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Responses to American Poetry

The aim of this online space is to host the research work of university students or young scholars as this emerges from larger projects focusing on the American poetry scene. The objective of this initiative is to bring this kind of research activity to the attention of the general public in an attempt to further promote the exchange of ideas with regard to the process of reading, understanding and appreciating poetry writing.

  Tatiani Rapatzikou
              (Advisor and initiative co-ordinator)


The Significance of Orality and Performativity
in Jayne Cortez’s Poetry

   by Evgenia Kleidona

A political activist and an artist, an African American and a woman, Jayne Cortez is inscribed in the American literary tradition as the poet who has definitely found her own voice and has definitely made it heard.  Ironically, what makes her work unique is not only the bridging of political engagement and art, but also the amalgamation of multiple literary and artistic inspirations in her poetry. Speaking as an advocate of the Black Arts Movement and Black Feminism on the one hand, and integrating jazz music into her poetry on the other, Cortez’s work manages to tackle social and political issues in a rather communal and interactive way. Indicative of her work, her poems “I am New York City” and “If the Drum is a Woman” first published as part of the collection Scarifications in 1972 and the album There it Is in 1982 respectively, target the thorny issues of racism and sexism, which have been plaguing the American society for centuries. Eventually, it is in the blurring of the boundaries between poetry and music, and the blending of her poems with the sounds of Jazz and Blues that the potency of Cortez’s poetry actually lies. Thus, transfusing her poetry with the oral and performative quality of Jazz and Blues that liberates it from the limits of the printed paper and transforms it into a communal experience, Cortez manages not only to solidify her political message against racism and sexism but at the same time to re-define language and poetry itself.

Born in 1934, Cortez grows up in the Watts district, a Los Angeles neighborhood which, after WWII and during the Second Great Migration, gets almost exclusively populated by African Americans. The long years of social marginalization, discrimination and maltreatment of the Los Angeles blacks by the government and the police, eventually culminate in a series of riots in August 1965, known as the Watts Riots. Inevitably, Cortez’s own experiences as a female African American and a blue collar worker as well as the broader context of the Civil Rights Movement, is bound to influence her work irrevocably. As she explains herself:

The Civil Rights Movement heightened my level of awareness, affected my work as a writer and helped expand my range of choices. It gave me a humanistic focus for my growth and development as a person and an artist. I learned how to transform material from that experience into art. The events of that time also connected me to other struggles, and to the language of struggle. I would say that those events have given me a lifetime of work. (qtd. in Ballard 68)

Indeed, Cortez’s deeply political messages can be traced in most of her works, including of course her poems “I am New York City” and “If the Drum is a Woman.” In fact, these two particular poems bring together the two main aspects of Cortez’s political voice: her simultaneous struggle against racism and sexism. On the one hand, as an African American and politically engaged poet, Cortez is particularly influenced by the work of Amiri Baraka, another African American voice whose poems have triggered the Black Arts or Black Aesthetics Movement, a concerted effort towards the promotion and invigoration of the African heritage, tradition and culture as a well as the formation of a solid and autonomous African American community.  On the other hand, Cortez’s work is also placed within the tradition of Black Feminism, a branch of feminism which also emerges during this period of unrest and social change, focusing on the interrelation of gender and race as factors of social oppression, and leading among other theories to Alice Walker’s womanism. At this point it is important to note that although both “I am New York” and “If the Drum is a Woman” are written twenty years after the Civil Rights Movement, racism and sexism are still parts of the American society. Racism in particular re-emerges in the 1980s as a result of President Reagan’s decision to disassociate his political campaign from the civil rights movement and cut down the funding of minorities. As the friction between the minorities and the government grows more and more tense, racial discrimination and police brutality against the blacks increases as well, which leads to the resurgence of the Black Power. Thus, Cortez’s poems “I am New York City” and “If the Drum is a Woman” should be examined in relation to both the diachronic struggles of the black community and women, and the particular socio-political context of the period the poems are written. On a second level then Cortez’s poetry manages to subvert the literary tradition of New Criticism and the Intentional Fallacy in particular, which views the poem as an auto-telic entity independent from the creator’s own experiences.

Cortez’s poem “I am New York” combines the perspectives of both the Black Arts  Movement and Black Feminism, along with Cortez’s own reality as a black female blue-collar and her time in New York. In the poem the city is personified, transforming into the body of a black female. This body, however, is not whole or integral. Like “confetti of flesh” (21), the female black body is dismembered and scattered around in different parts of the city, creating the impression that each part of the city functions itself as a body part. The dissection of the black female body in this particular poem serves a dual purpose. On the one hand, the visceral and morbid images of the dismembered body are meant to shock and provoke her audience in an attempt to raise the black community’s awareness regarding the fragmentation of the Third World population which has been scattered around the globe throughout the centuries. Additionally, these images highlight in graphic way the victimization and exploitation of African Americans in the name of the western materialism and superficiality, which is particularly pointed out in the lines “look i sparkle with shit with wishbones / my nickname is glue-me” (32-33), while at the same time they emphasize the racial discrimination and police brutality that blacks have been faced with even until the 1980s, which is implied in the lines “i am new york city of blood / police and fried pies / i rub my docks red with grenadine” (10-12) and “take my face of stink bombs” (34). On the other hand, the poem attacks the oversexualization and objectification of women, and especially black women, as the phrases “legs apart” (5), “my pelvis blushing” (9), “my seanse of peeping toms” (14), and “my markquee of false nipples” (22) imply, emphasizing the double oppression and discrimination that black women undergo.

As with “I am New York,” the poem “If the Drum is a Woman” is also based on the technique of personification, this time of a drum into a woman. In this poem, which constitutes a response to Duke Ellington’s musical allegory “A Drum is a Woman,” Cortez literally speaks out about a taboo issue: that of violence against women, and in particular the violence of black men against black women. With a series of “why” rhetorical questions, such as “why are you pounding your drum” (1), “why are you pistol whipping your drum” (3), “why are you shooting through the head of your drum” (5), “why are choking your drum / why are you raping your drum” (18-19), Cortez addresses her male comrades attempting to raise their awareness regarding the effects of their actions on their women. Here again the personification of the drum has a dual function. On the one hand, it allows Cortez to utilize the property of the drum as a percussion instrument and attempt to subvert the objectification and victimization of women. On the other hand, since the drum is a symbol of the African culture itself, the poem attempts to invoke the black community’s sense of common heritage and hence reinforce their solidarity.  If African culture needs to be preserved and protected, then so do women who are also part of this culture; and if blacks desire to re-build a solid community, they cannot afford to let violence and oppression divide them. It is significant to note here that even when Cortez challenges black men’s sexism and asks them to assume responsibility, she does not attempt to alienate one gender from the other and create a division into the black community, but by acknowledging that black men are in reality “forced into the position / as an oppressor” (31-32) she further encourages solidarity within the black community.

However, apart from the strong imagery and political content, the uniqueness and potency of Cortez’s poetry within the tradition of both the Black Arts Movement and Black Feminism, lies in the combination of this exact political content with the particular artistic inspirations she has integrated into her poetry. In fact, it is the orality and performativity of her poetry, originating from the Jazz and Blues influences, that makes her anti-racist and anti-sexist message so powerful. This pivotal role of Cortez’s orality and performativity can be better understood in the light of Larry Neal’s definition of the Black Arts Movement:

Black Art is the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept. As such, it envisions an art that speaks directly to the needs and aspirations of Black America. In order to perform this task, the Black Arts Movement proposes a radical reordering of the western cultural aesthetic. It proposes a separate symbolism, mythology, critique, and iconology. The Black Arts and the Black Power concept both relate broadly to the Afro-American’s desire for self determination and nationhood. (1)

Taking into consideration Neal’s definition, it becomes apparent that in contrast with the Harlem Renaissance poets of the 1920s, who are rather extrovert and projective, the Black Arts poets strive for an art that is introvert, self-reflective and self-referential; an art that is made by African Americans for African Americans, dealing with African American culture and reality; that is so autonomous and independent from the western literary and artistic traditions that many Black Arts poets, and Cortez herself, see it as imperative to gain full control of their own art founding their own publishing or recording companies. The construction of this kind of Black art draws upon the already widespread sense that African and Western cultures are juxtaposed or even contrastive in terms of the distinct forms of literary and artistic expression that each culture is based on. Traditionally, while the Western cultures are characterized by literacy and their emphasis is on academic textuality, the African cultures are considered to be based on orality and musicality (Smethurst 90). It is not surprising then that, as Mike Sell points out, “the artists and audiences of the Black Arts Movement discovered the soul of Black liberation in the deconstruction and partial rejection of the art object and the literary text” (58). Thus, along with other avant-guard poets, such as the Beat Generation or the Confessional poets, Black Arts poets have an additional reason to attack New Criticism and its formalistic rigidness. Hence, rejecting the novel or traditional poetry as characteristic of Western culture, the Black Arts Movement attempts to consolidate the African identity and common heritage by emphasizing its differentiation from the Western culture, and promoting forms of literary and artistic expression that are considered typical of the African culture, such as oral-based poetry, music, and ritualized drama.

It is also important to note here that if orality is characteristic of Black Art proponents in general, it is twice as characteristic of Black Feminist writers. According to DoVeanna S. Fulton, “Black feminist orality is a form of empowerment using vocal and oral means and is the foundation of a literary tradition of African American women’s writing that is the progency of a cultural tradition of verbally articulating the self and experience” (2). As Fulton argues throughout her book Speaking Power: Black Feminist Orality in Women's Narratives of Slavery, while most male black writers, such as Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. Du Bois promote and propose literacy as a form of Black liberation, female black narratives are mostly based on orality. In this light, while Cortez’s oral-based poetry clearly celebrates the African culture as a whole, it does pay some extra tribute to the Black Feminist literary tradition.

In complete accordance with the Black Art’s and Black Feminism’s rejection of textuality and the overall tradition of New Criticism, which dictates that the form of a poem is strictly defined and governed by a set of formalistic rules, Cortez’s poems exhibit an interrelation of content and form which revolves around the poems’ own orality. In fact, in both “I am New York City” and “If the Drum is a Woman” it is the content and especially the intended orality of the poems that determines their form and structure on the paper. To begin with, both poems are written in free verse, transcending the limitations of the printed page and the rigid formalistic rules of traditional poetry creating in this way the effect of natural human speech. This speech-like effect is also reflected through the visual representation of the poems, and in particular through the fact that both poems are deliberately stripped off of specific typographical conventions that are requisite in written language. Thus, apart from the last line of “If the Drum is a Woman,” which ends with ellipsis to denote both continuity and infiniteness as well as the sense of a pending answer on behalf of the male black community, both poems lack any sign of punctuation. Additionally, in “I am New York City” both the first person pronoun “i” and the proper name “new york” are left non-capitalized (which might also imply their dehumanization). Finally, the very content of the poems is intended to challenge the traditional definition of poetry as the literary genre par excellence to possess high moral and aesthetic value, employ elevated language, and be preoccupied only with high ideals. By utilizing such ‘inappropriate’ material for poetry and written language as the taboo issues of violence and rape that Cortez’s poems touch upon, the visceral and morbid images they invoke as well as the abundant references to taboo bodily functions and body parts, as in the lines “i sparkle with shit” (32), “my reptilian ass” (37), “piss / into the bite of our handshake” (48-49), and “break wind with me” (54) in “I am New York City,” Cortez attacks the traditional literary view which, by placing poetry on a pedestal, severs it from everyday reality and condemns it to expressive and creative sterility.

Alongside orality, the role of the performative aspect of the Black Arts in the re-construction and consolidation of the collective African identity is pivotal. As Harry Elam points out,

for African Americans physically separated from their African past, the “struggle to remember” has continually involved performance and other forms of African American cultural expression because of their ability to shape perceptions and even rewrite history. […] African American performance practices, from the slave ring shout to contemporary Hip Hop contain vestiges of earlier African cultural traditions. Consequently, performance can constitute, contain, and create “cultural memory.” (9)

In this light, it becomes evident that the significance of Cortez’s poetry does not lie simply on the fact that her poetry is meant to be delivered orally rather than read silently, but on the fact that Cortez actually turns her poetry into performance, intermixing it with the sounds of Jazz or Blues music of her accompanying band, and allowing it to become itself a “cultural memory.” Cortez’s fascination with Jazz and Blues starts from an early age and culminates with her delivering her own live poetic performances in the company of the jazz group Firespitters. Apart from its aesthetic value, the symbolic significance of Jazz and Blues in the context of the African American culture is of course undeniable. It is not surprising, for instance, that other avant-guard artists, such as the Beat Generation, have adopted and incorporated techniques deriving from Jazz and Blues as a means of expressing their solidarity to the African American community as the social group par excellence that has suffered oppression and marginalization. Both Jazz and Blues have emerged in African American communities as extensions of the musical traditions and rituals that black slaves have carried with them from Africa. In reality, the most typical features of Jazz and Blues, namely spontaneity, improvisation and bop prosody, originate from the call-and-response pattern of African songs, which is also present in the ‘holler’ slave songs as well as from African religious rituals. Apart from the musician’s expressiveness and emotionality which is also typical in Jazz and Blues, improvisation and spontaneity is achieved through the musician’s creative expansion and elaboration on specific musical motifs or ‘licks,’ that also function as the ‘beat’ that keeps up the rhythm throughout the song. This exact pattern is present in both Cortez’s poems, created through the repetition of particular phrases, as for instance the phrases “i am new york city” (1, 10, 19, 28, 50), “in my” (24-26) and “approach me” (38-40, 42) in “I am New York City,” or the phrases “if the drum is a woman” (6, 17, 33), “why are you” (1, 3, 4, 18, 19, 20), “don’t abuse your drum” (7, 8, 34, 35), “your drum is not” (25-27), and “don’t” (29-31) in “If the Drum is a Woman.” Of course in “If the Drum is a Woman” in particular, the rhythm that is created through the repetition is specifically meant to resemble the sound of an actual drum as a reference to the African culture, providing another example of the interrelation between the content and form of Cortez’s poems.

As Tony Bolden points out, Black Arts poets soon become aware of the potency lying in the ritualistic and interactive aspect of Jazz and Blues, and eventually integrate it into their own poetry. For Bolden, Cortez is one of the most characteristic representatives of “blues poetics,” which she identifies as “the most profound manifestation of African American Resistance poetry” exactly because, apart from promoting the black vernacular through her poems, Cortez “appropriates the role of the blues artist as secular priestess” (62). In a way then Black Arts poetry and especially Cortez’s poetry creates a continuum: from the African lands to the black slaves carried to America, to the black preachers and the Jazz and Blues musicians, and finally to the Black Arts poets, the African culture still lives on. In this sense, Cortez’s poetry, through its intermixing with Jazz and Blues, turns into both a diachronic and diatopic link and point of reference for the Third World diaspora.

At the same time, however, Cortez’s orality and performativity plays a significant role even on a synchronic level, by establishing poetry as a communal, interactive, and “composite” experience. On the one hand, as Cortez’s own voice blends together with the ‘voices’ of her band’s instruments, her poetry becomes a multiplying and transformative space of expression where “[v]oices become other voices” (qtd. in Melhem 205-206). On the other hand, her poems encourage an interaction, a dialogue with her audience and the black community in general, mirroring the call-and-response pattern of the slave ‘holler’ songs. This interaction is triggered through the use of the second person pronouns and certain linguistic forms that address and invite the audience to participate and get engaged, as for instance the series of imperatives “look at my pelvis blushing” (9), “give me my confetti of flesh” (21), “look i sparkle with shit with wishbones” (32), “take my face of stink bombs” (34), “take my beer can junta” (36), “approach me” (38-40), “massage me” (45), “salute me” (46), “face up face down piss / into the bite of our handshake” (48-49), “break wind with me” (54), as well as the lines where Cortez directly addresses the black community as “my skillet-head friend / my fat bellied comrade / citizens” (52-53) in “I am New York.” Similarly in “If the Drum is a Woman,” Cortez addresses her audience with a series of rhetorical questions initiating with “why are you” (1, 3-4, 18-20), employing also a series of imperatives, such as “don’t abuse your drum” (7-8, 34-35), “don’t reject your drum don’t try to dominate your drum / don’t become weak and cold and desert your drum / don’t be forced into the position as an oppressor of drums” (29-32). In this way, Cortez’s performative poetry creates a sense of polyphony and plurality and transforms into a multi-layered and communal experience, further enhancing the cohesion of the black community. By inviting different interpretations on the part of the audience Cortez encourages the active, conscious and critical engagement of the black community in the struggle against oppression. In addition, by re-defining and re-instating poetry as an interactive and communicative process Cortez manages to attack another premise of the Neo-critical tradition. Thus, contrary to the Affective Fallacy, which renders the audience’s response to the poetic work as irrelevant, Cortez’s poetry draws meaning not only from her own experiences but from the whole community’s experiences as well, while at the same time it seeks to create new meanings by attempting to re-define the community’s self-perception and identity.

The significance of orality and voice lies also in the fact that it is a form of resistance in itself. Oral language is not only the most fundamental form of self-expression but one of the features inextricably linked with our human nature. To deprive someone of their speech and voice is to deprive them of their sovereignty as individuals and their human identity; it is one of the most powerful and effective ways of oppression and dehumanization that can be applied both on individuals and social groups. It is not surprising that, discussing Iris Marion Young’s criteria that determine the oppression of a social group, namely exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and systemic violence, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza adds silencing to the list (31), relating it particularly to women. The silencing of a social group can be materialized in several ways, literal and metaphorical, which both women and the black community have been experiencing consistently throughout history. For instance, Charles Grandison Parsons describes the literal silencing of disobedient slaves by use of special iron devices that were lodged in the slaves’ mouths (160-161). On the other hand, research results have revealed that women, having been raised with specific prescriptions as to what femininity entails, eventually internalize these prescriptions even from their early childhood. Hence, women are essentially trained to speak less loudly and less intensely than men (Eakins and Eakins 104), since not speaking loud is considered a sign of good manners, politeness, and submissiveness, all of which are considered indispensable properties of a ‘real lady.’ At the same time, both women and African Americans have been condemned to silence on a metaphorical level by being under-represented in the literary tradition, in the media, in the political arena or the public sector. In this light, voice itself becomes a symbol of resistance and self-assertion at the same time. While written language encloses discreteness, in the sense that the reading of a written text lies in the discretion and the conscious decision of the reader, oral language is more pervasive and even imposing. To speak out, to make one’s voice heard, whether a woman or an African American, is to force the society to acknowledge one’s presence and self-sovereignty.

The fact the Cortez delivers her anti-racist and anti-sexist message through the spoken word becomes itself part of the message, part of the struggle against the oppression that women and blacks have undergone so far. In a paradoxical and even ironic way, Cortez’s poem “If the Drum is a Woman,” which, as Nielsen points out (227), is written in response to Duke Ellington’s musical allegory A Drum is a Woman,[1] highlights the imperative need for women, and in particular African American women, to make themselves heard not only to the white community but also to their own community’s males. Apart from the fact that the whole poem and its delivery constitutes itself an instance of speaking out regarding an issue that is considered taboo within the black community, Cortez reverses the negative connotations that Ellington’s title may convey by focusing on the personification of the drum rather than on the objectification of women (Brown 181-182), as is evident, for instance, in the lines “why are you shooting through the head of your drum” (4),  “why are you choking you drum / why are you raping your drum” (18-19) and so on. Thus, subverting the allusion of Ellington’s title to the objectification of black women and their reduction to an object whose sole purpose is to be beaten, Cortez focuses on the positive connotations of the drum as a musical instrument which is not only representative of the African culture but is also characterized by its loudness and rowdiness. Eventually, by integrating the properties of a drum, the black woman stops being “invisible” (26) to her male black comrades, exactly because she has made her voice, like a drum, impossible to ignore.

However, the significance of orality and performativity as forms of resistance and means of construction of a collective identity also depends on the diversity that both oral language and voice embody as products of a physical or bodily process. On the one hand, voice is made out of a set of physical characteristics, such as pitch, intonation, timbre, and volume. On the other hand, oral language entails by definition the use of an idiolect specific to each individual speaker but also of a particular accent and other grammatical conventions which are indicative of the speaker’s origin, race, gender, or even social status. A woman can be identified as such because of her pitch and intonation, while an African American can be identified as such because of their black accent and the use of the black idiom. Thus, the adoption and use of the African American vernacular is itself an assertion of the African American identity. Interestingly, while social groups which are less prestigious usually tend to imitate the language of more prestigious groups, it is often the case that a social group of lower prestige promotes and adheres consciously and deliberately to its own idiom. This ‘covert prestige’ as is called in Sociolinguistics is a result of the community’s perception of their idiom as the connective tissue that ensures the cohesion of the community members and at the same time differentiates them from other social groups, excluding any outsiders. This is exactly the case with the African American vernacular not only in the context of the Black Power or the Black Arts Movement but even today. Hence, Cortez’s orality and the use of the African American vernacular it involves, attempts to stimulate this exact covert prestige and boost the black community’s self-confidence and self-determination. Additionally, her linguistic choices are also significant within the Black Feminist perspective. Along with the ‘improper’ loudness of her voice, the use of vulgar language, as in the lines “i sparkle with shit” (32), “my reptilian ass” (37), “piss / into the bite of our handshake” (48-49), and “break wind with me” (54), allows Cortez to challenge gender stereotypes and society’s normative prescriptions, and eventually to re-define her female identity in her own terms. 

At the same time, however, it is exactly the infinite possible combinations of all the different values of the vocal characteristics that make voice unique to every individual, almost like a fingerprint. This uniqueness and authenticity seems to be very significant for Cortez, as evidenced by her song “Find Your Own Voice”[2] or her statement “I imitate no one” (18) in “I am New York.” In this light, Cortez’s poetry stresses the significance of a solid collective and at the same time individual identity as a weapon against social exploitation and oppression.

Apart from their rejection of New Criticism’s obsession with textuality and formalistic rigidness in the name of aesthetic perfection, the Black Arts poets, and particularly Cortez, share with other avant-guard poets of the time an emphasis on the physicality and materiality of language. This materiality is particularly characteristic of the Beat Generation poetry, and especially the poetry of Allen Ginsberg. Like Ginsberg, Cortez also utilizes the breath as the unit of her poetry adapting these breath-units to measures deriving from African American music, and creating a chantlike effect (Nielsen 221). For the Beat poets, voice, like breath, is as much a physical as a meta-physical process. Hence, communication and spirituality are interrelated. Voice is a result of a bodily process, of the vibration of the vocal chords and the amplifying effect of resonance created in the oral cavities. This process, however, is initiated in the diaphragm, which is perceived as the source of cosmic energy in Buddhism and meditation practices. Thus, although the breathing pattern and the voice per se are unique to each individual and, consequently, the poetic experience becomes itself a unique, unprecedented experience every time the poem is performed anew, it is at the same time a communal experience since it emerges out of the same physical process that all individuals share. In this way, the poetic experience becomes an instance of shared intimacy where every individual blends their own voice and their own personal experience and interpretation of the poetic performance with everyone else’s. This sense of collectivity is particularly reflected in Cortez’s invitation to her audience to “break wind with [her]” (54), a physical activity that indeed demands intimacy and trust to be shared.

Apart from the parallels that can be drawn between this spirituality and the African rituals, the physicality and materiality of the breath and voice become themselves a means of emphasizing Cortez’s political message against racism and sexism. Racism and sexism are not simply theoretical concepts. They are both extremely physical and concrete in the sense that they do not only originate from the body, the stigmatization of one’s skin color and sex respectively, but they also have a devastating effect on the body since they encourage physical violence.

Cortez’s preoccupation with corporeality and the flesh, evident in most of her works, is meant to highlight and raise her audience’s awareness of these concrete effects that racism and sexism inflict on both blacks and women. In “I am New York,” in particular, the city is not only personified, but the female black body is dismembered and scattered around the city like a “confetti of flesh” (21): “my brain of hot sauce” (2), “my tobacco teeth” (3), “my / mattress of bedbug tongue” (3-4), “legs apart hand on skin” (5), “pointed fingers” (7), “my pelvis blushing” (9), “my huge skull of pigeons” (13), “my plaited ovaries” (15), “my thigh of / steelspoons and toothpicks” (16-17), “my marquee of false nipples” (22), “my nose of soot” (24), “my ox bled eyes” (25), “my ear of Saturday night specials” (26), “my face of stink bombs” (34), “half ankle half elbow” (43). This fragmentation of the body can be seen as part of what Cortez herself calls “supersurrealism” (Brown 155), which is itself an influence from another avant-guard poetic school of the time, namely the New York poets. Thus, apart from urbanism, Cortez also adopts the fluidity, the irony, the juxtaposition of the familiar and the unfamiliar, as well as the postmodern contingency and indeterminacy that New York poets utilize in the poetry. Such ironic juxtapositions are evident, for instance, in the line “my confetti of flesh” (21), where the word “confetti” brings to mind a festive and joyful event while Cortez actually refers to violence, or the combination of the formal-like tone and the improper language in the invitation “my skillet-head friend / my fat bellied comrade / citizens / break wind with me” (52-54). As Cortez explains, “poetry is like a festival. Everything can be transformed” (Melhem 205-206). It is eventually through the transformation of images and experiences into language that Cortez manages to communicate her strong political messages and at the same time to re-define language and poetry. By utilizing the physicality of oral language, its provisional and ephemeral character in comparison to the written text, Cortez triggers her audience’s conscious concentration and engagement. More importantly, with every line that comes out of her mouth, with every note that emerges from her band’s instrument, her audience experiences poetry not only as a product but as a live and unique procedure that takes place in the here and now.

Although Jayne Cortez’s work emerges as an amalgamation of political and literary influences, it has been marked by her very own twist becoming both unique and collective at the same time. On a political level, the combination of the perspectives of both the Black Arts Movement and Black Feminism with the orality and performativity of Jazz and Blues music, allows her to emphasize the effects of racism and sexism, and at the same time to re-enforce the solidarity, self-confidence and self-determination of both the black and the female community. On a literary level, the orality and performativity of her poetry manage to challenge the literary tradition of New Criticism and re-establish the significance of language as a means of identity, expression, resistance and, more importantly, communication. In this light, by re-defining and re-instating poetry as a communal, interactive and communicative experience, and by emphasizing the original meaning of poetry as the process of creation, Cortez manages to promote the power of poetry as a means of social, political and individual re-creation against any form of oppression.

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Smethurst, James Edward. The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005. Print.


[1] Duke Ellington’s album A Drum is a Woman was recorded and released in 1956, and functions as an allegory for the history of jazz and bebop itself. Blending together music, vocals and narration, the album begins with the transformation of an African drum into Madam Zajj, a female character who personifies African music, and follows her adventures as she travels around the world incorporating various cultural influences along the way. 

[2] “Find your Own Voice” was released as part of Jayne Cortez’s album Cheerful & Optimistic in 1994. This is a phrase that essentially encapsulates the spirit of Cortez’s work and the main message she seeks to infuse into her African American audience. The importance of this urging in the context of her work is also evident by the fact that Cortez has chosen it as the title of her later collection album Find Your Own Voice: Poetry and Music, 1982–2003, released in 2004. Her performance of “Find your Own Voice” at the Sanctuary for Independent Media in New York on October 23, 2010 is a bright example of Cortez’s powerfully expressive and communicative poetry and music.