Sarah Cortez, a proud Bostonian, is a cop, poet, short story writer, and editor of the award-winning non-fiction Windows Into My World, a collection of short memoirs written by young authors. She is also the editor of the anthology Hit List: The Best of Latino Mystery. He was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to answer my questions about his work, editing, and the creative process.
Thanks for this interview, Sarah. How do you combine your characters as a cop, poet, freelance writer, and editor when you sit down to write?
When I sit down to write, the main character is the poet. By that, I mean that the main objective, in whatever genre is at hand, is to create a piece that achieves the objective of that genre in an economy of language and an elegant style. Added to this are, of course, considerations of topic and tone, which are largely based on my experiences as a street police officer. I see the world from a blue collar perspective. This change came despite the fact that I grew up in a white-collar environment and worked in the white-collar business world for fourteen years before turning to law enforcement.
Were you an avid reader as a child?
When I was a kid, I couldn’t wait to learn the magic of letters and words. My mother was a classroom educator and started teaching me letters and words before kindergarten. In fact, I fondly remember that he used his sewing machine to sew the book binding that he made for me with the big, beautiful photographs from Life magazine. My parents read me a story every night before bed, what a pleasure! Once I was older, I devoured all the adventure stories in the library.
After reading one of your poems, I can’t help but feel that the ‘toughness’ required to be a police officer is reflected in your tone and images. Tell us a little about your creative process. Do the poems flow from you like a stream of consciousness? Do you edit and reissue a lot?
In terms of the creative process, this is how I work on poems. The first line will come to me, usually when I’m doing a mundane, repetitive task like driving. I always write it right away. It is a gift from the subconscious. This first line sets 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 that any good poet does, for example, I change the length of the line, the length of the stanza, the vocabulary, the sentence structure, the punctuation, etc. During this period I am also looking at what the poem is trying to become, that is, the main focus of the poem. After many edits and experiments, perhaps at least ten versions of the poem, I will arrive at what I consider to be a “first draft.” This is the version that I will type on the computer and print. (I do all of the above work by hand.) Starting with this “first draft,” I will continue to revise the poem. Very few poems come together in less than a year. Sometimes there will only be one word that is not perfect and you can spend years thinking about it to find the exact word that fits. I remember the poet Olga Broumas saying in one of her powerful poems that it had taken seven years to find the final verb that completely and absolutely brings that poem together.
What about your short fiction editing process?
I was first published in short fiction because love for it is what led me to start taking creative writing courses. In addition, my years of experience editing memoirs had given me a lot of knowledge about those mechanics that the two genres have in common: narrative, rhythm, tone, dialogue, characterization, going back and forth in time. I have had no less author than the incredibly prolific and talented American Book Award winner, Joseph Bruchac, who praised my editing of his fiction short. I see editing as a vehicle to educate the beginning writer as well, so I try to explain my choices so that a beginning writer is also supported in acquiring additional skills. Usually an editor doesn’t have to explain the options to a seasoned professional writer, they get it right away.
Lately, he has held workshops for young adults based on his book, Windows Into My World: Young Latinos Write Their Lives. Tell us a little about this book.
The original idea of creating an anthology of short memoirs written by young Latinos (high school and college) occurred to me because there was nothing on the market. There were a lot of books with middle-aged Latinos / like writing about being young, but there was nothing with young Latinos / like writing about being young. (In memoirs, this change in perspective radically affects writing.) Through my own teaching Latinos in high school, I knew how desperately that resource was needed. One of the greatest joys as I travel the country meeting with teachers, librarians, community educators, and graduate students who teach 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?
Thanks for asking about my current projects. I am compiling writings from police officers to create an anthology of voices to tell America who we are. Most of the next few months will be spent traveling to book launch events in the US 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 also continue to participate in events to help people get to know the WINDOWS IN MY WORLD: YOUNG LATINOS WRITE THEIR LIVES.