26 February 2013


Jayne Cortez passed away—went flying home—on December 28, 2012, so this small tribute comes a month or two late, but I did want to record publically my sincere admiration for and indebtedness to her poetry and her performances. There was a proper obit in The New York Times, and there have been many warm tributes, including one from critic Howard Mandel.
Karl Coulthard introducing Jayne Cortez
at the University of Guelph, September 2011
I met Jayne Cortez only once, and only recently, when she gave a keynote talk about her own work at the 2011 Guelph International Jazz Festival. She presented selected recordings she had made over the past 30 years with her band The Firespitters (whose revolving personnel often included her son, percussionist Denardo Coleman, as well as members of Ornette Coleman’s electric ensembles), and her comments focused on elaborating the chiasmic chant from the title piece of her recent Best of CD: “Find your own voice, and use it. / Use your own voice, and find it.” This sounds like advice for new performers – and it is certainly that – but the aspirational panacea of self-discovery these crossed lines offer is only part of their intention.
I have to admit that I am well trained to be suspicious of the expressive, and for better or for worse I incline toward an arch poetic technique that finds its touchstone in Martin Heidegger’s maxim, Die Sprache spricht: language speaks itself. Wimsatt and Beardsley’s affective and intentional fallacies are difficult beasts for me to shake. It can be perilous for a non-African-American like me to associate the expressive with racially marked text, and to implicitly divide it off from canonical, oblique, academically-mediated and difficult Poetry with a capital P; black identity, down that slippery slope, gathers in the emotive and the embodied, while technical linguistic prowess remains the provenance of a white cultural dominant – a racial bifurcation with which I’m not just uncomfortable but which also belies what most poetry, for me, wants to accomplish, to speak. I think George Lewis’s concept of the Afrological – which he links principally to musical practices – is useful  to invoke here, in as much as it aims to foster dialogue (“Gittin’ to Know Y’All”) without necessarily enabling cultural or racial appropriation.
            My memory of Jayne Cortez isn’t so much her talk as of a conversation we had the next day, by chance. We were both staying at the same hotel in Guelph, and ended up riding in the same Red Car van to the Lester B. Pearson Airport in Toronto, to catch our flights home. The trip takes nearly an hour. Ms. Cortez remembered me being at her talk the previous day, and asked politely after my own poetry, which I’d read at the colloquium. We talked about emerging writers, and about her husband Melvin Edward’s sculptures, and I remember she praised William Parker’s generosity and musical vision. But most of all, what I recall is her tone and spirit; she talked with you, not to you. She, too, seemed generous and open; she smiled almost the whole time we talked. I admire her greatly that she would so happily and freely engage with somebody she’d just met and hardly knew. It was like she genuinely wanted to know about you and your inclinations, and to share hers. Respectful exchange, a crossing.
            One of my favourite pieces on her compilation CD is a duet with baritone saxophonist James Carter, an improvised blues (called “I Got the Blues,” recorded in 1994) involving, as her notes put it, “verbal call and response between the poet’s voice and the baritone saxophone sound.” Neither she nor Carter is hesitant or diffident; they know their voices. Cortez doesn’t offer any sort of phonemic sound-poetry, but sticks to the declarative, what she does best: an edgy, passionate, and fierce lyricism. Still, the piece is as much interchange as exchange; they listen and speak to – with – each other, and it is the alternately assertive and yielding textures of that conversation, as much as its content, that come to matter. Cortez says that writing a poem is a matter of getting your mouth on the paper, of expression finding its way over a page. But I think that the reverse might also be true: to find a way to sound out off the page, to make those marks speak—mouth to paper, paper to mouth. Jayne Cortez’s work, for me, offers a model of committed self-expression, a finding.

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