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Interview With Latina Cop and Poet Sarah Cortez

Proud Bostonian Sarah Cortez is a cop, poet, short story writer, and editor of the award-winning nonfiction Windows Into My World, a collection of short memoirs written by young authors. He is also the editor of the anthology Hit List: The Best of Latino Mystery. He was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to answer my questions about his work, editing and creative process.

Thanks for this interview, Sarah. How do you combine your cop, poet, freelance writer and editor personality when you sit down to write?

When I sit down to write, the leading person is the poet. By this I mean that the most important goal – in whatever genre you have at hand – is to create a piece that achieves the goal of the genre in addition to economy of language and elegant style. To this, of course, are added considerations related to the topic and its tone – which draw heavily from my experience as a street cop. I see the world from a blue-collar perspective. This change came despite growing up in a white-collar environment and working in the intellectual corporate world for fourteen years before joining the police force.

Were you an avid reader as a child?

As a child, I couldn’t wait to learn the magic of letters and words. My mother was a classroom teacher and started teaching letters and words before kindergarten. In fact, I fondly remember her using her sewing machine to sew the book binding she made for me from the big, beautiful photographs in Life magazine. Both of my parents read me a bedtime story every night – what a treat! When I got older, I devoured all the adventure stories in the library.

After reading one of your poems, I can’t help but feel that the “toughness” required to be a police officer is reflected in your tone and imagery. Tell us a little about your creative process. Self-awareness – do the poems flow out of you continuously? Do you edit and re-edit a lot?

From the point of view of the creative process, this is how I work on the poems. I usually get the first line when I’m doing some mundane, repetitive task, like driving. I always write it down immediately. This is the gift of your subconscious. This first line sets the rhythm of the poem. I call it “front row music”. Later, when I have time, I will continue writing the poem, starting with that first line. While writing, I experiment in the usual way of a good poet, such as line length, stanza length, vocabulary, sentence structure, punctuation, etc. the main emphasis of the poem. After many, many edits and experiments – perhaps at least ten versions of the poem – I arrive at what I consider the “first draft”. I will type this version on the computer and print it out. (I do all the previous work by hand.) From this “first draft” I continue to revise the poem. Very few poems are composed in less than a year. Sometimes just one word is not perfect and you have to think about it for years until you find the right word. I remember the poet Olga Broumas saying about one of her powerful poems that it took seven years to find the final word that would completely and absolutely compose this poem.

What about the short game editing process?

I first published in short fiction because it was the love of it that led me to take creative writing courses. In addition, my years of experience in editing memoirs gave me a lot of knowledge about the common mechanics of the two genres: narrative, pace, tone, dialogue, characterization, movement back and forth in time. I had no less a writer who was praised by the amazingly prolific and talented American Book Award winner Joseph Bruchac for editing his short novel. I see editing as a means of educating the beginning writer, so I try to explain my choices to support the beginning writer in acquiring additional skills. An editor usually doesn’t have to explain the decisions to a seasoned professional writer – they understand right away.

Most recently, he has conducted workshops for young adults based on his book Windows Into My World: Latino Youth Write Their Lives. Tell us a little about this book.

The original idea for an anthology of short memoirs written by young Latinos (high school and college age) came to me because there was nothing on the market. There were plenty of books with middle-aged Latinas/as youth, but nothing with young Latinas/as youth. (In the memoirs, this change of perspective radically affects the writing.) In my own teaching of high school Latinos, I knew the great need for such a resource. One of the greatest joys of traveling the country and meeting teachers, librarians, community educators, and graduate students teaching composition is that they all say, “Thank you! We need this book to help us reach our students.”

What’s on the horizon for you?

Thank you for your interest in my current projects. I am collecting writings from police officers to create an anthology of voices that tell America who we are. Most of the next few months will be spent traveling to book launch events for HIT LIST: THE BEST OF LATINO MYSTERY across the US. There are events in New York City, Denver, Texas, California, and more. The positive response to the book has been overwhelming. I continue to attend events to help people learn about WINDOWS INTO MY WORLD: YOUTH LATINOS WRITE THEIR LIVES.

Thank you Sarah!

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