Saturday, November 04, 2017

Remembering Judith Cofer

Below is a talk I gave about Judith Ortiz Cofer as one of a number of presenters on November 4, 2017,  in a special SAMLA session devoted to her life and work, organized by Rafael Ocasio of Agnes Scott College and Lorraine Lopez of Vanderbilt University.  It expands on a few paragraphs from a statement I read at her memorial service and that was later published along with other tributes in the Fall 2017 South Atlantic Review.
Remembering Judith Cofer
I’m glad to be able to share today my memories and impressions of Judith Ortiz Cofer.  She was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame in 2010.  For those of you who might not know, the Hall of Fame is sponsored by the University of Georgia Libraries. Each year it honors several notable writers from the state, living and dead. Shortly after her induction, I interviewed Judith for the HOF.  That interview is posted on the GWHOF web site, along with other author interviews.  Recently I took the opportunity to watch the interview again. It was wonderful to see her face and hear her vibrant, engaging voice again. I didn’t realize how much I missed her intelligence and humanity.  We talked in that session about a number of topics, one of them being her thoughts about her identity as a Georgia writer. She told me that categories often gave her “pause.”  She said, “Sometimes I will start my reading by asking for a short podium because I am a short Puerto Rican American Georgian Southern writer and I always remind them that they left this category off the poster.”[1]  Elsewhere she has made clear that she also thinks of herself as a woman writer.
Despite the other recognitions she received during her career, induction into the Hall of Fame seemed to mean a great deal to Judith.  She said at the time, “It is a great honor to be inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. I have lived, taught, and written in Georgia longer than anywhere else, and being included among Georgia writers is a confirmation that I am now home.”[2]  Recognition is something Judith wanted in Georgia.  She spent most of her adult life in the state.  She did most of her writing here.  She taught at the University of Georgia for twenty-five years, and she often visited Georgia colleges and schools. Yet, though she was comfortable with being labeled a Puerto Rican or Latina or Georgia writer, she felt, I think, that such categories did not encompass the totality of who she was.
I first knew Judith as an author and poet whose work I admired and, later, as a member of the University of Georgia English department. I knew her as a friend for more than thirty years. We exchanged e-mails, chatted on campus, and met in downtown Athens for occasional lunches. Our favorite meeting place was an Italian restaurant.  As you enter, you see a line of booths on the right.  We’d sit and talk in one of those booths. We enjoyed one another’s company and had a natural rapport.  We were about the same age and shared similar points of views. We discussed mutual interests—books we’d read, films we’d seen, our families. We talked indiscreetly of our colleagues.  Judith talked of her students, in whom she took great satisfaction. She spoke often of her husband John and her daughter Tanya, of whom she was very proud, and of her grandson Eli and son-in-law Dory. She would also talk about her works in progress: poems and novels she was working on, books she was writing. Sometimes she asked me to read and react to what she was working on, and though I would dutifully offer my thoughts, she didn’t really need them. She had a firm sense of where she wanted to go. I read an early draft of her first novel In the Line of the Sun (1989), as well as of her final book, about her mother’s death, The Cruel Country (2015). The Line of the Sun draft began in a promising way but I also thought it would benefit from some revision. I told her what I thought. Frankly, I had to be careful.  I am fairly certain she did not enjoy having her work criticized. But I felt I should be honest with her.  She didn’t immediately acknowledge my comments, though later she thanked me, and the published novel was very fine. I always felt honored that she shared her works-in-progress and that she wanted my opinion.
It should be no surprise that Judith was extremely well read, and over the years of our friendship I learned that she and I read many of the same writers as we were growing up and listened to much of the same music.  In her collection of stories and poems The Year of Our Revolution she talks about the music she listened to.  In the Hall of Fame interview, she mentions Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor, who were important role models for her as she was starting out.  In the example of O’Connor in particular she said that she had found a way of writing about people, the kind of people she might on occasions meet in a place like Georgia.  She also mentions in that interview Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Philip Levine, Isaac Asimov, Lillian Hellman, Hemingway, William Carlos Williams, Homer, Mark Strand, Galway Kinnell, W. J. Cash, and others. This is not Judith dropping literary names.  This is Judith talking about writers whom she read, who helped shape her own work, whose example she emulated, who were part of her creative education.
Judith loved writing. She worked hard at it. She was extremely self-disciplined. For most of her adult life she rose at 5:00 in the morning to write for two hours before seeing her family off to school and work. If she couldn’t write, she would read. In the interview she said that
with my writing I try to think of it as not as work that is going to bring immediate awards or monetary gain or whatever.  It is just like the offices of a religious life.  You practice it and eventually it is going to bring other rewards.  So basically, that is my routine.  As I get up in the morning I drink an entire pot of coffee, in the dark, and then head for my desk.  . . . I wrote my novel that way, two pages a day, good or bad, for four-and-a-half years.  That’s how The Line of the Sun was written and that’s how everything I’ve written gets written.
These two hours were crucial to her—during the years as a young parent, tending to her daughter Tanya, to her time as an increasingly recognized writer and teacher of creative writing: she kept those two hours for her writing self. As hungry as she was for time to write, I should add that she did not fail to prepare for her classes or to serve her department and University: she gave her all in these areas. She wanted to be a good teacher and citizen of the University. She served on many departmental and University committees. She never failed to visit my classes when I invited her to talk about her work. She did the same for many other colleagues. She was generous with her students—no question was too simple or dim. Her sense of herself as a citizen of a national and international writing community was evident in how often she traveled to read and discuss her work at schools and universities across the country. But by keeping those two hours for herself, she nurtured and sustained her passion to write. Above all else, her desire to write, to be published, to be recognized, drove her in her work. Her work ethic, her commitment to writing, was a daunting model.
At heart, and I do not use this word with any disparagement, Judith was an autobiographical writer.  She saw her life as one of struggle to overcome obstacles in her quest to find a voice, to be a writer.  She moved as a child with her family from Puerto Rico to Patterson, NJ, and as a teenager to the rural country outside Augusta, and finally to the Univ of Georgia.  There were linguistic obstacles—writing in a language she was not born to.  Her parents, whom she loved, posed their own challenges: when Judith was grown her mother returned to the Island and Judith saw her once or twice a year.  Her importance to Judith is obvious in poems she wrote, in her essays, and in her final painful book, The Cruel Country (2015). Her father grew increasingly troubled in her adult life, and his memory haunted her in certain ways. And when she finally made it on to the faculty in English at UGA, she had to struggle again: as the only woman in the creative writing faculty, as a person some might have dismissed as a diversity hire. I will say that once she joined the faculty, her rise was fast, if not meteoric, and in the last years of her career the University and the State recognized her for her achievements. She received the Regents Professorship, the highest award the University can bestow on a faculty member, and University's 2014 Southeastern Conference Faculty Achievement Award.  She received the Governor’s Award in the Humanities in 2010. 
Judith wanted people to appreciate that she was not just some natural-born genius but instead a woman who had to work hard for what she achieved. The development of the self, of a personal and public identity, was her subject.  She often wrote about her family, and yes, family was important to her. But she was not the sort of autobiographical writer who writes only of herself—she made her own experience a representation of human experience in general, of what she described in her HOF interview, as a “woman’s struggle to become a writer.” She uses the material of her own life to be able to understand and portray people and situations other than her own.
Among the many poems I admire by Judith, I count such titles as “Before the Storm” and “First Job: The Southern Sweets Candy Shop and Bakery.”  She wrote the Southern Sweets poem with the conscious intent of making it her first poem about the American South, about Georgia, though I think there may have been other such poems before this one. My favorite of her poetry collections is A Love Story Beginning in Spanish, which is, among other things, a volume about her search for a voice, for a poetic language.  In that volume, one finds her poem “To Understand El Azul,” which for me stands among her best work.  It’s a poem about language and heritage, about the search for a common voice.  It’s an intensely visionary poem, positive, uplifting, and optimistic: these are adjectives I associate with Judith and her work.
Judith loved writing. She worked hard at it. She saw writing as her higher calling, and she answered it with every particle of her being. She was pleased that others enjoyed and admired her work. She did not mean her retirement from the University to be the end of her creative life.  She looked forward to many years of writing and of time with her family. It is such a sadness that she did not have these. Judith had many friends. I am pleased to have been one of them.

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