“More Cops on the Beat” by Sarah Cortez

Sarah Cortez


The world of the cop and the world of the literary poet have been my two worlds for over fifteen years. While my special assignments within each have varied—patrol officer, juvie bailiff, undercover, field training officer, to name a few—and on the other side—university professor, visiting scholar, editor, arts fellow—these have been my primary allegiances and remain so.

Not surprisingly, many people I encounter are addled by the fact that I participate in the “other world,” although it’s not uncommon to be approached at a book signing by someone with a sincere “thank you for being a cop”—surely one of the most difficult jobs in contemporary America. Civilians often ask me how my fellow police officers react to my poetry, and I tell them one of two things. Earlier in my poetry career, I would say: “If someone likes me, it’s one more thing to like about me; if someone hates me, it’s one more thing to hate about me.”

As much truth as that statement holds, more recently I’ve begun recounting the tale of being christened (somewhat lovingly, I think) “poet lariat” by the guys in my division after my appearance reading a commissioned poem at a Houston mayor’s inauguration.

* * *

But these reactions come from outside of me. How do I see and accommodate that I live in two different worlds?

* * *

In my mind, the first place of obvious intersection between policing and poetry is in the use of physical details. Because each of the two police departments where I’ve worked is too small for a detective division, we patrol officers are responsible for the entire investigation. Thus, we process crime scenes and interview witnesses, complainants, and suspects. We determine probable cause, file charges, arrest, and book. These are the dirty and time-consuming steps in building a solid case for court, where every single piece of evidence is important. The exact color and location of a bruise. Elasticity of skin around a gash. The location of glass shards. The contents of a vacuum cleaner bag. The flicker of an eyelid. The police officer must unravel the web of complicated lies, whether casual or desperate, surrounding human behavior.

And while the unerring intuition of experienced police officers is justifiably famous, it won’t stand up in court. Only the facts will. In other words, the minute physical details. For me, this required focus on immediate physical detail is crucial both in composing my poems and in being inspired to write. I trust my mind’s eye and ear and nose to memorize exactly what I’ve seen or heard or smelled while working a shift at my department. Later, when I sit down with pen and paper, the details will surge forward. This remembrance of exact details fuels my mind. The urge to find and express subtext appropriate to what the poem is trying to become keeps me on the page through subsequent versions. Like many other poets, I write about what haunts me and seek to participate in the most essential and sacred task of literature: to express in words what is inexpressible.

* * *

Patience is another essential quality of a good cop which comes to bear on the writing of poetry. In fact, I’d say that the reserves of forbearance inside a seasoned, well-trained cop would make even Job seem short-tempered. Would you be able to perch all night in a small oak tree above heavy vehicular traffic with binoculars trained on the patio doors of a counterfeiter while mosquitoes ate you alive? No bathroom breaks. No food. This type of patience translates well into the poet’s world where the one “perfect” word or image may take what feels like almost forever to develop.

* * *

When I recall poet Olga Broumas’ workshop story of the seven years it took her to find the perfect verb for a splendid, gut-wrenching poem, I am reminded of a veteran police sergeant’s crusty observation: “You can’t be a good cop unless you’re patient.”

* * *

From a big picture perspective, I’ve come to believe that both poetry and street policing engage in the same task of ordering the world. You see, from the moment a police officer arrives on a scene, he is not only responsible for keeping that scene legal and safe—for everyone, including the criminal—but he is responsible for figuring out what happened. Rarely is this easy or pleasant. Out of often conflicting stories, jumbled evidence, doped, drunk or uncooperative witnesses, the officer must sort out whether a crime occurred, who did it, what does the physical evidence show, who is lying (everyone lies to the cops, but for different reasons and about different types of facts—if nothing else, just to make themselves appear better), and, most importantly, do the lies affect today’s crime. The officer has to find out and figure out.

He has to create order out of chaos. So does the poet. We poets may start with a half-formed idea, an elusive feeling, or the glimmer of a quiet image. Then, we work through the exacting paces of diction, structure, imagery, and nuance to create the tight box of a poem. No decision within those lines is unquestioned; every alternative is considered. The poet works as hard mentally as any police officer questing to understand every shred of inconsistent evidence. The poet’s reward is the amazing vessel called a poem, wherein form mirrors meaning; the police officer’s reward—which may also be months or years in coming—is that the right person goes to jail or prison. Justice. In both cases, order has been found within chaos.

* * *

During the years of a full-time patrol schedule, I often returned home after shift to write or revise poems. If I had a moment’s pause during that tour of duty, I’d grab a napkin or my back-pocket notepad to jot down an idea, or—better yet—the first line of a new poem. In fact, I wrote more poetry during those years of grueling full-time patrol than at any other time of my writing life. There could be many reasons for this, and even I who know and appreciate my own life-currents find it impossible to discern why. Because I was single with all my time to myself at home? Because a life of action and danger prompted a latenight reflective mode? Because the Muse liked my bedroom? (Following no less an eminent example than Colette, I only write in bed—the safe spot every cop must have when he is sleeping, unarmed
and at a tactical disadvantage.)

I think of those years as an ideal time: those days and long overtime nights as a newer police officer when I still believed I could make the world a better place, and those heady hours composing stanzas about what I had just seen, smelled, heard, and survived. The straddle a bit easier in those days; the balance less precarious. Everything more flexible.

* * *

Yet, many of the dynamics in these two great loves of mine, poetry and policing, have remained constant. And, perhaps, like any lover, I would list intensity foremost among the pleasures of each. Are cops more prone to need and relish intensity due to the life-and-death nature of their jobs? I’d say yes. For us, everything or anything could be bullet to bone. Why not language as well? Why not exercise the scalpel of the mind, balanced by the depth of soul, to find the “perfect” word or image?

* * *

Added to intensity is my particular preference for conciseness of language. Part of this can be credited to my first police department’s preoccupation with radio transmissions of their officers, which imposed an unusually terse style on how we talked, which, of course, affected how we thought. Naturally, this flooded my poetry. It pleases me as I work on my poems to labor at the level of individual breaths, individual syllables—as I believe serious literary poets must. The rhythmic qualities attached to language form their own multi-leveled dance of seduction, if one will but listen.

* * *

And finally, I come to the issue of heart. The one entity that you learn you cannot have in policing, although it remains alive, nourished by the thin wire of beliefs you are able to retain. You see, most cops have a steadying, vibrant inner life of a few strong beliefs. How could we otherwise survive the dirty, boring, dangerous work we do? We see the absolute worst that human beings can do and become. Surviving other people’s brokenness is a real issue. A cop’s belief in the transcendent is the only thing that keeps him from getting eaten alive. I could go through my precious list of what I believe in and even tell you how it has kept me intact, but I won’t. I will simply say that poetry is on my list—the writing of it and the reading of it. The two rods of strong muscle. The flickering heart above. The solace in between.

from Rattle #37, Summer 2012
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