The Pushcart Prize–winning poet’s memoir of his criminal youth and years in prison: a “brave and heartbreaking” tale of triumph over brutal adversity (The Nation).
Jimmy Santiago Baca’s “astonishing narrative” of his life before, during, and immediately after the years he spent in the maximum-security prison garnered tremendous critical acclaim. An important chronicle that “affirms the triumph of the human spirit,” it went on to win the prestigious 2001 International Prize (Arizona Daily Star).
Long considered one of the best poets in America today, Baca was illiterate at the age of twenty-one when he was sentenced to five years in Florence State Prison for selling drugs in Arizona. This raw, unflinching memoir is the remarkable tale of how he emerged after his years in the penitentiary—much of it spent in isolation—with the ability to read and a passion for writing poetry.
“Proof there is always hope in even the most desperate lives.” —Fort Worth Star-Telegram
“A hell of a book, quite literally. You won’t soon forget it.” —The San Diego U-T
“This book will have a permanent place in American letters.” —Jim Harrison, New York Times–bestselling author of A Good Day to Die
While readers may find Baca's poetry more dazzling than this prose memoir about how he became a poet, the author still manages to capture both the reader's interest and sympathies. Baca traverses his life, starting with his childhood in rural New Mexico where both parents essentially abandoned him his adolescence in "juvee" halls and his days as a drug dealer. The story leads up to an account of five years in a maximum-security prison in Arizona, and the unusual personal transformation that occurs there through his learning to read and write; eventually, he discovers his poetic voice. The text is structured like a conversion narrative in which Baca's past symbolizes all that is unhealthy and his poetry-oriented future is filled with the hope and optimism that come from discovering something divine in the midst of darkness. The darkness is often literal, as when Baca is describing his lengthy solitary confinements. He also recounts the intricacies of prison politics, in which failure to gain respect and alliances forged with the wrong people can mean death. Oddly, certain story lines are simply dropped along the way, such as his charge that the prison was lacing his food with strong psychoactive drugs. It is too bad that Baca's prose is frequently flat ("Poetry enhanced my self-respect. It provided me with a path for exploring possibilities for life's enrichment that I follow to this day"), especially when reflecting upon abstract topics, since the content of his story is so interesting and his poetry simply shines.