Thursday, August 25, 2011

Jimmy Santiago Baca's "Lost Voices"

Jimmy Santiago Baca’s Lost Voices Documentary

I’ve been thinking hard about the idea of becoming a revolutionary-poet, whatever that means. Primarily it means—I think—that as a poet on has the responsibility quite simply of imagining the impossible. And as a revolutionary one has the responsibility of making the impossible possible. The revolutionary-poet is thus the exact intersection between social consciousness and the aesthetic consciousness of language.

As writers our art is often restricted to official circles: MFA programs, books, workshops, journals, etc. If our art is only circulated among people whom may already believe in our art and our cause then there exists a form of self-imposed censorship. From a revolutionary perspective we must break away from these tendencies; our work must circulate primarily among those populations that are in particular need of conscientization.  

I am thinking now of the work of one of my favorite poets: Jimmy Santiago Baca and his work in correctional facilities. Here is an example of a poet whose beautiful words intersect in his actions. Jimmy doesn’t restrict poetry to another cell: the sterility of the written page. Jimmy takes his poems to the exact center of sterility: the correctional system. 

I’ve found—on YouTube—via the website for the voices behind walls project—another revolutionary project subverting the so called “justice system”( twenty minute video titled  “Lost Voices” direct by Jimmy. For those interested in poetry as social practice--or anyone interested in poetry for that matter-- this video is certainly worth the twenty-minute investment. Particularly moving was a poem, “my pen” by a prisoner in that video. (The poem plays at 16:50). In this poem the metaphor of a pen is used to takes us in a hallucinating journey from the incarceration of a person to a rebirth as a poet.

To watch the poem simply play the video here: 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

on the granma and other quixotic horses


“Forgive me, friend, for making you a madman, by persuading you to believe, as I did myself, that there have been formerly, and are now, knights-errant in the world.”—Miguel de Cervantes

                In the fall of 2010 I graduated from Dominican University of California—the first in my family to graduate from a four year institution. Exactly four years before I had started my undergraduate studies by declaring my major to be Humanities and forging a concentration of my own conception: poetry as social practice.  Thus, I entered the university system enamored with words and revolution; brimming with poems. I was all smiles and commitment, flaunting my convictions freely, generously, boldly. 
                 I still don’t know how I arrived at that elusive or secret place where beauty (poetry, art, etc) and social consciousness intersect.  (Maybe it was the experience of growing up an immigrant in this country or the self-imposed and not so self-imposed alienation I felt around my peers at the university; or the solidarity I felt among my coworkers in the university’s kitchen; their longings and aspirations more real and beautiful to me than the Mona Lisa from the Louvre. And the need for those longings to be recorded more real than being selected for an internship at the White House or a promising career at Google or Apple. ) For most of us art and politics are not only taken for granted but furthermore are two rivers whose currents seldom overlap. But somewhere along the way these rivers traversed and I’ve been swimming downstream, gathering strength, swollen with summer rains only to smash straight against a dam of self-imposed doubts and anxieties.
                I would spend the year after graduation peeling vegetables and writing as much as the alphabet; questioning my identity as poet and my commitment to social progress. The truth is there are very real limitations when it comes to writing: to write for change, to denounce oppression is permitted and even encouraged; but to marry those words to actions is frowned upon and even reprehensible. These are the invisible lines (self-imposed censorships) that a poet cannot break or his stipends blow up in smoke, or his tenure is taken from him, or he is moved to the back of the line leading to this or that prize or fellowship.  In these times of economic and environmental crisis, in these reactionary times, the need for revolution has never been so urgent or necessary. Yet being a poet-revolutionary and a still functioning member of society—especially in such a counter-revolutionary society as is the U.S. at this very moment—is a precarious and delicate balancing act and may even be impossible.  For if there is one unpardonable action in these times of revolutionary amnesia is that of marrying truth to beauty.

Onslaughts against the Impossible
                A year after graduating I find myself a student at the University of Notre Dame’s MFA program; my tuition waived; my housing covered by a generous stipend. I have gone from peeling potatoes to having an office at Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies, and find myself with the possibility of organizing two poetry workshops: one at a juvenile detention center and the other at an immigrant resource center—two small acts that I hope will bridge that distance between convictions and actions and breach the boundaries of my understanding of poetry as social practice: Particularly cultivating that rare and fertile and always dangerous embrace between the word and social praxis, breaching all forms of self-imposed censorship and exploiting all viable channels for poetic expression. It is not longer enough to limit poetic activity to the official outlets of expression: primarily journals, magazines or poetry workshops. We must exploit all channels of expression, from social media to youtube, to everything in between. More often than not poets write and are read by and for other writers; it is time to change this.
                I’d like to reflect on the title for this blog: “granma for poetry.” Why granma people will wonder? Fidel Castro’s assault on the Moncada barracks on July 26th of 1953 was a military debacle, there is no denying this—at best it was an act of blind faith.  Three years later Castro along with Che Guevara and eighty-something other locos exiled in Mexico would sail for Cuba on the now famous yacht christened “Granma.” Here was another grand failure—another mad leap of faith. Of the eighty-something revolutionaries only twelve would survive to witness the triumph of the revolution. Three years would separate the sailing of the Granma to the culmination of the possible and more than possible, very real triumph of the Cuban revolution; proving that acts of madness, blind leaps of faith—onslaughts against the impossible make the unfeasible attainable. 
                “Granma for poetry” is another such leap of faith, a creative assault against the sterility of the impossible.   It is an open letter, an invitation for collaboration, a call for other artists and poets to get on board the Granma, and to undertake on this hallucinating journey.