As part of my ongoing efforts to spread the word about Hit List: The Best of Latino Mystery, this week I have an interview with Sarah Cortez, one of the editors of Hit List. Sarah is quite an interesting person with a varied background, which we get into a bit in the Q&A below. Anyone who proclaims on her website that her two greatest loves are policing and poetry should be interviewed. I was intrigued about the idea of a cop also functioning as a poet and an editor, and Sarah responded quite well; I think you will find her answers informative and helpful, especially for someone considering a life in the literary world. You can find out more about Sarah, her books and her other projects on her website.
You are a writer, poet, police officer, editor, and teacher. Quite a résumé. What kind of writer are you – how would you describe what you write? How did you get to the point where you said, “Yes, I am a writer”?
Even though I was first published in fiction, I consider poetry to be my métier. My poetry has been described as “tightly-muscled,” as well as, “Searing. Sexy. Stunning. Blunt.” by no less a poet than Naomi Shihab Nye. I am a devotee of concise language and precise visceral imagery. You ask how I arrived to the point of considering myself a writer. Well, I was fortunate to be mentored by two of the great contemporary American poets: Edward Hirsch and Naomi Nye. By taking classes with them and with other talented teachers, I furthered my craft and my practice. Of course, as with many other writers, I found the first book contract quite convincing. Winning prizes and awards also added to my sense of being a professional writer. However, I would be the first to insist on the “democracy of the blank page.” Whether one has had eight books published or none, in front of the blank page we’re all equal.
Yes, equal and fearful - nothing like a blank page to stir up insecurities.
It’s not unheard of, of course, that law enforcement people would segue into something creative such as writing. In your opinion, though, has the police background helped or hindered your creative urges?
The policing background greatly augments my writing practice, particularly in poetry. One of the poet’s greatest and most formidable tasks is putting the inexplicable into words. One must attempt to translate the unknowable onto the page. In policing, you are slammed with the inexplicable all the time. In fact, it rains down on you. I am most productive in my writing when working the streets as a cop. The negotiation (both internal and external) required due to the amazingly different roles and concomitant discursive spaces is impossible for a civilian to understand.
You recently helped put together Hit List: The Best of Latino Mystery, along with Liz Martínez, your co-editor. What attracted you to becoming an editor? How would you describe editing in comparison with writing a short story or a poem?
What attracted me to editing is much the same as what attracted me to teaching. While editing’s ultimate goal is producing an artistic whole that is publishable, the editor often helps the writer grow and learn. So, in both the teaching of creative writing and the editing, you are assisting the student/writer further his/her vision and craft. I would even go so far as to say that you can’t be a truly effective creative writing teacher without being an excellent editor. In terms of the differences between editing vs. writing your own work, I would say that in writing your own poem or short story you create from the get-go. Your primary excitement and joy is in the creative act, then later in the “revision” act. In editing, the editor has to totally enter into the author’s vision. The editor must carry inside him/herself a thorough understanding of the form, a keen eye for grammatical and syntactical snafus, and an exquisitely honed appreciation for the appropriate payoffs for the future reader, which of course, vary by form. Added to all of this is an impeccable ear for language and all those additional elements composing the standards of the form, e.g. in fiction, plot, characterization, dialogue, pacing, tone.
How did Hit List come about? Where did the idea originate? Who helped make the idea a reality? Why do you think it is important to have such an anthology
The original idea for Hit List came from Liz Martínez. She saw that while there were anthologies of short mystery for other ethnic or cultural groups that there wasn’t one for Latino authors. She came to me because I had the professional contacts to obtain a contract with a prominent publisher and I had the editing skills necessary to ensure a quality product. Plus we both had loved mystery since childhood.
Both Liz and I owe Dr. Nicolás Kanellos, the founder and director of Arte Público Press, an immense debt because he unhesitatingly and enthusiastically took on the project. You know, he is renown for being a brilliant visionary. He’s the publisher who started Denise Chávez, Ana Castillo, Gary Soto, Sandra Cisneros, and Pat Mora on their international writing careers.
It is important to have such an anthology for numerous reasons. First, the book showcases many excellent Latino/a writers. Secondly, the book lets the reader enjoy the widely varied applications of the mystery apparatus by Latino authors. Another important subtext for me as an editor is to let the multi-faceted cultures and sub-cultures of the characters shine forth. It is this richness, I believe, that may lead the reader to perceive that Latinos come from many different types of neighborhoods, different economic strata, etc. For instance, my story in Hit List, In My Hands, is set in an affluent Houston suburb and has only Anglo characters. I grew up in an Anglo neighborhood adjoining a ritzy enclave.
We don’t often hear about young people wanting to become an editor. Cop or writer, yes, but seldom editor. Give us a quick pitch as to why more students should look at editing as a way to become involved in literature or the arts in general, or even as a career path.
I would guess we don’t hear more about students becoming editors for two reasons. The first reason is that youthful dreams tend to lead the dreamer into starring roles. In the literary world, the starring role at this point in time is that of the author. The second reason is that if you take the general rule of thumb as true that it takes about ten years to become proficient writing in a form (and, BTW I believe that it is necessary to be extremely proficient in a form before you try to edit others’ writing in that form), then after those initial ten years, a young writer has to develop the eye and the ear for editing. Well, you can see how time-consuming the process will probably be.
When you read the submissions for Hit List, did your police experiences (your “real life”) “get in the way” of letting you escape into the stories, or maybe it was the other way around – because you have been a cop were you able to enjoy the stories at a certain level of reality that other readers might not recognize?
You ask if my experience as a cop interfered with my enjoyment of the Hit List stories, or help me enter the imaginative space of the authors. As a street cop, most of the calls for service don’t involve homicide, which is the preeminent crime of interest in mystery. However, a good cop is very intuitive and a master at reading body language and subtle shifts in minuscule details, e.g., breath, pupil dilation, hand movements, voice, etc. So, this eye for human behavior can really serve you well as an author, poet, or editor. I would say that the times when I would get pulled out of an author’s compelling fictional landscape would be when a tactical, ballistic, or equipment question came up. For instance, is that type of duty belt or nylon rig used that way, is the caliber correct, did that manufacturer make a weapon with that type of finish in that caliber in that year, etc. Fortunately, I have shot many of the weapons referenced by crime authors and ballistics fascinate me.
Your poetry was featured in the first issue of Lineup, a magazine devoted to crime poetry. What is crime poetry and how is it different from other kinds of poetry?
I’m glad you asked about Lineup, the chapbook series so wonderfully edited by Gerald So, with Patrick Shawn Bagley, R. Narvaez, and Anthony Rainone. The poetry featured deals with some aspect of criminal behavior whether from the victim’s, criminal’s, or another’s perspective. In trying to define what is different about crime poetry from other poetry, I would say that the subject matter focuses the poet’s eye very particularly. So that in trying to accomplish that “great” poetic task we talked about above – putting the inexplicable into words – the poet must unflinchingly hone in on physicality, whether the physicality of the crime scene, the victim, the suspect, and so on. What I see when I read poems from Lineup is the unremitting eye of each poet beginning in the sensory world of the crime’s occurrence. And, of course, the higher the emotional content of an event, the harder it becomes to write about it with elegance. Writers, especially fiction writers, joke about how hard it is to write love/sex scenes and have them turn out well. That’s because of the high emotional content and the enormous number of hackneyed clichés surrounding love/sex scenes. Well, crime scenes carry a lot of those same burdens for the writer/poet. The poets chosen for Lineup do a fantastic job.
I think Lineup is an innovation with much potential power to dramatically change the poetry/crime fiction scene. I hope more readers find it. I'm delighted to note that I have a poem in the upcoming second issue, due later this summer.
What other projects are you working on?
Thank you for asking about my current projects. I’m finishing up editing Indian Country Noir for Akashic Books, another of the projects that Liz Martínez and I have done together. I am also collecting essays by current or retired law enforcement officers for a collection of literary writing by America’s cops. I’ve been busy traveling to colleges and universities to show both composition teachers and creative writing teachers how to use Windows Into My World: Latino Youth Writer Their Lives in the classroom. You can tell people to contact me on my web site www.poetacortez.com if they’re interested in learning more about these projects. Thanks, Manuel. I’ve enjoyed talking with you!
Thank you, Sarah - I hope we meet in person one day, as long as you're not arresting me.
BITS AND PIECES
TENTH ANNUAL NERUDA POETRY FESTIVAL
Thursday night 4/16, 7pm: A moving spoken word tribute to Flor Lovato and Margie Dominguez, featuring Su Teatro actors and local artists and scholars. $12, $10 student/senior
Friday night 4/17, 7pm: Barrio Slam competition—$500 grand prize attracts the best talent in the city. $250 for 2nd, $175 for 3rd, fun for everyone! Only $5
Saturday afternoon 4/18, 5:30pm: Tacos and Words Literary Salon featuring The Anaya Project. Creative responses to the work of Chicano literary legend and author of Bless Me, Ultima, Rudolfo Anaya. $12
This program features:
John-Michael Rivera, professor,writer and poet
Gabe Gomez, poet
Jennifer Rincon, playwright,writer, actor
Paul Flores, performance artist, writer
Maria Melendez, poet and teacher
Manuel Ramos, writer
Harrison Fletcher, professor, writer
J Michael Martinez, teacher, poet
Cecelia Aragon, playwright, professor, writer
Tina Griego, journalist, columnist for the Denver Post
Saturday night 4/18, 8:05pm: ¡Representa! featuring Paul S. Flores and Julio Cardenas. $18, $15 student/senior
For more information, or to purchase tickets, call El Centro Su Teatro at 303.296.0219 and check out our new and improved website: www.suteatro.org.
All events at El Centro Su Teatro, 4725 High Street, Denver, CO 80216
Presenting the ultimate artistic extravaganza. artistes "super" estrellas features the ultra-cool urban art of: tony vecchio, gems, j.g. medina, jolt, josiah lee lopez a.k.a. zepol, and sev
CHAC north gallery, 774 santa fe blvd., denver, april 1 - 25.
come one, come all, art to entertain the masses!
Best DIY Book With Local Ties
Day of the Dead Crafts Co-authored by Jerry Vigil
"We love local santero Jerry Vigil, having bestowed a previous Best of Denver award on him for his cocky Colorado Rockies muerto, a traditional bare-bones Day of the Dead calavera dressed up in a Rockies uniform. And now we get to laud him all over again for Day of the Dead Crafts: More Than 24 Projects That Celebrate Día de los Muertos, a book he co-authored (with Kerry Arquette and Andrea Zocchi) and contributed to as an artist. Vigil said last fall that he hoped to help impart a more sophisticated understanding of the cultural traditions behind the whimsical Day of the Dead art. And we say he succeeded, without taking away an ounce of the genre's personality."
Spring is cruising the blood, the tired winter gasps empty threats (warning - we have had blizzards in April, even May.) I'm getting my second wind for writing. Life is good.