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Jayne Cortez: lodestar.

Tonight, I am looking at my copy of Mouth on Paper--the red paper stock, black rooster, and full lips, images drawn by Mel Edwards, who was clearly so in love with the poet and her words. My copy cost $3 and Jayne signed it with words of encouragement. She did that after we had done a radio interview for WBAI through the auspices of Steve Cannon. Steve was (still is) trying to hook up younger poets and artists with those who had made it, and for all intents and purposes, by 1977 Jayne Cortez was a woman poetry/jazz/performer legend made. She was beautifully coiffed; her clothes draped just so--muted earth tones and some serious beadwork around her neck, dangling from earlobes.

Love, courage, freedom. Jayne connected those ideas to Africa, to worldwide struggles against apartheid and for independence, and in her own way to sisterhood, though she was not comfortable with feminism as defined at that time. It seemed to me most black American women were not comfortable with the term, but we did want to see many of the goals: equality, the end of violence against women; more open sexuality, recognition of our own agency understood and respected. Thus, she was the lodestar for we young black women poets hanging in, near, or with the jazz world mid-1970s. Her jazz poetry performed with intense musicality and deep knowledge was fearless and created a standard that many of us tried to reach as we stood next to the bass player, the pianist, the drummer and found the words and rhythm in wrong places. She never did. She not only understood the beats of bop, post-bop, and "out" jazz; she understood the rhythms of Cuba, of Puerto Rico, Brazil. In that global knowledge of the African-based rhythms, she found a way to use repetitions of complex, often surreal imagery to get her ideas across in performance and on the page. She truly was a tough act to follow.

She seemed to have found a way to be a revolutionary poet and live a traditional life. Wife, mother, and artistic collaborator with two of Afro-America's greatest artists: Ornette Coleman, musical innovator, musician, and art world demigod, and Melvin Edwards, brilliant and innovative sculptor whose work is full of fire and history, travel and spirit. These two African American men also embodied a creative commitment to intellectual and artistic pursuits of the highest order. Jayne's choice of husbands showcased her own desire to stand equal to the task of carrying out that intellectual tradition.

That she took her words off the page and onto the stage was not unusual given the tenor of the times: Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, and others were deeply involved in connecting words to "the music." But I would argue that Jayne Cortez in her use in phraseology and her capacity to improvise took this charge just a bit further--possibly because of her sustained investigation of the narratives, rituals, and mythologies of the African diaspora. There is a reason I still have my vinyl version of Celebrations and Solitude--her musicality and linguistic shapeshifting have not lost any of their power over the past four decades.

That deep interest in Africa, its diverse intellectual and artistic traditions, and the position of women writers of color spurred her interest in creating with other significant writers and scholars the Organization of Women Writers of Africa Inc. This scrappy organization, in partnership with New York University, has been able to host two important conferences that have brought together women and men from Africa, Europe, Canada, South America, the Caribbean, and across the United States to discuss issues and ideas of importance to women of African descent.

One of the gifts that she, Audre Lorde, and June Jordan gave me and other black women poets who followed--no matter where we have allowed ourselves to go--was a capacity to represent in our poetics the complexities of the lives of black women, whether welfare mothers or haughty divas. In that she understood the inherent risks of black women's lives, no matter the station. On this night before Barack Obama's second inauguration, I reread "Alberta Alberta (Mother of Martin Luther King)," an elegy and an anguished indictment of murderous violence against women:
 slow spiritual
 below the flame
 M.A.K. Blues
 Into Baule woman of mud. Alberta
 Alberta with luminous ears like steel doors
 breaking the lines of the goggles
 over the eyes of Marcus Chenault Alberta
 breaking in front of the compulsion on the
 of the finger of Marcus Chenault
 Marcus Chenault assassinator of mothers

There continue to be many assassinators of mothers, girls, and women. But there are many more lovers of African women of the diaspora who write poetry, fiction, and journalism, conduct groundbreaking research and produce scholarship, perform, produce, and carry forward in their own voice because she says in "Find Your Own Voice":
 The scent of a gardenia
 is not like the scent of a tangerine
 Find your own voice & use it
 use your own voice & find it

Jayne Cortez made poems as direct as "Find Your Own Voice" as foundational as "If the Drum Is a Woman" and as mirthful as "I See Chano Pozo." Negritude, black nationalism, international feminism, and PanAfricanism were strands she wove through these and other poems, but her voice was powerfully different--those rhythms, repetitions, imagistic leaps kept all of us enthralled. Spoken-word poets; women poets; women of the African diaspora poets; urban poets; poets who care about human rights, civil society, peace, justice, spirituality can all claim her as their sister, mother, cohort, friend. I am glad to have seen her decked out and ready to party at the opening of "Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles" at PS 1 MOMA, in October 2012. Mel Edwards had been profiled and his work celebrated (finally!) in the New York Times. They were slowly walking toward the steps to the building. Holding hands, lovers always. I am grateful to have seen Jayne in her fullest flower: beautiful, dignified, husband at her side, her regality a simple thing like the sun that shone on them.

Cortez, Jayne. "Alberta, Alberta (Mother of Martin Luther King)." Mouth on Paper. Brooklyn, NY: Bola Press, 1977.

--. "Find Your Own Voice." somewhere in advance of nowhere. London: Serpent's Tail/ High Risk Books, 1996.

Patricia Spears Jones is author of Painkiller and Femme du Monde (Tia Chucha Press) and The Weather That Kills (Coffee House) and three chapbooks, including Swimming to America (Red Glass Books), and two plays commissioned and produced by Mabou Mines, the internationally acclaimed experimental theater company. Her poems are anthologized in Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry (W. W. Norton); Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (University of Georgia Press); Starting Today: 100 Poems for Obama's First 100 Days (University of Iowa Press); broken land: Poems of Brooklyn (NYU Press); and Best American Poetry: 2000. She is editor of 30 Days Hath September, blog project at www.blackearth, Think: Poems for Aretha Franklin's Inauguration Day Hat (http://, and Ordinary Women: An Anthology of Poetry by New York City Women (Ordinary Women Press) and is a contributing editor to Bomb Magazine. She has received awards from the Foundation of Contemporary Art and the New York Community Trust (the Oscar Williams and Gene Derwood Award), the Goethe Institute, and grants from the NEA and NYFA. She has taught at Sarah Lawrence, The New School (Parsons), Queens College, and LaGuardia Community College and in summer programs at Manhattanville College, University of Rhode Island, and Naropa University. She currently serves as mentor for Emerge Surface Be, a new fellowship program at St. Mark's Poetry Project, and is a senior fellow at the Black Earth Institute.
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Author:Jones, Patricia Spears
Publication:The Black Scholar
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2013
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