Awards, recognition, and service
• Goodbye, Mexico: Poems of Remembrance Finalist, 2014 International Latino Book Award
• Cold Blue Steel Finalist, 2014 Writer's League of Texas Poetry Award
• Elected councilor for the Texas Institute of Letters, 2013
• Our Lost Border: Essays on Life amid the Narco-Violence won a 2013 Border Regional Library Association Award for Southwest Book of the Year and the 2013 International Latino Book Award for Latino Focused Non-Fiction (Bilingual)
• Walking Home: Growing Up Hispanic in Houston Honorable Mention, Los Angeles Book Festival and Southwest Book Awards, 2013
• You Don’t Have A Clue: Latino Mystery Stories for Teens Shortlisted for the International Latino Book Awards, May 2012
• Inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters, April 2012
• “The Secret” placed semifinalist in Rattle’s 2011 annual poetry contest
• “Glance” was chosen for the nationwide Poetry in Motion project
• Windows into My World: Latino Youth Write Their Lives won a 2008 Honor Award from the Skipping Stones Multicultural Magazine for being an exceptional book promoting understanding of diverse cultures.
• “Seguin” was awarded an Honorable Mention by noted poet Kathleen Peirce in the 2007 Texas Poetry Calendar (Dos Gatos Press)
Sarah Cortez: “Poetry and policing
fit together tongue-in-groove
Sarah Cortez is a poet, teacher, speaker, editor, and former police officer — a combination of roles few other writers can claim. For Cortez, 2015 was an interesting year. It started with the official release of Goodbye, Mexico in January and ended with a prose poem running in Texas Monthly’s December issue, with being selected for the PEN Southwest shortlist, Texas Book Festival, and workshops and keynotes in between.
After the PEN announcement, Cortez was interviewed by LSLL by email.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Sarah, the past year has been quite a big one for you. But in addition to being a good year for poet Sarah Cortez, it seems like it’s been a good year for poetry in Texas in general. For readers not familiar with Goodbye, Mexico, would you describe that work for them?
SARAH CORTEZ: Goodbye, Mexico: Poems of Remembrance is a lyric love song to the pre-cartel Mexico that we all loved. Almost fifty poets from around the U.S. have written poems specifically for this volume, including Paul Mariani (my favorite contemporary poet and winner of the John Ciardi Award for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry and the former poetry chair at Boston College), and six poet laureates, including Alberto Ríos, the first poet laureate of Arizona. This book has already won an International Latino Book Award.
Even though 2015 has given you many platforms for your work, you’ve been building your writing career for three decades and supplemented it with a variety of “day jobs.” Perhaps the most interesting juxtaposition was police officer and poet—a lifestyle you maintained for many years. Can you share how those two pursuits informed each other?
Poetry and policing fit together tongue-in-groove. Both demand intense focus on details; both exert a beneficial and fierce discipline on the intellect and spirit. Oh, yes, BTW, I am still a reserve police officer and take great pride in wearing the uniform. So it is a juxtaposition that is ongoing for me.
You grew up in Houston and have spoken with fondness of your hometown. How did your background shape your writing?
I am fortunate to have grown up in Houston, a city where optimism and opportunity both abound. These attitudes were the bread-and-butter of my parents’ household, where I was encouraged to work hard at learning because I could accomplish anything I could dream.
Which writers did you grow up reading?
Like most writers, I read vociferously from an early age. I still recall the magical moment when I read and understood my first sentence in a homemade, large-format “book” that my mother sewed together on her sewing machine made from Magazine images.
In tween-teen years, my favs were those short mystery “novels” penned for Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift. I wanted to be a World War II soldier, as all the men in my family had been, so I loved read battlefield classics. In seventh-eighth grades, my school introduced a Great Books Club, and those of us chosen for it read the classics, e.g., Oliver Twist, Moby-Dick, The Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, The Scarlet Letter. We even read some of the great philosophers such as the Stoic, Marcus Aurelius. I also was a great fan of Sherlock Holmes and the Perry Mason series of books. For a few years in high school, I read all the classic plays by Molière, Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, etc. Gosh, I just noticed that there were no poets on my younger reading lists!! (Poetry was a much later love.)
When you started writing, it was your intention to write prose. What changed?
You remember correctly! My initial dream was to be a short-story writer and my initial writing classes were in fiction. However, I was also under great stress a couple of years later due to a failing marriage and when I sat down to write, I wrote poetry, not prose.
Fortunately, my first poetry teacher was the incomparable Edward Hirsch. (Poor guy—his first year at the University of Houston he was stuck with teaching a Wednesday evening, three-hour “beginning” writing course in both fiction and poetry to undergraduates. One of those tedious classes that has thirty students—a completely impossible situation for a writing workshop.) This was my introduction to writing poetry. Ed was a luminous teacher—kind, always kind, but also always honest and articulate about how to improve a piece of writing. A shining example of effective pedagogy.
Which Texas poets do you enjoy reading?
Poets Larry D. Thomas and Jerry Bradley are some of the Texas poets I read for their exquisite craft.
What advice would have other for other poets?
Don’t ever think your poetry is good enough. Always strive to write beyond what you’ve done previously. I see many poets who don’t have the interest or will to advance beyond what they’ve already attained. My radical opinion is that writing poetry really is just like playing tennis. You’ll only get better when you play with and learn from tennis players who are more accomplished than you currently are. Each of us poets should be reading those poets who are better than we are (however you define “better”) and challenging ourselves to understand the craft decisions that the “better” poet has made. Even if one’s own style, voice, and tone are very different from that “better” poet, one can still advance in knowledge by understanding another’s craft.
Spoken word and poetry slams seem to be growing in popularity. How important is performance in perfecting the craft of poetry?
All of us poets should be more interested in communication than in ego gratification. However, many poetry readings would argue otherwise. If one is interested in effective communication, then one will practice the poems to be read aloud ahead of time, we will time our presentation so that we don’t abuse the other presenters or the audience, we will enunciate carefully, we will learn to use a microphone … the list is long. Bottom line: oral presentation of poetry is a skill and must be learned, practiced, and consciously shared with an audience.
How has publishing changed since you started?
Publishing has changed radically, in some ways, with the advent of electronic publishing. There are positive side effects, and, of course, numerous negative side effects—which are endlessly debated. What hasn’t changed is that publishers risk time and money to bring a book to the marketplace. The author owes it to the publisher to do his/her best to help sell books. Each book and each author vary, so the ways to sell a book vary as well. The most common mistaken attitude I see among writers, especially beginning writers, is that the publisher owes them something. Therefore, this type of author stands on the sidelines and won’t do anything to set up book signings, or readings, or any type of book event.
What’s next for Sarah Cortez?
I’m terrifically excited to have two books coming out next fall with Texas Review Press. One will be Against Sky’s Warm Belly: New & Selected Poems. This has been a superb chance to collect the best poems from previous volumes and also write newer work. (For a sneak peek, look at the next volume of The Texas Review or the next issue of LABOR out of Duke University—a scholarly journal on blue-collar workers augmented by one poem each issue curated by one of my poetry heroes, Jim Daniels at Carnegie Mellon, the champion of blue-collar poets in America.)
The second book, entitled Vanishing Points: Poems and Photographs of Texas Roadside Memorials, will be anchored by the stunning photography of Dan Streck. This landmark book allows four poets to respond to the visual summons of roadside memorials with lyric intensity and eloquent ekphrasis. The four poets are Larry D. Thomas, Jack B. Bedell, Sarah Cortez, and Loueva Smith. Graphic designer Nancy J. Parsons brings her award-winning skills to perfectly meld photography with poetry in this gorgeous volume.s
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Praise for Goodbye, Mexico: Poems of Remembrance, edited by Sarah Cortez
“In this time when Texans are polarized on how to respond best to the ongoing humanitarian, political and economic crises in our neighbor Mexico, Houston peace officer-turned-poet Sarah Cortez has assembled some of North America’s finest bards to call to mind and heart again the Mexico they once knew and loved. . . . With such a license, the poets produced a wonderfully varied array of works evoking subjects both classically surreal (such as the wandering woman spirit la llorona in all her horrific power and of course painter Frida Kahlo) and naturally classical (evocations of pyramids, monarch butterflies in Morelia, the white sands of Mazatlan).” —Ed Conroy, San Antonio Express-News
“The poems, truly remarkable in their diversity of content and form, articulate the remorse of the loss of ‘ole Mexico’ and the sentimentality of remembrances toward ‘an old girlfriend,’ to quote Jerry Bradley: ‘you want the best for her but are wary of getting too close. No matter how charming and alluring she seems, she is always capable of turning on you and breaking your heart.’” David M. Parsons, 2011 Texas Poet Laureate
Praise for Sarah Cortez’s Cold Blue Steel
“Cortez provides a unique perspective on the front lines of law enforcement in Houston. In this, her second book of poetry, Cortez employs frank language in sharp lyrics charged with weary passion. From frustrating court proceedings to beat cops’ street patrols to locker room flirtation, her speakers express disdain for bureaucratic laziness, lust for fellow officers (and tatted-up criminals!), and fatigue after every autopsy. But Cortez enlivens her lines with a deft blend of rhythm and police shorthand, as when her speaker pities a ‘tall white-boy LT / assigned to Investigations / since he was too /incompetent / for Patrol.’ Other poems exhibit an intriguing edge of hard-boiled noir and sense of duty in the face of futility. Elsewhere, Cortez brandishes a mean humor, as when the speaker of ‘Reported Dog Pack’ finds herself in hot pursuit of a bitch in heat, a trio of male dogs panting close behind.” —Diego Báez, Booklist
Praise for Sarah Cortez’s Walking Home: Growing Up Hispanic in Houston
“In this breakthrough, mixed-genre memoir in prose and poetry, Cortez invites her reader to sit by her side as she shares, with the intimacy of a personal diary, the seminal, poignant memories of the early years of her life. In the opening prose section, through the unifying motif of the radiant colors of a large, stained-glass window, she writes of family love, tragedy, disappointment, wonder, longing, and the consoling power of spiritual fulfillment, and she does so in startling, lucid prose as pure as the colored light pouring through the window. Cortez segues from one genre to another so artfully and seamlessly that the lean, skillfully executed poems appear a natural, intensified extension of the luminous prose.”
— Larry D. Thomas, 2008 Texas Poet Laureate, and member, Texas Institute of Letters