Poem: “Don’t Ask/1980” by Jayne Cortez

0 Posted by - March 24, 2021 - Black History, LATEST POSTS, Poems

Jayne Cortez was an African-American poet, activist, small press publisher and spoken-word performance artist whose voice is celebrated for its political, surrealistic and dynamic innovations in lyricism and visceral sound.

Cortez was born Sallie Jayne Richardson on the Army base at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, on May 10, 1934. Her father was a career soldier who would serve in both world wars; her mother was a secretary.

At the age of seven, she moved to Los Angeles, where she grew up in the Watts district. Young Jayne Richardson reveled in the jazz and Latin recordings that her parents collected. She studied art, music and drama in high school and later attended Compton Community College. She took the surname Cortez, the maiden name of her maternal grandmother, early in her artistic career. In 1954, Cortez married jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman when she was 18 years old.

In 1969 her first collection, Pissstained Stairs and the Monkey Man’s Wares, was published and Cortez went on to become the author of 11 other books of poems, and performed her poetry with music on nine recordings. Most of her work was issued under the auspices of Bola Press, a publishing company she founded in 1971. She presented her work and ideas at universities, museums, and festivals in Africa, Asia, Europe, South America, the Caribbean and the United States. Cortez died of heart failure in Manhattan, New York, on December 28, 2012.


Don’t Ask/1980

Don’t ask me
who I’m speaking for
who I’m talking to
why I’m doing what I do in
the light of my existence
You rise you spit you brush you drink you
pee you shit you walk you run you work
you eat you belch you sleep you dream &
that’s the way it is
In the morning
tap water tasted fishy
coffee sits in its
decaffeinated cup
caca & incense
have a floating romance
& a stale washcloth
will make you smell
doubly stale
so don’t get kissed on the cheek
don’t get licked on the neck
at 8 a.m.
the trains & buses are
packed with folks farting
their bread & butter farts
the gymnasium
is dominated
by the stench of
hot tennis shoes
& one in the locker room
a few silly-talking
smug arrogant women wait to
be waited on
& in another locker room
there are odors of
crotches & jock straps
bengay, tiger balm
& burning balls
sweat socks & sweat suits
of body-building
phlegm-hawking men
all sour & steamy
& wrapped up together
in a swamp of
butt-popping towels
but don’t let it
get you down
don’t let it
psych you up
Outside the ledges are
loaded with pigeons
clouds are seeded with
homeless people &
lyricism of the afternoon
in a sub-proletarian madman
squatting & vomiting
from his bowels
a brown liquid of death
in front of your house
& it’s not happening because of you
those socks don’t stink because of me
a bureaucrat is not a jerk because of us
I’m not this way because of them
you’re not that way because of me
don’t ask about influences
You rise you spit you brush you drink you
pee you shit you walk you run you work
you eat you belch you sleep you dream
& that’s the way it is


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