There was a time when poets were the center of our cultural life: from the griots of West Africa, to the bards of medieval England, Homer in Greece and Hafez in Persia, the spoken word served to awaken our imaginations and challenge our perceptions. But nowadays, as poet Jimmy Santiago Baca lamented in a recent interview with Remezcla, when a young poet feels the impulse to dedicate himself to the word, “they go to these programs and universities, and the university just takes their fucking money.” It’s an unvarnished truism in an age where MFA programs and prestigious literary journals are the only gateways to a career in poetry.
But Santiago Baca, of course, is an exception. An illiterate orphan born in Sante Fe and imprisoned for drug possession in his early twenties, Baca heard the calling that so many before him had followed while locked away in Arizona State Prison. From there he taught himself to read and write despite the many obstacles placed in his way by an uncaring penal system, and his work ultimately caught the attention of an influential magazine editor at Mother Jones who gave him a platform to show the world his talent. Since then, Baca has won numerous awards, co-wrote the screenplay for Blood In, Blood Out, and is considered one of the most important poets of his generation. But how did a poor Latino kid rise up from the streets of Northern New Mexico to the highest echelons of literary consecration? And without an MFA?
A new documentary from Daniel Glick and Santiago Baca’s own son, Gabriel, attempts to condense the poet’s rough-and-tumble origins into a non-fiction feature. Based on his memoir A Place to Stand, the documentary of the same name takes interviews with Jimmy, close friends and family members, to explore the events that forged one of America’s most unique literary voices. Interspersed with poetic images evoking his childhood and time in prison, A Place to Stand is an inspirational tale of “the triumph of the human spirit,” as one critic put it, but it also an invaluable profile of a great American artist.
Speaking to why he let an inexperienced crew tell a story that could have optioned for a hefty sum in Hollywood, Santiago Baca put it curtly, “There are so many brilliant young kids out there that are hungry to make a film. What’s the point in going to these old dogs in Hollywood that have lost all hunger, that have no inspiration? They keep going over the same thing.” And indeed, had no one given a chance to this no-name inmate at Arizona State Prison some 40 years ago, we may very well have missed out the visionary talent of Jimmy Santiago Baca.
A Place to Stand will be available on VOD and digital (including iTunes and Amazon) on June 17, 2016.