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Poet begins contemporary writers series this year

This fall the Contemporary Writers Series begins Sept. 23 with Jayne Cortez, a poet and performance artist well known for her work in the Black Arts Movement. Cortez’s art transcends the classification of poetry and dips into performance art with her lyrical writing and recordings with her band, The Firespitters.

“Poetry gives to music and music gives to poetry,” Cortez said.

With 11 books of poetry, work with The Firespitters, writing translated into 28 different languages, an American Book Award and fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts, Cortez is a force in the literary world.

“We’ve been wanting to bring her to Mills for a few years now,” said Stephanie Young, coordinator of the English Graduate Program. “We’re especially excited she could make it from New York to be here the same semester that Elmaz Abinader is teaching a special topics course on outsider poetry movements.”

According to Young, Abinader’s class starts with the Harlem Renaissance, moves to the Black Arts Movement, then The Last Poets, and finally to spoken word writers.

Abinader herself is enthusiastic about Cortez, describing her as an “iconic figure” in the Black Arts Movement who “directly influences the spoken word, performance, and hip hop movements.”

Cortez claims that music has always appealed to her.

“I also have an interest in the dynamics of sound and language,” she said. “That dynamic is extended when I combine my poetry with music.”

Cortez’s work focuses on topics ranging from racial and gender equality to social problems in the U.S. and around the globe. Within those topics, Cortez retains a fluid, lyrical form that cannot be described simply as poetry.

“Cortez’s work is aligned with jazz not only because she’s a musician herself, but also because her work rides jazz riffs in its rhythms and cadences,” Abinader said.

As a writer from the Black Arts Movement, Cortez’s work includes concerns of social justice and civil rights.

“[But,] she also allows us to enter her world of solitude and nature, the meditative and dynamic, the earthy and the surreal,” Abinader said.

According to Young, through the series students are introduced to a vast array of creativity by bringing writers to campus who work across and between the genres of poetry, performance, fiction, memoir and translation.

“One of our goals is to bring these writers in contact with our undergraduate majors and MFA in creative writing students,” Young said. “[Being exposed to varying styles can] deepen and complicate their own writing, reading, and view of the contemporary field of literary production.”

The series brings diversity to campus this year with peace activist Sarah Schulman, the Combat Paper Project, graphic novelist Mat Johnson, and conceptual artist Christian Bok.

“We hope these speakers will activate and further engage students around the academic and creative work they are already doing at Mills,” Young said.

Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. in the Mills Hall living room, Cortez will be able to answer questions after her performance.

“It’s fine if people understand or don’t understand my poetry,” said Cortez. “Understanding is not perfect.”