Swirl Like A Leaf: Jimmy Santiago Baca, Marilyn Chin and Robert Bly

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Expressions of rage and forgiveness by Jimmy Santiago Baca, of identity and duality by Marilyn Chin, and of aging and wisdom by Robert Bly.



BILL MOYERS: They are here to celebrate life.

They have come to celebrate language.

Poetry readings are flourishing across America in many different places, in wondrous variety.

Nowhere is the renaissance of poetry more vivid than in the historic village of Waterloo, New Jersey. Every two years thousands of people gather to hear some of the world’s best poets at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival.

In this hour we will hear from Jimmy Santiago Baca. We will also meet Marilyn Chin. And we will hear from Robert Bly.

BILL MOYERS: Robert Bly, Marilyn Chin, and Jimmy Santiago Baca: theirs is the language of life.


BILL MOYERS: The Ehecatl Aztec Dancers were invited to the Dodge Poetry Festival by their friend, Jimmy Santiago Baca. (Applause)

JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA: I really would like to thank them very, very much for coming all the way across the continent to visit us here.

BILL MOYERS: Part Native American, part Chicano, Baca has emerged as leading voice of the Hispanic community. His poem “El Gato” traces the life story of a troubled youth in troubled times.

JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA: I’m going to read one poem. I was in South Central during the riots and I was asked to mediate between the Blacks and the Chicanos and the Hispanics, and the cops were coming down the street and I had to somehow convince my Rasa not to react, that we didn’t need any more martyrs or heroes. Even I wanted to get into the melee and fight and do what I had to do, but I’m not that person anymore, and I had to remember that. So I came back and I decided to write a poem about what would create that kind of a kid and how would I heal that kind of a kid. So this poem is called “El Gato”.

“At ten, Gato walks the chop block streets with a rooster’s tail strut razored for a fight, life a broken fire hydrant floodin’ streets with blood. Nobody cares what Gato will find to eat or where he sleeps. Under street lights throwin’ dirt clods at hornets’ nests, unafraid of being stung, he vows to avenge his poverty and to gash unmercifully with a bicycle chain spineless attorneys taking advantage of his misery, and rob construction executives in limousines samplin’ heroin off hookers thighs, and mug preppie brokers with the broken smiles whose gutter glares condemn him as no good. …

BILL MOYERS: Jimmy Santiago Baca grew up barely able to read or write. Like his teenage gang member El Gato, the Cat, Baca was in trouble early. At age 17 he landed in prison, where he would remain for seven years.

JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA: “I thought of the day I was coming to prison in the back seat of a police car. Hands and ankles chained, the police pointed, ‘See that big water tank, boy, the big silver one out there stickin’ up? That there’s prison.’ And here I am. I cannot believe it. Sometimes it is such a dream, a dream, where I stand up in the face of the wind like now, it blows at my jacket and my eyelids flick a bit while I stare disbelieving. The third day of spring and four years later, I can tell you how a man can endure, how a man can become so cruel, how he can die and become so cold. I can tell you this. I have seen it every day, every day, and still I am strong enough to love you, love myself and feel good. Even as the Earth shakes and trembles and I have not a thing to my name, I feel as if I have everything, everything.”

BILL MOYERS: Well, when did you come…fall in to poetry. When did you start writing your first verse?

JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA: It started when I was in the county jail. I was 17 years old and I was trying to make points with the booking clerk. And two detectives brought in an Indian, and I come from a Chicano background with all my family Native American. And I knew all the customs and the rituals because I had been with them and he allowed them to take everything off his body, but when they reached for the talisman around his neck, he screamed. And I knew what that meant and I knew you’re not supposed to take that off because that makes …

BILL MOYERS: The talisman was the?

JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA: The sacred bag around your neck and that protects your soul. And they scoffed at him and they ripped it off of his neck. And the woman that I was flirting with was laughing with them. And when she turned around to move to the filing desk to pull is record, she was telling me how expensive these college textbooks were. So I reached my hand through the bar and I took the top one and put it into my overalls and went to my cell.

JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA: The book that I took was The Sophomore Edition of the Romantic Poets. (Laughter) Of Coleridge and Byron and Shelly and Wordsworth. So I was under my blanket with the little pen flashlight and I was reading. And I could read words like, ah, “cat”, “dog”, “walk”, and I was reading this man and it was very interesting because I was reading words like “water” and “walk” and “round”. I got the idea that this guy was walking around a lake. And I suddenly had this tremendous yearning to write about my grandfather, unbelievable yearning. I don’t know what it was. Maybe it was this unbelievable nostalgia for going back to my pueblo where I came from. It was truly amazing what those first words meant to me.


JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA: When I was a kid, I lived in a very mythological world where men were giants in my world and women were these powerful, powerful, powerful goddesses. And they could take like a chicken and (Makes Sound), you know? And reach for the meat cleaver up there (Makes Sound), you know? And then take the tomato and as they cut it, I would see the juice drip down their arms. All of that was kinda scary for me ’cause I had uncle who really literally could pick up horses, you know. But when my uncles would get drunk on the weekends, they would come and they would just (Makes Sound), and I saw this huge volcanic eruptions called human beings earthquaking wherever they went, you know, (Makes Sound), you know? And you were like…I was like this terrified little kid looking, but what humanized them and what drew me to them was when they had to speak emotions and when they did that, I was amazed that my dio, Santiago, this huge, towering, immense man who could like lift a pick-up like this on the side to see under it? Amazing man with just huge arms. He would come in and he had a voice that was…had been hammered out by 200 winters, you know, into this fine blue steel. And he would come in say, “Como esta, mijito.” Just that little thing, “How is my sweet little boy,” I would like wow and I’d like rush up to his arms and I knew he was going to grab me and pick me up. And I would rush into this huge man’s arms because of that voice that said to me behind the bone, behind the muscle is this huge place called “I love little Jimmy.” And I knew that I was running for that place in that language. And that’s what attracted me to language. It was the language that always allowed me to see what the reality was behind the reality.


MARILYN CHIN: When I write, I write in silence. I don’t realize how loud or forceful the voice of these poems are. Then when I read them to an audience, it surprises me how forceful they are.

BILL MOYERS: Born in Hong Kong and raised in Portland, Oregon, Marilyn Chin now considers herself a citizen of the Pacific Rim. She thinks of San Diego, where she lives and teaches, as her most recent exile.

MARILYN CHIN: I’m going to read three poems, no fancy exegeses, no a capella singing. This…this is a self-introduction of sorts. It’s called “How I Got that Name: An Essay on Assimilation”. “I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin. Oh, how I love the resoluteness of that first person singular, followed by that stalwart indicative of ‘be’ without the uncertain “I-N-G” of becoming. Of course, the name had been changed somewhere between Angel Island and the sea, where my father, the paper son in the late 1950s, obsessed with a bombshell blonde, transliterated Mei Ling to “Marilyn”. And nobody dared question his initial impulse, for we all know lust drive men to greatness, not goodness, not decency. And there I was, a wayward pink baby named after some tragic white woman. Swollen with gin and Nembutal, my mother couldn’t pronounce the “R”. She dubbed me “number one female offspring” (Laughter) for brevity. Henceforth, she will live and die in sublime ignorance flanked by loving children and the kitchen deity, while my father dithers, a tomcat in Hong Kong trash, a gambler, a petty thug who bought a chain of chop suey joints in Piss River, Oregon with bootlegged Gucci cash …

MARILYN CHIN: There’s a doubleness to my work to how I feel about things. Much of my poetry is about assimilation, the fear and loathing of it, and the…ah, and the wonderful celebration of it.

MARILYN CHIN: … “so here lies Marilyn Mei Ling Chin, married once, twice to so-and-so, a Li and a Wong, granddaughter of Jack, the patriarch, and the brooding Su Lin Fong, daughter of the virtuous Ric Win Wong and Gigi Chin, the infamous. Sister of a dozen, cousin of a million, survived by everybody and forgotten by all, she was neither black nor white, neither cherished nor vanquished, just another squatter, her own bamboo grove minding her poetry when one day heaven was unmerciful and a chasm opened, where she stood. Like the jowls of a mighty white whale or the maw of a metaphysical Godzilla, it swallowed her whole. She did no flinch nor writhe nor fret about the after-life, but stayed solid as wood, happily, a little mauled, tattered mesmerized by all that was lavished upon her and all that was taken away.” (Applause) Thanks.

BILL MOYERS: There’s an almost an elegiac quality to the last lines of that poems, “solid as wood, happily a little mauled, tattered, mesmerized by all that was lavished upon her and all that was taken away.” Now what does that say about assimilation?

MARILYN CHIN: Assimilation must happen. There’s no way they can…that I can force my children to speak these. There’s no way that…that the “pure yellow seed”, as my grandmother calls…calls it, will continue.

BILL MOYERS: A pure yellow seed?

MARILYN CHIN: Yes. Well, ah, I guess it’s her ñthe Chinese are…(Laughs) they want to keep the blood pure. My grandmother, she used to sit on the porch with a broom and try to sweep away the white boys from (Laughs)…from dating us, but it’s…it’s inescapable. Assimilation is inescapable. And I am afraid of losing my ese, losing my language. It’s like losing a part of my soul and…and so the grandeur of China, the grandeur of that past of my grandfather’s, my grandmother’s, my mother and so forth, that’s lost to me. And poetry is a way to recapture that.

MARILYN CHIN: “The Floral Apron”. “The woman wore a floral apron around her neck, that woman from my mother’s village with the sharp cleaver in her hand. She said, ‘What shall we cook tonight? Perhaps these six tiny squid lined up so perfectly on the block.’ She wiped her hand on the apron, pierced the blade into the first. There was no resistance, no blood, only cartilage soft as a child’s nose. A last iota of ink made us wince. Suddenly the aroma of ginger and scallion fogged our senses and we absolved her for that moment’s barbarism. Then she, an elder of the tribe, without formal headdress, without elegance, deigned to teach the younger about the Asian plight. And although we have traveled far, we must never forget that primal lesson on patience, courage, forbearance, on how to love squid despite squid. (Laughter) How to honor the village, the tribe, that floral apron.” Thank you so much. (Applause)

MARILYN CHIN: America’s no longer a monolithic European culture and those of us have an urgent message who have polyphonic voices, interesting lives and pasts, have a lot to say and it’s…and it’s our turn to say it.


BOY: I’m not a poet. I’m not an artist or an actor, an entertainer, a muse. I’m not a singer or a dancer, a black man with rhythm, a freak with a trick. I’m not some …

GIRL: And I smack it to men with leather drums and bamboo pan flutes dancing my sly dance macabre, like I’m Iron John in iron panties. Rock my world, you crazy rhyming poets, ’cause I jazz in the sunshine …

GIRL: (Inaudible) back to the past and you I cannot find. My laws and mannerisms I dare not defy. Outside I smile, but inside I cry.


JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA: “At 12 years old, Gato is no good. Dime baggin’ Peruvian flakes, inhalin’ glue rag. With all your police and your prison sentences, you can’t chase little Gato from the street or stop him from sellin’ drugs because in his square of white paper lives God. Gato deals God, who gives reprieve from the earthly hell and makes him feel good just the way your god makes you feel good, gives him hope and self-esteem and transform despair to a cocaine heaven until he’s killed or OD’d like a other home boys trashed on a stack of county jail corpses who understood life was nothin’ but a damned sewer grate, their dignity poured down with the discarded litter of a city where crack creates light when all one ever had was darkness, because crack is God. When hopeless days bury El Gato under rock piles of despair, blockin’ him from feelin’ anymore, breakin’ his heart into a piece of nothin’, El Gato goes around sayin’ ‘I’m no good’ and he preaches nothin’ door to door, a strong kid full of nothin’ and for nothin’ does he ask a blessin’, and to nothin’ does he pray, and hopes that nothin’ forgive his wrongs, and nothin’ helps when he comes to take vengeance on us. And in the brandin’ hot noon, he cuts lettuce for the bronze buckled soft palmed land owners posin’ as frontiersmen and their steer-horned Cadillac radios tuned to the religious broadcast blaring glory to their godliness as they loom over him, ‘God hates, you, spic. God hates you. And you’re dirt, boy. You’re dirt and even dirt grows weeds, but you, you’re the kind of dirt that don’t grow nothin’ but more dirt!’ And so he tried purgin’ his shame for ever being born. He OD’d, was stabbed and shot, wanting to believe that he was bad, because it was better than fallin’ into the darkness where nothin’ existed but more, inutterable darkness …

JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA: You don’t understand what it means to have total unerring, unequivocal, and ineliminable despair. You will do anything to get out of that, anything. You’ll do anything. You will beat your mother. And I believed that even God hated me. And there was no way to express the rage and there was no way to perform the ritual of forgiveness, ’cause I had no language and no child should ever be put in that situation.

BILL MOYERS: How did you overcome yours?

JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA: Literally, I came out of myself one day and I said, “I’m going to close down. I’m going to learn and write. I want to know why there’s 95% Chicanos in this prison and 95% can’t read or write and 95% are killing each other for smokes and for coffee. I want to know the answer to that. I can’t live without the answer.” And they said to me, “Well, you’re a coward. You’re nothin’,” because books got you nowhere. Books got you stupid and sissies read book. You couldn’t do nothing with a book. You couldn’t fix a ’57 Chevy with a book. You couldn’t take money from some hustle with a book. You couldn’t convince or persuade anybody with a book. You had to come to the person yourself and talk. Books were in the way. Get ’em out of the way. And not only that, they were the great enemy. Books were where you found the pain. Books were where you found the shame and books were where you found the lies that my grandparents were lazy Mexicans, that my…that I was no good, that I couldn’t be as good as a next person, you know? Those…that was what was in books.

BILL MOYERS: And yet the book won. The word prevailed.

JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA: Oh, it caught me up in the most fierce typhoon I’ve ever been in and never have exited it ever. I continually swirl like a leaf.


WOMAN: … speaking to that. That special part we were saying about the parents and we were talking about the way you were as that really got to you. That was very good.

ROBERT BLY: How was I as a student? What part of that?

WOMAN: Well, when you said the way you were reacting as a student and trying to please people, I was watching their reaction.

BILL MOYERS: Robert Bly is a National Book Award winner and for over three decades one of America’s best known poets.


ROBERT BLY: I’m going to do a poem for my wife, and you never know when a poem is going to come or what the circumstances are. In this case we were on a plane. It’s called “A Man and a Woman Sit Near Each Other”. “A man and a woman sit near each other and they do not long at this moment to be older or younger, nor born in any other nation or any other time or any other place. They are content to be where they are, talking or not talking. Their breaths together feed someone whom we do not know. The man sees the way his fingers move. He sees her hands closed around a book that she hands to him. They obey a third body that they share in common. They have made a promise to love that body. Age may come. Parting may come. Death will come. A man and woman sit near each other and as they breathe, they feed someone whom we do not know, someone we know of, whom we have never seen.” (Applause)

BILL MOYERS: And that body we have on common, that which we have never seen is?

ROBERT BLY: I don’t know why it is. It’s an invisible body.

BILL MOYERS: Communion?

ROBERT BLY: Yeah. It’s something that happens when two people are close. It’s as if a third body is drawn out of the invisible world and, ah, walks with them. It’s that kind of mysterious thing. I remember sending the poem to Galway Kinnell when I did it, because we sent poems to each other, and he said…I had originally had “Age may come. Parting may come. Death may come.” He said, “What do you mean death may come?” I said, “Okay. Okay. Okay.” I changed it to “will”.

ROBERT BLY: I’m going to do another poem. It’s called “A Dream of Retarded Children”. I was up north in northern Minnesota. I went up fishing somewhere and I was alone up there and I had a dream of retarded children and a teacher…they had a teacher and a teacher came up to me. I didn’t know what the dream was about. And it isn’t my job. My job is just to write down the dream. “A Dream of Retarded Children”. “That afternoon I had been fishing alone, strong wind, some water slopping in the back of the boat. I was far from home. Later, I woke several times hearing geese. I dreamt I saw retarded children playing and one came near. And her teacher, face open, hair light. For the first time I forgot my distance. I took her in my arms and held her. Waking, I felt how alone I was. I walked on the dock, fishing alone in the far north.” So what you feel in the poem is a lot of loneliness. Is that right? Can you feel it? I was about 35-40 years old, 45 when I wrote the poem and, ah, it is lonely. The farther north you go, the more lonely it is. But when I started thinking about the dream, I began to realize something about that time in high school, what we do there. One thing we often do when we’re in high school, we want to be groovy and all of the slow parts of ourself we reject. All the slow, quiet kind of dumb parts of ourselves that aren’t with it, we’re as mean to those as we are to people like that in high school. You know what I’m saying? My kids used to have the most incredible scorn for other kids in the class. Well, so what I finally realized is that the chances are that there’s a part of me that’s a little retarded. And, ah, I was very mean to that part in high school.

ROBERT BLY: And one of the most wonderful things about growing older is that you have a chance to welcome those slow, retarded people back in. And the amazing thing in the dream is not so much that they were retarded people and retarded children and one of which was coming near me, but it turns out that all of those parts that I had exiled had a teacher, a woman teacher. That was so wonderful somehow.

BILL MOYERS: That’s extraordinary, because having just turned 60 and having had bypass heart surgery, I think I’d like to find the child I retarded back there, let him grow a little bit.

ROBERT BLY: Yes. And that’s why people like us better as we get older. I mean who wants to have nothing but brilliant children in their…(Laughs). I mean we’re not Ivy League colleges, you know.

BILL MOYERS: What does it take to do this? What does it take to be a poet?

ROBERT BLY: I don’t know. Some kids asked me that the other day and they said, “How did you begin”…a couple of freshman said to me, “How did you begin to write poetry?” I didn’t know what to say. I said, “Well, I fell in love with a woman who wrote poetry. So I tried to write some to impress her.” I said, “It didn’t do any good.” But I was surprised that I found something on the page that I hadn’t intended to put there. So it’s as if we have one person that talks. That person is okay, you know, can pass exams, he’s okay. There’s another person in us that’s much smarter and wiser and more subtle, that’ll put things in…will slip things in, slip an image in when you’re writing. And I was surprised to see that one, whom I didn’t really know, present there on the page, having done something that I hadn’t really intended to do. So I think writing poetry it a matter of recognizing that you have these two parts. And then every day you set aside a time where this other one, this other one that had the funny little ideas about things and, ah, who is probably in touch with the retarded children, can talk.


JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA: “And at fourteen, beneath a moon above the sportscaster’s booth at the outdoors boxing coliseum after the crowds have gone home and the ring removed, El Gato shadow boxes invisible opponents and raises his hand as a champion to the sky. He joins home boys against rival gangs, skips bleachers over handrails out of breath, and holds court in the field with pipes, chains, knuckles and guns. And, again, every kid has to hold a five ace winnin’ heart or die with a poker player’s bluffin’ hand, because death ain’t nothin’ but an eight-ball roll on the break. And El Gato’s life is a Babe Ruth pop up, sailin’ beyond the rival gang’s catch, he goes hop-scotchin’ crying chalk sidewalks, fleein’ police over back yard fences from guard dogs barkin’, down scuffed alleys where clappin’ windows and shuttin’ door applaud him. Slidin’ under a stripped car home plate, hearin’ the news about Jo-Jo and Jose and Sparky got shot and he’s the one that goes and X’s their names off buildings and scorecard walls for dead. And at 16, he’s a brown, fightin’, get-down, impromptu warrior, lip pursed, oohin’ fever to defy, clickin’ tapped shoes on sidewalks, Ch-ch-ch-chi-ca-no, heel to toe, chin to chest, (Makes Sound). T-shirt rolled to bare midriff, palmade hair back, low huggin’ hip khakis inked across the hand, bandanna top button on his Pendleton tie, lean and mean, hauntin’ us with his gangsta signs.

BILL MOYERS: Your poetry is about how a man can become so cruel, how he can be so cold and yet endure. That’s the story in all of these poems. Am I wrong?

JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA: It’s that story. It’s the story of the human being being stripped to the very core and eyewitnessing the various degrees to which a human being can vary in either direction, in absolute cruelty or absolute ecstasy. And I witnessed that.

BILL MOYERS: What about “I Applied for the Board”? Read me that one.

JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA: “I Applied for the Board”. Yeah.

BILL MOYERS: Who was the board?

JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA: The parole board. “I Applied for the Board”. “A flight of fancy and breath of fresh air is worth all the declines in the world. It was funny, though, when I strode into the board and presented myself for the council with my shaggy-haired satchel, a wire lens of shoestrings and guitar strings holding it together, brimming with poems, I was ready for my first grand, eloquent, booming reading of a few of my poems. When the soft surprised eyes of the chairman looked at me and said, ‘No.’ And his two colleagues sitting each side of him peered at me through blue metal eyes like rifle scopes. And I, like a deer in the forest, heard the fresh, crisp twig break under my cautious step as they surrounded me with quiet questions, closing in with grim, sour looks until I heard the final shot burst from their mouths, that I had not made it. And I felt the warm blood gush forth in my breast, partly from the wound, partly from the joy that it was over.”

BILL MOYERS: Did you literally try to read them our poems?


BILL MOYERS: (Overlap) You wanted to read them the poems you had written in prison?

JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA: It was my only way of telling them “This is who I’ve become. This is who I am. And this is the record. I have the record here.” And they said, “Our record indicates you haven’t worked,” and I said, “But my record is different. This is my record.”

BILL MOYERS: The poetry?

JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA: Yes. And they said, “We don’t want to hear your record.”


ROBERT BLY: This one’s called “It’s Hard for Some Men to Finish Sentences”. You know, it’s been shown that women have stronger corpus callosums than men do. So they can mix words with…with, ah, feelings better and men it takes hours. (Laughter) So this is a little poem. “It’s Hard for Some Men to Finish Sentences”. “Sometimes a man can’t say what he” … (Laughter) “A wind comes and his doors don’t rattle. Rain comes and his hair is dry. There’s a lot to keep inside and a lot to” … (Laughter) “Sometimes shame means we” … “Children are cruel. He’s six in his hands. Even Hamlet can’t pass into the King praying. And the king said there was something” … (Laughter). (Applause)

ROBERT BLY: About a year-and-half ago, I got tired of all this stuff, with the interviews and lectures. So said, “I’m just going to stay home and stay in bed.” And so I did that and, ah…and, ah, so I’ve been writing a poem every day in the way that Bill Stafford used to. And, ah, when I get up in the morning…his feeling is that you take the first thing that’s happened to you during the day, whether it is someone driving past the house or…or something you think of, you just do that. You start that way and that’s a…a thread and you try to follow that thread. And he had this beautiful thing out of…out of Blake. “I give you the end of a golden thread. Only wind it into a ball. It will lead you in at heaven’s gate, built into Jerusalem’s wall.” So whatever happens to you in the morning, if you can follow that thread, it’ll lead you to the center of the universe.

BILL MOYERS: How can you be sure you’re good if you’re writing a poem a day?

ROBERT BLY: You don’t. And, ah, (Clears Throat) Bill, someone said to Bill, “Is it true you write a poem every day?” He said, “Yes.” And they said, “Well, what do you do if you’re not so good that day?” He said, “I just lower my standards.” (Laughter) That’s the most helpful thing said about poetry in 40 years.

BILL MOYERS: So did you write one this morning?

ROBERT BLY: I did. I did. I did. And it wasn’t any good, but I wrote it. And so one of the things…only one good thing in it. It says, ah, “When we’re moving towards God, it’s different than moving toward our parents. So we drop stones in the moonlight”…I’m thinking of Hansel and Gretel. “We drop stones in the moonlight that’ll lead us out of our house toward God instead of home.” That’s all right.

BILL MOYERS: That’s all right, yes.

ROBERT BLY: I might be able to, you know, write three or four of ’em and then I could use that image.

BILL MOYERS: Did this happen to you before you get out of bed or did you?

ROBERT BLY: As soon as I get…I get some coffee and I lie there and read some, read some people, Wallace Stevens, I adore.

ROBERT BLY: I’m going to read you some little morning poems. I’ve been writing a poem every morning and this one’s called “The Face on the Toyota”. “Suppose you see a face in the Toyota one day and fall in love with that face and it’s her? And the world rushes by like dust blowin’ down a Montana street. And you fall upward into some deep hole and you can’t tell God from a grain of sand. Your life has changed except that now you ignore even more than you did before.” (Laughter) “And those ignored things come to crush you and you are crushed and your parents can’t help anymore and the woman in the Toyota becomes a part of the world that you don’t see. And now the grain of sand becomes sand again, and you stand on some mountain road weeping.” (Applause)


MARILYN CHIN: This poem is called “Where We Live Now” and it’s a little lyric with three-beat lines. “Where We Live Now”. “Herewith snapshots of myself standing, sitting, reclining on the new chaise lounge taken with my family at Easter, with mother, sisters and brother while Father is away at war with his personal desires and losses. He, too, sends a photograph of himself and an unnamed woman. Notice the cryptic message, ‘Business as busy as usual and the woman is only temporary.’ Such a typical American story, but it wouldn’t hurt to recognize she was white and very beautiful.” Thank you. Thank you so much.

BILL MOYERS: What about your father? These lines, do they refer to him? “Lust drove men to greatness, not goodness, not decency”?

MARILYN CHIN: When my uncle heard that line he was very upset that I would expose such terrible things about my father. Ahm, I think out of my personal experience, one event that hurt me most when I was a child… I was around six…and, ah…or actually seven when we first arrived to America. My father had a white lover and, ah…and he was on the phone with her in…in an adjoining room and my mother couldn’t speak English and she was in, ahm, in the living room, ahm, ahm, sewing and, ahm — and she didn’t understand what was going on. And as a child, that…that was a very damaging experience. And in my poetry I try to resolve this deep pain and guilt I feel for my mother. I see her as, ah, a bridge that brought us over and…and she’s the sacrifice.

MARILYN CHIN: I’d like to dedicate this poem to all the strong women out there. It’s called…(Applause) Yea! (Laughs) And it’s called “Turtle Soup”. The turtle, of course, is a symbol of antiquity, longevity, the grandeur of the Chinese empire, and with an ironic twist of fate, the symbol of antiquity ends up in a soup in Pasadena, California, and, hence, we have turtle soup. “You go home one evening tired from work and your mother boils you turtle soup, 12 hours hunched over the hearth. Who knows what else is in that cauldron? You say, ‘Ma, you poached a symbol of long life. That turtle lived 4,000 years, swam the way up the yellow, over the Yangtze, witnessed the Bronze Age, the Hi Tong, grazed in splendid sera culture.’ So she boils the life out of him. All our ancestors have been fools” …

MARILYN CHIN: “Remember Uncle Wu, who wrote ‘ten thousand miles to kill a famous Manchu and ended up with his head on a pole? Eat, child. Its liver will make you strong.’ Sometimes you’re the life, sometimes the sacrifice. Her sobbing is inconsolable. So you spread that gentle napkin over your lap in decorous Pasadena. ‘Baby, some high priestess has got it wrong. The golden decal on the green underbelly says Made in Hong Kong.’ Is there nothing left but the shell and humanity’s strange inscriptions, the songs, the rites, the oracles?”

BILL MOYERS: What intrigues me is that it’s a child who is Americanized, and presumably not pious, who reminds the mother of what’s sacred in the old world.

MARILYN CHIN: She’s the one who wants to preserve it and, of course, my mother and my grandmother are from solid peasant stock. They’re practical and they say, “Oh, you should be a lawyer. You should not be a poet.” She’s a very practical person. She’s poaching this turtle for food and, indeed, the child cannot comprehend, the speaker in the poem, historical forces that made… made her mother, the revolutions, the famines that peasant women suffered. My mother commented once that she saw herself as the peach tree that brought the peaches and now she’s…she’s…ah, she’s given fruit and now it’s time for her to…to die.

BILL MOYERS: Let me ask you to read the prelude to your book.

MARILYN CHIN: “To my mother. To love your country is to know its beginnings not with a bald face moon or with the complacent river, but here within you. Your heart is a house. I, we, are its inhabitants. Although the country is lost, rivers and mountains remain and we shall always live in this poetry that you love.”


MAN: Okay. Thank you, Robert. I appreciate it.

ROBERT BLY: That one right here. Eight-ninety-five.

MAN: Eight-ninety-five. Okay. I think he’s rounding it off to the nearest tenth.

ROBERT BLY: That’s right. (Laughter)


JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA: “At nineteen, he tried to rebuild his life. His guardian angel didn’t want him dead. And when he got home, the dirt yard pleaded for his daughter’s laughter. Her tricycle treads scribbled, ‘You’re always gone, Poppy, in whiskey and drugs. You’re never here to help us grow or play.’ And there was no heat or light or food. His baby’s crying chisels on the head stone of his bones, her need for a father. Wobbles to a stop when he picks her from the crib, inhales her milky aroma, padding and kissing her, walking her back and forth in the cold living room, warming her with his addicts fevered skin heat, breathin’ warmth on her, holding her to his chest, hummin’ a deep chest hymn that his grandmother had taught him when he was a baby. (Singing Hymn in Spanish) And he hummed that all night. ‘Blessed, blessed is the Lord. The angels sing and give to the Lord.’ Thinking how to give his family a better life, he strolls the ditch bank the next morning surprised to see pebbles the rain uncovered, the blues and the greens. And he wants his tears to reveal what’s covered in him like that and he throws a stone in the irrigation. And where it gasps, his child’s awestruck mouth glistens for breath, for a chance at life, glimmering ripples calling him to be a father and he realizes…from throwin’ the stone in the water, he realized that he must start today. Where the stone hits is the center of the ripples. Where the stone hits is the center that causes action. Where the stone hits is the beginning. Where he is now is the center. He is the stone he held in his hand as a kid when he was nine and he threw it to see how far it could go.”

BILL MOYERS: So what does your poetry do for you?

JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA: It’s kept me from become America’s most wanted bandit. (Laughs) If I didn’t write poetry, I would be out robbin’ banks or something, something exciting, you know, anything from the nine-to-five.

BILL MOYERS: And how could poetry be as exciting as …


BILL MOYERS: … being Bonnie and Clyde?

JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA: … when you work at a poem long enough, at one poem, not a lot. If you just do that one poem and don’t worry about this or that, ah, from the dormant imagery of one verse line, if you work at it long enough, there’s exuded a sparkling fountain of…of energy that grafts itself to your spirit and you then have adopted that. So in the most miserable of circumstances like the Sassafras flower that cracks the rock, after working on the poem you walk out and you feel that “Whatever wall there be in front of me, I will go right through it.” (Laughs) You have this amazing sense of transcendency.

JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA: “For the longest time I haven’t been able to cry. Tears start to come when I’m watchin’ a movie. The tear start to come, swellin’ my whole body, a closed tulip suddenly startin’ to open under the moon and then the petals of my eyelids stiffen and somethin’ in me braces and I don’t cry! And when we crashed in to a telephone pole and my dad ordered me not to cry, I was terrified almost killed, but ‘Don’t cry,’ he said. I couldn’t cry because men don’t cry. And when the dog bit me on the leg, I couldn’t cry. And when Joey died, I couldn’t cry. And how cool it would feel to have a tear slide from the corner of my eye on my cheek, followin’ the curve to my mouth and I’d lick it’s taste, my salt. But I don’t cry. You know, I love the color blue and I love the color brown and I’d love to touch my chapped cheeks, my bruised face, my frightened shoulder and whisper in tears my compassion. But I’ve always had to stop it up in me, hold my breath back, keep my mouth shut, my hands tight so’s not to cry. Man, I cry and it’s a lie I don’t. I embrace my brother and pray on his shoulder, shoulder to shoulder I want to kneel and kiss the Earth. If I could cry, I could cry and just thinking of me not crying all these years makes me want to cry now, but I’ve been taught not to cry because big people don’t cry! And people say, ‘Ain’t those alligator tears, boy? You can’t fool me with those tears.’ But I ain’t foolin’ nobody, not crying. If need be, to get back to my tears, I’m crying ’til there ain’t a single tear left. I’m crying for what we been through, not crying for how we fooled ourselves thinking men don’t cry. Let me cry again and all you dry-cheek, nut-crackin’ ball whackers don’t want to get your Rambo bone-breaking boots wet, step aside! ‘Cause I hated good-byes all my life. They were crying events. I felt myself saying good-bye to Grandma, to my brother, to my friends, to my neighborhood, to all the familiar faces from my teachers to my girlfriends to other friends and I never shed a tear. And though I felt ’em comin’ up in me, I bit my teeth down hard to hold the tears back, I lowered my face and I thought about somethin’ else. I kept hearin’ this voice in me, hundreds of voices in me all screaming for me not to cry. ‘Don’t cry. Don’t cry because boys don’t cry. You’re going to leave yourself open. You’re going to become liable to get an axe in your heart by some non-cryin’ fool. You might even be a sissy. You’ll be a buto. You’ll be hurtin’ yourself if you cry.’ And I hurt when I didn’t cry. All those times when I didn’t cry in front of people, too ashamed to cry, too fearful others would see me and think I’m not a man, too fearful I’d be made fun of. Just heard the news of some terrible tragedy and I can’t cry ’cause it ain’t right to cry. And I need to weep. Each man crying because his daughter died, ’cause we been too long not crying, ’cause our fists are tired from being clenched and our faces just might break off and we need to cry all those good-byes out and get up in the middle of the night and we need to cry for no reason but to cry for all those we never cried for, cry to get our wings flutterin’ again through the rainbow of our emotions. Cry for those in prison, for the cell in that that prison for the field worker’s daughter in Delino eaten by cancer from pesticides and crying for those thousands who lost homes ’cause they couldn’t pay the mortgage and those sleepin’ under bridges and the hopeless and I moan for the world and all those who need our tears and stop talkin’ politics and integrity and who’s right and who’s wrong and cry down into a big lake where we can all cleanse the good-byes in our apathy. Let’s cry and cry and cry the blues away and cry and cry and cry and let papas cry for the children and let children cry in my arms and let women cry in my arms and let men cry in my arms and let us all cry and cry ’cause we been abused and abusin’ too long and after love-makin’ and fightin’, let us cry and cry a prayer and give us a new language made of whimpers and sniffles and sobs and let us cry, “Oh, Grandfather” and first mother, oh, cry out loud. Ho, louder! Cry, baby, cry! Cry! Cry!” (Applause) Thank you. (Applause)



This transcript was entered on April 21, 2015.

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