A note before we dive in: this month's dispatch is a bit late because I've spent the last week or so migrating this newsletter from Substack to a platform called Buttondown, where I'm writing from now. I won't get into all of the details, but suffice it to say Substack has doubled-down on hiring writers I find, as they put it, "objectionable." Switching to Buttondown has allowed me to transfer all subscribers and archives with minimal disruption. This includes paid subscriptions because Buttondown shares a payment processor with Substack. There's a slightly different look, but I hope that the reading experience will be as unchanged as possible. Thank you for your patience.
This month’s selection comes via one of my coworkers who lent me Immigrants in Our Own Land & Selected Early Poems by Jimmy Santiago Baca, whose work I didn't know until now (thanks, C.!). Jimmy Santiago Baca began writing poems during the roughly six years he was incarcerated. Other inmates encouraged him to send some of those poems to the magazine Mother Jones, where the poet Denise Levertov was editor. Levertov published a handful of Baca’s poems and became an early champion of his work, later writing an introduction to Martín & Meditations on the South Valley (1987). Immigrants in Our Own Land & Selected Early Poems is a 1990 reissue of Baca's first major book, expanded to include poems from smaller publications and chapbooks that weren’t available at the time. The reissue came not long after New Directions published two of Baca’s most renowned books, Martín & Meditations on the South Valley and Black Mesa Poems (1989).
The expectations placed on poetry by incarcerated writers often demand that the poems perform their incarceration, reducing the speaker of the poems (and, by proxy, the poet) to “incarcerated person,” rather than a complex individual with goals and desires, a sense of humor, a family. There’s also the expectation that the incarcerated person be sufficiently “remorseful,” which, in a country that incarcerates so many people for drug offenses, is laughable. Remorse for what? Every once in awhile literary journals will do portfolios of work by incarcerated writers, which are often very good, featuring a diverse range of styles and themes. But when those same journals do portfolios on parenthood, climate change, desire, or any other topic, they rarely solicit or include work on those themes by incarcerated writers.
I mention all of this because one of the complexities of Immigrants in Our Own Land is the way it both conforms to and subverts the tropes of “incarcerated writer.” Many of the poems do address the poet’s incarceration because many of these early poems were written while he was incarcerated. Here are the opening lines of the book:
The sun on those green palm trees, lining the entry road to prison. Stiff rows of husky-scaled bark, with a tuft of green looping blades on top, sword twirling in wind, always erect and disciplined, legallike.
The opening line is pastoral: sunlight shining on a line of trees. The line break separates this pastoral image from the image of prison which immediately follows it. After that, the bright pastoral image is marred: now the trees are scaly and stiff. They’re “disciplined, legallike,” evoking the rigid justice system.
While many of the poems mention prison, there is never any faux remorse. The poems rightly treat incarcerated people as victims, not just of the prison industrial complex, but of white supremacist culture at large. The title poem opens with optimism, expressing the hope that maybe the system will allow for grace, will offer an education and skills, a path out of poverty, or "rehabilitation." But that’s not how the justice system works in the U.S.
We came here to get away from false promises, from dictators in our neighborhoods, who wore blue suits and broke our doors down when they wanted, arrested us when they felt like, swinging clubs and shooting guns as they pleased. But it's no different here. It's all concentrated.
The power of Baca’s poems about prison is that they show the inhumanity of caging people. These poems expose the lie that the U.S. prison system is anything other than a new face on slavery.
One of the most remarkable poems in the book is one of the selected early poems, a mini-epic called “A Song of Survival.” Coming in at twelve pages, the poem foreshadows Baca’s later book, Martín & Meditations on the South Valley, a verse narrative in two parts about a figure named Martín, a stand-in for Baca. “A Song of Survival” begins with what could be read as a personal history of the poem’s speaker before touching on the whole of human history and possible futures, including the Indigenous people of New Mexico and the future inhabitants of the land. "I worked as a licensed plumber," the poem begins,
had my own tools and truck, every morning met the sun, felt my muscles pull against each other, working pipe-wrenches and shovels. I worked as a business executive for a merchandise firm, meeting customers, having coffee in cafes with prospective clients, feeling the sturdy handshakes, wearing my new white shirts and suits [. . .]
While the poem could be read as a personal history of the poem’s speaker, he can also be read as a sort of Everyman, the opening invoking a whole range of people before each of them was “stuffed into this cell.” Vignettes from a variety of lives flash past before they're layered into a single "I."
Reading "A Song of Survival," I was reminded of Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet’s incredible novel-in-verse Human Landscapes from My Country—also written by an incarcerated poet—which briefly touches on hundreds of figures from all walks of Turkish life in order to tell the history of the first half of the 20th Century. Baca’s poem isn’t nearly so long, but shares a similar historical scope. After the opening, the poem becomes a meditation on freedom and survival, ultimately berating even the sand and water that were mixed to create concrete cells for their complicity in caging people:
Steel, sand, water, wood, how it all bears such fortune for us, how it all blossoms into cities and new miracles, how—I ask the steel, wood, water, sand—how is it you do not crumble in my hands when used for such evil purposes?
It's an extraordinarily moving poem. By the end of it I knew I would soon be reading more of Baca's work. I hope you'll do the same.
I want to shout out another newsletter, an occasional project called Trove. As I was drafting this edition of Stanza Break, Trove's sixth volume came out, which includes a recommendation for Martín & Meditations on the South Valley. I'm happy to be on a wavelength with that project, which shares a similar stance as me re: the relentlessness of publishing.
I also want to shout out an organization I love, the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, who celebrated their 10th year as an organization in 2021. I've had the honor of mentoring through the organization, an experience that radically shifted my thinking about the machine of publishing and deepened my understanding of the prison industrial complex in the U.S. Using the pandemic as an excuse, many prisons have placed additional restrictions on the people they cage and, as a result, MPWW has faced greater challenges in communicating with writers inside. If you can, I hope you'll consider a donation to support them as they overcome these challenges.