Contemporary Writers

The Heath Anthology of American Literature introduces readers to the works of contemporary writers from a wide spectrum of American perspectives-male, female, white, black, WASP, ethnic, etc. These works not only expand students' understanding of the literary canon but also let women and cutlurally and ethnically diverse students hear, perhaps for the first time, artists who speak their own cultural languages.

Two female writers whose works appear in the Heath Anthology of American Literature recently spoke about the experiences that led them to write. For both Joy Harjo and Judith Ortiz Cofer, reading the works of other writers who spoke in their cultural voices was a significant influence.

Joy Harjo

"I read a lot as a child, but I always felt that to read poetry I had to change myself to be inside the work. I had to think like a European or a white American," recalls poet Joy Harjo. When, as an undergraduate at the University of New Mexico, Harjo heard Simon Ortiz give a poetry reading, she discovered that "the voice of a poet can be a natural speaking voice, and poetry can include the experience of a person of the Southwest like me." Harjo had studied painting at an arts high school, planning to follow the lead of her grandmother Naomi Harjo, a full-blooded Creek painter. But, inspired by Ortiz and other poets like Pablo Neruda and Galway Kinnell, she began writing poetry during her second year in college.

In the fall of 1990, Harjo returned home to the University of New Mexico, after most recently teaching at the University of Arizona. At UNM she is a tenured professor in the Creative Writing Program of the Department of English.

Harjo continues to be a prolific and eclectic artist. Her recent works include a screenplay, "When We Used to Be Humans," that is "looking for production money" and a collection of poems entitled In Mad Love and War published by Wesleyan University Press. This collection has won five awards in the past year, including the Poetry Society of America's William Carlos Williams Award.

Works in progress include a book of her own poetry and stories entitled The Field of Miracles, an anthology of Native women's writing entitled Reinventing the Enemy's Language to be published by the University of Arizona Press in 1993, and a music project. (Harjo, who plays tenor and soprano saxophone, is putting together a band.)

Native American writer Leslie Marmon Silko has been a strong influence on her. "She is a friend, a mentor, and a good story-teller," says Harjo. "She was one of the first Native writers I had ever read or met, and her work helped me see what American literature could mean to me, to other Native people, and to other Americans."

Throughout her studies, Harjo sought out works by Native, African-American, and Latin American writers. "Their work turned me on to poetry," she recalls. "I found their poetry wasn't divorced from the people, unlike so much of the poetry that is usually studied.

"Today, just about everything inspires me to continue writing. My grand-daughter inspires me to think about the future. I have intense dreams and visions that inspire me. And I have an amazement for survival that keeps me writing."

Five of Harjo's poems are included in the Heath Anthology of American Literature. "We [contemporary poets] are inventing our own poetic forms," she observes, "and these should take their place alongside traditional European forms in the study of literature. Not to include new forms is simply cultural arrogance."

In tribal cultures, she explains, a poet is considered a truth-teller. "I hope readers see me as such a truth-teller, someone who takes part in revitalizing cultures, in giving back life and excitement. I hope reading my work will help students give value to their own voices."

Judith Ortiz Cofer

A Puerto Rican educated in the United States, Judith Ortiz Cofer says she learned her craft from such writers as Isaac Bashevis Singer, Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, and Flannery O'Connor. "As a child I learned to read Spanish mainly from popular novels in my mother's library," she recalls. "I had no Puerto Rican authors who wrote in English to look to as models. When I finally read Gabriel García Márquez in Spanish it was like an explosion in my brain. I felt I was able to write, in English, about my Puerto Rican roots.

"I have had a story-telling impulse since I was a child," she continues. "After I read all the fables and fairy tales in the library, I made up my own fairy tales. After I began work as a college English teacher and my daughter was in school, I began writing for publication.

"I write only in English, my `literary language,' but I've been told I write `with a Spanish accent.' I speak and write vernacular Spanish, and my work hasn't yet been translated into Spanish."

Ortiz Cofer is currently touring the United States, lecturing at colleges about her poetry and novel, The Line of the Sun (University of Georgia Press, 1989). Beginning in January of 1992 she will be a visiting assistant professor of English at the University of Georgia, where she will teach creative writing and American literature.

Since publication of the Heath Anthology of American Literature, which includes five of her poems, Ortiz Cofer has published a collection of her essays and poems, Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood (Arte Publico Press, 1990). Currently, she is working on a book of poetry and prose entitled Love in America and a novel, which is progressing slowly because of her busy lecturing schedule.

The continuities between teaching literature and writing are always present in her thoughts about her work. "I always thought there was a certain irony that I, as a Puerto Rican woman, had to teach the old literary canon of mostly white men. I felt there had to be a way to close the racial and gender gaps for my students.

"Just as language is a growing, organic thing, so is literature, but we have failed to accept the changes as rapidly in literature. We as teachers have to close this time lag."

She sees her own writing as an attempt to close the gaps. "For me writing is self-discovery. I recreate my heritage through my work and put fragments of my life together into a coherent whole. My work reports on the universe as I see it for today's readers. Students who read my work can determine whether it is valid for their experience, and teachers who teach it can help decide whether it will become enduring literature."

Her foremost concern remains reaching today's readers. "Because I missed Puerto Rican role models as a young reader," she concludes, "I hope students can identify with my experiences in what they read. Beyond that, I hope my work will pass the test as lasting literature."

Contents, No. VI