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Finding a voice: Braxton interviews Cortez

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Earlier this semester, Joanne Braxton, the Frances L. & Edwin L. Cummings Professor of English and Humanities at the College of William & Mary, conducted an interview with internationally acclaimed jazz poet and activist Jayne Cortez.  In her introduction, Braxton referred to Cortez as an “inspirational figure” who has created films and founded theater companies in addition to establishing her core body of work that includes 10 books of poetry and nine recordings.  “Her voice is celebrated for its political, surrealistic, innovative, dynamic innovations in lyricism and visceral sound,” Braxton said. “To hear Jayne Cortez’s poetry is to feel it.”

Excerpts of the interview are presented below:

Braxton: When did you first realize that you were a poet? When did you hear that calling?
Cortez: I didn’t hear the calling, but I can tell you as a young girl I always had a notebook full of what you might call poetry and drawings, and today those notebooks are writer’s journals. I first started reading my work in the early ’60s. Before that I would just call up my friends and read them my latest whatever. I guess once I decided to read my work in public is when I think I became a really serious poet.

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Braxton: You read a poem this morning about New York City 2, about the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
Cortez: It’s my response to what was happening on that day. I live in the ground-zero area. I live about 14 blocks from the World Trade Centers. When this tragedy happened, I was walking toward 23rd Street going home, and then the people were running toward me, running away from the towers. It was an interesting time. It all seemed like a movie, as if I were in a daze. I got home and turned on the television right away. I think I stayed glued to the television set for days. What came out of that was the response I read which tried to put together not only all the images I saw and all the images I made up based on those images but also information that I thought would be interesting to talk about having to do with the banks, with the people who seemed to be in control, or were trying to control a certain situation, and also to frame New York City within the whole thing, and why people come to New York City to do what they do, whether it is positive or negative.

Braxton: What, in your opinion, are some of the greatest challenges facing humanity today?
Cortez: I think right now we are in—well, the Occupation movements are happening throughout the world. I think this is important because we are trying to open the eyes of other people and our own eyes to deal with and talk about control, that there is somebody, a one percent somebody, that’s trying to be in control of everything, and we have no part in that dialogue on who is controlling medicine, who is controlling information, who is controlling this and that and who is having wars. We didn’t vote for the wars. So we’re really trying to say we have to be democratic—that is for the people, of the people, by the people, with the people—and since we are the people, we have to participate in that dialogue. I think this is what’s important right now, to find out the truth, to eradicate the contradictions, to get rid of things like war. How do we end that? How do we take care of ecology? How do we take care of the planet? We have to address that by addressing those who seem to be in control.

Braxton: Today you live between New York City and Dakar, Senegal. Why do you do it?
Cortez: It’s like connecting things. This is connecting Africa and the diaspora, making those connections; breaking certain chains and making other connections. That’s what it’s about. That’s what my poetry is about, about making bridges to connect things.

Braxton: What are some of the new ways of being that might open up?
Cortez:  The more that you know about yourself, the better off you’re going to be. I have taken a certain path. That path is poetry. That’ s how I express myself. That’s how I find all those avenues of concern, those issues that I want to address. I am a person. I am an activist, and I am participating. I am finding a way to have the dialogue, and I am finding myself at the same time. Those are the possibilities. That is the future. That is if you know yourself, and you know where you’re going and what you want, then you know how to make a better world.

Braxton: One of my students asked about poetry and the inequality gap today. Here’s Jason’s question. “With the inequality gap in America at its most extreme in nearly a century, and socio-economic mobility at an all-time low, do you feel that poetry can still enact positive social change?”
Cortez: I don’t know if poetry can do that but you as the poet or you as the human being on earth can address issues of those who have and those who do not have.