All Yearning for the Same Thing 

A conversation with Judith Ortiz Cofer

A conversation with Judith Ortiz Cofer.

Scene: Is it Ortiz Cofer, or Cofer?

Cofer: I find that if I’m in an anthology with Latinos, it’s Ortiz Cofer. If it’s an anthology with Anglos, it’s Cofer. So it depends. There’s no hyphen.

Scene: In the Masterpieces of Latino Literature, you’re listed right after Pablo Neruda. Alphabetical good fortune, or are the poetry gods making a statement?

Cofer: I think it’s just my good fortune to be placed in such good company. Occasionally I’ll get an anthology where I’m next to Edgar Allan Poe. And, you know, as long as I don’t have to go out drinking with him, it’s fine.

Scene: One of my favorite of your early poems is “Latin Women Pray.” Do you have it near you? Could I get you to read it?

Cofer: Um, I have it in a book here, if you could just wait a second. I’m not a great organizer, so my books are not in alphabetical order. Yes, it appears in a book of essays called A Woman in Front of the Sun. Let’s see if I can find it.

Scene: It’s on page 116.

Cofer: Oh, thank you. You want me to read it?

Scene: Yes.

Cofer: Over the phone?

Scene: Yes.Cofer: Okay.Latin women prayIn incense sweet churchesThey pray in SpanishTo an Anglo GodWith a Jewish heritage.And this Great White FatherImperturbableIn his marble pedestalLooks down uponHis brown daughtersVotive candles shining like lustIn his all seeing eyesUnmovedBy their persistent prayers.Yet year after yearBefore his image they kneelMargarita, Josefina, Maria, and IsabelAll fervently hopingThat if not omnipotentAt least he be bilingual.

Scene: The themes in that poem run throughout your work.

Cofer: Well, I don’t know what themes you have in mind, but my themes I call obsessions. I’ve refined them into obsessions. And one of them is the power and the pitfalls of language. To speak is not enough. If you’re in the midst of a dominant culture and language, you can speak all you want, you can shout all you want in your own language, but no one will understand or hear you. In this poem, I was just saying, in an ironic and irreverent way, these women are underneath praying, but who can assure them anyone is listening?

Scene: In your essay “Advanced Biology,” you use the phrase, “the art of cultural compromise.” What’s the difference between assimilation, say, and adaptation?

Cofer: I think with assimilation, you’re basically sublimating your true self, saying, “I have to become the other in order to survive.” In what I call cultural adaptation, or compromise, you admit that you are displaced, whether by choice or circumstance, and then you adapt. It’s absurd to fight it. You don’t have to give up who you are. The way I see it, you’re richer than others.

Scene: In your first book, Terms of Survival, there’s a poem called “Costumbre.” Do you remember it?

Cofer: Oh, jeez.

Scene: I’m not trying to put you on the spot. I promise not to ask you to read it.

Cofer: No, no, you’re just reminding me how long ago it was.

Scene: It’s such a perfect little poem.

Cofer: Gosh, the obsessions are still there. I’m working on a new book now, and the poems I’m writing are bilingual in a much more challenging way—challenging to the reader—than they were when I was writing Terms of Survival. Even in this book, I was saying, “I learned your language, now here’s my language.” So, in this “Costumbre,” yep, I’ve got in front of me now, the prostitutes are playing dominos with the men, and the wives are walking by, looking away. You know, it’s kind of my little feminist statement. It’s like, “Be a good girl, but you’re not gonna get to play.” And so I still write about the outsider woman, about the woman who places herself outside the expectations of her society, whether by becoming an artist or simply not following the rules.

Scene: You’ve written about the myth of the Latina woman, that’s she’s considered a whore or a maid or criminal. As a writer, do you see yourself as on a mission to dispel these stereotypes?

Cofer: No, I never saw myself as having a mission. I saw myself as having an intense, personal need to express myself in language. And that’s hard to explain. Mother Teresa had a mission, and activists have a mission, where they say “this needs to be changed” and “I have to change that.” I don’t get up in the morning thinking that. Not because I don’t want to change the world, but because if an idea has been buzzing around like a bee in a jar in my head, I have to understand why it came to me. I always quote Virginia Woolf, who said what that is is a “moment of being.” If you have something that you carry with you, and you’re a writer, you will eventually write about it. It has been identified by your imagination and your memory as something you can explore, and perhaps even make universal. Like recently we went to New Orleans, and saw the devastation. It was not my mission to write about it, but I could not stop thinking about the images. I felt compelled to write about it. And if a poem gets published, and it means something to people, then it will have become art, and not just my own needs being met. I am political in that I’m a thinking person and a caring person, but my art has to carry the politics in the same way that a painter’s work has to be embedded in the canvas. The things that drive us are love and grief, you know, the great emotions.

Scene: Do you ever get tired of being thought of, and getting asked questions, as a Latina writer, instead of just a writer?

Cofer: Well, you know, tired is not the word, it’s just that—

Scene: Or is it just inevitable?

Cofer: It’s inevitable. I usually am advertised with so many tags that I’m short- and nearsighted to it. Puerto Rican writer, Latina, whatever. It doesn’t bother me anymore because people have to find their way towards you. They will call you whatever they want, and then they come to the poetry reading and they understand that it’s about them. Even if I’m writing about my grandmother, it’s about them. What does sometimes put me on the spot is when someone thinks that I am an expert on Puerto Rican politics. And they’ll say, “What do you think of the Nationalistas.” I’ll tell them, well, in my mother’s family of eight, the three parties are represented. And when I go there during election years, they get into big fights. That’s how I answer the question. So that puts me on the spot because I really am not an expert on Puerto Rican politics or statistics or whatever. But if you ask me a question about growing up Latina in the U.S., or being a Latina in Georgia, I can say, well, this is my point of view, this is my take on it. So I don’t mind because if there was an orthodox Jewish writer reading from his novel, I would want to know some things. I think it’s a normal curiosity. However, because of the so-called canon, I really think that at some point we need to stop putting minority writers in a different category.

Scene: That’s really what I was getting at. It seems like you’ve got the canon, then you’ve got your African American writers, Latino writers, Asian, women, American Indian writers, and on and on.

Cofer: Chicano writers. You can continue subdividing. You know, I was asked to teach one of the first minority lit classes at the University of Georgia, and I always told my department chair it’s because I look the part. I don’t have a degree in minority literature. It’s in American and English. But I studied, and I put the class together, and I decided to just include people whose work I liked, and teach it that way. And I will never, ever teach a writer simply because they’re a minority. Never. So I really feel that it would be nice, and I think it’s happening because I get several books every month that include my work, especially the textbooks for high school, and I’m included and Maxine Hong Kingston’s included, right along with other American writers. As long as there’s a market for Latino anthologies, there will be those lumpings. When it becomes just a normal thing to be Latino in the United States, if it ever does, then all of it will converge. I don’t know of anyone in the United States that cannot claim another ethnicity, even if it’s Irish American dating back for generations.

Scene: In several of your books, you’ve got both poetry and prose, which is pretty rare. How did you convince your publisher to let you do that?

Cofer: With great difficulty. The reason I wrote Silent Dancing was after I had published The Line of the Sun, a novel, and it got good reviews, people asked me how much of it is autobiography. And I found that for me, the line was very vague, that the novel was generated by life experiences, and I had just taken a leap in some places. So I thought, why not try to remember some of these incidents? And then it occurred to me that I had many poems that were the “moments of being,” where I had already explored—or at least found the core of—what I wanted to write about. And so I decided to make the poems be companions to the essays. Not explain them or reflect on them, but just basically put them there in the way that they seemed to fit in my own imagination. And when I finished that, I sent it around everywhere, and the answer was: “We can’t publish this; you have to take the poems out because nobody wants poetry.” And in one instance, they said, “We wouldn’t know where to put it in the bookstore.” And then I sent it to Arte Publico Press. And, you know, the small presses have always saved the artist. They’re willing to take a chance because they don’t make much money anyway. So they did a small run of it, and, amazingly, it has become a best seller for them. It’s gone through, I don’t know, maybe 10 or 12 editions. What they discovered was that people weren’t as stupid as the publishers in New York think, that they could find it in the bookstore, and not only that, but many people really enjoyed having the poems; it gave them further insight into the essays. So I have to give credit to the librarians and the teachers. They were the first ones to discover the book. And now a lot of people do multi-genre. But once again, in the 90s, when I tried to publish The Latin Deli, which is three genres [short stories, essays, and poems], I sent it to my agent, and she said, “This isn’t a commercial property.” I love it when you spend five years working, and they tell you it’s not commercial. So then another one of my loyal presses, the University of Georgia Press, published it, and then it was reprinted in paper by Norton. I once found it in the cooking section of a bookstore. And, you know, I had to take everyone I knew there.

Scene: Even though your novel, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, made you famous, poetry is still your favorite genre.

Cofer: You want me to comment on that? Scene: Yes.Cofer: Okay. Well, I wrote poetry for eight years—only poetry—before I wrote the novel. And I really feel that poetry led me to profound, or at least an in-depth, appropriation and possession of the English language. You can’t write a poem unless you’re intimate with the language. Right now, I’m no longer very intimate with Spanish because I don’t practice it every day. And I find if I try to write a poem, my metaphors are limited. I can’t compare one thing to another if I don’t know numerous ways to do it. And so, poetry allowed me to become intimate with English. And it allowed me to master the one skill that I try to teach my students—and if that’s the only thing I accomplish, I consider it a success—and that is succinctness: economy and concentration of language. Why use 15 words when one clear, elegant sentence will do it? Well, the reason they don’t do it is because it takes a hell of a lot more work to write a simple, elegant sentence than it does to write a convoluted one.

And so I feel that although The Line of the Sun—well, people have said that it sounds like magical realism in its language, but I still feel that the images in it and the language came to me as a result of writing poetry. And so even when I have only have two hours to write, I start my mornings by writing a poem, revising a poem, or reading poetry. But I’m working on a book now, and I’ve basically become a hermit. I just stay home and call out for food. My husband will cook for me and say, “You have to get out. People need sunshine.” I tell my students that the only way to be a writer is to treat it as an obligation.

Scene: Can you teach creative writing?

Cofer: I think you can teach the elements of good writing. I can teach people what a poem is, what a good poem is. The same thing with short stories. But I don’t think you can teach someone to be a writer any more than you can teach someone to be a nun. You have to read it and want it. Many people have the talent, I tell you. But they will never be writers because you have to give up something. And that something is usually personal freedom, time, money. I have been so fortunate because I have had in my classroom people who have become fantastic writers. One of them lives in Nashville and teaches at Vanderbilt, Lorraine Lopez. Several of the stories in her first book were written in my classroom. She’s part of the Southern Festival of Books. You should look her up some time.

Scene: You’ve lived in Georgia a long time. Georgia’s obviously very different from Paterson, N.J., and Puerto Rico, your childhood homes. But there must be similarities.

Cofer: Do you mean, do I see similarities between my culture and Southern culture?Scene: Yes.

Cofer: I absolutely do, especially since our home is deep in the piney woods. We live on what once was a farm. I was really amazed at hearing my husband’s family’s stories—of how similar they were in terms of what was important to them, to people in Puerto Rico. I think basically the psychology of the concept of home is adaptable. For example, I have relatives who live in New Jersey who can’t understand what I’m doing in Georgia, because to them the culture of New Jersey has become so familiar, so necessary to them. The longer I live in Georgia the more it seems like home, and the more I find similarities. To the point where when I go to Puerto Rico, I have to relearn certain demands of the culture. And so the answer is very complex. Yes, there are similarities. One of my favorite writers, whom I consider a genius, is Flannery O’Conner. And her farm is only an hour away from where I live. And she wrote about people that may seem foreign to you and to me, but if you examine her stories about the poor people working the land in Georgia, and you read the literature of Puerto Rico and Cuba, the psychology is what’s similar. Working people, their superstitions and their customs. And so, by reading her stories, I taught myself a lot because when I was teaching myself to write there were no Latina writers. And so I had to use Virginia Woolf, Flannery O’Conner, Toni Morrison and all these people to teach me how to write about other people, other cultures that I had not experienced. This is probably too long an answer.

Scene: No, no.

Cofer: It’s what I call the process of making a place home, and, in fact, it’s what my new book is about. I’m working on a multi-genre collection that I call Peach Pit Corazon. The Peach Pit Heart. Because, you know, the peach pit is supposed to be the hardest thing that you can find, next to a stone. And so this is gonna be about, finally, making this place home, without giving up the other part of me. People ask me, “Well, you’ve lived in Georgia so long, how come you haven’t written about it?” And I say, “Well, I had to be away from New Jersey for 15 years before I could write about it.” I require—some writers don’t, but some do—the distance of time in order to assess, and to filter what I can use. And so now I’m ready. This year I finally feel ready to write directly about Georgia.

Scene: So the new book’s gonna be what? Essays, short stories and poems?

Cofer: Yes, and anything else I invent. At this stage in my life, if they don’t want to publish me, that’s fine. But I’ve been sending out some of the pieces and actually have been experimenting with ignoring genre. I’ve been teaching this thing called the lyric essay. It’s just basically using the conventions of poetry—music, image, concentration of language—to write about subjects that are normally addressed in essays. And they’re usually short, much shorter than the usual essay, but they still cover the same material. Recently I wrote one about—I read an article about how most of the pedestrian deaths in Georgia are now Latinos. And they are Latinos because most of these people don’t own cars. They cross the highways in Atlanta, and many people don’t see them, and there was a tragedy recently with a mother and her two little children. At first I thought, I need to write an essay about this, but I was so emotionally involved in it that I decided to just sort of mine the essence of it, and it turned out to be a lyric essay of two pages. I let the subject call forth the form. I didn’t impose it.

Scene: Just a final question about your work, and I confess to being more familiar with your poetry than your prose. If you go from your early poetry, and work through its evolution to your most recent book of poems, A Love Story Beginning in Spanish, what would you say about how the work has changed?

Cofer: Well, the thing that I can say is that I’ve become more self-assured in my use of language. The poems in my first books were based on my idea that a poem should contain a surprise. The poems in Terms of Survival are short and pithy—I hardly ever get to use that word—and their structure is very controlled. I was shy of writing long poems because I didn’t think I knew enough about poetry. And so those poems are an exploration of language, and I took great delight in writing them because the fantastic thing about a poem is that it surprises the writer. Like Frost said: No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. And yet, as I learned more about poetry, and became more secure in my craft, I started exploring more, and so I think the poems in A Love Story Beginning in Spanish have the same general obsessions about language and that sort of thing, but the reason the book is called A Love Story Beginning in Spanish is not that it’s a love story in the romantic sense, but it means that my love of language started in Spanish and then grew to include English. And so even though I have family poems, I think they’re a lot more expansive than they were. Not just little snapshots. I’d be interested to know what you think. But I think my poems are getting, like, fatter.

Scene: They are getting fatter. “Confident” seems a good way to describe it. More self-assured, without a doubt. I mean, I’m looking at the first poem in Love Story, the beans poem—

Cofer: Yeah, yeah.

Scene: That’s a great poem.

Cofer: Oh, thank you. See, I couldn’t have written that—

Scene: Yes, it’s got a lot of the same ideas going through it as the earlier poems, but it seems so much more—is it fair to call it more mature?

Cofer: Well, absolutely, you can use “mature.” Because, you know, the joke among poets is that you can still be an emerging poet at 60 because it takes so long to grasp this art. And “Beans” is one that I’m very proud of because it has to do with my daughter, who is a theoretical mathematician. I don’t understand her work. Her mind works in a completely different way than mine. And she didn’t grow up needing to be a feminist and make statements. She’s both a mathematician and a fabulous cook. And I think what gave the poem the complexity was the fact that her concept of what freedom is, and what power is, is different than mine, and it’s different from my mother’s and grandmother’s. And yet we are all yearning for basically the same thing: nourishment of the soul. And so I felt good about connecting those various lines.

Scene: The other one that really struck me is the “El Azul” poem.

Cofer: Well, the other thing I was trying to do in this book was to bring it home, to say there is a way to connect the island to this place. That poem was written as a challenge. I was challenged to write a poem for a convocation by the vice president here at Georgia. I nearly had a heart attack.

Scene: You read that for the convocation?

Cofer: Yeah. I went home to my mother. I always go home, you know, in the summers, and I was struggling over this, and she said, “We need to get you out of here.” She took me to look at the ocean. So basically what I tried to do in this poem is those of you who look out on a field, like I do here on the farm—and my husband considers the ground of Georgia, the sky of Georgia, the most beautiful thing he can imagine, and my mother can’t separate herself from Puerto Rico— and I said, well, if you can imagine what I find beautiful and I can imagine what you find beautiful, then we’ve come to some common ground.

Scene: And that perfect line in there—it’s got its own space around it—where it says: “Do you know what I mean?”

Cofer: And you have to imagine me reading this in full academic regalia. It’s really hard to do. But I was so thrilled that the students responded. It was so funny because I said, “Do you know what I mean?” and the freshmen in the front row nodded. So, you know, those are the pleasures of writing a poem that works. And then there’s the many, many days when you just can’t get that image to work. There are many more of those days than when you say, “Eureka!”

Scene: But those are good moments, yes? The eureka moments are worth it.

Cofer: Every time. People say, why should you be a writer? You’re not gonna make money or whatever. And I say you have to be a fool enough to complete something and say, “I didn’t know I could do that.” It lasts about one day until you feel the need to do something even better.

Scene: That’s right.

Cofer: But that’s the reason to write. For the discovery.

Scene: When do you expect the next book, Peach Pit Corazon, to be done?

Cofer: I think another two years. I’ve been working on it for two years. But since it contains poetry, you never know how many poems you have to write before you write the poems that belong in the book.


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Recent Comments

Sign Up! For the Scene's email newsletters

* required

Latest in Cover Story

All contents © 1995-2014 City Press LLC, 210 12th Ave. S., Ste. 100, Nashville, TN 37203. (615) 244-7989.
All rights reserved. No part of this service may be reproduced in any form without the express written permission of City Press LLC,
except that an individual may download and/or forward articles via email to a reasonable number of recipients for personal, non-commercial purposes.
Powered by Foundation