Dear Mr. Baca:
I started reading "A Place to Stand" day before yesterday...I couldn't put it down so needless to say, I finished it within 18 hours. Never have I been so moved by the written word. I want to write down all the feelings I have been "holding in" for the past 46 years of my 58 years on this planet.
Thank you, Jimmy! I am still collecting letters from my automotive students about their impressions of your poems. (There's at least one that will make you cry.) Your presentation at NCC last week was so wonderfully personal and inclusive...everybody left feeling like they had made a friend. I do hope you are feeling better and back in the rhythm of your work. My automotive students have now demanded to see "Blood In, Blood Out," and of course I can't disappoint them...they have for the first time realized that they can "understand" poetry and relate to it. One guy said that he always thought poetry was "only for girls and rich people!" They are all "Googling" you and wondering about your life.
I have always felt the tug to do something for people in the prisons, but have not felt the required urgency until now. I have found that Lehigh University does a student/prisoner writing program at Northampton County Prison which even includes training sessions for students to be prepared for what they will find in the prison. This program is limited to student teachers, however, in a credit course. There is nothing yet in place in Lehigh County Prison, but NCC does have a literacy program that touches base with the prison. I am going to find out more about that relationship and see if I can't get involved with tutoring in reading and writing for anyone who needs/wants it behind those prison walls. So many of the students at NCC have a "prison past" and they are very ashamed of it; although we have support classes ("developmental" classes) in place to help those who need a boost before they begin regular college classes, I think there are many who need the "boost" in confidence and self-esteem even BEFORE they are out of prison to even begin thinking that they could ever go to college themselves.
You are a man of many dimensions; I just discovered that you had done a writing workshop for steelworkers at the Indiana plant. I also teach a course here at NCC called "The American Work Experience" for the Automotive students, and one of the bigger units is, of course, about the rise and fall of the Bethlehem Steel. I come from three generations of steelworkers and I can tell you that there were many tears from those steel-hardened men on the day of the last pour, and many of them were and still remain psychologically broken. Their identity, their pride, their legacy has been taken from them and there is nowhere else for them to go to re-establish that kind of bonding and masculine energy that they had found to be so reliable and comforting down at the Steel Mills. Although there have been books published by reporters who have interviewed many different kinds of steelworkers, your volume of stories is unique because it showcases the voices of the steelworkers themselves without the filter of an "outsider." There is a kind of music to a steelworker's story-telling; I can't even describe it.
I have written about the "gentrification" of "vernacular" spaces--the spaces in the town once worked and lived on by the people, that are being turned into little high-end boutiques and condos. If there had been time when you were visiting us, I would have loved to have driven you around the grounds of what is left of the Bethlehem Steel for you to see how Bethlehem has transformed this industrial behemoth into a party plaza, complete with pink lights softly shining up along the monsterous, black blast furnaces. It is a deep insult to the steelworkers who toiled in the blaze of roaring fires and molten steel for those stacks to be tricked out like a party backdrop. "The City" is using the space to support the arts in Bethlehem (which is good), but of course the prices of everything from beer to movie tickets is so high that the residents (who are ex-steelworkers or families of steelworkers) can't afford to participate in any of the upper-end events that happen down at that plaza which was once THEIR TURF!
City developers are going to put in a mall eventually, but of course they will only sell souvenir trinkets and status merchandise to tourists; there will not be a spool of thread or a box of band-aids to be had to serve the common people's needs in the neighborhood. Most of the people on the South Side of Bethlehem are Hispanic and don't have cars--they are the people that city engineers always "forget" in their redevelopment plans. There are churches of every nationality on each block of the South Side, but they have all now closed and have been made into condos. There is no mark or remembrance of any kind of the immigrants--the Polish, the Slovaks, the Irish, the Windish, the Puerto Ricans, the Italians, etc. who lived and died down at that steel plant, breathing toxic metallic dust and enduring temperatures in excess of 1,200 degrees, in both winter and summer, sometimes for 18-hour shifts. My own uncle was killed in a blast furnace explosion in the 60's. He was baptized, confirmed, married, and buried from SS. Cyril and Methodius church (Slovak), but there is no recognition by city planners of the blood, sweat, and tears that happened on "the Hill" and the human drama that happened in those churches and in those dark, gigantic buildings of the Steel Plant.
Thus, I was very touched to find that you saw and recognized the heroism and guts of those steelworkers, that you saw the need for them to express who they were as unique craftsmen who gave their all to be the best at what they did--and got nothing in return. Thank you, on behalf of all the steelworkers who have not yet been heard; I have gone down to the Union Hall and asked some of the "old timers" to come speak to my automotives about what it was like to work the open hearth and to do "the dance" that every steelworker had to learn just to stay alive from day to day. I am hoping I will have some success there because these students are so young and do not know what it means to work until you are required to go past what a human body was meant to endure. And then come back and do it again the next day and for the next for the next 40 years. These are the forgotten heroes in our midst.
Thank you for letting me ramble; I feel that I have so much to say to you and to learn from you. God Bless you and your family, Jimmy. You are touching so many people in so many different ways; surely this was in God's plan for you.
English Prof. at NCC