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On Cortez's Poetry

Karen Ford

firespit.jpg (38673 bytes)For most of the 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, Evans, Amini (Latimore), and countless others, who published one or two bombastic poems and were never heard from again, frequently retreated to some form of conventional femininity that was almost as disabling as the overbearing masculinity they sought to escape.

An exception to this pattern and a harbinger of future developments in African-American women's poetry is Jayne Cortez. She published her first volume of poetry in 1969 and produced a book every few years until 1984. In 1976, when the Black Arts movement was past its prime, Stanley Crouch singled out Cortez for praise in an otherwise negative assessment of the period:

During the nationalist promenade and the charade of ineptitude, the very shoddiness of which was supposed to breach a "revolutionary" standard, only one female poet was consistently interesting to me, and that one was Jayne Cortez.... [In her work] there was a passion and an ear for melody and the manipulation of sounds and rhythm units that smoked away the other contenders for the crown, revealing their entrapment in a militant self-pity and adolescent rage more akin to tantrums than the chilling fire and evil of someone like Bessie Smith, the super bitchiness and dignity of a Billie Holiday or a Dinah Washington .... Jayne Cortez is, then, the real thing.(99)

Crouch not only reappropriates "fire" from the Black Arts movement in order to redefine it (the "chilling fire" of the blues queens is superior to the "adolescent rage" of the militants) but also reestablishes the vital link between contemporary black poetry and the older tradition of the blues. Crouch rejects the militant claim to have superseded the blues and instead recognizes the revolutionary potential of the blues singers' bitchiness and dignity.

Indeed, Cortez herself will make much of these traits. Dinah Washington speaks in "Dinah's Back In Town" (Pisstained Stairs, n.p.) and asserts the dignity of bitchiness:

I wanna be bitchy
I said I wanna be a bitch
cause when you nice
true love don't come
into your life.

In "Phraseology" (Scarifications 23), she makes bitchiness a formal principle of her poetry:

I say things to myself
in a bitch of a syllable ...
completely savage to the passing of silence.

Savaging silence--violently expressing her concerns in an environment that discourages female expressivity--is certainly the result of Cortez's use of excess.

In her first book, Pisstained Stairs and the Monkey Man's Wares (1969), Cortez's excess appears to be in service of Black Arts values. In "Race," for example, she vilifies gay black men for betraying the race in betraying their "manhood":

[His] tongue hangs low
with loose diseased pink
pale dying flesh
between his gums
suffocating in farts
& howling like a coyote in the wind
his bent over dedication to
the grunting demons that madly
ride upon his back
flying high his ass tonight
swallowing sperms of fantasy.

The poem blames internalized racism for this "lost tribe of whimpering sons" who can only create "A Race called Faggot." These confused sons, who have repudiated their mothers in turning away from women, must be slaughtered in order to "bring a revolution on." The pitch of desperation, both thematic and formal, reaches a peak in the closing couplet, where the speaker calls out to black fathers (who, by virtue of having "fathered" these sons, have demonstrated their masculinity) for help: "Oh black man quick please the laxative / so our sons can shit the White Shit of Fear out and Live." The association of heterosexuality with liberation, the homophobia, the sexual bluntness, and the excremental imagery all signal adherence to the program of the Black Arts movement in 1969.

However, while Black Arts excesses continued to inform her style, Cortez increasingly brought these stylistics to bear on a wider range of concerns. By 1982, well after the heyday of the new black poetry, Cortez was deploying such excesses against misogynist men, that is, against the very sort of man whom these excesses formerly valorized. In "Rape" (Firespitter 31), the style is the same, but the names have been changed to expose the guilty:

What was Inez supposed to do
for the man who declared war on her body
the man who carved a combat zone between her breasts
Was she supposed to lick crabs from his hairy ass
kiss every pimple on his butt
blow hot breath on his big toe
draw back the corners of her vagina
and hee haw like a Calif. burro.

The poem answers these questions for us by allowing Inez to shoot her rapist; then Joanne, another rape victim, stabs her rapist with an ice pick. The poem celebrates the "day of the dead rapist punk "--a far cry from poems that had urged militants to "Rape the white girls.... Cut the mothers' throats" (Jones, "Black Dada Nihilismus" 41).

In 1971 a Cortez poem, "Watch Out" (Festivals and Funerals, n.p.), had warned about the "bitter," "neglected" woman, "her tongue working out like a machete." By 1982, in a poem like "Rape," we begin to get a sense of this warning, of what it will mean for women to use their tongues in their own defense. Cortez never retreated from the excesses of the Black Arts period, but she trained them on an entirely new subject matter. She did not accept the misogyny of the movement; rather, she turned those aggressive stylistics back on the culture that had glorified violence against women and others as a means of exerting its limited power. Cortez was able to discern the continuing relevance of Black Arts excesses because she was able to distinguish the potent stylistics from the paralyzing subject matter. The other Black Arts women writers abandoned formal excess when they became dissatisfied with the militant posture; Cortez, however, found new and important uses for excess. Not all of her poetry employs these excesses; in fact, her strength lies in her range of poetic resources. But Jayne Cortez provides a literary link between the dignity and bitchiness of the earlier blues queens and the empowered voices of the later black feminist poets because she was able to deploy excess without being silenced by it.

Perhaps the reason Cortez escaped censure even though she used excess to expose the oppression of women, as in "Rape," is that the men targeted by her excess were white. Inez's rapist is compared to a "giant hog," suggesting pink skin, and Joanne's rapist is explicitly called a "racist." But in the mid-seventies, with the women's liberation movement giving expression to concerns that had previously been unspeakable, African-American women writers began to include black men in their analysis of gender problems. To do this, they would employ the very excesses that had troubled black female poets a decade before. Ntozake Shange would be the most prominent writer to reappropriate Black Arts excesses and deploy them against black men, but she would not be alone.

From Gender and the Poetics of Excess: Moments of Brocade. Copyright © 1997 by the University Press of Mississippi.

Kimberly N. Brown

from "Of Poststructuralist Fallout, Scarification, and Blood Poems: The Revolutionary Ideology behind the Poetry of Jayne Cortez."

I borrow the term "scarification" from the title and revolutionary message behind Jayne Cortez's second book of poetry, a product of the Black Aesthetic Movement. Scarification can be interpreted in two ways: (i) in terms of the scars left by oppression, mental as well as physical scars, and (2) as ritualistic tribal markings that define not only the people to whom you belong but also the place. The referential grounding of oppression can have theoretical implications if we consider Valerie Smith's comments: "The conditions of oppression provide the subtext of all Afro-Americanist literary criticism and theory. Whether a critic/theorist explores representations of the experience of oppression or strategies by which that experience is transformed, he/she assumes the existence of an 'other' against whom /which blacks struggle."

Cortez theorizes from her scars by speaking on behalf of third world people from the simultaneous vantage points of both spokesperson and sister worker. Her poetry focuses on the abuses third world people face collectively: the exploitation of their labor, their bodies, and their land. Cortez also undercuts the notion of an academic theoretical hierarchy--as seen in her poem "There It Is," which serves as a perfect example of how she uses poetry as a space through which to filter notions of upheaval.

Cortez writes:

My friend
they don't care
if you're an individualist
a leftist a rightist
a shithead or a snake
They will try to exploit you
absorb you confine you
disconnect you isolate you
or kill you.
                (Coagulations 68)

Scarification does not mean that we should ultimately define ourselves through oppression; instead, it attempts to validate the real-life pain that oppression can cause for the African American subject. Scarification theory serves as a ritualistic invitation to marginalized critics/theorists to assert actively their simultaneous presence as both individuals and as part of a collective within the theoretic arena. Scarification theory is born out of the Black Aesthetic Movement's desire to acknowledge the materiality of African American existence and the poststructuralist notion that each person is a social constructions blending of time, circumstance, environment, religion, ethnicity, gender, and sexual preference. In this respect, testimonies of oppression or personal experiences in general become historicized. Scarification, then, recognizes that both the nature of oppression and the marks that oppression leaves behind vary.

. . . .

The poetry of Jayne Cortez is about blood and revolution. Informed by the language of the Black Arts Movement, Cortez stands as proof that all has not yet been said about theories of the black aesthetic. Speaking as both "one of the people" and spokesperson "for the people," Cortez proudly asserts her commitment to speak always through her scars to reach others who have also participated in the ritual. Academics and teachers of "theory" and black literatures should not regard a commitment such as this as antithetical to the goals of the academy. If multiculturalism is true to its definition, theories that validate the various experiences of marginalized people should be readily accepted. If we are truly to heal the wounds of the past and not fall prey to the romantic language that poststructuralism often espouses, we must lessen the gap between the academy and those who exist outside of the ivory tower.

As Cortez's fifth book of poetry, Coagulations, reminds us, scarification is about blood, revolution, and, most of all, healing. Coagulation is the clotting of blood--the start of a healing process--and we can envision Cortez's poetry as a "clotting of blood poems." Blood poems could then be taken racially to mean poems that were concerned with the blood connection of blacks and their subsequent uplifting--an attempt to soothe and yet remember the scars left by oppression. Blood poems could also indicate that the commitment to the uplift of blacks is part of our heritage, passed down from "blood" to "blood" (meaning sister to sister, brother to brother, sister to brother) through the bloodstream, through the blood that was shed by our ancestors, from generation to generation. Seen in this respect, the theorist/critic who theorizes through scars is not being naive but rather is fulfilling a legacy. And if we don't accept this responsibility as African American theorists, what will we do if "they" come cracking the whip again? The past repeats itself if we do not learn from history. The message behind Cortez's blood poems is that if we adhere to the heritage in our blood the artist within all of us will openly acknowledge what it means to be black in America--to learn to endure and overcome oppression; brother will not beat sister and sister will not be afraid to draw blood to save her own.

From Other Sisterhoods: Literary Theory and U.S. Women of Color. Copyright © 1998 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Aldon Lynn Nielsen

Following in the pattern of such artists as Betty Carter, Mingus, and Baraka, Cortez realized early on that black artists would require full control over the production of their works if they were to escape the censorious mediations of white editing and of capitalist recording industry demands for certain modes of product. Her response was to form the Bola Press, the imprint for all of her recordings after Celebrations and Solitudes and for all of her books prior to Coagulations. In addition to controlling the production of her jazz texts, she was able to determine the presentation of her printed works, many of which appeared with illustrations by her husband, Melvin Edwards.

Unlike David Henderson on Coleman's "Science Fiction," Cortez's recorded reading to music differs little from her unaccompanied reading style, but then, her works are so deeply rooted in music, and dramatic modes of presentation are so fundamental to her writing, that her texts seem to be written as acapella music. Cortez is one of the more "tonal" readers of poetry among contemporary artists. Continuing the poetics of the Beats and of Olson's projective verse, she writes her lines in breath units, and the measures of these units are usually derived from African-American music. In public readings, Cortez tends usually to read these lines in descending pitch sequences. She reads a first line, organized around one tone and then reads the next descending from a lower starting pitch. Her lines are, in this sense, chantlike, allowing for melodic effects within the chosen tonal range of the individual line. Additionally, Cortez has from her earliest days as a poet taken music as both the subject matter and the aesthetic correlative for her writing.

The works she collected in her first chapbook, Pissstained Stairs and the Monkey Man’s Wares, published in 1969, had originally been composed for performance by the Watts Repertory Theater Company, a group Cortez had helped to form during her Los Angeles years, for a special production "dealing with Black music through poetry." As she explained to Melhem in their 1982 interviews, "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." Trained in music when young, Cortez naturally gravitated toward the writing of lyric verse, and her extensive friendships with jazz musicians provided her with entrée into a community of potential collaborators. She was married, in the 1950s, to Ornette Coleman, who appeared along with cellist Abdul Wadud (Cortez also played cello at one time) on the 1986 recordings of Cortez's poetry, Maintain Control. The son of this marriage, Denardo Coleman, began playing the drums early on. By the time he was ten years old he was already playing on recordings with his father. (The first of these, The Empty Foxhole, includes in its liner notes rare samples of Ornette Coleman's poetry.) Since then, Denardo has continued to play in nearly all of his father's bands, and he has played on each of his mother's albums, beginning with Unsubmissive Blues in 1980.

From Black Chant: Languages of African-American Postmodernism. Copyright © 1997 by Cambridge University Press.

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