Sarah Cortez will be the featured reader Thursday, September 14, 2017 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),
Houston Poet Sarah Cortez is a Councilor of the Texas Institute of Letters and Fellow of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and has poems, essays, book reviews, and short stories anthologized and published in journals such as Texas Monthly, Rattle, The Sun, Pennsylvania English, Texas Review, Louisiana Literature, Arcadia, Langdon Review of the Arts, The Midwest Quarterly, Southwestern American Literature. Her debut poetry collection, How to Undress a Cop, won the PEN Texas Literary Award. Her books have placed as finalists in the Writers’ League of Texas awards, Los Angeles Book Festival Awards, and the PEN Southwest Poetry Awards.
An anthologist of eight volumes, Cortez has won the Southwest Book Award of the Year, multiple International Latino Book Awards, Border Region Librarians Assn. Award, Press Women of Texas Editing Award, and the Skipping Stones International Honor Award. Her most recent anthology, Vanishing Points: Poems and Photographs of Texas Roadside Memorials, has already been named a 2016 Southwest Book of the Year and won the prestigious First Place in Editing from the National Federation of Press Women. She is both a Houston and Texas finalist for poet laureate.
CH: What is your first memory of poetry? What is your first memory of writing?
SC: My first memory is related to childhood verse, which is a totally different animal than literary poetry, but a very satisfying animal to cuddle up with when you’re a child—repetitive rhyme, puzzles with words, the repetition of a standard beat. I have always enjoyed words and what people do with words on the written page.
Of course, I had a great Classical education in my 12 years in Catholic schools, so I was exposed to the great British and American poets of the last several hundred years as well as to the epic poetry of the Greeks and Romans.
CH: You have published essays, short stories, memoir, and poetry—do you have a primary identity as a writer? How would you describe it?
SC: My primary identity as a writer has been as a poet. I believe that focus is shifting—mostly because the editors who ask me for work are asking for some poems, but for a lot of essays, fiction, and memoir. Also, a lot of book reviews and proposals for projects.
CH: Your professional life has been wide and varied, with law enforcement work coming after other white-collar work. What was your writing life like before you entered the police academy? How did police work change the focus of your writing?
SC: Before entering the police world wholeheartedly in the Academy, I already had written and was extensively published in poetry. I also had some major international publications in fiction. However, I didn’t begin writing about policing until I had been a full-time patrol police officer for a few years. Frankly, it didn’t occur to me to writing about policing. Think about it—how many people do you know who write literary poetry about their jobs? Right? Almost none. In fact, Jim Daniels, an amazing poet and professor at Carnegie-Mellon has stated that if you look at the job descriptions of any contemporary American poetry anthology you would draw the conclusion that no poet works for a living.
I was able to write more when I was a full-time police officer than I’ve been able to write my own work since I because a freelance writer and editor. Part of that is because I have such a full plate of editing jobs for presses and individual clients, but part is also that I always put my clients first, ahead of my own work.
CH: You’ve published two collections of poetry centered on your career in law enforcement (How to Undress a Cop and Cold Blue Steel), in addition to Against the Sky’s Warm Belly, your recent new and selected volume. Has your manuscript composition process changed over time?
SC: That’s a fascinating question to ponder. There are two components about my analysis of composing a manuscript that have changed. First, my books are now much more focused in the subject matter or themes within one book. Second, I now title and compose the sections within a book—something that I didn’t have the expertise to do in my first book and that the publisher certainly didn’t have the expertise to do for me.
CH: You’ve multi-book relationships with both Arte Publico Press and Texas Review Press. How did those relationships develop? What advice would you give a poet looking for a publisher?
SC: I would suggest that a poet have multiple poems within a manuscript already published by high quality journals and magazines. I would also say that the poet should realize there’s a difference between being published and being published well. Many writers are just so plain eager to be published that they don’t care who publishes them. It’s a shame because sometimes a writer’s craft just has to improve. Think about it—once an ineffective book is published with your name on the front cover, then that’s what people will remember you for—a bad book.