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Jayne Cortez

Jayne Cortez

Overwhelmed with sound

by Keith Taylor

From the November, 2003 issue

A couple of decades before anyone ever talked about performance poetry, long before the spread of poetry slams and their imitators, Jayne Cortez was creating a reputation for herself as a performer of her own poetry. Associated with the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s, she was one of the earliest writers to combine jazz and poetry and put it all on the stage. The combination has held: she has published ten books of poetry and released nine CDs. Her most recent book, Jazz Fan Looks Back, is a big collection of jazz- and blues-influenced poems she has written over several decades.

Because of the spread of hip-hop, which creates rhythm simply by stressing a word vocally, we've been trained to expect performance poetry to come to life only when spoken live. Of course, Jayne Cortez's poetry works that way, too, and does so wonderfully. She is an extraordinary performer of her own verse. She uses some of the devices we have come to expect in performance: she often rhymes, although her rhymes are subtle, often hidden within words; she repeats words and phrases to accent rhythm; she uses long catalogs of detail to add humor and verbal flourishes; and she uses parallel grammatical structures to build whole poems.

None of this, however, explains the musical effectiveness of reading Jayne Cortez's poetry. Poetry written to be performed often falls flat on the page. But even a silent reader of Cortez's work is overwhelmed with sound and music. It is a poetry that transcends its own performance.

Like much performance poetry, Jayne Cortez's is angry, raging at oppression wherever she finds it — here, in the Caribbean, in Africa. She is more than willing to be didactic. In fact, I suspect she thinks it is the poet's duty to teach a lesson or two. In "Taking the Blues Back Home," reprinted in Jazz Fan Looks Back, Cortez combines the anger and the music:

...continued below...


The blues that came to me
from the slave dungeons
the blues that came to me
from the death trails
the blues that came to me
from my ancestors
the blues that came to me
in a spell that tells me
through birth that I'm the owner
of the blues
from a long time ago


That may not be the blues that fits comfortably in a public-TV documentary or in the easy use of blues by young white rock artists — but you certainly know and will remember Jayne Cortez's opinion on the subject.

Jayne Cortez performs with her band at EMU's McKenny Union Ballroom on Tuesday, November 18, and reads from her work at Shaman Drum Bookshop on Wednesday, November 19.     (end of article)

[Originally published in November, 2003.]

 

 
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