A proud Bostonian, Sarah Cortez is a cop, poet, short story writer and editor of the award-winning nonfiction work, Windows Into My World, a collection of short memoirs written by young authors. She’s also the editor of the anthology, Hit List: The Best of Latino Mystery. She was kind enough to take time from her busy schedule to answer my questions about her work, editing, and the creative process.
Thanks for this interview, Sarah. How do you combine your personas as cop, poet, freelance writer and editor when you sit down to write?
When I sit down to write, the leading persona is that of poet. By that, I mean that the foremost goal – in whatever genre is at hand – is creating a piece that accomplishes that genre’s goal in an economy of language and an elegant style. Added to this, of course, are considerations of subject matter and tone – which draw heavily on my experiences as a street police officer. I see the world from a blue collar perspective. This change has come about even though I grew up in a white collar environment and worked in the white collar corporate world for fourteen years before going into policing.
Were you an avid reader as a child?
As a child, I absolutely couldn’t wait to learn the magic of letters and words. My mother was a classroom educator and she started teaching me letters and words before kindergarten. In fact, I remember with great fondness her sewing on her sewing machine the binding for books she made for me using the large, beautiful photographs from Life magazine. Both my parents read a story with me every night before bed – what a treat that was! Once I was older I devoured all the adventure stories in the library.
After reading one of your poems, I can’t help feeling that the ‘toughness’ required to being a police officer is reflected in your tone and imagery. Tell us a little about how your creative process. Do poems flow out of you in a stream-of-consciousness manner? Do you edit and re-edit a lot?
In terms of creative process, this is how I work on poems. The first line will come to me, usually when I’m doing some mundane, repetitive task like driving. I always write it down immediately. It’s a gift from the subconscious. This first line establishes the rhythm of the poem. I call it “the music of the first line.” Later, when I have time I continue writing the poem, from that first line. As I write, I experiment in the usual way any good poet does, e.g. I change line length, stanza length, vocabulary, sentence structure, punctuation, etc. During this period I am also looking at what the poem is trying to become, i.e. the main focus of the poem. After many edits and experiments – maybe, at least ten version of the poem – I’ll get to what I consider a “first draft.” This is the version I will type on the computer and print. (I do all the previous work by hand.) From this “first draft,” I will continue revising the poem. A very few poems come together in less than a year. Sometimes there will be just one word that isn’t perfect and it may take years of thinking about it to find the exact word to fit. I remember poet Olga Broumas saying for one of her powerful poems that it had taken seven years to find the final verb that completely and absolutely makes that poem come together.
What about your process editing short fiction?
I was first published in short fiction because love of it is what led me to begin taking creative writing courses. In addition, my years of experience editing memoir had given me a lot of knowledge dealing with those mechanics that the two genres have in common: narrative, pace, tone, dialogue, characterization, moving back and forth in time. I’ve had no less an author that the amazingly prolific and talented, American Book Award winner Joseph Bruchac compliment my editing of his short fiction. I consider editing a vehicle for also educating the beginning writer, so I try to explain my choices so that a beginning writer will also be supported in their gaining of additional skills. Typically, an editor does not have to explain choices to an experienced professional writer – they understand immediately.
Lately you have been conducting workshops for young adults based on your book, Windows Into My World: Latino Youth Write Their Lives. Tell us a bit about this book.
The original idea for creating an anthology of short memoir written by young (high school and college-aged) Latinos came to me because there was nothing on the market. There were plenty of books with middle-aged Latinos/as writing about being young, but there was nothing with young Latinos/as writing about being young. (In memoir, this change in perspective radically affects the writing.) Through my own teaching of high school Latinos I knew how desperately such a resource was needed. One of the greatest joys as I travel around the country meeting with 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 asking about my current projects. I am collecting writing from police officers to create an anthology of voices to tell America who we are. Most of the next several months will be spent traveling to book launch events around the U.S. for HIT LIST: THE BEST OF LATINO MYSTERY. We have events in New York City, Denver, Texas, California, etc. The positive response to the book is overwhelming. I am also still participating in events to help people learn about WINDOWS INTO MY WORLD: LATINO YOUTH WRITE THEIR LIVES.
Thank you, Sarah!