Books, Latino culture, poetry, poets, Writing

Singing At The Gates: Selected Poems

Singing At The Gates: Selected Poems
Singing At The Gates: Selected Poems

Jimmy Santiago Baca, an award-winning writer and poet (National Endowment of Poetry Award) does it again. Singing At The Gates is a collection of new and previously published poems that reflect back over four decades of Baca’s life.

This selection of poems includes his early work as a budding poet, written while he was 18 years old and serving a five-year prison sentence, poems drawn from his first chapbook and recent pieces on family, nature and the environment.

“What an achingly beautiful collection this is. So split open, so raw, honest, vulnerable, real. Spanning Baca’s life in poetry, you feel the enormity of his heart and intelligence.” —Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones and The True Secret of Writing

When I read poetry, it’s usually two or three poems at a time. I’m partial to shorter narrative poems that are rich with description and weighty with a single word. My favorite poets are mainly women but sometimes I’m drawn to a poem by a male poet such as Jimmy Santiago Baca.

Baca’s voice captured me at his introduction and I didn’t want to stop reading until I was exhausted.

“I love the growl of poetry, the staggering crash of idols and the burning of literary pacifiers…writing was for me, everyday-me snatching memories and writing them down before the fire of forgetfulness and trauma relegated them to the dark chambers of amnesia…I take only what I can carry and what is most meaningful to me-and that is the narrative, the story, the poem.”

The rawness and vulnerability that Baca writes about in the first half of the collection is so heavy, at times, that my emotional exhaustion came after five or six poems. Many of the poems are viscerally descriptive:

“I wear the moon like yanked out roots

glowing orange

in my heart’s fang as I search for secrets

in my life”

Approximately halfway in the collection we come to poems of awakening, growth, family and celebration.

“The reason I wake this morning

is because those people who’ve lived

through tragedies and loneliness and

anxiety found in their shattered-pottery

hearts fragments that fit perfectly

into the puzzle of night stars,

into the joyous cry

of a child at dawn

dashing out on the playground,

into the hands of men like me

who rise and dress and walk

out the door, culling from winter night

residues of summer

to dream a bit more

of the growing season.”

The last third of the collection is from 1998 to present. In Baca’s poem “It Makes Sense To Me Know,” he writes about his time as a volunteer teacher of reading and writing. He asks the children to write a letter poem about their journey to America and describes a shy little girl asking him to sit on the floor next to her as she stood on a small stage in a bookstore.

“When she uttered that first word/a glint of light sparked across her brown eyes into the world, as if it were/golden/speech without sound. I sat amazed/at the light in her eyes, igniting a memory/in/me–when/I too recited my first poem. The intensity/and/radiance of/a child reaffirmed my original reason for/writing, one I had forgotten along the way./Suddenly/I knew, keeping the light intact,/not teaching writing, not to mold or direct,/just to keep it burning, blowing on the /embers so hope doesn’t go out…”

I cannot name one favorite poem but I have a top ten list of Baca’s poems because there are so many touching, gripping, slap you upside the head words of poetry in this 254 page collection (for Kindle).

Singing at the Gates debuts in January 2014 but is available for pre-order through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other bookstores. I read the collection as a participant of NetGalley.

AROHO, poetry, Writing, writing retreats

Writing on the Edge

writing in diary

Five days after returning from the AROHO writers retreat at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico I still have many memories swirling through my mind . One such memory is particularly embedded in my skin. I have 12 itchy scabs from 12 mosquito bites despite the mosquito repellant and itch cream.

On the second day of my arrival I began my small group, Writing on the Edge, taught by Jillian Lauren. She is the author of Some Girls: My Life in a Harem and Pretty Girls . Jillian proved to be an excellent guide and inspiration.

The blurb for her course caught my eye and interest:

Drugs, sex, violence…are you bored yet? Why is some of the juiciest material so hard to translate onto the page in a dynamic and engaging way?

I don’t know if Jillian chose the location for her class, but it was near the edge of a small mesa. I had to hike up a dusty switchback to get to class under 90 degree weather.

Road to Class: Writing on the Edge
Road to Class: Writing on the Edge

First day in group, the seven of us were asked if we knew yoga. All of them, sans moi, knew the poses. I lumbered onto the map, stretching and opening my ‘creativity’ as Jillian instructed. Plank, Downward Dog, and Pigeon stretched me beyond where I had gone before. I do have to say that the stretches, deep breaths and silence did make me feel better.

Conflict and tension is necessary in most stories, especially to keep the reader interested. But how do we do that? Jillian explained that the act itself may not be dramatic, but to

…look at the journey, the motivation, the fear of the character

The result of those thoughts is what has to be created and put down on paper. A way to do this is with a free write:

Warm Up: After you have stretched and opened up your creativity, pull out a pad of paper before your “real” writing begins. Think about what you’d like your next “edgy” scene to convey. You can use a timer to write for 10 minutes. Write without your pen lifting from the page, no cross outs, no self editing. You may find the words flowing right away on the page.

Jillian had us sit with our journals and gave us a writing prompt. We had to write for five minutes, again keeping the pen on the paper.

The prompt: How are you feeling right at this moment? Here is my response.

A very intelligent mosquito found its way to a patch of unsprayed flesh beneath my bra strap. He bit into my warm skin and drank like a thirsty elephant, leaving me with a swollen itchy blob of mounded skin. It is a testament to his prowess. Cortaid is too weak for the wound.

 Scratching has released oozing fluid beneath the tender hill of skin. His creativity is to be applauded. He bit a spot that is difficult to reach. The itch will soon go away, leaving a brown scab on a red sensitive bump, a reminder of my time at the AROHO retreat. 

Some memories are made from stuff like this, the sudden bite, the quick stab, the stealthy adventure in the dark. A surprise visit from someone or something you tried to avoid, someone you tried to keep safe from. The best laid plans sometimes need to be disrupted reminding us we can’t stay insulated from pain or danger.

Two days later we talked about our “shadow self. ” In Jungian psychology, the shadow or “shadow aspect” is a part of the unconscious mind consisting of repressed weaknesses, shortcomings, and instincts. This was the ‘edgy’ writing we came to learn.

We had a ten minute exercise to write to our shadow, then we burned the paper, mixed it with sand, straw, and water. Some of the shadows were lumpy blobs of clay, others smaller, holey, glittery, big and small. We released the dried clay into the Abiquiu Lake a couple of days later, bidding them goodbye.

The next day we were given another prompt. We could choose one of these: Fear means… Shame means…Risk means… I chose to write about shame.

Shame means…

Shame means inward responses to outward looks. Whispering or shouting responses that no one hears.

Shame turns inside, tight and tiny, steals whatever is near to cover up, look like something else. Only you see the shadows lurk, grow huge, come nearer.

Shame hunches shoulders, shuffles feet, has you fascinated with your hair or a piece of candy. 

Shame has you move into corners, watch the world go by, carry a purse full of secrets, and lies. A wardrobe of masks and decorations.

Shame has you sweat inside when you see those particular set of eyes, a facial gesture, a mannerism. 

Shame makes others use tools, hammers and chisels, to get to the real you. Tools very few people seem to carry or want to use.

Shame makes you fight, first with yourself, then with others.

If you’re lucky you fight the real reasons for that shame. You use the chisel to cut off the crap, move deeper, make something uniquely beautiful from a slab of stone. *

The yoga exercises, discussion on the “shadow self,” and prompts were valuable. You never know what you will find when you delve in deep. Thanks Jillian.

*The narratives are copyrighted and the property of Mona AlvaradoFrazier. Thank you for sharing and linking back.