Cortez, Jayne 1936–
Jayne Cortez 1936-
American poet and performer.
Cortez is known not only for her books of poetry encouraging empowerment for the marginalized and exploring the creative process of musicians, but also for her spoken-word performances and recordings of her poems with her band, the Firespitters. An adherent to the tenets of the Black Arts movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Cortez explores race, gender, sexuality, and oppression in jolting, unadorned language with rhythms and tempos that reflect her knowledge of jazz and blues music.
Cortez was born in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, in 1936, but spent most of her formative years in the notorious Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, a district known for its crushing poverty and social problems. Cortez attended a high school with an arts-centered curriculum, where she played numerous musical instruments. She enrolled in college but had to drop out because she could not afford tuition. In 1954 she married Ornette Coleman, who would become one of the great jazz musicians of the later twentieth century. In the early 1960s the couple traveled to Mississippi to take part in the Civil Rights movement and later to Europe and Africa. In 1964 Cortez co-founded the Watts Repertory Theatre in Los Angeles, which had a profound effect both on her work and as an outlet for the neighborhood's artistic aspirations. In 1967 Cortez moved to New York City, where, in 1972, she founded her own publishing company, Bola Press. In 1991 she founded the Organization of Women Writers of Africa, of which she is president. Among her awards and accolades are an American Book Award, a Langston Hughes Award, and an International African Festival Award. Cortez continues to travel around the world performing her spoken-word poetry with her band and she remains an outspoken social critic and activist.
Cortez's first volume of poetry, Pissstained Stairs and the Monkey Man's Wares (1969), tackles themes of love, sex, and the lives and deaths of African American musical giants, including such artists as Bessie Smith, Leadbelly, Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman, Clifford Brown, Sun Ra, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, and Fats Navarro. In some of her poems about musicians, Cortez addresses the dark side of a life in music, exploring the addiction and loneliness that many people believe are inherently linked to a life in the performing arts. The poems in Pissstained Stairs are often fragmented, and some critics liken their style and cadence to blues-style songs, which Cortez uses in order to mimic the spontaneous speech patterns of ghetto dwellers. In her second volume, Festivals and Funerals (1971), Cortez includes more examinations of love and sex, but the subject matter also turns toward more theoretical and political concerns, including colonialism, African nationalism, revolution, mythology, and the role of the artist in revolutionary politics. The poems in this collection derive more directly from Cortez's personal experience, and she uses this work to feature the voices of ordinary working people confronting social issues and weighing their role in fighting for change. In Scarifications (1973), Cortez moved further in the direction of activist poetry, treating major events of the 1960s and 1970s, including the Vietnam War, police brutality, and a prisoner revolt at Attica Prison. Irony figures prominently in Scarifications; for example, in one poem, the title "The New Cologne" refers to napalm. On the other hand, the poems in this volume that treat the landscape of Africa—"Ife Night," "Orisha," and "Back Home in Benin City"—are romantic and exotic.
Mouth on Paper (1977) takes up many themes that occur in Cortez's earlier volumes, including meditations on jazz, such as "Chocolate," which include lines that seek to imitate the sounds of musical instruments. These oral fragments allow Cortez's voice to simulate, for example, the sound of a trumpet solo when she reads the text aloud during a performance. The 1982 volume Firespitter combines mature expression of earlier themes and forms with Cortez's sociopolitical awareness. Coagulations: New and Selected Poems (1984) is divided into thematic sections with the titles of Cortez's earlier books; each section addresses an aspect of the poet's political intent. In the second section, called "Mouth on Paper," Cortez invokes historical figures from all professions—singers and musicians, poets, South African apartheid protestors, political leaders—who have inspired the kind of protest and rebellion that Cortez celebrates throughout her body of work. The last section of the book, called "Firespitter," contains one of Cortez's best-known poems, the antimisogynist "If the Drum Is a Woman." In Somewhere in Advance of Nowhere (1996) Cortez turns to Latin jazz and blues for inspiration, invoking the rhythms and imagery of Central and South America. Jazz Fan Looks Back (2002), containing new and previously published pieces, concentrates solely on Cortez's jazz poems, including her elegy to Duke Ellington, "Rose Solitude," and "I See Chano Pozo," about the life and violent death of the Cuban percussionist who was one of the founders of Latin jazz. In addition to her published volumes of poetry, Cortez has also issued numerous recordings of her oral performances.
Cortez is acclaimed for the range of subjects she addresses in her work as well as for the musical but also raw, sometimes violent, language she uses. D. H. Melhem notes that in her poetry, Cortez "[i]nexorably draws the threads of persecution, poverty, drugs, isolation, as they touch Blacks in the United States and Africa." Tony Bolden praises Cortez's use of black vernacular and emphasizes her poetry's roots in the Black Arts movements—what Bolden terms a "blues poetics; that is, the most profound manifestation of the tradition of African-American Resistance poetry." According to Bolden, Cortez's dual artistic enterprise (writing and recording her poems) has given the tradition of African American protest poetry a more inclusive, popular appeal.
Pissstained Stairs and the Monkey Man's Wares (poetry) 1969
Festivals and Funerals (poetry) 1971
Scarifications (poetry) 1973
Celebrations and Solitudes: The Poetry of Jayne Cortez (poetry and music) 1975
Mouth on Paper (poetry) 1977
Unsubmissive Blues (poetry and music) 1980
Firespitter (poetry) 1982
Merivelleux Coup de Fondre Poetry of Jayne Cortez and Ted Joans (poetry) 1982
There It Is (poetry and music) 1983
Coagulations: New and Selected Poems (poetry) 1984
Maintain Control (poetry and music) 1986
Everywhere Drums (poetry and music) 1990
Poetic Magnetic (poetry) 1991
Women in (E)Motion (poetry and music) 1992
Cheerful and Optimistic (poetry and music) 1994
The Blues back Home (poetry and music) 1996
Somewhere in Advance of Nowhere (poetry) 1996
Jazz Fan Looks Back (poetry) 2002
Borders of Disorderly Time (poetry) 2003
Jayne Cortez with D. H. Melhem (essay/interview date 1990)
SOURCE: Cortez, Jayne and D. H. Melhem. "Jayne Cortez: Supersurrealist Vision." In Heroism in the New Black Poetry: Introductions & Interviews, pp. 181-212. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990.
[In the following essay and interview (which originally took place in 1982, with additions in 1988), Melhem provides an overview of Cortez's works and discusses with Cortez biographical influences on her poetry.]
The development of Jayne Cortez into a major talent has been as dazzling a rise as one might have hoped but not clearly anticipated from her first volume, Pisstained Stairs and the Monkeyman's Wares, in 1969. She came to poetry from acting and began writing in earnest in 1964. Her poems—banners and tributes—call to arms, to appreciation of political and artistic heroes and those of everyday Black life. Her fine ear for music, her dynamic imagery, and her disposition to orchestrate in a broad cultural span, both African and American, have led her social and political concerns into unique and risk-taking forms. The intense vision of reality in Cortez moves beyond the intellectual and unconscious aspects of Surrealism, itself a revolutionary movement, into a divine and infernal realism. Although I have referred to this as the poet's "superrealism," the term is applied differently in the visual arts. For this reason, I have adopted Cortez's own identification, "supersurrealism."
Jayne Cortez was born on May 10, 1936, in Fort Huachuca (Wa-CHOO-ca), Arizona, an army base where her father was stationed. One of three children, she has an older sister and a younger brother. Her father's family, traced by Cortez from Virginia and Carolina to Ohio and Arkansas, had lived in Arkansas for several generations. Her maternal grandfather, born in Tennessee, had served in the Philippines, where he met and married Julia Cortez, the poet's namesake, who bore him four children.
Cortez moved with her family to Los Angeles when she was seven. She attended the public schools and Compton Junior College. Her earliest ambition, encouraged by her maternal grandfather, was to be an actress. She was married early, in 1954, to a jazz musician. Their son, Denardo, born in 1956, is an accomplished drummer who has accompanied many of her live and recorded performances. Cortez formed her own publishing company in 1972. Three years later, she was married to sculptor Melvin Edwards, who has illustrated all her books. From 1977 to 1983 she taught in the English department at Rutgers University.
After her first marriage ended, the poet studied drama at the Ebony Showcase in Los Angeles in 1960, and in 1964 she co-founded the Watts Repertory Theatre Company, where she directed plays, acted, and read her poetry, supporting herself meanwhile by factory and office work. But the realities of discrimination drew her into political action. In 1963 and 1964 she went to Mississippi to participate in intensive voter registration drives with Fannie Lou Hamer, the experiences that made a profound impression upon her life and art.
In 1967 Cortez fulfilled a dream by leaving for New York, and soon she began to travel widely. She has since read her work and lectured extensively in Africa (Ghana, Nigeria, Zimbabwe), in Latin America (Mexico, Brazil, Martinique, Trinidad, Cuba), in Europe (England, France, West Germany, the Netherlands), in Canada, and throughout the United States. She has visited Nicaragua, the Ivory Coast, and Morocco. In Asilah, Morocco, she made a series of monoprints that incorporated her poetry.
Cortez's honors over the years include the Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award for excellence in literature, 1980; Creative Artists Public Service Awards in 1973 and 1981; National Endowment for the Arts fellowships in 1980 and 1986; and a New York Foundation for the Arts award in 1987. In addition, a substantial portion of Cortez's recognition has come from her compeers in the arts.1 A present member of the executive board of PEN and a member of ASCAP, she has also served on the governing board of the Poetry Society of America (1985-88) and on the board of directors of the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines (1986-88). She now serves on the advisory board of Poets House in New York City where, on December 1, 1988, she presented her tribute to Nicolas Guillén, the national poet of Cuba, and read a moving encomium that she had written for the occasion.
Travel has enriched Cortez's work with language, color, and imagery. African languages in particular enliven the poetry. The poet's identification with Africa appears in the current name of her publishing company, Bola Press, adopted in 1973 for the publication of Scarifications. Her name in Yoruba, a Nigerian language, is Oyebola: -bola meaning "successful" and Oye deriving from Oya, the wife of Shango, an important deity, god of lightning. In Benin City Cortez was called "Emotan," the name of a woman helpful to the Oba (king) and meaning "poet," "wise." The vigorous images of "Ogun's Friend" (in Mouth on Paper ) draw on the Yoruba god of iron and of war to interpret a sculptor who works in steel. The title Firespitter (1982) is taken from the name of a traditional African animal mask. When I asked Cortez whether she had considered notes or a glossary for that book's African references, she replied that she had put the idea aside; she wanted the reader to work at comprehension, just as he or she might struggle with allusions by white poets. Her later book Coagulations, however, does contain a glossary.
Pisstained Stairs and the Monkeyman's Wares is dedicated to members of the Watts Repertory Theatre Company. The title evokes ghetto life and, as the poet notes, its parasitical affliction of capitalism, symbolized by drugs. This passionate work abounds in eulogies—for Charlie Parker, Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter, Dinah Washington, Ornette Coleman, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Theodore "Fats" Navarro, and (in "Sun" ) for "Aspiring Cosmobrating Men" —Black men. Love poems, revolutionary poems in which "R & B" (rhythm and blues) translates into "Revolution & Blood" (in "Ornette" ) and adaptations of the blues form within free verse show Cortez racing into the depths of feeling, the work occasionally faltering but charged with energy and power. Terminal rhyme, as in the blues attempts of "Dinah's back in Town" and "Theodore," hampers her efforts, and she abandons it in subsequent works in favor of rhythm and repetition. "How Long Has Trane Been Gone," the poet's tribute to tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, effectively employs incremental repetition: The original question concludes, prodding, "how long / How long / Have black people been gone." "Forreal," a brave poem that skillfully relies on assonance, notes that
& I wanna taste myself inside
Mmmmm that pure nigguh pain
I don't feel strange
I hate the welfare line
Anatomy as metaphor informs her dominant themes: identification with the working class and underclass, with Black pride and vitality, with heroic figures, and with Black music. Ahead lie the African influences, what the poet refers to as "fusions."
Festivals and Funerals (1971), dedicated to her son, Denardo, marks the development of Cortez's essential art: the fusion of African language and imagery with American elements, unflinching use of the self/body as metaphor, surrealistic imagery, jazz-influenced rhythmic repetition both simple and incremental, parallel structures, lack of punctuation, improvisational features, and worker-oriented perspectives. Body metaphor and repetition characterize "Initiation," the dedicatory poem, in which the poet firmly confronts African political upheaval:
During the season of cut organs we
shot forward like teeth spokes from runaways …
celebrated the slit nose reality of
our severed hands …
blood blood blood
and once again blood …
take us to the place for the new birth blood
"Today on This Day" encompasses with scorn an insensitive culture: for example, the indifferent health department, "such an audience of / mascara and white coats waving their bye bye's / to the friday crowd of occupied stretchers" and "the basement smell of their budget." Vernacular, unconventional language and imagery, and synesthesic metonymy give form to both rage and its target.
I lost a good friend & i
I lost a good friend & i loved
collect on death
collect on death
collect on death
Who killed Lumumba
What killed Malcolm
Who killed Lumumba
What killed Malcolm
There are no tears
we have no friends
this is the word …
Inexorably, Cortez draws the threads of persecution, poverty, drugs, isolation, as they touch Blacks in the United States and Africa, toward introjection of the martyred flesh with its living testimony, toward solidarity and
the vanguard of precision
the virgin of communications
the erotic improvisation of uprooted
perfection the Blues
Festival and funeral, extremes of life and death, resolve their antinomy through celebration of creative essence and its cohesive symbol, "the Blues."
At the apex of the poet's Afro-American dynamic stands "African Night Suite," a noble poem of affirmation that begins:
take my hands from the newspaper shacks of
rotten existence and let my cataracts
flow into the red clay of your loyalty
In Cortez's dynamo of metaphoric exchange, her body's "cataracts" flow away from despair and stubborn poverty into the African terrain of pride, beauty, and sturdy character.
keep me in the mud of your belly
fed from the forest of your resistance
far from these mercenaries of illusion
I tell you i have to
live with my throat open to
my neck of our lines
my nose of gold studs
my lip ring flashing signals
to the moon against mount kenya …
Africa nurtures her; Cortez reciprocates. She hears the "afro suite of crickets in / the african blues tribe" as, with increasing intricacy, the cultural merging itself becomes the main focus. Transfigured, the poet declares:
In cape coast
I am a ife woman
biriwa fish woman of the sea
night queen of night cities in nights
Kumasi and the Biriwa area in Ghana; Ibadan, Oyo, and Ife in Nigeria, all typify the African references that distinguish Cortez's poetry from here on. The culture that blossoms through her imagery is a fierce flower, bound with the life of Blacks everywhere through shared pain, dedication, and a common foe:
from the lungs of a shark
comes the gauntness of our agony
the miracle of erections
who were the peasants
where are the bones
my hat is off to the two toned
double breasted birds of no hesitation
who were the peasants
where are the bones
my hat is off to the two toned
double breasted birds of no hesitation
The shark image, popular in Latin American portrayals of the United States (see Juan José Arévalo's The Shark and the Sardines), follows a stanza beginning with nature ("and the river knew / the ocean knew") and proceeding through transitional body images (miscarriage, knees, calluses, lips, ovaries, blood, navels, fists, fingers). After the shark stanza, these images continue their positive drive ("miracle of erections"). They end with a memorial acknowledgment of the peasants, their ancestral "bones," and with the spiritual survival of those "two toned birds" who inherit the two cultures.
Scarifications (1973) addresses life from the standpoint of a city dweller, using the Whitmanic identification with place and, again, the body as metaphor. Wild juxtapositions and crowded listing evoke the ambience:
i am new york city of blood
police and fried pies
i rub my docks red with grenadine
and jelly madness in a flow of tokay
my huge skull of pigeons
my seance of peeping toms
my plaited ovaries excuse me
this is my grime my thigh of
steelspoons and toothpicks
i imitate no one
Neither does Cortez.
Politics and the Vietnam War compound the urban scene. "A New Cologne" grotesquely equates napalm with White Shoulders, Shalimar, and Tabu. "National Security" concerns Attica, and "the governor of shellshock," apparently Nelson Rockefeller, held responsible by many for the massacre of prisoners in quelling their riot. "Song for Kwame" (Kwame Nkrumah, prime minister of Ghana), "Back Home in Benin City," and "Orisha" (in which the Yoruba god and Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong converge) retain the African consciousness.
Although Cortez has the breath for long poems, she can be wryly concise in her social commentary. In "Making It," she defies adoption of a competitive system she feels will destroy her:
I know they want me to make it
to enter eye droppers and invade pills
turn around or get shot
I know they wanna vaccinate me with
the fear of myself
so I'll pull down my face and nod
I know they want me to make it
but i'm not in a hurry2
The poem thus connects the system to the drug culture that reverts social anger to the self.
Mouth on Paper (1977) ascends into the full articulation of Cortez's Afro-American fusion. An elegy "For the Poets (Christopher Okigbo & Henry Dumas)," the former killed in Nsukka during the Nigerian Civil War and the latter on a New York City subway, unites the two cultures through insistent rhythm, juxtaposed imagery, and the parallel martyrdom of the two poets. Injustice is subdued in the crescendo of confrontations. These culminate in a tornado of images summoned from the entire poem and pounded into eulogy, shaping a monumental "delta" of praise, which concludes:
i need spirits ah i need ankles ah i need hurricanes ah
i need gas pipes ah i need blood pacts ah i need ah
to make a delta praise for the poets ah
Cortez's urgent political sense is nowhere more apparent than in "Give Me the Red on the Black of the Bullet," a poem for Claude Reece, Jr., a fourteen-year-old Black youth who was killed by a New York City policeman. Beginning with an impossible demand, terrible in its simplicity—"Bring back the life / of Claude Reece Jr."—the poet calls for the bullet from the boy's head to make "a Benin bronze," and summons thunder, cyclone, earthquake—ultimate powers of nature—in a call to justice. With the bullet she will remake, like some deity, the life of the dead Reece. The final cry gathers its thunder:
I want to make justice for
the blackness of Claude Reece Jr.
bring back the bullet with the blood of the blackness
of Claude Reece Jr.
I want to make justice
I want to make justice for the blackness of Claude Reece Jr.
The working-class perspective of "Ogun's Friend," inspired by the steel sculpture of Mel Edwards, charges the poem with a special intensity. The poet hammers language and imagery into short, syncopated strokes, gathers them into a list, moves to itemize tools, explodes into surreal images, while continuing to vary the theme: appreciation of a steelworker.
Cortez's "praise poetry," as she adopts the African term, includes instruments as well as people. The 165 lines of "Drums Everywhere Drums," her longest single piece, present an auditory feast in performance, especially with musical accompaniment. The poet's depth of control within freedom, exercised through physical, geographical, and historical imagery, sweeps the essence of African American cultural heritage into its percussive span. Drums pervade continents and existence itself, which in turn transforms into drums, the symbol of cultural power, communication, and solidarity. There are
Drums made from rivers
made from a multiplication of dance steps
made from catfish heads in a tongues embrace
made from a rosette of orange rosin cradle cap
over mojo whoop whooping drums
out of coo coo ka hooka drums
ear drums khaki drums
drums made of dynamite
drums in seemingly limitless number and variety, a people's consciousness, overwhelmingly inclusive.
Cortez's range includes an elegant simplicity (see "Commitment," for Paul Robeson). Appraisals of the "Blues Lady" of "Grinding Vibrato," (a fine example of blues adaptation), Josephine Baker ("So Many Feathers" ), and Duke Ellington ("Rose Solitude" ) elicit the lyrical Cortez, who weaves a quieter magic.
I am essence of Rose Solitude
my cheeks are laced with cognac
my hips sealed with five satin nails
i carry dreams and romance of new fools and old
between the musk of fat
and the side pocket of my mink tongue
Yet even when reflective, the poet arrays the unsentimental, "hard, dry images" once prescribed by Eza Pound's colleague T. E. Hulme. She concludes: "i cover the hands of Duke who like Satchmo / like Nat (King) Cole will never die / because love they say / never dies."
"Alberta Alberta," an elegy for the murdered mother of Martin Luther King, Jr., uses repetition as a keening chant, recalling the chanted sermon that influenced Brooks's heroic "preachments." "For the Brave Young Students in Soweto," like the collage of strong faces (including the poet's) shown on the verso page, mounts individual images side by side to survey a situation and design its power. Solidarity among all colonized and oppressed people culminates in the heroes:
Soweto i tell you Soweto
when i see you standing up like this
i think about all the forces in the world
confronted by the terrifying rhythms of young students
by their sacrifices
and the revelation that it won't be long now
in this world changes
This vulnerability to change epitomizes Cortez's revolutionary stance, in the explosion and re-vision of images that characterize her work. Even when she seeks to write a blues, as in the humorous "You Know," it is engaged, complex, presenting
a serious blues
a significant blues
an unsubmissive blues
The last line titles Unsubmissive Blues (1980), a recording in which she reads some of her strongest poems to a rich drum and instrumental accompaniment.
Firespitter (1982) continues the drive toward pronounced rhythms, jazz-infused; pyrotechnic imagery; African-pan-American fusions; and political statement. Like all her other books, this collection is enhanced by the powerful drawings of Mel Edwards, who interpreted the Firespitter for cover and text. Edwards, who had admired Cortez's work even before meeting her, observes, "It is a pleasure to work with her work." Poets often shun visual additions to their poems, but Cortez's art accommodates the senses, being visual, alive with form and color; aural, demanding to be heard. The auxiliary visual mode, here so finely attuned to the text, serves not as intrusion but as extension.
On November 13, 1981, a few months before publication of Firespitter, Cortez read from the book at Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theater, functioning as the poetic instrument in a jazz ensemble where each performer, in turn or as inspired, led the group into improvisation. The performance was distinguished by her voice, ranging frm shimmering silk to steel; her bearing, majestic in African robe; the stunning imagery of the poems; the democratic ambience and group sense that allowed each performer alternately to star; and the lively enthusiasm of the audience.
Firespitter typically garners musical and other public heroic figures of Black life: Charles Mingus ("Into This Time" ); Count Basie ("Solo Finger Solo" ); "No Simple Explanations (To the Memory of Larry Neal)" ; Fannie Lou Hamer ("Big Fine Woman from Ruleville" ), of whom Cortez writes: "magnificent ancestor / warrior friend / most beautiful sister / I kiss the mud of this moment." The birthplace of Mrs. Hamer (1917-1977), the great civil rights fighter who challenged voting restrictions in Mississippi, suggests the rule of law and, further, the Golden Rule. "Mud" becomes an emblem of the struggle in which Cortez participated with Mrs. Hamer. Other figures include Léon Damas ("The Red Pepper Poet with the Bull-Roarer Tongue" ), poet and cofounder of the Négritude literary movement; and Afro-Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo ("I See Chano Pozo" ).
Also typically, there are Afro-American poems, from the triumphant "Firespitters (FESTAC 77)," honoring the 1977 Festival of Arts and Culture in Lagos, Nigeria, to "Nigerian/American Relations" : "They want the oil / But they don't want the people," iterated twenty times. In a newer key, "If the Drum Is a Woman," popular with audiences, and "Rape," concerning the nationally prominent cases of Inez García and Joanne Little, turn to the subject of physical abuse. Rather than as narrowly feminist statements, the poet intends the pieces as "human rights poems."
There is celebration, too, of the humble worker. "For a Gypsy Cab Man" eulogizes the African cab driver who enjoys taking passengers to Harlem and other areas often shunned by medallioned yellow taxicabs. The "friend and collector of green cards," (the Immigration Bureau work permits for aliens) receives the poet's
… thanks for turning your automobile
into an ambulance
into a fire engine of red stallions
into a combat car of constant motion
and endless horn signals
Political pace quickens in this book, whose most unrelenting attacks appear in three impressive longer poems. "Blood Suckers," about the Miami race riots, begins:
the bood suckers came sucking in full speed
twisting and sucking into
a urethra of decapitated shrimp heads
and compiles a list of suckers and bloodsuckers that scores the whole white governmental, corporate, and religious establishment, together with dupes and collaborators both white and Black. It is a deliberately unpleasant poem that hurls its enraged and loathsome images without pause or mitigation. "Festival Fusions 81" marks a dramatic change in tone from 1977 and "Firespitters." Four years later the festival has turned symbol for the fraudulently hopeful dreams of social change: "My festival is a parading pant leg of vomit / my festival is a permanent archive of scar tissues," the poet cries as she scans the "naked festival body … embedded with scorpion dust … in the valley fo shark pus."
Employing a simpler rhetoric of imagery, "There It Is" approaches the reader directly:
they don't care
if you're an individualist
a leftist a rightist
a shithead or a snake
Cortez renews the colloquial diction and familiar rhetoric ("the ruling class," "exploit," "killer cops," "enemies," "imperialism") by setting the stale words into fresh contexts ("The enemies polishing their penises between / oil wells at the pentagon"). This work approaches the speech poems of Baraka's Hard Facts and the "preachments" of Brooks. It reaches out to the audience; it calls to unity; it leads.
Coagulations: New and Selected Poems (1984) was the poet's first book with an outside company. A small but welcome glossary helps with the linguistic, geographical, and cultural references. Powerful drawings by Mel Edwards complement anew the raw energy of the poems. Selections from Scarifications, Mouth on Paper, and Firespitter gather many of Cortez's most powerful and popular works. "On All Fronts," the last section, comprises thirteen new poems that carry forward the poet's political concerns, audacious imagery, and percussive force. These three elements fuse at increasing degrees of intensity into "a work of resistance."3
The new poems clearly demonstrate that Cortez expresses the collective rage of the disenfranchised, the dispossessed, and the victims of discrimination. Militant and uncompromising, matching jazz and incantatory rhythms with parallel syntax and "unsubmissive" repetitions, she develops a heroic Black musical rhetoric of prophecy. Hurling the obscenities of contemporary life into a furnace of exploding images, Cortez exposes our paths to universal self-destruction, to a global Jonestown. "Stockpiling," inspired by the accumulation of nuclear weapons, arrays a series of hideous death images, "the final stockpile of flesh dancing in / the terrible whooping cough of the wind."
Cortez retains a ferocious humor. "Expenditures / Economic Love Song 1," merely repeats "MILITARY SPENDING HUGE PROFITS & / DEATH / / MILITARY SPENDING HUGE PROFITS & / DESTRUCTION" and reads as if it were nineteen banner headlines, but makes its point of lethal repetition. "Everything Is Wonderful" satirizes apathy, the assumption that all is well "Under the urination of astro- nauts / and the ejaculation of polluted sparrows"—except in various parts of the world, a lengthy list beginning with Grenada and El Salvador and ending with Beirut.
The pyrotechnical crescendo culminates in "Tell Me," a plea to rouse the conscience and consciousness of all human beings.
Tell me that the plutonium sludge
in your corroded torso is all a dream
Tell me that your penis bone is not erupting
with the stench of dead ants
that your navel is not the dump site
of contaminated pus
that the spillage from your hard ass
is not a fallout of radioactive waste
Tell me it's a lie
Tell me it's a joke
This is the prophetic Cortez at her mordant best, firing a warning vision of judgment and impending holocaust at the body of the listener/reader. In her total concern for the planet, Cortez may be viewed as our ecological Jeremiah, or an Angela Davis by way of Ralph Nader, "translated" and struck suddenly with Shakespeare's "muse of fire" (via Henry V). Hers is no tranquil, Words-worthian contemplation, although one could make a case for her respect for life as "natural piety." Yet despite her dire perceptions of present and future, she pleads for, even demands, the active essence of hope.
Tell me it's a misunderstanding
Tell me it's not a human need
Tell me it's a crock of shit
Tell me it's propaganda
Tell me you really intend to go forward
The reader or fortunate listener wants to spring up and reply, "Yes, I will!" and, perhaps, to move into the aisle of action.
When Cortez arrived at my apartment for her interview, I was struck by her slender, almost slight, appearance, since, like Sanchez, her performance projects a bigger-than-lifesized presence.4 She is a very private person who talks little about her personal life. "I consider that the details of my poetic processes are personal; they're my private life," she told me. And though she was warm and relaxed during our conversation, she did not at any time forgo her alertness to a Black perspective on our discussion.
Interview with Jayne Cortez
[Melhem]: You spent the first seven years of your life in Arizona. What was it like for you there, as a child?
[Cortez]: Let's see, Arizona—have you ever been there? It's very beautiful in its own way. There are fantastic sunrises and sunsets. The sky is a huge space of changing colors. There are mountains and canyons and a lot of cactuses, all different shapes of cactuses, and many flowers, and different kinds of insects, and snakes and lizards, and of course there's the desert—
Is it anything—
—beautiful rocks. Smooth rocks, broken rocks, rocks of silver flecks.
Is Africa anything like Arizona? Did you feel any kind of similarity?
Not really. Arizona is a state, Africa is a continent. Even the desert in Egypt is different from the desert in Arizona.
Not even in the climate?
Not in western Nigeria. I spent most of my time in Nigeria visiting the western and midwestern states. In the part of Arizona that I'm from, the southern part, it can be a hundred in the daytime in the summer, and in the evening the temperature can drop to fifty-five. And it's dry. But western Nigeria is not dry. It's moist. It's kind of like being in New York or in Houston, Texas—more like Texas. I did make a brief visit to Kano, and I guess that part, the northern part of Nigeria, is sort of like parts of Arizona in climate. The temperatures may be a hundred degrees in the day and drop to fifty at night, and of course the Sahara Desert is on the northern border of Nigeria. Nigeria is a very fascinating, dynamic, and beautiful country.
You mentioned the harmattan.
The harmattan starts in December and ends in February. What it is is a hot, dry wind that blows over parts of Africa behind clouds of red dust, which causes a thick haze and reduces visibility.
Your grandfather assured you that you would be an actress. Was he an important influence on you, and how did you become interested in acting?
I guess I was interested in acting because I used to like to act. Act up and act out! [Laughter] So, when you act up and you act out, they say, "Oh, you're quite an actress!" My grandfather said, "You want to be an actress like Lena Horne, or somebody." But they didn't seriously sit down and talk to me and say, "Look, I know that at some point you are going to grow up and we would like you to be"—no. It was nothing like that.
But I think it registers in your unconscious—
I think they saw me acting and doing all those imitations, and they said, "Well, she's a natural!" But that's all. In the article5 I said that because I was remembering my grandfather. Maybe he was serious, maybe I was serious, or maybe it wasn't a serious thing.
Were there any other important early influences, apart from musicians and people like Lena Horne and Billie Holiday?
I wouldn't say that Lena Horne or Billie Holiday were "influences." To be influenced means you're sort of under the spell of something or someone. I was under the spell of my mother and father! [Laughter] You know, they're early influences. I was under the spell of the environment, maybe, because I couldn't help it.
Well, how would you say they influenced you?
I was inspired by Billie Holiday; I liked the way she sang. I liked the way she sat down on notes and intensified. But I wasn't a singer. I was inspired by the acting of Lena Horne. She was Black and I thought she could act, and I liked her singing and acting. I thought she was really cute, and she attracted men in the movies, and you know, she seemed to have the world on a string with no problems, so naturally I wanted to be like her, the movie image her. So you're inspired for a minute, and you imitate the way they walk and talk. You go twisting through the neighborhood, moving your hips and lips a certain way and pushing your hair back—but at six or seven years old, who's going to take you seriously?
How would you say your mother and father influenced you?
Well, they were examples of how to live, how you take care of business, how you survive in a hostile atmosphere. They were my first examples of how to do everything that you do: how you take care of the house, how you take care of the family business, how you take care of children, how to have dignity and respect. Then later, you explore your feelings of whether you really accept all that.
Yes. You say they had a strong sense of family.
Yes, sure. A strong sense of family. Small family, but strong.
The best kind. What were your interests in school, and was school in Arizona and in Los Angeles a positive experience?
In Arizona, elementary school was one big room with all the classes in it. My sister was in her class, and her row was there; so-and-so's was here, and my row was over there. You would go from the first grade to the sixth grade in one room.
It was a family experience.
Yes. I remember liking my teacher. The principal of the school was also minister of the Baptist church. And later, he moved to California. I married my first husband in his house in Los Angeles. He performed the marriage ceremony.
That's a wonderful story.
My community in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, was a very close community. We knew everyone and everyone knew us. I went to school with mostly Black children and some Native American children. We were segregated from the white children, who went to white schools. This was my introduction to segregation. We moved to California. First San Diego, a very damp place that smelled of fishing canneries. A smell that was embedded in the skins of its workers. A smell that permeated certain sections of the city. It took some getting used to, because the only sea that we were used to was the desert. And the smell of the desert was quite different from the smell of San Diego.
My grandparents had moved from Arizona to San Diego. We lived with them for almost a year; then we moved to Los Angeles. We lived in West Los Angeles for five years. I attended the Thirty-sixth Street elementary school. Most of the students were African American, and a few of them were Japanese American children returning with their parents from the World War II detention centers. Later, we moved to the community of Watts, which was in South Los Angeles. I spent most of my teenage years in Watts.
How did you feel about the move to Los Angeles and especially about living in Watts?
I remember I hated to leave Arizona, because I had a cat and there were these insects, the ants and the bees. I used to get the bees in the summertime—catch them in the middle of a flower, hold the petals together so they couldn't get out, and they would buzz, buzz, buzz! Anyhow, I used to play games with all of the little insects. And of course there was my favorite tree, and friends. Well, I wanted to leave, but I didn't want to leave. As a kid you're attached to your friends and to your surroundings and all of that, but on the other hand, leaving is like an adventure. You're going to meet new people and have new experiences. The move was not disruptive to me.
Did you like Watts? Did you like living there?
Watts was okay, but I disliked the junior high school that I had to attend a few blocks outside of Watts. It was almost all white. We had integration and segregation and domination at the same time. And it was like, very miserable. Miserable simply because of the attitudes of both the white students and the white teachers. Almost every book we read was about their lives, their history, their values, their culture. Things would really get tense when we got to the slave era. It was replusive. They taught such lies about Africa. I tell you I had to fight every day. I mean when a white kid called me "nigger," I had to jump up and beat the hell out of him or her. And I did that constantly. My mother was always at the school.
You learned early.
Yes. I learned very early about what's ugly, and racism is very ugly.
Turning to your work, now, I find it visual, kinesthetic, and musical, and yet you say you don't sing.
I don't sing.
Did you ever want to sing or play an instrment?
No. I never thought about singing. But I did play several instruments. I played the piano like all young—
All nice young girls. [Laughter]
I took piano lessons. I played bass in junior orchestra. For a while I played cello. In high school I took a course in music harmony and theory. I was also interested in the visual arts. I attended Manual Arts High School, comparable to [the High School of] Music and Art here [in Manhattan]. I took drawing, painting, and design classes. As a child in Arizona I was exposed to the music of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Jimmy Lunceford, and all the other big bands of that time. My parents had quite a collection of records; that's when I first heard Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. In 1947 I was exposed to the music called bebop. I fell in love with the music of Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk.
Your poem "Tapping" inScarifications is dedicated to tap dancers. I wondered whether you ever learned to tap-dance.
I took dancing lessons—
You had the full middle-class treatment?
Well, I don't think that was a middle-class treatment. A number of children in the Black community knew how to tap-dance, play an instrument, and perform acrobatic movements. Later I took modern dance and ballet. I couldn't tap-dance that well, but you could hear the sound of my taps!—because I liked the shoes.
Well, I think that's all enriched your work very much.
All the arts.
About the poem "Tapping" —there used to be a place in New York City called the Jazz Museum, and on Sunday afternoon they presented tap dance concerts. I used to go. The dancers included Baby Lawrence, Chuck Green, L. D. Jackson, and Rhythm Red, and others. Baby Lawrence was known as the Charlie Parker of the tap dancers. He would dance the compositions of Charlie Parker and add his own complicated solo to the piece after the theme. The concert would continue like that, each dancer performing his own special steps. It was fantastic. I was so inspired by those events.
You refer to your experiences in Mississippi as a catalyst that turned you away from acting—where white-prescribed roles for Blacks were restricted—to literature, where you could express yourself more freely. Was your work as cofounder of the Watts Repertory Theatre Company primarily in poetry, and was that the beginning?
No, that was not the beginning. I wrote a couple of short stories when I was about fourteen. My best friend and I wrote these stories and sent them to a True Confessions magazine contest. We had dreams of winning the prizes and the money. We didn't win or place. We received rejection letters with our manuscripts.
Oh, so then you were interested in writing pretty early.
What about poetry—did you start that early also?
The poetry? Let's see. I remember writing down words, lines, ideas, secrets. I know now that I was keeping a journal. I always read a lot of books, and I was interested in writing stories, but I didn't write that much poetry. However, in the community we were always rhyming.
Did you play the Dozens?
We alway played the Dozens, signified, told jokes, and performed for each other.
That was in rhyme.
Yes, that was in rhyme. We did it constantly. It was an everyday ritual. Oral poetry in an oral atmosphere. When I used to go to jam sessions and other musical events, I would sometimes write down my reactions to the music and the scene. Much later, I started to write poetry concerned with loneliness and need.
So did I! That's the usual—[laughing].
That's how you start. Right. You start with yourself. The "Why am I so sad?" kind of poetry. My experiences in Mississippi are important, because after Misssissippi I didn't write that kind of poetry anymore.
Would you say your political awareness was charged after the Mississippi experience?
Oh, sure it was. Of course, in Los Angeles I learned a lot about racism and politics, and we in the Black community always had problems with the police. They would harass and provoke people. They would stop Black men on the streets for nothing. They would say things like, "Well, you have a beard and so you look like you might want to do something." And you know, they used to be able to hold a person for forty-eight hours, for nothing. I think my political education started in the segregated school. Later, while working in a factory, I became more aware of the economic situation. I was working in a factory before I went to Mississippi. Through the work experience I learned about organizing and about protest. I was in the union. Before I went to Mississippi I already knew about discrimination, police brutality, and class and race problems. I took that with me. I mean—I wasn't just Jayne, you know, picking daisies and then she goes to Mississippi. I was Jayne facing the everyday routine in the factories with the bosses and the unions and with police brutality in the city of smog, suppression, and racism.
Mississippi was in the deep South—South Africa! In 1963 it was a place of fierce oppression, segregation, and lynchings. The people were struggling for survival. They were fighting for the right to vote. That's where I met Fannie Lou Hamer, a very dedicated woman in the Civil Rights Movement. After that southern experience, I became more aware of the need for political power. And like I said, the poems I wrote before going were concerned with being sad. In Mississippi I learned that you could get rid of a lot of sad feelings, and you didn't have to be isolated, lonely, and frustrated and sitting around without the necessities of life. Because you could do something about it.
Rather than a personal sadness, you were really talking about sadness in the environment.
Yes. Being unemployed and without food can make you very sad. But you weren't the problem. The problem existed before you knew there was a problem. The problem is the system, and you can organize, unify, and do something about the system. That's what I learned.
You worked in a factory before going to Mississippi?
What kind of factory was it?
I worked in a shirt factory; then I worked in a belt factory; and I worked in other factories. I also worked as a waitress, a telephone operator, and an office worker, typing and operating business machines. I learned a lot from the women in the factories. We talked about many, many things. I got advice and tips on how to confront reality. How to be an independent woman. How to get your heels to clicking when you're being abused. How to cook. What to do about health problems. It was real sisterhood.
What prompted your move to New York City?
Well, I'll tell you. When I was a teenager, I always had this desire to go to New York City. I used to read in Downbeat all about the clubs and all about the concerts, and I felt like I was missing something. Since I liked music, I wanted to be in the place where the music was happening. At home I talked a lot about going to New York City. When I graduated from high school, my mother gave me a piece of luggage; she gave me a nice Samsonite bag. But I didn't use it until 1959, on my first trip to New York City.
The poem that you wrote, "I Am New York City," inScarifications, seems somewhat ambivalent about New York. Is that the way you feel now?
I wrote that poem in 1973. In the poem I'm dealing with my relationship to New York City, using the objects and attitudes to conjure up images. By that time I loved New York—
Warts and all?
Yeah. New York was and is a big international city. The streets are popping with different dialects. The city is backward and advanced at the same time. I now have a hate/love relationship with New York City, with Manhattan. In 1972 and 1973 New York City was big, sloppy, and wonderful. Most of the poems in Scarifications are concerned with New York City images—connecting them and juxtaposing them against human interior and exterior body parts.
In the 1978 interview [in Essence] you said you spent seven hours a day writing and rewriting. Do you still do this?
No, I don't do that. Since I teach three days a week, I don't have enough time.6 You know, it takes seven hours sometimes to start, to get started, to retrace your steps. I mean, you may be sitting there with one line—
What a mighty line! [Laughter]
Do you know that a minute becomes an hour, and an hour becomes three, and then it's seven hours and you hate to stop, even though you have accomplished— nothing. And you put it in the drawer with the other nothings, and the nothings pile up, and one day you turn the nothings into something.
Do you recommend writing regularly, rather than waiting for inspiration?
Yes, because you may never get inspiration; you may never get inspired. You can inspire yourself. I don't wait for inspiration. I write whenever I can.
Do you like teaching?
Um-hum, um-hum. I like teaching. I enjoy working with students, listening to their ideas, experiences, and interpretations. Teaching can be draining, but it's not a bad way to make a living.
Well, I guess with a caring person like you, it would take more time.
It takes more time because you have to prepare. I teach a Lit. course and a creative writing course at Livingston College. I usually have about twenty to twenty-five students in each class, which means that I have to read forty to fifty papers every time an assignment is due.
Your poetry is often political. Do you think poetry ought to be political, or do you feel that you just write what you can?
I think poetry can be political. If you're a political person and a poet, you will write political poetry. You make political decisions. At some point, your work will represent your political thought. You put the political thoughts, the emotional needs, and the poetic elements together.
Would you categorize your thought in any particular way? I'm talking about your political thought. Or do you think mostly in terms of issues and particular situations?
I think of issues, I think of situations, I think of the future. What our needs will be in the future. And how to eliminate needs. So it's good for the work and it's good for you to be political. I'm concerned with reality, illusions, contradictions, transformations.
Do you have any feelings about Black Nationalism? Your work doesn't seem to have that perspective. It seems more worker oriented and more general, class oriented—
But it's Black worker oriented. I'm a Black person in a Black family in the Black nation, so nationalism is a natural fact. I think that Black Nationalism has its place in the growth of the United States of America. I think the Black Nation—the oppressed African American nation—has a future.
I was thinking of it in a more specific way, pertaining to, perhaps the establishment of a Black state, a more segregated kind of existence, or maybe a totally segregated kind of existence, if that were possible, for Black people.
If it is possible to have a Black state within the United States—I would say wonderful! Most of our people are in the Black belt, and we speak the same language. Great! What's wrong with having a Black state in the United States? There are a lot of white states in the United States. What's wrong with having a Black state? Fine! I have a Black state of mind! I wouldn't be against that at all. It's called self-determination.
Sometimes you're called "a jazz poet." How did you get started working with musicians?
Well, as you know, I started writing poetry about my relationship to Black music, talking about the rhythms or what I liked about it, and of course, talking about the musicians who play the music. It's like praise poetry, the old African praise poetry. You write about another human being, about who the person is and what that person produces. When I started reading my poetry in public, I thought it would sound good with music. And I had a lot of musician friends at the time, and it seemed like an interesting idea.
Is it a very difficult procedure, working the poetry into the music and music into the poetry?
That part is not hard. The part that is hard is stretching the human voice. Everybody else in the group has another kind of a voice, a musical instrument that's much louder than yours [laughing]. That's the problem. How not to let the different pitch levels control your work. Most of the musicians who've played with me have all been musicians who play jazz. They are used to inventing off of different rhythm patterns and different sounds. So they relate to what I'm doing in the same way. They interject their own sound and attitudes. And I do the same thing. I listen to them and respond to their ideas and attitudes. I like working with music. It's a collective experiment. A collective composition.
Do you plan to work in the future with musicians?
Yes. I would love to. Working with the music has provided me with a lot of freedom. I don't feel restricted. My whole respiratory system is involved in an assemblage of free tones.
I find it very exciting. I thought that your recent performance at Joseph Papp's theater was remarkably vital and beautiful.
Yes, I liked it. I liked it because of the multiplying vibrations, variations, and extensions.
Were you improvisational at any point during that?
Yes. There are phrases or words that were not written but were added during the performance, especially in the Chano Pozo poem and the poem for the gypsy cab driver. The work sounded new and improvised because the approach to the new music was new. And of course the work is improvisational before it is written on paper.
Yes, well that's what the lack of punctuation seems to do. It gives you that freedom, and it does seem improvisational.
Yes. It goes back to the oral. It's like you don't say, "Come here. Stop. Go there. Stop." You say, "Come here let's do this bababababa," so it's just a continuation of rhythm and sound. When you stop, you stop; where you breathe, you breathe; and where you pause, you pause.
FromFestivals and Funerals on, there are strongly African elements in your work. Linguistic and cultural ones are obvious. Would you note any other factors that you might point to and say, "Well, that's African"?
I would have to look at the work, because right now I can't remember—well, the use of African words. [Opens Mouth on Paper ] Funny, I turned right to "Ogun's Friend," Ogun being the Yoruba god of war and iron, worshipped by metalworkers, hunters and warriors, truckdrivers, engineers—it's a praise poem dedicated to a sculptor who works with steel. Africa represents a link with the past. Africans and African Americans have many things in common. Our tastes, gestures, beliefs, ancestors. We share the same blood. We are connected in pigmentation and in our struggle against oppression. We are lovers of life.
Would you say the African influences are primarily cultural, or do they also come from individuals?
I've been influenced by traditional African art and inspired by African artists and musicians.
Yes, and poets. I not only use traditional African elements in my work, but I also use details and situations of modern Africa. Soweto, Zimbabwe, Angola—the idea of a socialist system and attitudes in a neocolonialist situation.
I'd like to talk about the process, your poetic process, in which your imagery seems to breed more imagery. How would you describe your making a poem?
Well, you get up in the morning, you have tea or coffee, and you sit down at your desk and write. [Laughs]
Well, I was referring specifically to this dynamic process of imagery. I mean you have a richer density of imagery in your work than I have seen in most other poets. It's quite unusual, and I was wondering what feeds that. I see surrealistic sources. It's as if the conscious and the unconscious were both rising and expressing themselves together.
It's true. I use dreams, the subconscious, and the real objects, and I open up the body and use organs, and I sink them into words, and I ritualize them and fuse them into events. I guess the poetry is like a festival. Everything can be transformed. The street becomes something else, the subway is something else, everything at a festival is disguised as something else. Everything changes: the look of the person changes, their intentions change, the attitudes are different, experiences become fiercer. Voices become other voices. So that's what I do in my poetry. I keep making connections. I try to not wade in the shallow water of shallowness and I try to not get stuck in the mud of art council standards and the spectators' demand for messages. It's called multiplication, subdivision, and subtraction.
I've called it "superrealism"; I've referred to your work as superrealism, and by that I mean a deep vision of reality, intensified by the emotional, imaginative, political, and surrealistic perception of it. Do you think that describes what you're doing?
Sure. But the word "superrealism" means something else in the visual arts, so I would say "supersurrealism."
You coin words, like "purrtongue," "stridulating," "cosmobrating," "contortionated." Is this mainly an intellectual process, or is it more intuitive? Do you try to get an onomatopoetic word for what you mean?
The intellect and the intuition—that's all one thing. Can't be one without the other. I mean you select, and you think, you have an idea [snaps fingers], you reason and you don't reason. But it's all together; one reinforces the other. It's all one thing for me. And coining the words—like I told you, in the Black community we were always making up new words and phrases in our verbalization games. It's whose word was going to be the top word, and whose word was going to be the last word. If I say the person is contortionated, con-tor-tionated, I have made a decision of how to express myself intuitively and intellectually.
What kind of audiences do you want to reach?
All kinds of audiences. I've read in different countries; I've read all over the United States; I've read in libraries, in night clubs, and at political rallies. A lot of my readings have been in the Black community, and I'm certainly interested in reaching a lot of Black people. We share some of the same sentiments and responsibilities. They communicate to me and I communicate to them.
I guess because I use initials, I'm interested in initials. It struck me that your initials are "J. C." I was wondering whether this ever interested you or anybody around you when you were growing up.
InPissstained Stairs, the poem "Race" refers to "A Race called Faggot," and seems to indict homosexuality. Is this so, and do you maintain this view?
Well, first of all, "Race" was written for a friend of mine. I don't think it indicts homosexuals. I think it talks about the contradictions of a particular person. The poem is about contradictions and inconsistencies.
Well, with the Gay Liberation Movement, which comes after the time of this poem, would you say that that has influenced your thinking at all? Do you have second thoughts about the views you had?
Yes, I have second thoughts. I wrote the poem in 1968 at the request of a friend. He never rejected the tone of the piece.
You were writing about a gay person.
InFestivals and Funerals there's a brilliant poem called "African Night Suite," which ends with these lines: "my hat is off to the two toned / double breasted birds of no hesitation." Are the birds a specific or symbolic reference? What kind of birds are they?
[Laughing] They're two-toned birds. You've heard of those two-toned birds of no hesitation?
Since I've read you, yes! [Laughter]
The two-toned birds definitely have to be the birds of America, and they're birds who are mixed, in race and in time. African Americans. Those are the two-toned birds of no hesitation, the people who are not going to hesitate.
I'm so indoctrinated, every time I see the word "bird" I think of Charlie Parker!
I wasn't thinking of Charlie Parker, but if we were all aggressive birds like Charlie Parker, we would definitely be birds of no hesitation.
He didn't have much hesitation.
No. I haven't read this piece in a long time.
It's an awfully good poem. I recommend it. [Laughter]
In fact, I haven't read from Festivals and Funerals or Pissstained Stairs in years.
Do you prefer reading new things?
I prefer reading new things, yes.
I was curious about the poem "Rose Solitude." Was that inspired by a particular piece of music by Ellington?
It was inspired by the creativity of Duke Ellington. I went to the funeral of Duke Ellington at Saint John's Cathedral.7 I was very moved and impressed by the emotions of some of the people there. I happened to be sitting next to an older West Indian woman who said these lines to me, "Like Nat (King) Cole, like Satchmo," and I thought about that; I thought about the qualities of the people she had mentioned. I thought of their music, and I was sitting there, and I was thinking about Duke Ellington and watching all of the images in this church, the different moods, the different faces, the agitation of the wind outside, and I thought about the music. The poem is an accumulation of those thoughts, images, and other memories.
Did you have the chance to meet Duke Ellington?
I met him in 1966. We had a very nice conversation.
You must have been thrilled.
I was thrilled. He was so charming and so up-to-date. Like some of his music: melodious, swinging, and complete.
To meet a myth that you write about—you mythologize. Your work does mythologize people. I think part of it comes from just loving the music, but I wonder whether part of it is also deliberate making, raising to heroic stature in the work, as people have raised themselves in life.
Most of the names in my work are there as examples.
Do you do a lot of revising?
Not a whole lot.
Do you ever go back to a book and say, "Gee, I would rewrite that line, and—"
Yes, I've looked over Pissstained Stairs and Festivals and Funerals, and I've said, "God, how could I have done that?" But you know, it's there, and it represents that moment. It's too late.
Not for a second edition.
Yes, there are a number of things that I would change, but it would be hard to recapture the same sensations. They would be poems separating from themselves. They would be torn apart, because my solutions today are different. I don't have the same views as I had then.
Yes, I don't think you should tamper too much.
I like to do new things, build new structures, create new poems.
You name several people who've influenced you, like Léon Damas and Aimé Césaire, Langston Hughes—
I was inspired by them. I like the inner tension and rhythms of Damas's poetry. I like the way Sterling Brown articulates the blues, and I liked the oral qualities of Langston's poetry, and I like the levels of depth and complexity in the poetry of Césaire. I like the music and revolutionary stance in poems by Nicolás Guillén. I like Margaret Walker. I was very moved by her poem "For My People."
Would you put Pablo Neruda in that group?
Yes. I like Pablo Neruda's work. I liked his commitment, his consciousness. I liked the way he chose to explore events. Even when he was on a sentimental journey, it was interesting.
You dedicated, I believe, your first book to the Watts Repertory Theatre Company. Would you say that they inspired you in any way?
Well, yes. In fact, most of the pieces in Pissstained Stairs were written for them to perform.
Now that's really interesting. How was this done?
We wanted to present an evening dealing with Black music through poetry. So I wrote some poems for it, and three other poets in the workshop wrote poems. We presented an interesting program of poetry in praise of Black music.
Do you advise other writers to publish their own works?
Yes, if they can't get published by other publishers, they should publish their own works. I think that—well, one thing it'll do, it'll stop them from crying the blues. That's one thing. But I think in the sixties, it was about control. The musicians and writers wanted to have some control over their own works. This was one of the reasons why I decided to publish my own works.
And you continue to do it as a matter of choice, now.
I have continued to do it as a matter of choice—not that I won't ever publish with another publisher, because I will. My work has been published a great deal in anthologies and literary magazines by other publishers. I started my own publishing company in 1972, and I like it. Since I'm the owner of my own books, I have more freedom.
It could have happened to me. Do you know how many arguments I've had on street corners with friends? Well, I know that whenever you decide to deal with the reality of the situation, the opposition gets all steamed up. They become very undemocratic. Now he has to serve time for trying to defend himself from being brutalized. Is this supposed to be a warning to artists? Is this supposed to put the fear of the reactionary gods in us? Are we supposed to put the lids on our mouths and shuffle along, enslaved as usual? I think this whole affair points up the contradictions of an unjust system. If anything, his courage and the courage of his family serve as a good example to many people.
How do you view the 1980s and your role or the poet's role in the eighties?
The poet's role is to make poetry. The eighties—the government is more reactionary. We are waiting in the wings of a false democracy. People are inflamed. We have a growing community of homeless people. The wealthy are getting wealthier and more toxic-wasteful. Friends are dying. Folks are in a state of stagnation, a state of passivity, a state of frenzy. Areas in Los Angeles resemble areas of Beirut in conflict and solitude. Near Douglas, Arizona, you can't see the sky through the dense pollution. The nuclear industry is still in the business of producing man-made radiation. Television is still dominated by white men and their views of the world. U.S. policies concerning Third World countries are designed to destabilize—to cripple and destroy independence. I'm opposed to those policies that promote death of people, death of land, death of a culture. I reject the notion that might is white, right, and supreme. I'm for peace and international understanding.
My role as a poet? I want to be creative, inventive, imaginative, free, secure, and make poetry. I'm interested in using the latest technology to reach a wider au- dience. I believe in diversity and in exchanging ideas. Travel means I have access to information from other sources. I think that poets have the responsibility to be aware of the meaning of human rights, to be familiar with history, to point out distortions, and to bring their thinking and their writing to higher levels of illumination.
1. Ishmael Reed, ed., Yardbird Reader 5 (Berkeley, Cal.: Yardbird Publishing, 1976): 90-117, features a tribute to Cortez, with her comments, poems, photograph; a bibliography; also commentary and reviews by Steve Cannon, Stanley Crouch, Charles Davis, Deborah A. Gillam, Verta Mae Grosvenor, Eugene B. Redmond, Clyde Taylor, Charles C. Thomas, and Quincy Troupe. See also Alexis DeVeaux, "Poet's World: Jayne Cortez Discusses Her Life and Work," Essence March 1978): 77-79, 106, 109; Nikki Giovanni, review, "Pisstain [sic] Stairs and the Monkey Man's Wares," Negro Digest 19 (Dec. 1969): 97; June Jordan review of Celebrations and Solitudes, Black World 24 (March 1975): 53, 63.
2. "Making It," from Scarifications. Copyright © 1973, 1978 by Jayne Cortez.
3. Barbara T. Christian thus characterizes Coagulations in her review "There It Is: The Poetry of Jayne Cortez," Callaloo 9 (Winter 1986): 235-38. See also Melba J. Boyd's review in Black Scholar (July 1985): 65-66.
4. The interview with Jayne Cortez mainly represents a composite of two discussions: the first one tape recorded at my apartment, in New York City, Friday afternoon, January 22, 1982; the second, untaped, in a Greenwich Village restaurant on Saturday afternoon, May 22, 1982. Both constitute the interview that appears in my "Jayne Cortez: Supersurrealism," Greenfield Review 11 (Summer/Fall 1983): 18-47. For this chapter, however, subsequent clarifications and additions, including the two new closing paragraphs, were made by the poet in November 1988.
5. De Veaux, "Poet's World."
6. Cortez was teaching Black literature and creative writing at Livingston College, Rutgers, at the time.
8. See [D. H. Melham. Heroism in the New Black Poetry: Introductions and Interviews. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1990] Chapter 6, n. 7 […].
Jayne Cortez: Works Cited and Suggested
Pissstained Stairs and the Monkey Man's Wares. Drawings by Mel Edwards. New York: Phrase Text, 1969.
Festivals and Funerals. Drawings by Mel Edwards. New York: Jayne Cortez, 1971.
Scarifications. Drawings by Mel Edwards. New York: Bola Press, 1973; 2nd ed. 1978.
Mouth on Paper. Drawings by Mel Edwards. New York: Bola Press, 1977.
Firespitter. Drawings by Mel Edwards. New York: Bola Press, 1982.
Coagulations: New and Selected Poems. Drawings by Mel Edwards. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1984.
Merveilleux Coup de Foudre: Poetry of Jayne Cortez and Ted Joans. Paris, France: Handshake, 1982. Translations into French.
Word Within A Word (anthology issue), guest editor. Black Scholar 19 (nos. 4-5, 1988).
"Briefing." Black Scholar 19 (nos. 4-5, 1988): 108-11.
Celebrations and Solitudes. Accompanied by Richard Davis. New York: Strata East Records, 1975.
Unsubmissive Blues. Accompanied by Bill Cole, Denardo Coleman, Joe Daley, Bern Nix. New York: Bola Press, 1980.
There It is. Accompanied by Abraham Adzinyah, Bill Cole, Denardo Coleman, Farel Johnson, Jr., Charles Moffett, Jr., Bern Nix, Jamaaladeen Tacuma. New York: Bola Press, 1982.
Maintain Control. Accompanied by Denardo Coleman, Al MacDowell, Charles Moffett, Jr. ("The Firespitters"), with guest artists Ornette Coleman and Abdul Wadud. New York: Bola Press, 1986.
Poetry in Motion. Toronto: Sphinx Productions, 1982. War on War. Paris: UNESCO, 1982.
Jayne Cortez in Concert 1. Workhorse Productions, 1983.
Life and Influences of Jayne Cortez. Sao Paolo: Museu da Literatura, 1987.
Kimberly N. Brown (essay date1998)
SOURCE: Brown, Kimberly N. "Of Poststructuralist Fallout, Scarification, and Blood Poems: The Revolutionary Ideology behind the Poetry of Jayne Cortez." In Other Sisterhoods: Literary Theory and U.S. Women of Color, edited by Sandra Kumoto Stanley, pp. 63-85. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.
[In the following essay, Brown explores the legacy of the black aesthetic in Cortez's work, along with her emphasis on organized revolution as a means of combating victimization.]
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Tony Bolden (essay date spring 2001)
SOURCE: Bolden, Tony. "All the Birds Sing Bass: The Revolutionary Blues of Jayne Cortez." African American Review 35, no. 1 (spring 2001): 61-71.
[In the following essay, Bolden argues that Cortez's poetry exemplifies the forms and theories of the Black Aesthetic movement in its use of vernacular and spoken-word language, as well as music.]
Although Jayne Cortez is one of the most popular poets in the United States, few critics have examined her work in detail. Eugene B. Redmond devotes some attention to her poetry in Drumvoices (1976); Barbara Christian has published review essay (1985); Aldon Nielsen discusses Cortez's work in his seminal study Black Chant: The Languages of African American Postmodernism (1997); and Kimberly N. Brown has recently published a chapter on her in Other Sisterhoods: Literary Theory and U.S. Women of Color (1998). The neglect of Cortez's poetry reflects an indifference toward poetry generally and, more specifically, the Black Arts Movement which shaped her approach to writing. Despite the recent attention devoted to Sterling Brown, the vast majority of critics continues to focus upon various prose forms. And while this attention has contributed a reassessment of the importance of African American literature, many black poets—Henry Dumas, for instance—have been all but forgotten.
The critical indifference toward the Black Arts Movement stems from bitter disagreements over the definition of literature between conventional critics, on the one hand, and Black Aesthetic proponents, on the other. Black Arts poets contended that they had become the new avant-garde in American literature, but critics like Henry Louis Gates countered that Black Aesthetic theorists were essentialist and chauvinist, and dismissed the poetry of the period as mere rhetoric. The adherence to cultural nationalism inhibited a truly revolutionary poetics because it fostered a manichean world view wherein poets often conceptualized representation as reactions to the colonizer. As Patrick Taylor argues in his Fanonian study of African Caribbean literature and culture, the inability of the colonized to act on her/his own terms reflects a world view shaped by slave ethics (55). The widespread rejection of the blues as submissive music reflected a sense of confusion not unlike the false consciousness to which the poets were opposed, and their conceptualization of representation as a dialogue with the master undercut one of the primary objectives of the movement—to speak directly to the colonized.
Nonetheless, Black Arts writers were correct when they called attention to the potentiality of a sound-based poetics. As David Lionel Smith says, "Though Gates often assaults Black Aesthetic critics for having an ideological agenda, the real struggle is between an ideology that rejects the institutional status quo and another that embraces it" (106). While the academy has traditionally privileged metaphor as a universal sine qua non of the poetic, it is also important to consider the political implications of this viewpoint. Barbara Harlow has pointed out that indictments against much of Third World poetry as rhetorical are based upon attempts to create a universal idea—that genuine poetry is based upon metaphor—out of a locally based notion that follows Aristotle's ideas in The Poetics (50). "Who knows what a poem ought to sound like," Charles Olson writes, "until it's thar?" (79).
My contention is that Black Aesthetic poetic theories are best exemplified in the poetry of Jayne Cortez, whose work demonstrates the full potentiality of what I call a blues poetics; that is, the most profound manifestation of the tradition of African American Resistance poetry. Earlier poets like Sterling Brown and the Langston Hughes of the 1920s had resisted misrepresentation by transcribing vernacular forms onto the page. Margaret Walker, Robert Hayden, and the Hughes of Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951) fused their fascination with vernacular forms with a concern for modern literary conventions. However, Black Arts poets, who were attuned to the impact of Malcolm X and James Brown on black audiences, realized that the sermon and song/shout could be utilized to create a popular people's poetry (Neal, "Shine" 20-21). In other words, rather than envisioning their work primarily as reading material, poets attempted to incarnate—that is, become—the black performer and thereby blur the distinction between poetry and song by using the voice as an instrument. But while the idea of incarnating the performer is certainly a viable one, poets were not always successful. Like any other artistic approach, incarnation requires study and craft.
I intend to demonstrate not only how clearly Cortez's work is informed by African American vernacular forms, but also how she appropriates the role of the blues artist as secular priestess. After a brief discussion of Cortez's unique version of blues poetry, in which she blends sacred and secular black cultural traditions with Surrealism, I will examine key texts of hers that reflect a radical internationalist politics shaped by the specific historicity of the African American experience and committed to the liberation of colonized subjects globally. I will also demonstrate how Cortez calls into question the hegemony of a script-centered poetics. Such an examination requires a critical methodology that acknowledges the central position of blues music as a matrix in African American culture (Baker 3). My blues meta- phor will help me to illuminate the various ways in which Cortez's artistic method parallels blues musicians' creative process, particularly their revisions of other vernacular forms.
Though few poets utilize blues stanzas regularly, much black poetry is informed by a blues aesthetic. But since many critics cannot envision an alternative to a script-centered poetics, they often mistakenly assume that a blues method can only be reflected in stanzaic patterns on the page. Needless to say, this view of literary crafts (wo)manship is constricting. As Sherley Anne Williams suggests in her important essay "The Blues Roots of Contemporary Afro-American Poetry," the problem that critics should address is the poet's creative process. According to Williams, poets who revise black vernacular forms—that is, blues poets—"extend the verbal traditions of the blues in the same way that the Swing of Count Basie and the bebop of Charlie Parker extend the instrumental traditions of the blues, making those traditions ‘classic’ in a recognizably Western sense while remaining true to the black experiences and black perceptions which are their most important sources" (135). Here Williams clearly provides an outline for a new critical trope based upon blues music. She suggests that the black poet's position vis-a-vis black expressive forms is analogous to the jazz musician's position in African American culture.1 In other words, by comparing the poet's artistic method to common practices in blues culture, we can better appreciate his/her literary achievements.
My selection of the phrase "secular priesthood" bears some explanation here. Above all else, Black Arts poets wanted to promote self-determination through their writing. As Larry Neal says in his 1968 essay "The Black Arts Movement," "The main tenet of Black Power is the necessity for black people to define the world in their own terms. The black artist has made the same point in the context of aesthetics" (62). While many writers interpreted this as an excuse to abandon form altogether (Thomas 309), more perceptive writers insisted on creating different kinds of poetic forms. "Yeah," Neal writes, "you can take the other dude's instruments and play like your Uncle Rufus's hog callings. But there is another possibility also: You could make your own instruments" (Neal, "Ellison's Zoot Suit" 53).2
Of course, many critics have scoffed at the notion of a sound-based poetics, but Raymond Williams points out that this position reflects a class bias, because literature has always been associated with social privilege: The definition of literature as a printed book was based upon a social concept that signified educational achievement for the privileged few (47). But "if literature was reading," says Williams, "could a mode written for spoken performance be said to be literature, and if not, where was Shakepeare?" (48). So, in spite of their rejection of Christianity as mythology, Black Arts poets adopted the black preacher as a model because they understood his/ her role in the New World as a primal poet and performer. In other words, black aestheticians attempted to create an affective poetics similar to affective preaching, which allows the listener to experience the poem sensually and thereby gain understanding through memory. Audiences discuss and evaluate a stellar performance weeks afterwards, virtually reliving it, so that its spiritual essence is extended (Davis 33). Yet the question remained: How could the sermon be transformed into a revolutionary secular form?
The answer lay in the blues idiom. Black Arts poets realized that the black musician and the black preacher are counterparts. Their respective expressive forms are inscribed by a blues sensibility. As Albert Murray says in his discussion of saxophonist Lester Young, the blues musician functioned as a secular priest in black communities: "… the off-duty blues musician tends to remain in character much as does the Minister of the Gospel, and as he makes the rounds he also receives a special deference from the Saturday Night Revelers equivalent to that given off-duty ministers by Sunday Morning Worshippers" (230). Thus, despite the black church's disdain for blues music, it is not surprising that black sacred and secular forms have cross-fertilized each other. For instance, Thomas A. Dorsey, who became famous as a composer of gospel music, played piano in Ma Rainey's Wildcat Jazz Band; Bessie Smith and Robert Johnson sang a song entitled "Preachin' the Blues"; and pianist Bobby Timmons's "Moanin'," which elabo rates on gospel rhythms, is now considered a jazz classic. Even trumpeter Miles Davis traced his style to his love of gospel music (Davis 29).
But while Cortez shares much with poets such as Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Askia Toure, and Kalamu ya Salaam, who have continued to build upon the aesthetic theories of the Movement, her work is unique in several respects. Just as blues musicians strive to develop an inimical style, so Cortez has developed a personal version of the incarnation of secular priesthood. For instance, Baraka, Sanchez, Toure, and Salaam all employ tonal semantics, an African American form of paralinguistics, a term that performance scholars use to describe a mode of communication that cannot be conveyed adequately in print (Bauman 19). That is, "the voice is employed like a musical instrument with improvisation, riffs, and all kinds of playing between the notes" (Smitherman 134).3 But Cortez has been able to rehearse with her own band, which allows her to fine-tune her use of tonal semantics in her interactions with band members. Her band, The Firespitters, has a distinct sound, yet it is clear to listeners that the band has been structured around her voice and the rhythms of her poetry. Cortez often employs vocal techniques that simulate those of blues singers and/or instrumentalists. She also uses what I call terms of rememory4: allusions, words, and/or images that recall important aspects of the black cultural experience.
In addition, Cortez's development as a poet seems to coincide with her development of an internationalist world view and an interest in Surrealism, whose radical politics are quite compatible with the ideas of Black Arts theorists. Surrealists emphasize a correlation between consciousness and social action. Andre Breton (132) believed that artists and intellectuals should identify with workers, and his idea of recovering one's psychic force by plunging into the depths of one's interior sounds similar to Haki Madhubuti's idea that liberation can only be achieved if black people "change [their] mind[s]" (38). Though Breton mistakenly assumed that all artists are products of the bourgeoisie, Surrealists were committed to a "tenet of revolt, complete insubordination [and] sabotage according to rule" (125). Hence, it is not surprising that Aime Cesaire recalls that "Surrealism interested me to the extent that it was a liberating factor" (68).
Because of its rejection of simplistic either/or oppositions, Surrealism is an apt complement to the blues. In fact, Paul Garon argues that blues music is an American form of Surrealism (20). While the nationalist vision of many Black Arts poets restricted their attention to African American forms, Cortez's interest in Surrealism is analogous to blues musicians' fascination with Western instruments. Just as black musicians discovered that they could create the effects they desired in music by applying oral techniques to Western instruments, so Cortez employs Surrealism to create a blues-surreal method. More specifically, Cortez's poetic style exemplifies blues music's propensity for syncretism. She often blends surrealistic imagery with rhythms that riff on-that is, revise-the black sermon form.
The riff chorus that black preachers employ in call-and-response interchanges with congregations is a prominent feature in Cortez's poetry. This mnemonic device is usually employed as a variation of what Gerald Davis calls a formula set that "develop[s] from a key word, idea, or phrase in the lines immediately preceding the set" (53):
Churches in the basements
Churches on the street corner
Churches in the storefronts and in the garages
Churches in the dwelling house and
Churches in the synagogues
Churches on the air twenty-four hours a day
Turn on the air and you'll hear somebody preaching church
The key word here is, of course, Churches, and the line "Churches everywhere" concurrently establishes rhythmic and rhetorical bases for subsequent lines.
At times, though, Cortez's key word or phrase is less obvious to readers. Nor does she always convert her key word or phrase into a riff chorus. In "For the Brave Young Students of Soweto," for instance, the riff chorus contributes more to the rhetorical import of the poem than to its rhythm. Cortez celebrates the 1976 uprising by South African students by cataloging a series of images that function like a collage to describe the degradation of South African colonization. The issue of concern was the politics of language. Students marched in protest as a response to the government's order that Afrikaans be used as the language of instruction in the schools. After the police killed thirteen-year-old Hector Petersen by shooting him from behind, students rioted, boycotted and burned schools, and attacked police stations and the homes of black policemen (Mandela 112-13).
In the recorded version, the poem is introduced by a duet between muzette player Bill Cole and drummer Denardo Coleman, Cortez's son. As the tempo of the drumming increases, the muzette fades, allowing for a brief drum solo before Cortez interjects her own voice, using the line "when i hear your name" or a variation of it as her key phrase to draw parallels between various colonized groups. First, she establishes a political interconnection between South Africans and African Americans:
when i hear your name
I think about you
like the fifth ward in Houston Texas
Then she focuses on other colonized peoples to emphasize the global nature of colonization:
When i look at this ugliness
and think about the Native Americans
into the famine of tribal reserves
think about the concentration camps
full of sad
Cortez does not engage in tonal semantics in "For the Brave Young Students in Soweto." Instead, she relies upon the rhythmic structure of the poem and the blending of her own voice with the music of her band members to compel the listener's attention. However, in "U.S./Nigerian Relations," a revised title from the printed version in Firespitter entitled "Nigerian/ American Relations," Cortez demonstrates the complexity of sound-based poetics. Although the printed version of the poem reads as a simplistic example of prose that is nothing more than a compound sentence— "They want the oil / But they don't want the people" (26)—Cortez's performance is a classic example of the incarnation of secular priesthood, an extended riff chorus of these two lines. At the outset, Cortez's lines, which at this point are barely audible, are accented by single drumbeats. As she increases the volume of her voice, the band members begin to play. When Cortez speeds up the tempo, the band responds, and they all proceed at a feverish pace before a brief interlude, when the band plays ensemble without her. When Cortez returns, she uses an antiphonal approach, alternating the pitch of her voice by enunciating the line "They want the oil" in her speaking voice and enunciating the word "people" in a high-pitched voice that intermittently intones an interrogative. Then Cortez returns briefly to the fast tempo before concluding the poem by slowly repeating the phrase "they don't want the people" (26).
An important aspect of Cortez's revolutionary mission involves employing her blues aesthetic in a process that Cesaire refers to as "disalienation" (68). That is, Cortez uses the blues to assume the role of the ancestral healer. While she asserts the right of the colonized to use violence in poems like "Rape," "Give Me the Red on the Black of the Bullet," and "Lynch Fragment 2," more often her work operates as a sort of antibiotic that attacks the false consciousness in the colonized psyche. Since the cultural bomb (Ngugi wa Thiong'o's term) is central to the hegemonic process that "annihilate[s] people's belief … in themselves [and] makes them see their past as one vast wasteland of nonachievement" (Ngugi 3), Cortez's orchestrations of the blues impulse function as medicinal testimonies that recapitulate and historicize shared cultural experiences. That is, her song/ poems encourage colonized audience members to revise the terms in which they view themselves, so that they can move, at least psychologically, from margin to center.5
Yet it is important to bear in mind that Cortez varies the changes of her blues modality to address specific problems. "Rose Solitude" is a case in point. The poem is a praise song/poem for Duke Ellington, who was arguably the preeminent American composer of the twentieth century, and yet denied the informal title of the King of Swing, which was given instead to Glenn Miller. "Rose Solitude" thus resituates Ellington's music as a central figure in our collective memory. The poem is introduced by Richard Davis's elegiac bass. Cortez's title recalls Ellington's "Solitude," and her persona is a personification of the Ellington muse. Though here, too, there is the braggadocio of the blues persona, Cortez employs less antiphony in her own voice, using instead a softer, more sensual tone to simulate a jazz ballad. Cortez begins her lyrics by capturing the ambiance of the jazz musician's life offstage:
I am essence of Rose Solitude
my cheeks are laced with cognac
my hips sealed with five satin nails
I carry dreams of romance of new fools and old flames
between the musk of fat
and the side pocket of my mink tongue
Listen to champagne bubble from this solo
Cortez also uses her surrealistic method to create a poetic collage filled with seemingly incongruous word pictures that she, in turn, near-sings in collaboration with Davis. In addition, Cortez employs a variation of the riff chorus, though readers/listeners may not detect it immediately because Cortez shifts her key words after the first line:
I tell you from stair steps of
these navy blue nights
these metallic snakes
these flashing fish skins
and the melodious cry of Shango
surrounded by sorrow
by purple velvet tears
After the first line establishes the rhythm, Cortez begins the next three lines with the word these, and omits the phrase "I tell you from," opting instead to simulate jazz musicians' method of frustrating their listener's expectations by implying the phrase. Similarly, Cortez begins the conclusion of the passage with the phrase "surrounded by sorrow," and omits the word surrounded in the next lines.
The collage-effect also simulates blues music. The blend of brilliant colors with Cortez's silky voice produces an exhilarating effect that is comparable to the soothing feelings that compel foot-tapping motions from audience members at jazz concerts. Moreover, Cortez's use of color invokes the presence of blues music. The "navy blue nights" image, like the "purple velvet tears," suggests not only the nighttime settings of the performances but also the super-blues basis of Ellington's music. The snake and Shango (Nigerian god of thunder) images suggest the saxophones and drums, respectively, while "fish skins" imply the sequined dresses the women patrons wore.
In "If the Drum Is a Woman," Cortez evokes Ellington's presence once again. Here, though, instead of the ballad, she combines her own riff chorus with son Denardo Coleman's polyrhythmic drumming in an intertextual dialogue with Ellington. As is typical in the blues tradition, Cortez appropriates Ellington's music as a basis of improvisation for her own tune in order to foreground gender violence. Her response to Ellington here is reminiscent of Dee Dee Bridgewater's "Doodlin'," which is a revision of Horace Silver's version of the song. Like Bridgewater, whose scatting simulates the sound of a trombone, Cortez asserts the primacy of the black female voice, and challenges the objectification inscribed in Ellington's text. On the cover of his suite entitled A Drum Is a Woman, a voluptuous (white) woman appears as the central image of the photograph. Sitting with her back turned between two larger drums, her arms raised and her head tilted back, the woman's curvaceous body is an extension of the drum. Cortez's foregrounding of polyrhythms, then, calls attention to black women's contributions to the cultural histories of the African diaspora, and her collaboration with Coleman suggests the potentiality of broader social cooperation between men and women. Given the gendered inscription of the drum in the photograph, the misogynist implications in "What Else Can You Do With a Drum" become clear, and it is not surprising that Cortez's song/poem is actually a response to this song.
The first part of "What Else Can You Do With a Drum" is a narrative performed by Ellington himself, who focuses on Carribee Joe, a lover of nature and animals, who finds an elaborate drum in the jungle. When Joe touches the drum, it speaks to him and says, "I am not a drum, I am a woman. Know me as Madam Zajj, African chantress." (Ellington). After Joe rejects Madam Zajj's appeal to "make beautiful rhythms together," she angrily flies to Barbados to find another Joe. Then the trumpet section initiates the calypso rhythms in which Trinidadian singer Ozzie Bailey sings,
There was a man who lived in Barbados,
he saw pretty woman one day,
he took her home and when she got there she turned
into a drum.
It isn't civilized to beat women
no matter what they do or they say,
but will somebody tell me what else can you do with a drum?
Cortez displaces Bailey's male voice, and revises Ellington's representation of the black woman as sex object. While Ellington envisioned Madam Zajj (whose name is jazz spelled chiasmically) as a personification of the blues spirit, her capability as an enchantress is based largely on her physical beauty. In contrast, Cortez challenges male listeners to question their conceptualizations of gender roles. While the poem is obviously an indictment of violence against women, it is also a study of the process whereby colonized individuals become reflections of the colonizer, and thereby reify the socio-political structure that underlies their own marginalization by victimizing others:
If the drum is a woman
why are you pounding your drum into an insane
why are you pistol whipping your drum at dawn
why are you shooting through the head of your drum
and making a drum tragedy of drums
In "In the Morning," Cortez engages in a revision of a different sort. Rather than responding to a specific musician, she draws from the wellspring of African American lore, creating a musico-poetic blues form based upon her idea of the ring shout,6 an antebellum religious ceremony in which slaves danced counter-clockwise to improvised music with refrains. Like Sterling Brown's "Memphis Blues," "In the Morning" is informed by an ABA structure (text, development, and restatement) that is common in jazz compositions and sermons (Henderson 40). Unlike "If the Drum Is a Woman," "In the Morning" is not polemical. Rather, the sound of the poem informs both form and content. Just as bebop musicians employed terms like ool-yakoo to express the pleasure and social ramifications inscribed in the blues impulse, so "In the Morning" describes and conveys the sensations of African American self-discovery through the dance of language in which Cortez reenacts the rocking emotional energy reflected in the syncopation, hand clapping, foot stomping, and suggestive gyrations of the ring shout. In the recorded version of "In the Morning," the Firespitters introduce the piece with a slow tune that blends a down-home blues beat with a jazzy, urban sound. Although none of the musicians has a solo, the sound of the guitar is particularly prominent. The foregrounding of the guitar is apt because guitarists were the preferred instrumentalists among blues vocalists. The blues sound contributes to the poem's appeal by producing the actual sounds that Cortez celebrates via simulation and replication. Thus, in syncretizing different strands of blues, Cortez and the Firespitters demonstrate the artistic possibilities for cultural hybridity which, in turn, becomes a metaphor for her revisionary process as she merges sound and script, transforming the traditionally Western notion of literature through its subsumption of the blues matrix.
Like Billie Holiday, who approached singing like blowing a horn (Murray 89), Cortez simulates jazz improvisation in the structure of her poem by employing her title phrase as a riff chorus that frames an allusion to blues lyrics:
In the morning in the morning in the morning
all over my door like a rooster
in the morning in the morning in the morning
Cortez's riff chorus functions like a break in jazz. It marks a rhythmic departure from the previous pattern of the poem, and she maximizes the effect by varying the tone of the repeated line. Guitarist Bern Nix complements Cortez's break by soloing afterwards, and thereby accentuates the simulation of the jazz break. When Cortez returns to her title phrase for the riff chorus, she simulates the rhythm of blues music by varying the pitch of her voice antiphonally, and she experiments with vowel sounds, elongating the /o/ sound in the repeated phrase "let it blow" to simulate the sounds of horn players. The rhythm continues to build until the poem reaches a crescendo:
all swollen up like an ocean in the morning
early in the morning
before the cream dries in the bushes
in the morning
when you hear the rooster cry
cry rooster cry
in the morning in the morning in the morning
The sexual imagery here is obvious. The swelling, dried cream, rooster, and cry all suggest coitus and/or pregnancy. Yet the passage does not concern sexuality so much as it illustrates the profound respect for the cycle of life in the sediment of African American vernacular epistemology. The shameless embrace of flesh reflected in the gyrations of the ring shout and the undulating belly rub associated with blues music represent a celebration of re-creation in the ritual of birth. The music of Cortez's riff chorus underscores this idea, linking the diurnal renewal of nature with spiritual rejuvenation, just as preachers chant "in the morning" to provide hope to their congregations. But whereas preachers typically frame their conceptualizations of spirituality within the context of the hereafter, Cortez's riff chorus fosters a new dawn imbued with socio-political possibility. The blues, she writes, "[m]asquerad[es] in [hen horn like a river / eclipsed to these infantries of dentures of diving / spears" (29). The conflation of voice, instrument, and weapon reflects Cortez's belief that the raucous energy inscribed in the blues idiom can be channeled into a politically conscious movement to achieve social change.
If "In the Morning" constitutes the dance of African American language, then "You Know" represents its choreography. Despite the superb crafts(wo)manship in the former, "You Know" is perhaps her best poem. A counterpart to "In the Morning," "You Know" is self-reflexive, and is a celebration of the blues idiom. However, "You Know" contrasts with "In the Morning" in several respects. Cortez uses the riff chorus intermittently in "In the Morning" to simulate improvisation, but in "You Know" the riff chorus, "you know," functions like a walking bass: The steady beat allows for the super-imposition of antiphonal lines that simulate solos. Also, while Cortez creates improvisational effects in "You Know," the poem does not concern music so much as it does blues poetics. That is, "You Know" both describes and exemplifies Cortez's ability to merge script and sound and thereby incarnate secular priesthood. Just as Bessie Smith and other women blues singers demonstrated their commitment to their audiences, so Cortez's dedication "(For the people who speak the you know language)" (Coagulations 41) illustrates her political identification with working-class African Americans who often repeat the phrase "you know" in conversation.
Cortez's dedication also constitutes an act of signifying (in the vernacular sense of that word) on many African Americans whose false consciousness is manifested in their vehement disapproval of any linguistic habits that deviate from the dominant culture. In using the phrase "you know" as the rhythmic basis of her poem, Cortez demonstrates the poetic potentiality of African American vernacular English.
After the band breaks into a bluesy, medium tempo tune, Cortez opens with the line "You know / I sure would like to write a blues / you know / a nice long blues" (41). Hers is no version of Tin Pan Alley, though. Indeed, a major concern of Cortez involves creating a blues poetics that demythologizes the blues idiom. She cautions against stereotyping blues music as a compilation of lyrics that run "love love love in the ground" (42), and focuses instead on the pent-up rage that Bessie Smith expresses in "Black Mountain Blues":
Back in Black Mountain a child will smack you in
Back in Black Mountain a child will smack you in
Babies cryin' for liquor, and all the birds sing bass
(qtd. in Dance 17)
Cortez then transforms this raw energy into a hard-hitting poetry "that you could all feel at the same time / on the same level like a Joe Louis punch." The revolutionary fervor of Cortez's blues aesthetic is such that "one drop of blues" can turn "a paper clip / into three wings and a bone into a revolt" (41). The bone image reflects Cortez's blues-surreal method. Rather than confining herself to depicting reality only as it is (consider rap artists' urgent calls "to keep it real"), Cortez stresses the importance of changing reality. Hence, the bone and wing images suggest her role as secular priestess whose magical art promotes healing by infusing sensations of freedom into the consciousnesses of her listeners, stimulating them to convert feelings into new realities:
go into the dark meat of a crocodile
and pinpoint the process
into a solo a hundred times
like the first line of Aretha Franklin
The allusion to singer Aretha Franklin indicates that she is an important artistic model for Cortez. The phrase "the first line of Aretha" suggests Franklin's inimitable style that is recognized immediately by informed listeners. In addition, Cortez's homage to Franklin not only recalls the privileged position of the black musician in African American communities, but it also highlights the priestess-like role that Franklin served for black women during her popularity in the 1960s and 1970s. Like Cortez herself, Franklin was not, in the strict sense, a blues singer. The sound of Franklin's voice, however, and the style in which she performed her lyrics produced an effect upon audiences comparable to that of blues musicians. Franklin's performance of "Respect" is a case in point. Though Otis Redding had recorded the song earlier, Sherley Anne Williams points out that Franklin's version is distinctive because it became a metaphor for resistance (recall her spelling the word R-E-S-P-E-C-T) and articulated a set of values that reinforced her listeners' sense of agency.
Of course, as I mentioned earlier, black singers were sources of inspiration for other poets of Cortez's generation. Her work, however, offers a double-edged revision of Black Arts poetry. For instance, "You Know" displays all ten of the qualities that Carolyn Rodgers lists in her taxonomy of Black Arts poetry. "You Know" "signif[ies]"; it "teach[es]/rap[s]"; it "run[s] down" and "coatpull[s]"; it engages in "mindblow[ing]" (fantasy); it is "dealin/swingin"; it expresses "love"; it is "two faced" (irony); it "riff[s]"; it is "du-wah"; and it concerns "getting us together" (7-8). Yet the poem is also an implicit critique of the cultural nationalism that impeded the full development of a blues poetics. While "You Know" should be read as a response to Baraka's request in "Black Art" for "a Black poem" (106), her foregrounding of the blues idiom in the line "i sure would like to write a blues" is a revision of the manicheism in "Black Art." Similarly, "You Know" retorts to Sonia Sanchez's "liberation / poem," where in she says, "blues ain't culture / they sounds of / oppression" (54). Despite Sanchez's disclaimer, her very language—that is, her use of the zero copula—as well as her omission of the "In" sound in the lines "no mo / blue / trains running on this track" (which recalls John Coltrane's "Blue Trane") testify to her own attempt to create a blues poetics.
Cortez's version of blues poetry constitutes a profound challenge to literary conventions, and demonstrates the eloquence of contemporary blues poetics. As such, it affirms Raymond Williams's suggestion that it is possible to create literature for a colonized audience. Yet the hallmark of her achievement is her production of a syncretized form that blends oral forms like blues music and the sermon with the notion of literature as script. While many African American poets have experimented with vernacular forms, Cortez adds a new dimension to literary history by incarnating the black performer. In the process, she reconceptualizes the very notion of American poetry by shaping her work to the contours of omni-American aesthetics8 grounded in the specific historical experiences of the United States. Whereas most poets in the Black Arts Movement rejected the notion of the artifact and thereby accepted a manichean opposition between (black) sound and (white) script, Cortez redefines the literary artifact by recording albums, though she continues to publish books. Thus, in her quest for a popular people's poetry, she appeals to both readers and listeners.
1. While the term jazz is expedient for the purposes of this discussion, I consider jazz as the most complex manifestation of the blues idiom. Albert Murray (75, 82) argues that, even though blues instrumentalists use oral techniques, the actual message of the music comes from its instrumentation.
2. Given the male-centered references here, it is ironic that Jayne Cortez has become the preeminent poet to emerge out of the Movement.
3. According to Peter Middleton, some poets enhance the effectiveness of their performances by using "sound symbolism, the use of the sound of words to intensify the meaning of what [they write]" (284).
5. I am borrowing bell hooks's title here.
6. See the "liner notes" to Unsubmissive Blues.
7. I witnessed the power of this poem first hand at the 1994 National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta. The audience demonstrated its approval with loud hoots and screams, and gave Cortez a standing ovation.
8. I am borrowing Albert Murray's title here.
Baker, Houston, A. Jr. Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984.
Baraka, Amiri. "Black Art." Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka /Leroi Jones. New York: Morrow, 1979. 106-07.
Bauman, Richard. Verbal Art as Performance. 1977. Prospect Heights: Waveland, 1984.
Breton, Andre. "Second Manifesto of Surrealism." Trans. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane. Manifestoes of Surrealism. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1969. 117-94.
Bridgewater, Dee Dee. Love and Peace. Verve 314527470-2.
Brown, Kimberly N. "Of Poststructuralist Fallout, Scarification, and Blood Poems: The Revolutionary Ideology behind the Poetry of Jayne Cortez." Other Sisterhoods: Literary Theory and U.S. Women of Color. Ed. Sandra Kumamoto Stanley. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1998. 63-85.
Cesaire, Aime. Discourse on Colonialism. 1955. Trans. Joan Pinkham. New York: Monthly Review P, 1972.
Christian, Barbara. "There It Is: The Poetry of Jayne Cortez." Rev. of Coagulations, by Jayne Cortez. Callaloo 9 (Winter 1986): 235-38.
Cortez, Jayne. Coagulations. New York: Thunder's Mouth, 1984.
———. Celebrations and Solitudes. Accompanied by Richard Davis. Strata East Records, 1975.
———. Firespitter. New York: Bola, 1982.
———. Mouth on Paper. New York: Bola, 1977.
———. There It Is. Accompanied by Abraham Adzinyah, Bill Cole, Denardo Coleman, Farel Johnson, Jr., Charles Moffett, Jr., Bern Nix, Jamaaladeen Tacuma. New York: Bola, 1982.
———. Unsubmissive Blues. Accompanied by Bill Cole, Denardo Coleman, Joe Daley, Bern Nix. New York: Bola, 1980
Davis, Gerald. I Got the Word in Me and I Can Sing It, You Know: A Study of the Performed African American Sermon. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1985.
Davis, Miles. The Autobiography. With Quincy Troupe. New York: Simon, 1989.
Ellington, Duke. A Drum Is a Woman. Columbia, 1957.
Garon, Paul. Blues & the Poetic Spirit. 1975. New York: Da Capo, 1978.
Harlow, Barbara. Resistance Literature. New York: Methuen, 1987.
Henderson, Stephen. "The Heavy Blues of Sterling Brown: A Study of Craft and Tradition." Black American Literature Forum 14 (1980): 32-44.
Hughes, Langston. Montage of a Dream Deferred. New York: Knopf, 1951.
Madhbuti, Haki. "a poem to complement other poems." Don't Cry, Scream. Chicago: Third World P, 1969. 36-38.
Middleton, Peter. "The Contemporary Poetry Reading." Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word. Ed. Charles Bernstein. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. 262-99.
Murray, Albert. Stomping the Blues. 1976. New York: Da Capo, 1987.
Neal, Larry. "The Black Arts Movement." Visions of a Liberated Future. Ed. Michael Schwarz. New York: Thunder's Mouth, 1989. 62-78.
———. "The Black Writer's Role II: Ellison's Zoot Suit." Visions of a Liberated Future. Ed. Michael Schwartz. New York: Thunder's Mouth, 1989. 30-56.
Ngugi wa Thiong'o. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1986.
Nielsen, Aldon Lynn. Black Chant: The Languages of African American Postmodernism. New York: Oxford UP, 1997.
Olson, Charles. Human Universe. 1965. New York: Grove, 1967.
Redmond, Eugene. Drumvoices: A Critical History. Garden City: Doubleday, 1976.
Rodgers, Carolyn. "Black Poetry—Where It's At." Negro Digest Sep. 1969: 7-16.
Sanchez, Sonia. "liberation / poem." We a BaddDDD People. Detroit: Broadside, 1970. 54.
Smith, Bessie. "Black Mountain Blues." Honey Hush: An Anthology of African American Women's Humor. Ed. Daryl Cumber Dance. New York: Norton, 1998. 17-18.
Smith, David Lionel. "The Black Arts Movement and Its Critics." American Literary History 3 (1991): 93-110.
Taylor, Patrick. The Narrative of Liberation: Perspectives on Afro-Caribbean Literature, Popular Culture, and Politics. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1989.
Smitherman, Geneva. Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America. 1977. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1985.
Thomas, Lorenzo. "Neon Griot: The Functional Role at Poetry Readings in the Black Arts Movement." Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word. Ed. Charles Bernstein. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. 300-23.
Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.
Williams, Sherley Anne. "The Blues Roots of Afro-American Poetry." Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarship. Ed. Michael S. Harper and Robert B. Stepto. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1979. 123-35.
———. The Peacock Poems. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1975.
Anderson, T. J., III, "Hot House: Jayne Cortez and the Music of Illumination." In Notes to Make the Sound Come Right: Four Innovators of Jazz Poetry, pp. 119-44. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2004.
Explores use of musical elements in Cortez's poetry and the influence of American jazz composers on her work.
Melham, D. H. "A MELUS Profile and Interview: Jayne Cortez." MELUS 21, no. 1 (Spring 1996): 71-9.
Overview of Cortez's career that features an interview in which she discusses her response to the difficulties of contemporary reality.
Newson-Horst, Adele S. Review of Jazz Fan Looks Back. World Literature Today 77, no. 2 (July-September 2003): 102.
Offers high praise for Cortez's poetic appreciation of American jazz in Jazz Fan Looks Back.
Nielsen, Aldon Lynn. "Capillary Currents: Jayne Cortez." In We Who Love to Be Astonished: Experimental Women's Writing and Performance Poetics, edited by Laura Hinton and Cynthia Hogue, pp. 227-36. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002.
Examines elements of Cuban and American jazz in Cortez's poem "I See Chano Pozo."
Publisher's Weekly. Review of Somewhere in Advance of Nowhere, by Jayne Cortez. Vol. 243, no. 23 (June 3, 1996): 74.
Brief critique, praising the resilience of Cortez's poetry.
Additional information on Cortez's life and works is contained in the following sources published by Gale: Black Writers, Eds. 2, 3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 13, 31, 68, 126; Contemporary Women Poets; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 41; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; and Literature Resource Center.
Cortez, Jayne 1936–
Jayne Cortez 1936–
Acclaimed as original, versatile, and multifaceted, Jayne Cortez is a poet whose extraordinary career includes literary success and impassioned activism inspired by the ideals of human dignity and social justice. Cortez is considered to be the primary link between the creative sound-based poetics of the Black Arts Movement and what became synonymous with poetry in the last years of the twentieth century: hip hop and performance poetry. Cortez has been writing and performing her poetry for over 40 years at museums, universities, and festivals throughout the United States, South America, Europe, Asia and Africa. Her poetry, which has been translated into twenty-eight languages, fuses politics with surrealism, and blends traditional poetry with the African oral and aural traditions, American black culture, jazz, and blues. Cortez, who has described her work as a mix of art and politics, as well as confrontational, has been included in several anthologies, journals, and magazines. Cortez has published ten volumes of poetry, recorded nine albums, and she has received numerous awards. In addition, she has appeared in the Canadian film, Poetry In Motion and in the film Women in Jazz. She also participated in the music video Nelson Mandela is Coming and her poem, I Am New York City, was featured in an episode of Tribeca, the Fox television network series.
Her career as a social activist is impressive. Cortez traveled to Mississippi in 1963 to help register black voters. In 1964 Cortez organized writing and drama workshops in the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles, ultimately co-founding the Watts Repertory Theater Company. Like many other black artists who wanted control over their work, Cortez established her own publishing company, Bola Press, in 1972. She co-founded, and is president of, the Organization of Women Writers of Africa. A tireless organizer, she coordinated the Yari Yari International Conference of Women Writers of African Descent as well as directed the film Van’ Yari. She also helped to organize the international symposium, Slave Routes: The Long Memory and was a participant in a round table discussion at the United Nations Millennium Summit in 2000.
Cortez was born on May 10, 1936, in Fort Huachuca, Arizona. She grew up in Los Angeles, where she attended an arts-based high school where she focused on painting and she studied the cello. She also loved to write and was an avid journal keeper. Playing the cello, Cortez became acquainted with classical music but in the Cortez household, she was exposed to Spanish and Native American music as well as blues and jazz. After high school she attended Compton Junior College and also studied drama at Ebony Showcase. Unfortunately, she interrupted her studies due to financial constraints. She did not, however, put down her pen and continued to write.
Many critics define Cortez as a jazz poet. Most of what Cortez has written is best experienced when heard, rather than read from a page. Her voice and choice of words are her instruments. As an artistic young woman living in Los Angeles during the 1950s, Cortez was
At a Glance…
Born Jayne Cortez on May 10, 1936, in Fort Huachuca, AZ; married Ornette Coleman, 1954 (divorced 1964); married Melvin Edwards, 1975; children: (first marriage) Denardo Coleman. Education: Attended Compton Junior College; studied drama at Ebony Showcase.
Career: Watts Repertory Theater, co-founder, 1964; poet and performance artist, 1969–; Bola Press, founder, 1972s Livingston College of Rutgers University, writer-in-residence, 1977–83; Dartmouth College, lecturer; Howard University, lecturer; Queens College, lecturer; Wesleyan University, lecturer; Eastern Michigan University, M. Thelma McAndless Distinguished Professor in Humanities, 2003.
Memberships: Organization of Women Writers of Africa, co-founder, president; Poetry Society of America.
Awards: New York State Council on the Arts Poetry Award, 1973, 1981; National Endowment for the Arts, 1979–86; American Book Award, I980; Before Columbus Foundation Award, 1987; Afrikan Poetry Theater tribute and award, 1994; Fannie Lou Hammer Award, 1994.
Addresses: Office —Bola Press, P.O. Box 96, Village Station, New York, NY 10014.
attracted to the exciting jazz scene that was evolving in California during that time. In 1954, when she was eighteen, Cortez married jazz saxophonist, Ornette Coleman; the marriage lasted until 1964. Because Cortez had a musical background and lived in a musical environment, her writing gravitated toward lyrical verse, and at a further point she began to interweave her poetry with music. While fusing jazz and poetry was nothing new, Cortez, who learned from various arts movements and absorbed the experimental spirit exemplified by such writers as Langston Hughes, Jack Kerouac, and Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones), developed her own style.
Critics have also described Cortez as a political poet. It is important to note that during the 1960s, many black artists, including Cortez, were influenced by the Black Arts Movement. The Black Arts Movement, considered to be the artistic branch of the Black Power Movement, has been criticized by several black scholars, including the esteemed Henry Louis Gates, Jr. However, many critics consider the Black Arts Movement the most important movement in American literature precisely because it effected a paradigm shift whereby the meaning and function of literature were redefined. Essentially, the artist had a responsibility to his or her community, and this responsibility included the duty to redefine the world on the basis of culture-specific symbols and terms. Writing for Chicken Bones, Kalamu ya Salaam explained, “[T]he effort of the black arts movement was to make art based on the speech and music of black people, drawn from the everyday lives of our people and returned to them in an inspiring and potent form….” The Black Arts Movement environment encouraged black artists to join this new frontier, but unfortunately, not many of the initially recognized poets remained active.
Cortez drew inspiration from the Black Arts Movement, but she considerably expanded the movement’s intellectual horizons. While the black poets of the 1960s forged a new type of literature—replacing traditional literary forms by modes of discourse informed by artistic creation in reaction to the dominant cultural paradigm—Cortez went a step further. As a black female, Cortez sought to create a literary discourse that was free of both the traditional white poetical aesthetic and the sexism that was evident in all cultures. Writing for Modern American Poetry, Karen Ford asserted, “For most women who came of age artistically during the Black Arts movement and who were tutored in the Black Aesthetic, the struggle to create a place for themselves in the literary environment was arduous. Giovanni, Sanchez, Rodgers,… frequently retreated to some form of conventional femininity that was almost as disabling as the over bearing masculinity they sought to escape. An exception to this pattern and a harbinger of future development in African American poetry is Jayne Cortez.”
Cortez was of her time. According to Salaam, “[T]he black arts movement proper covers the time period of 1965 to 1976.” Yet, Cortez’s life choices reflected many of the Black Arts Movement ideologies before the movement formally began. While Cortez may have “come of age” during the height of the Black Arts Movement, she seems to have been able to be both immersed in, and able to circumvent, the movement, continuing to evolve into the twenty-first century. The controversial and unsentimental columnist and critic, Stanley Crouch, claimed that Jayne Cortez was the only female poet that was interesting during the Black Arts Movement—interestingly, this was the same Stanley Crouch who learned to play the drums so that he could accompany Cortez while she performed her poetry in the mid-1960s. In an interview with Robert Boynton (posted on his website), Crouch stated, “I’d never met anyone with that kind of aesthetic commitment, who’d drawn a line in the dirt and said, ‘I am an artist.’”
Tony Bolden wrote a critical essay for African American Review, where he discussed Cortez’s work at length. Bolden declared, “Black Aesthetic poetic theories are best exemplified in the poetry of Jayne Cortez, whose work demonstrates the full potentiality of what I call a blues poetics; that is, the most profound manifestation of the tradition of African American Resistance poetry.” Bolden further explained “Black Arts poets, who were attuned to the impact of Malcolm X and James Brown on black audiences, realized that the sermon and song/shout could be utilized to create a popular people’s poetry as reading material, poets attempted to incarnate—that is, become—the black performer and thereby blur the distinction between poetry and song by using the voice as an instrument.” In the essay, Bolden explained the term, tonal semantics, which is an African-American form of paralinguistics, “a term that performance scholars use to describe a mode of communication that cannot be conveyed adequately in print.” Comparing Cortez with other poets, including Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Kalamu ya Salaam, and Askia Toure, who all employ tonal semantics, asserted that her work is unique largely because she rehearsed “with her own band, which allows her to fine-tune her use of tonal semantics in her interaction with band members. Her band, The Fire-spitters, has a distinct sound, yet it is clear to listeners that the band has been structured around her voice and the rhythms of her poetry. Cortez often employs vocal techniques that simulate those of blues singers and/or instrumentalists. She also uses what I call terms of rememory: allusions, words, and/or images that recall important aspects of the black cultural experience.” Cortez, who maintains that her poetry swings with or without music, emphasized to Luke Woods, writer for the Eastern Echo, “The most important part of poetry and art is that you’ve got to find your own way, otherwise you’re not in it.”
The early 1960s were extremely challenging for Cortez. Not only had she become a political activist and had established herself as a poet, she traveled to Africa, Asia, and Europe. In 1967 she moved to New York City and began to get more recognition for her work. Since 1969, when she published her first book, Pis-stained Stairs and the Monkey Man’s Wares, Cortez has published a book every few years, most of which have been illustrated by Melvin Edwards, whom she wed in 1975. It is interesting to note that in 1956 Cortez and Ornette Coleman had a son, Denardo who, at a young age became a proficient drummer. Denardo often accompanied his father, and later became a member of The Firespitters and has played on all of his mother’s albums. In 2003, at the age of 67, Cortez and the Firespitters released Borders of Disorderly Time. Most people think about retiring at that age, but Cortez continues to perform, lecture, and teach. While Cortez was the M. Thelma McAndless Distinguished Professor in Humanities at Eastern Michigan University in 2003, she told Carol Anderson of Focus EMU, “I look at my work today, then tomorrow it looks different. I say, ‘That’ pretty good, but tomorrow I’ll write a new masterpiece.’”
Pisstained Stairs and the Monkey Man’s Wares, Phrase Text, 1969.
Festivals and Funerals, Bola Press, 1971.
Scarifications, Bola Press, 1973.
Mouth on Paper, Bola Press, 1977.
Firespitter, Bola Press, 1982.
Coagulations: New and Selected Poems, Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1984.
Poetic Magnetic, Bola Press, 1991.
Somewhere in Advance of Nowhere, Serpent’s Tail, 1997.
Jazz Fan Looks Back, Hanging Loose Press, Brooklyn, 2002.
Poetry in Motion, 1982.
Nelson Mandela is Coming (music video), 1991.
Women in Jazz, 2000.
Celebrations and Solitudes, Strata East, 1975.
Unsubmissive Blues, Bola Press, 1980.
There It Is, Bola Press, 1982.
Maintain Control, Bola Press, 1986.
Everywhere Drums, Bola Press, 1991.
Mandela is Coming, Globalvision, 1991.
Taking the Blues Back Home, Harmolodic/Verve, 1997.
Borders of Disorderly Time, 2003.
African American Review, Spring 2001, p. 61.
Billboard, March 2, 1991, p. 62.
Eastern Echo, October 1, 2003.
Focus EMU, October 14, 2003, p. 4.
Publishers Weekly, April 29, 2002, p. 66.
“Biography,” Jayne Cortez Official Website, www.jaynecortez.com (October 19, 2003).
“Black Poetry Text & Sound: Two Trains Running Black Poetry 1965–2000 (notes towards a discussion & dialogue),” Chicken Bones: A Journal for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes, www.nathanielturner.com/whatisblackpoetry.htm (November 11, 2003).
“Inside the River of Poetry,” In Motion, www.inmo-tionmagazine.com/ac/rivera.html (November 11, 2003).
“Jayne Cortez, Poet, Jazz Artist,” Black Voices: Black History Month, www.blackvoices.com/feature/blk_history_98/women/html/4.htm (November 6, 2003).
“Jayne Cortez & The Firespitters,” Philadelphia City Paper, http://citypaper.net/articles//021501/cw.pick.jayne.shtml (October 19, 2003).
“On Cortez’s Poetry,” Modern American Poetry, www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/a_f/cortez/poetry.htm (October 27, 2003).
“The Professor of Connection: A Profile of Stanley Crouch,” Robert Boynton Official Website, www.robertboynton.com (November 30, 2003).
“Voices From the Gaps: Women Writers of Color, Jayne Cortez,” University of Minnesota, http://voices.cla.umn.edu/authors/CORTEZjayne.html (October 27, 2003).
—Christine Miner Minderovic
Born 19 May 1936, Arizona
Married Ornette Coleman (divorced); children: Denardo
Jayne Cortez, a poet of extraordinary musicality, was born in Arizona but reared in the Watts section of Los Angeles. A participant in writers' workshops in Watts during the 1960s, she published her first volume of poems, Pissstained Stairs and the Monkey Man's Wares in 1969. Since then, she has published six volumes of poetry, made three recordings of readings of her work, and has had her poems included in numerous anthologies, magazines, and journals. In 1979 she received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry. A performing poet, Cortez has lectured and read widely in the U.S., Latin America, and Africa, often reading to musical accompaniment.
Cortez has been described as a "surrealist" poet because of her startling use of symbol and imagery. In her poems, colors have tastes, sounds have texture and shape, odors are visible and audible. Cortez yokes opposites and contradictories, such as "signifying stones" and "tattooed holes." She juxtaposes the beautiful and the ugly, the sublime and the disgusting, often in the same line or phrase.
Cortez's images combine with her use of language and sound. Often the poems have a sense of incantation achieved through a judicious use of repetition. In addition, she is a student of black musical traditions, ancient and modern, grounding poems in African rhythms, blues lines, and avant-garde jazz structures. Orality is central to Cortez's art. The sounds of the words reinforce their sense. In Cortez's performances, the English language also becomes tonal as she varies pitch and duration of syllables to enhance the musicality of her lines. Vocalized breaths provide rhythmic punctuation for other lines in the mode of the traditional African American preacher.
A high priestess for the human race, Cortez has nonetheless a black woman's vision. She is seer and healer, singer and chastiser. She self-consciously assumes a "griot" stance, singing praise of such cultural figures as Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington, Cuban drummer Chano Pozo, Martinican poet Leon Damas, and South African freedom fighter Solomon Mahlangu. Praises for the works of people such as these who have joined the ancestors commingle with exhortations to the living. Cortez orates from a pulpit of Pan-African cultural identity, environmental concerns, and human rights advocacy. "Push back the catastrophes," she urges in her poem of the same name. Her poems see as catastrophic all ideas and actions that prevent the actualization of human potential, dignity, and creativity.
Beginning her career as a writer during a period when poets often took to the public platform, Cortez has become known as a highly polished performer. In 1975 she recorded her first album, Celebrations and Solitudes: The Poetry of Jayne Cortez, with bassist Richard Davis. Subsequent recordings have featured other noted jazz musicians, including her son, Denardo Coleman.
In her sixth book, Somewhere in Advance of Nowhere (1996), Cortez again presents life in her streetwise, musical, and rhythmic style. In this collection, as in her other work, the poetry ranges from the clearly political to the grim; full of insight into life and some of its darker moments. Critics continue to praise Cortez's work as a tribute to human resilience and a showcase of poetic confrontation.
Cortez continues to merge art, music, and poetry in her life and work. Involved in a wide range of creative efforts, Cortez has worked on films such as Tribeca (1993) and music videos including Mandela is Coming (1991). Her verse reflects her extensive travels, which have included lecture tours throughout Africa, Europe, Canada, and the U.S. and tours with her jazz ensemble to Brazil, Germany, Italy, Zimbabwe, the British Isles, and Japan. She also appears at jazz festivals in the U.S., London, and Germany.
In addition to her artistic efforts, Cortez has taught at Rutgers University (English) and was writer-in-residence at the Writers' Community in New York. She also serves on the advisory board of Poets House, the executive board of PEN, the governing board of the Poetry Society of America, and the board of directors of the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines. Together with Ama Ata Aidoo, a resident of Zimbabwe, she formed the Organization of Women Writers of Africa (OWWA) to establish links between professional African women writers and to promote interest in the literature of African women.
Continually active in her chosen artistic fields, Cortez offers the following on her own creative process: "I use dreams, the subconscious, and the real objects, and I open up the body and use organs, and I sink them into words, and I ritualize them and fuse them into events. I guess the poetry is like a festival. Everything can be transformed."
Festivals and Funerals (1971). Scarifications (1973). Mouth on Paper (1977). Firespitter (1982). Coagulations: New and Selected Poems (1984). Poet Magnetic (1991). Fragments (1994). Recordings: Unsubmissive Blues (1980). There It Is (1982).
Melhem, D. H., ed., Heroism in the New Black Poetry (1990). Redmond, E. B., Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry—A Critical History (1976).
CA (1978). CANR (1984). DLB (1985). FC (1990). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
Callaloo (1986). MELUS (Spring 1996). PW (3 June 1996). Yardbird Reader (1976).
—FAHAMISHA PATRICIA BROWN
UPDATED BY REBECCA C. CONDIT
May 10, 1936
The poet Jayne Cortez was born in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, and she moved with her family to Watts in Los Angeles when she was seven. Jazz was one of her earliest and most significant artistic influences. In 1954 she married the avant-garde saxophonist Ornette Coleman. The two were divorced in 1960, and Cortez soon began to pursue her childhood dream of becoming an actress. She studied drama and attended acting workshops, and it was around this time that she began to write poetry.
In 1963 she met James Forman, the executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), who persuaded her to go to Mississippi to help register voters. After spending the summer of 1963 in Greenwood and the summer of 1964 in Jackson, she was, by her own account, transformed: "I saw history being made."
Upon her return to California, Cortez founded the Watts Repertory Theater Company, a writers' and actors' workshop, and she began public readings of her poetry there. In 1967 she moved to New York City, where she founded Bola Press. Two years later she published her first collection of poetry, Pissstained Stairs and the Monkey Man's Wares (1969). In 1975 she married the artist Melvin Edwards, and from 1977 to 1983 she served as writer-inresidence at Livingston College of Rutgers University.
African imagery, poetic forms, and language are important facets of Cortez's work, which is collected in the volume Coagulations: New and Selected Poems (1984). However, it is music that most permeates Cortez's poetry. She abruptly changes line lengths and frequently repeats words and lines, establishing rhythms evocative of the spectrum of the African-American musical tradition, from the blues to experimental jazz. She often performs with her own jazz band, the Firespitters, which includes her son Denardo Coleman on drums. She has released several CDs of her poetry set to music, including Borders of Disorderly Time (2003). This interest in music also pervades her latest collection of poetry, Jazz Fan Looks Back (2002), which celebrates such artists as Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis.
In addition to her poetry, Cortez and Ghanian writer Ama Ata Aidoo founded the Organization of Women Writers of Africa, and in 1999 and 2004 she coordinated the "Yari Yari International Conference of Women Writers of African Descent." She also helped to organize "Slave Routes: The Long Memory," an international symposium that took place in New York City in 1999. Cortez continues to be a highly political poet, and she has traveled widely, reading her poetry in North America, Latin America, Africa, Europe, and the Caribbean.
See also Poetry, U.S.
Bolden, Tony. "All the Birds Sing Bass: The Revolutionary Blues of Jayne Cortez." African American Review 35, no. 1 (2001): 61–71.
Brown, Kimberly N. "Of Poststructuralist Fallout, Scarification, and Blood Poems: The Revolutionary Ideology Behind the Poetry of Jayne Cortez." In Other Sisterhoods: Literary Theory and U.S. Women of Color, edited by Sandra Kumamoto Stanley. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.
Melhem, D. H. Heroism in the New Black Poetry: Introductions and Interviews. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990.
Nielson, Aldon Lynn. Black Chant: The Languages of African American Postmodernism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
louis j. parascandola(1996)
Updated by author 2005