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The Poet Cop
Sarah Cortez has had many interesting and challenging careers, including: teaching high school, preparing taxes, and serving as an employee benefits consultant, but her true passion is police work.
“The identity that’s most precious to me is that of being a law enforcement officer,” said Cortez. “That’s more important than being a woman, than being a poet, than being a wife or daughter.”
She believes that police work is her true calling.
“It’s my vocation, in the true sense of the word ‘vocation,’ which is a calling,” she said. “It’s not like I wanted to be a cop since I was a kid or anything. It was very hard for me to become a police officer because I was not in my 20s when I started. I was in my early 40s.”
She received her calling late in life and experienced a number of hardships on the way to achieving her goal.
“I had to take an initial 75 percent pay cut when I became a police officer. There was also a radical loss of social stature, because if you’re a blue collar worker, you’re viewed as being less than a white collar worker. If someone is a lawyer or doctor or architect, you assume they’re smart, but if you’re a janitor or mailman or police officer, you’re viewed very differently.”
After a few years on the force, Cortez’s police work became the focus of her writing.
“I was a writer and poet for years before I went into police work. I didn’t write about being a police officer for the first few years I did it,” she said. ” In my first book, How to Dress a Cop, at least 50 percent or more of the poems are not about my police work. They were about my family and day-to-day life, but when I transitioned to full-time policing, I would come home and write about it.”
The Beauty of Language
Cortez believes in choosing her words carefully.
“People respond on a visceral level to beautiful language,” she said. “One of the things I do when I teach advanced poetry classes is I help my students learn old-fashioned poetics, such as iambic pentameter, because that is part and parcel of being an attentive poet. You can train your ear to hear the beautiful music in poetry.”
She thinks that poetic stories keep readers engaged.
“A lot of my poems about policing are narrative. People respond to stories,” she said.
Cortez feels that poetry can also be used to set the record straight when it comes to how people perceive the police.
“Many people get their information about the police from watching the unrealistic shows that Hollywood and the TV stations produce. They absorb those inaccurate stereotypes about the police without even thinking about it.”
Human Nature and Spirituality
Cortez’s work addresses the entire spectrum of human behavior.
“There’s a lot of beauty, joy and wonder in the world,” she said. “And there is a lot of wonder in police work. If you could see some of the things street cops have to see: you see the human spirit rise to some of the best things it can do, and of course you see a fair number of incidents of the opposite – the human being who has no spirit and sinks to the lowest it can sink, which is near to an animal level.”
Cortez also found there was a direct connection between her becoming a police officer and a heightened sense of spirituality.
“Some people are more spiritual when they become police officers because they have to be sure they’re ready to die,” she said. “You have to know what you’re willing to die for: will you die to save a civilian you’ve never met before? Will you die to save a fellow officer? You have to know before you go to the police academy. They ask you these questions at your interview. They also ask you if you’re willing to use legal force to kill someone and you have to know the answer.”
She found that others who worked in similar fields also experienced an increased spiritual awareness.
“I don’t think it’s coincidental that many people who work in the public sector, like firemen and police officers, believe in God,” she said. “A lot of my other poetry is spiritual poetry, which is intriguing to me because, whether someone does or does not have faith, if they have some other sort of spiritual practice, if they believe in something divine – which means they have the ability to have a sense of wonder – they then also have the ability to have a sense of faith. Translating a sense of the divine is what poetry can be the best at doing.”
The Perfect Vessel
Cortez has profound faith in poetry’s ability to communicate.
“Poetry can be the perfect vessel for expressing the unexpected nuance, whether it’s beauty, meaning, a lack of meaning, pathos or bathos,” she said. “This is poetry’s natural territory.”
She has also found that poetry can be used to express the inexpressible.
“I have a poem called ‘M.E’s Office‘ which is about me taking three rookies through an autopsy in the medical examiner’s office,” she said. “In that poem, I was trying to describe what that experience was like for me, as a field training officer, and what is was like for my rookies. It’s impossible to put into words, but the poem tries.”
Cortez thinks that poetry has a unique ability to bring people together.
“I believe that I can connect with everybody: as a teacher, a poet and a writer, and I think most of us can,” she said. “These connections are above and separate from the political dialogues that can tear societies apart.”
She hopes that people who read her poetry will come away with a better understanding of her subjects.
“I hope, through my poetry, to help people understand what it’s like to be a police officer, to help them see what we see and help them understand how we are torn apart by seeing what we see,” she said.
Violence and Public Responsibility
“The level of violence that we’re seeing on this continent, in Mexico, is unequaled since the medieval times in Europe,” she said. “It’s so incredibly brutal and that’s one of the reasons I worked on the anthology, Our Lost Border. From a safety perspective, Americans have to understand the narco-violence that’s coming up to us. It has come across the border already and it’s going to get worse. The fact that most people don’t even know about it is deeply troubling.”
Her writing also communicates what she sees as a lack of public responsibility.
“The police are terribly marginalized,” she said. “I think there’s been a radical shift in people’s ability to take responsibility for their actions. If I rob a bank with a gun, you would expect that I would know that people are going to be shooting at me but the criminals search for excuses outside of themselves and people buy into their ridiculous arguments. You have juries not convicting people who need to go to prison – they feel sorry for them.”
Her observations are based on the fact that police spend more time with victims than criminals.
“Cops work close to 100 percent of their time with crime victims,” she said. “We’re with victims more than criminals because so many crimes are unsolved. I’ll be sitting across from a woman who was the victim of sexual assault and I’ll be with her for hours to get the report. We want it to be the strongest report possible so, if we catch the criminal, they can be put away. We see how badly victims are hurt and traumatized, which is why cops don’t feel bad for criminals.”
The Injustice System
Cortez’s police work has opened her eyes to the faults in our justice system.
“I think there are some people who need to go to prison but don’t end up serving the time they should,” she said. “I had a friend who was working on a case where some school kid had broken into 81 houses. He was a druggie. He was from a good family and a good neighborhood. He had been doing this for a period of several years. My friend had worked for months on this case, getting evidence. The criminal confessed to a bunch of the burglaries, but for whatever reason, the district attorney lumped the cases together and now he’s in jail for like 9 months. How is that fair to the rest of us who have homes that we’re hoping are not broken into?”
“I hope to leave behind a legacy of beauty,” Cortez said. “Beauty always rests upon other things: sadness, pain, disappointment – just like faith does. One can make a choice to create a deep, all-abiding beauty and peaceful contentment. You can go through extremely bad times, and what’s happening is a strengthening of the metal in the forge – it gets pounded; it gets heated up; it gets beaten up, but it can wind up making something very beautiful, something very worthwhile. People who are compassionate normally have gone through a hell of a lot of pain, because that’s how you learn compassion—both for self and for others.”
To learn more about Cortez’s work, please visit her website.