A MELUS Profile and Interview: Jayne Cortez

By Melham, D. H. | MELUS, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

A MELUS Profile and Interview: Jayne Cortez


Melham, D. H., MELUS


Jayne Cortez arrived in New York from Los Angeles in 1967, fulfilling a dream. She gave her first major poetry reading in the city in 1969 at Yvette LeRoy's Liberty House, Harlem. I first heard her read the following year at Dr. Generosity's, a cafe on Manhattan's East Side. The series, arranged by the late Paul Blackbum, presented a diverse assortment of already or soon-to-be important younger poets. Invited to read by Toby Olson, Cortez immediately established her unique and dynamic presence.

After our first interview (see Heroism in the New Black Poetry, University Press of Kentucky, 1990), I wrote:

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, Pissstained 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.

By 1988, at her Poets' House lecture and reading honoring Nicolas Guillen, who died the following year, she had become a member of the organization's advisory board and was justifiably introduced as "a world class poet."

Cortez was born in Arizona on May 10, 1936, in Fort Huachuca, an army base where her father was stationed. Her siblings include an older sister and a younger brother. Cortez traces her father's family from Virginia and Carolina to Ohio and Arkansas, where they lived for several generations. Her maternal grandfather was born in Tennessee and served in the Philippines. There he met and married Julia Cortez, the poet's namesake, who bore him four children.

At Fort Huachuca, Cortez's family lived in "a 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," she wryly observes. She attended a one-room schoolhouse, in which one could progress, row to row, through grades one to six.

When Cortez was seven, her family moved, first to San Diego ("a very damp place that smelled of fishing canneries") where they lived for nearly a year with her maternal grandfather's family. Her grandfather took note of her personality and her imitations: "You want to be an actress like Lena Home, or somebody." Cortez's family moved to West Los Angeles where she went to school with Black and Japanese-American children who were returning with their parents from World War II detention centers. Later, her family lived in the area of Watts in South Los Angeles, where the poet spent most of her teenage years. Her first book is dedicated to the Watts Repertory Theatre Company. "Most of the pieces in Pissstained Stairs," she observes, "were written for them to perform."

Cortez disliked her junior high school, which was a few blocks outside of Watts and populated mainly by white students. "We had integration and segregation and domination at the same time. Blacks were a small minority. When a white kid called me 'rigger,' I had to jump up and beat the hell out of him or her.... My mother was always at the school."

Cortez enjoyed her parents' extensive record collection, so that music figured importantly in her childhood. She heard the singing of Ella Fitzgerald and of Billie Holiday and Lena Home, both of whom inspired her; she heard the music of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Jimmy Lunceford. She "fell in love" with the music of Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, and it was the world-famous jazz of New York that eventually drew her to that city. …

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