- The Search for a Place to Stand: Jimmy Santiago Baca and the Forging of a Life of Letters by Daniel Glick
In a brisk eighty-three minutes, the 2014 documentary A Place to Stand, directed by Daniel Glick, offers an insightful sketch of the life and letters of the canonical Apache-Chicano poet Jimmy Santiago Baca. Born into poverty in 1952 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and orphaned by age eight, Baca grew up on the streets of Albuquerque, passing in and out of an orphanage and juvenile detention facilities before finally picking up a felony drug charge as a young adult. That charge resulted in a twenty-one-year-old Baca being sentenced to five to ten years in Arizona State Prison in Florence, where he would spend nearly four years in solitary confinement. It is also where he would learn to read.
As illustrated by the documentary, that nascent literacy would both characterize and transform Baca's incarceration. More precisely, the documentary depicts Baca's discovery in prison of the ontological [End Page 357] and sociopolitical potentiality of poetry to restore dignity and hope to minoritized lives and communities. That logic in fact structures the documentary, which artfully follows Baca's transformation from illiterate prisoner into leading voice in US letters.
Emphasizing the centrality of Baca's literary transformation to his biography, the documentary begins in medias res, with an illiterate Baca already behind bars. Over a time-lapse establishing shot of downtown Albuquerque at night, the wail of a police siren slowly yields to a voiceover. It is Baca himself, launching the documentary's narration in his calm, raspy baritone: "I was awaiting extradition in the Albuquerque County Jail for a deal that went sour in Arizona, where a DEA agent got shot." Yet rather than proceed to detail that alleged crime or his consciousness in that dire moment, Baca importantly shifts to a seeming non sequitur: He describes his theft in that jail of a book from a receptionist's desk.
In other words, from its opening scene this biopic centers on books. Or as Baca will later rhapsodize on his newfound literacy in prison, "it felt like I had stumbled into a lost treasure … it glows, and it's got worth … and its furthest reaches echoed with the sense 'I will give you meaning. I will give your chaos order.'" One could even argue that Baca's hunger for meaning and stability in chaos serves as the impetus for each of his more than twenty books of poetry, fiction, essays, and memoir, as well as his two feature-length screenplays.
This documentary in fact emerges directly from that oeuvre, comprising a filmic adaptation of Baca's first memoir, the eponymous A Place to Stand (2001), winner of the prestigious International Prize. Accordingly, one benefit of the documentary for scholars is its potential to inflect understandings of key episodes in that pivotal memoir, which can in turn inform readings of even the most anthologized and studied of Baca's texts.
The documentary also deploys several genre-specific techniques to the benefit of scholars. For example, Glick composes Baca's biography plurivocally, splicing together footage from original interviews with Baca's sister, cellmates, captors, and editors, not to mention scholars, journalists, and other writers. The resulting mosaic not only offers fresh insights into Baca's youth and literary development [End Page 358] but also amplifies the memoir's discourses on racism, poverty, and carcerality.
The tone of the documentary similarly enhances those interwoven discourses. Like Baca's writing, the documentary is intense, gritty, and intimate in its portrayal of the violence of carcerality in relation to questions of race, ethnicity, language, class, and nation. To enact this, Glick interposes bursts of black-and-white animation between the interviews. He also accents the narrative with a plangent original instrumental score by Roger Suen. The cinematography further affects viewers by situating and conducting their experience via an emotive blend of slow panning...