needs and that's not good: I'm going to make you feel comfortable because I'm going to write poetry that's going to make you feel comfortable. I'm going to take my poetry and I'm going to write it to your needs of comfort. When you read my poetry, you're going to say, "Wow, this is good," and you're going to give me an award. But if I write poetry that says we should burn your house down and take all your money and distribute it among the poor, I'm not a great poet because you're not going to give me any award, because I'm not writing to your needs, to feed your needs. You need to stop feeding the needs of those who are in a position to judge you… well, nine times out of ten, the person writing will bend down and surrender to the critics; it's that one person who doesn't, who continues to write great work.
Jaime Sabines, for instance. He wrote great work. That guy never got a big award and yet women at the mercado were paraphrasing his poems, cab drivers, bellhops. What is it, if he's not great? If every Mexican in Mexico is reading his poems and reciting them? They're not reciting Paz, they're not reciting any of the academics. They're reciting this guy, but nobody wanted to give him a significant award. Why? Because Ilan Stavans did not make a critique of his work?! (Laughs) There's a whole society, a whole secret society that tries to legitimize you as a poet. You don't need that. When you write a poem and you read it to somebody and that person says, "You clothed to my heart in your words," you know you're a poet, you know you're doing your job, you know you're doing your duty. You're not doing it to appease some sense of insecurity in the rich; you're doing it to heal the heart of the poor.
L.O.T.: How do you get in the mental place to write?
J.S.B.: You're given the mental space to write by living in that place to write. Writing, for me, you have to adjust your life to it. Life has to adjust itself to your writing. I think I heard it today in the car, I'm not sure, how: "There's so many things happening in my life that I've got to make time to write”. Let’s reverse that order and say, "I write so much that life has a really hard time of getting in." Wouldn't that be cool? Instead of, "Man, life is so hairy that my poetry has a hard time to get in." (Laughs) So let's reverse the order and say, "I'm writing so much that life is having a really hard time coming through that door. God, I've got to quit writing so much," but we're always on the other end of it saying, "Shit, man, life is all around me. I can't write." Do you know what I'm saying? The answer is real simple. You've got to make life on the outside fit the inside. So there you have it.
L.O.T.: Do you ever feel that you are unable to write out of fear?
J.S.B.: I write out of fear, I write out of real fear. I write out of cowardice, I write out of courage, I write out of everything. I write out of not knowing how to write. I just write with the fascination of a child. I guess, for me, it's always been trying to get back to the most basic sight that a child looks upon, a weed or an ant, what is that? What is that thing that a child sees when it looks at an ant or the first time a kid runs out and sees a grasshopper? What is that? What is the wind doing, the trees, and the sun in the sky when that person, that little kid, looks at the grasshopper? I want all of these other players involved, but by the time we get older, the ego has grown so much that it's only us involved, us and the grasshopper, but back then it wasn't. Back then, the sky spoke, the trees were our sisters, and the earth reached up and held us, and then the grasshopper appeared. That's what makes a child so beautiful.
L.O.T.: You have written about the difficulties of being an immigrant in these times, in this country. As a poet, what is your sense of the historic?
J.S.B.: The immigrant's job is to remind us where we come from and the immigrant's job is to take our mask off and show how absurd we are with our wanting to keep all our money and wanting to build big walls and houses and make sure that nobody comes in. The immigrant is there to create the parody of ourselves. That's why we hate him, because he's laughing at the myth that we've created.
The immigrant is saying, "Look, I have no food in my hand," but the myth that you've created says everybody is fed, isn't it? And the guy hates it. He's like, "How dare you come to my fence saying that they're torturing you because, in the world, there is no torture. You know that." And the immigrant says, "I'm sorry, but there is," and the guy who has this beautiful life is saying, "There is no torture," because if you admit that there is, you’ve destroyed my myth and I will not let you destroy my myth and that's what's happening with Trump. The myth is crumbling all around him, everybody is leaving. It's like all of the Knights of the Roundtable are gone. Everybody is saying, "Fuck the Grail, we don't want it. We're out of here," and there's poor Trump, looking out of his castle window, trying to keep his toupee on because the wind's blowing harder and harder and it's got sounds of rebellion in it. That's what immigrants are for; they're here for all of that, to break the myth that allows dehumanization.
L.O.T.: How does your writing change over the years?
J.S.B.: I can't predict that. Every book I write, like this next one I'm writing – I’ll call it the thin style, I'm skimming along the ice and it's a beautiful way to write; I just don't know if it's writing, but it's really cool. An example of what I'm doing right now can be found, a limited version of it can be found in The Woman in the Window [from A. J. Finn], published a few months ago. Did you read that? It's a real quick read. It's fast, boom! No heavy stuff, but it conveys some pretty cool stuff. I'm writing it sliding along thin ice.
L.O.T.: What is your opinion of the documentary, A Place to Stand, based on your memoir? Is the documentary faithful to your book? To what extent did you have a creative collaboration with Daniel Glick, the director?
J.S.B.: I’ll tell it the way it is: I did the documentary myself and I used a pseudonym. I wanted to see what the opinion of people would be for a white guy to do a Chicano’s life documentary, but I'll admit now that I am Daniel Glick. Sorry to disappoint everyone. (Silence. Laughs.)
No, here's the real answer to that. The real answer to that is that I am very pleased with Glick’s work. It was really difficult, not only producing but distributing the film because everybody knows that my life is not a fairy tale. But I just heard that an edited version of the film will be on PBS [Public Broadcasting Service] and that’ll make it available to a broader audience. I think that’s great.
Lucía Ortega Toledo (Mexico City, 1980) has her B.A.in Communication Studies and her Masters and Doctorate in Literature from the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana. She has published poetry and essays in Adspiro, Opción, Destiempos, Castálida, etc. and has collaborated on various academic books. For five years she has lived in the U.S. where she is working on screenplays and a poetry book and has worked as a translator and teacher of Spanish. Lucía translated her interview with Jimmy Santiago Baca into Spanish as well as Baca's newest book of poetry. She will also translate Baca's upcoming novel.
In our tenth issue, we question the values of literature and journalism in the post-truth age through the words of Mexican writer Juan Villoro and we explore new territories of digital literature in a dossier curated by Scott Weintraub. We also feature memories of the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre told through graphic narrative, new perspectives on the translation of Shakespeare into Spanish with an essay from Braulio Fernández Biggs, and Wayuu literature from the Venezuelan side of the border than runs through their ancestral lands.