Tuesday, September 20, 2005

An Evening in Poetry

Award winning Puerto Rican poet and writer Judith Ortiz Cofer celebrated National Heritage Hispanic Month at the annual George Mason Fall for the Book festival last Friday in Fairfax, Va.

Growing up in two cultures, Puerto Rico, her homeland and Patterson, New Jersey as well as rural Georgia, Cofer told an intimate crowd of 28 that she wove her “struggle for basic survival” and the answer to her incurable query, “Come se dice?” meaning “how do you say it?” into her own art form.

For Cofer, the metaphysical meaning that lurks in the mind of the “poet, the lunatic and the foe” gives license to “name the world” as they see it, which she did by way of books, short stories and poems.

With fiery black shoulder length hair and a tiny frame, made all the more bitty by her long printed pleated skirt, black pullover and podium too large for her stature, Cofer read her work.
And in blended tones of intensity and reeking in emotion with her ever-so slightly accented delivery, she expressed her bearing to others.

“Poetry for me is the discipline,” she confided. “It is my deep analysis,” a process of venturing in the realm of culture, language, and what it means to be Puerto Rican in a foreign land; and conjoining my two “tierras” by honoring both.

One overarching theme for Cofer is la lucha -- the struggle -- the exertion of both physical and mental energy to overcome life’s lot; and the battle the foreigner in each of us wages to bridle an alien world and make it our own.

She observed many famous poets die unknown; and worldly gain should not be a poet’s goal. Initially plagued by rejection letters from editors, with comments to not affix Spanish words into her poems, a style she refused to disown, she persevered. And eventually she notes, “Poetry saved me from a boring life,” delivering her a modicum of success.

But the Puerto Rican native was merely being humble; her writing career has earned her a plethora of literary awards, including the Best of the Year award by the American Library Association for An Island Like You: Stories of the Barrio.

Students of poetry encounter her writings in educational anthologies. Her works are included in Best American Essays 1991, The Norton Book of Women's Lives, The Norton Introduction to Literature, The Norton Introduction to Poetry, The Heath Anthology of American Literature, The Pushcart Prize, and the O. Henry Prize Stories.

The commemoration of National Hispanic Heritage Month also gave would-be lyricists a chance to read their work. Earlier Cofer had counseled listeners to remain faithful to their truth when pursuing poetry.

Honest poetry is always true,” she remarked, even if it’s not factual.” The details are of no consequence, only the integrity and fidelity to ones artistic expression is of note.

Indeed, her advice comports with the eminent Romantic poet John Yeats whom she also quoted, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know on Earth and all ye need to know.”

As the audience dispersed one could see how Cofer's tome cross cultural divides, although chuckles and giggles during punchlines in Spanish betrayed more than few in the crowd understood her native tongue; and for those who did not, Cofer kindly translated into the universal prose of her soul.

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