Interview with Author Sarah Cortez

Sarah Cortez has numerous poems anthologized here and in Europe.  Winner of the PEN Texas Literary Award in poetry, her debut collection is entitled How to Undress a Cop.  One of her poems recently placed in the annual contest of Rattle: Poetry for the 21st Century.  An award-winning anthologist of five volumes, her most recent is You Don’t Have a Clue: Latino Mystery Stories for Teens for Arte Público Press.

What was the motivating factor that started you writing?

From an early age, I was convinced that being a writer was the coolest occupation under the sun—with the exception of being a soldier. Reading was introduced to me at an early age, and I adored the magic of fictional stories.

What is your genre and who is your intended audience?

I write and have been published in almost all genres: fiction, poetry, prose [including personal essay, memoir essay (a type of personal essay], journalistic pieces, academic pieces, prayers, etc.  The intended audiences differ depending upon the publisher.  I write for the adult market, the young adult or teen market, the academic market, the blue collar market, the literary market, etc.  You might also look at markets in terms of literary vs. popular, rather than looking at age ranges, but I believe that the false distinction between “literary” and “popular” is being seen as such by many perceptive readers.

A large part of what I write is poetry.  You can see an example on my website at   

I also write and edit a lot of crime fiction or mystery.  In fact, the last three anthologies I’ve edited (selected the stories, then worked with the authors to get them in publishable form) are in crime fiction:  “Hit List: The Best of Latino Mystery,”  “Indian Country Noir,” and “You Don’t Have a Clue: Latino Mystery Stories for Teens.”  The publishers are Arte Público Press (Houston) and Akashic Books (Brooklyn).


What are you currently writing?

Currently, I am writing several pieces.  I have two personal essays I am working on for national distribution.  I am also working on a book of poetry lessons for the intermediate and/or advanced poet.  The other items on my agenda include book proposals for my next three books.

How do you make time to write?

Oh, gosh, this is a difficult question to answer.  Since I have my own freelance editing/consulting business, AND I also teach classes in advanced poetry, as well as in memoir, there is precious little time for me to write my own work.  In fact, the only reason I finished a poetry ms. that I had been working on for eleven years was that I broke a bone in my foot last summer and, thus, was confined to bed.  This old-fashioned “confinement” allowed me to spend hours a day working on poems.  In fact, one of the ones I wrote just recently placed as a semi-finalist in the annual contest of Rattle: Poetry for the 21st Century.  They told me that it was chosen as one of twenty out of 6,000 poems for that distinction.

What inspires you to write, other than fame and fortune?

I would say that “fame and fortune” have never inspired me to write.  I write to communicate with an audience.  I write to try to put something that is basically ineffable onto the written page.

What would you have done differently in your writing life, if anything at all?

I can’t think of any major decision that I would change.

Tell us about your marketing strategy.

It’s fascinating that we authors now live in an age where we are expected to know the marketplace and maneuver within it in ways that will both sell books and “sell” ourselves.  Many writers prefer to look with disdain upon the marketing aspect of writing, perhaps because they feel that writing is an art form and they don’t wish to sully their art.  However, none of us who are currently producing have the luxury of knowing whether we produce art or something that will be eminently forgettable.  In other words, others will decide after we die if what we wrote is “art” or not.

I feel that if a writer’s goal is communication, then he/she doesn’t have the luxury of saying that he/she won’t help market books.

With that said, I feel that the foundation of a marketing strategy is to produce excellent and brilliant work.  (In the final analysis, the work must stand on its own.)  Once an author produces a high quality product, then he/she must use any and all tools to let people know about the work:  book readings/signings, visits to universities/schools, speeches, presentations, chairing panels at academic conferences, sending out a newsletter, etc, etc.  Each author will have certain activities that they are in a unique position to do.  You must do it all.

Does your spiritual life influence your writing? If so, how?

My spiritual life is the cornerstone and anchor of everything in my life, including my creative life in writing and teaching.

What’s your literary community’s burning desire?

I have so many different literary communities that this is a difficult question to answer.  I do a lot of work with middle school and high school kids to connect them with the power and joy of writing.  If I could wave a magic wand, I would give to this particular literary community the gift of intellectual curiosity—the desire to keep learning more and more and more about everything they encounter.

I also work with many fine advanced and intermediate literary poets.  If I had a magic wand, I would give them each an impeccable ear for hearing the breath, intonation, and effect of each syllable of a poem.

It is my pleasure to work with many memoir writers, from beginning to advanced.  Here, my magic wand would be for confidence in their hard-won wisdom already attained and the persistence to find the perfect words to capture it on the page in a fresh and unpredictable way.

My most prized community, however, is my law enforcement community.  I have been a police officer for sixteen years and took a crippling pay cut to change from the corporate world to the law enforcement world.  For this literary community, I would give them continued courage to communicate their vision and vocation.  You see, because so many loud-mouthed people in America like to praise and protect criminals, it is easy to become discouraged and feel that there aren’t too many decent, law-abiding folks left—which isn’t true.  But because the social misfits are always louder than the decent people, they steal the show.  Yes, I would give this community the steadfastness of vision amid the social chaos of our contemporary society.

And, finally, to those readers you might have who desire to become writers, I would give persistence.  I have been studying writing for almost twenty-five years.  I’ve had good teachers and bad; I’ve had shining opportunities and depressing rejections; I’ve had glorious promises come to naught and chance meetings with strangers open doors into amazing opportunities.    And, just recently, I had a ms. of my own accepted for publication that had sat in a drawer untouched for almost eight years.  If you truly wish to become a writer—a good writer—you must be in it for the long haul, study hard, find good teachers or mentors, and work at each piece of writing until it is “perfect.”

I hope you’ll visit my website, Theresa.


I’ve been to your site, Sarah, and I can’t decide which book to choose next! I’ve read Hit List: The Best of Latino Mystery (Arte Público Press) and Indian Country Noir (Akashic Books) – both that you co-edited with Liz Martinez.  The writings are evocative and the stories are told in a language that speaks to my heart. I think that my next selection will be Urban Speak: Poetry of the City. I’m making a Christmas list with your titles on it!

I thank you for visiting and sharing your experience as a writer and service oriented individual on my blog. Mostly, I thank you for your tireless efforts in fulfilling a vision that includes helping others that have sparks of creativity to build a fire that roars with the telling of their stories – all meant to be shared in this world, at this time.  This was an honor for me. 


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