Faith still main inspiration for street cop’s hard-edged poetry, prose

Faith still main inspiration for street cop’s hard-edged poetry, prose

Sarah Cortez, Catholic essayist, poet, anthologist, academic, literary mentor and reserve police officer in Harris County, Texas, is pictured in an undated photo. (Credit: CNS photo/courtesy Ann Boland.)

Catholic essayist, poet, anthologist, academic, literary mentor and reserve police officer in Harris County, Texas -- made the decision in midlife to leave a corporate career to sign up with the Houston area police service.

Sarah Cortez — Catholic essayist, poet, anthologist, academic, literary mentor and reserve police officer in Harris County, Texas — made the decision in midlife to leave a corporate career to sign up with the Houston area police service.

Since turning to writing two decades ago, Cortez has published five books of prose and poetry, written dozens of magazine articles and edited nine anthologies of poetry. Her debut work, “How to Undress a Cop” (2000) features 51 poems, some only three or four lines long.

“I’ve been a police officer for about 26 years,” Cortez told Catholic News Service. “I’m still proud to have earned the right to wear a badge. Police work is the ultimate ‘public service,’ particularly in times such as these.”

Cortez, a parishioner at the Church of the Annunciation in downtown Houston, spent 1994-1999 as a full-time police officer in Harris County. In 1999, she became a reserve officer, which allowed her to devote more time to writing and literary pursuits.

“The first book of poetry reflected the surprises I found after moving from a middle management corporate career to police work,” Cortez said. “Everything in my life changed: what I ate, smelled, saw, heard. To say it was invigorating would be an understatement. Blue-collar work is good for the soul because it must be embodied daily, moment by moment.”

She followed up that work with “Cold Blue Steel” (2013), a collection of poems describing grittier aspects of law enforcement. Cortez described this work as a deeper, more reflective gaze into the profound evil of protracted criminal activity, as it is deliberately lived out by most criminals.

In “Investigator’s Prayer,” for example, the police poet reflects somberly on meeting with a sexual assault victim and the likely perpetrator, her husband: “God, lift from me the knowledge given by all my training and guts of who did it, of how closely he lives with her, how skillfully he manipulates her, and how much she hides. Silence the bell inside me always sounding ‘I know he did it.’ Lord, I don’t have proof, can’t arrest him, if she won’t talk to me. And every time on patrol I drive by house, let her come if she needs me. Let her believe I can help. Make her trust me.”

Although many of her poems touch on her patrol work and interactions with other officers, Cortez infuses others with a sympathetic eye on the marginalized and vulnerable, who most often interact with police and other first responders in society.

In 2018, she came out with “Tired Hungry, Standing in One Spot for Twelve Hours,” a collection of “essential cop essays” dedicated to the nearly 1 million men and women in America who “each day and night, strap on a gun, place a badge over a heart or on a waistband, and go out to police the mean streets.”

Cortez believes a career in law enforcement requires great “spiritual anchors,” as it would be nearly impossible for officers to cope with the violence and squalor around them without believing in God.

“At this point, most of my poetry reflects my spiritual, religious and theological interests,” she said. “Many of my poems are commissioned by parishes and other religious organizations.”

As someone whose inspiration comes largely from her Catholic faith, Cortez has no time for “post-deconstructive rants” inherent in much contemporary poetry. She believes art should be used to reach toward God as manifested in truth, beauty, and goodness.

“This doesn’t mean that a poet is blind toward the evil in life,” she said. “I’ve worked cases as a patrol officer that would leave you unable to breathe if you knew or saw the cruel and crude details. I am not blind to evil as embodied in today’s world.”

Despite such diverse and disparate career achievements, Cortez appears most content in a teaching or mentoring role — especially in encouraging fledgling writers.

In December 2018, Cortez founded Catholic Literary Arts in Houston, which takes Pope Benedict XVI’s call to further the “varied language of the arts to express (the church’s) unvarying message of salvation.” Previously, she established the Catholic Poetry Society of Houston with the assistance of a group of local poets.

Catholic Literary Arts works with contemporary and future artists and writers to foster quality literary expression in the service of God and the church. Students are encouraged to be “fearless” in putting their creative talents in the service of Gospel values.

She also has taught creative writing for more than 20 years.

“There’s virtually no writer whose work and talent I don’t believe in,” she told CNS. “Because that is my basic orientation, I work to build skills and I love that work. I’ve worked with young women in juvenile detention, with women just released from prison, with seniors at a city facility, with writers with traumatic brain injury, with master-level classes of writing students. Every single one of these writers had gifts to continue developing with joy.”

“I can read and analyze and understand anything I set my mind to, which I was trained to do by the Dominican nuns and have done all my life,” she said. “It’s a conscious decision on my part not to use academic jargon or other specialized academic vocabulary. It’s not that I don’t understand it. It’s that I find it needless.”

As for future projects, Cortez and a co-author are working on a crime novel that follows two brothers through the creation of a crime syndicate and their fated attraction for the same woman.

Cortez also takes umbrage at the thought of law enforcement professionals as blue-collar workers with an unusual attraction to guns and the use of brute force.

“I know I can deliver a baby or do CPR to save a life or shoot someone legally to save my life or the life of another innocent person,” she said. “I know who I am and what I’ll die for. How many people who are not blue-collar or ex-military know that about themselves?”

Mastromatteo is a writer and editor in Toronto.

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