Jayne Cortez Interview
An interview with Jayne Cortez, conducted by Anna Elena Eyre and KC
Orcutt for Barzakh.
AEE: I was particularly struck by your piece "Find your own voice" and would lolve to
know how you found your voice. Is it a continuous process? Do you feel your voice
changes or inhabits other voices? How does the drum (which you referenced as a
woman's body) speak to this? How does or does the drum connect to the use of voice?
JC: I have the voice I was born with, which has changed and developed over many
years. I have the voice of the city I created in myself. And I understand the value of voice
as art. I grew up in the African American community of Los Angeles, California and
became aware of the voices in my community and where my own voice existed in those
many kinds of voices. I found my voice among people I had been active with in the
community. And in my community people are very insightful in sound, language,
gestures and attitude. Because of my interest in music I’ve been aware of the sound of
words, the words as sound. It’s a complex, personal evolution of quality, direction and
interest. In my poem “ If the Drum is a Woman” the drum is a metaphor for experience,
a woman’s experience. “I See Chano Pozo” is a praise poem for an extraordinary Cuban
drummer who I heard as a girl In a Los Angeles baseball stadium in 1949. Drums have
great variety in sound and feeling and that’s what I explore in my poem “Everywhere
Drums.” Vibration is a connection, my vocal cords vibrate and drums vibrate. My voice
reflects my experiences and goals, it’s a continuous process.
KCO: How does having a split residency between New York City and Senegal influence
JC: I write hot in Africa and cold in America and when the spirit hits me I get hot in
New York and cool off in Senegal. The key is independence.
AEE: How would you describe rhythm and its importance to your work? When you
compose do the words follow the rhythm or the rhythm the words? That is, do you write
and then find a rhythm, or find a rhythm and then write, or is there some other
JC: Rhythm means motion. Rhythm and sound develop together in each of my
works. Composition is not mechanical, it varies in distinction from rhymer and
rapper. My approach is rhythmically and grammatically free of those limits. Rhythm is
determined by the content and it represents different points in time and entry.
KCO: How do you feel about the current state of the publishing world in relation to
modern technology -- Will small presses become obsolete? What are your experiences
operating Bola Press and how has it influenced your perspective?
JC: Small presses may become smaller but not obsolete. I developed Bola press to
publish my work in the 1970s. The public that I read to did not buy books from
bookstores, they bought books directly from the poet. New technological devices should
AEE: How do you navigate writing a performance on the page? Does performance ever
begin on the page?
JC: I never write performance pieces. I write poetry. I don’t write lyrics to music, words
come before music. My approach is not pre-scripted.
KCO: In what ways have your leadership roles influenced your work or your work
JC: As a poet I lead myself. I organize cultural and political events like I organize my
AEE: In addressing political and social themes, do you compose with a particular
audience in mind? Do you want the audience to participate? For instance, in the poem
"US/ Nigerian Relations" you speak, "They want the oil/But they don't want the
people." For me, this is applicable to all international US relations and sums up the
truth of the matter succinctly. Do you believe the chant of this causes the words to be
reinhabited by the people? Does the "they" change? That is, since so much of political
writing is evacuated or in some form of Orwellian newspeak, do you feel that spoken
word can essentially do the reverse of vacumming language--can spoken word re-invest
words with content and magic? How so?
JC: I transmit and the audience receives. I don’t ask for call and response from the
audience. I want them to respond by thinking. Orwell did not live and develop in my
neighborhood. Speech existed before writing.
KCO: What is your relationship to some of the historical figures you mention in your
works, especially in Coagulations?
JC: I met and had an interesting conversation with Duke Ellington in the 1960s when
he performed in concert at UCLA. I met painter Wilfredo Lam in Cuba 1981 at a party in
KCO: Your work has been extensively translated all over the world. Has the role of
translation influenced the composition of your work?
KCO: Where do you do most of your writing? What are you currently working on?
JC: I do most of my writing in my writing rooms in New York and Senegal. I am
currently working on the work.
A performance from the Independent Sanctuary for Media, October 23, 2010. Video
credit from the Independent Sanctuary for Media.