The Loss of Author, Poet and Teacher Judith Ortiz Cofer #JudithOrtizCofer

Judith Ortiz Cofer

Poet, author and teacher Judith Ortiz Cofer died December 30, 2016 at her family home in Louisville, Georgia. A native of Hormiguerros, Puerto Rico, Judith was only 64 when her life ended. She retired as a Regents and Franklin Professor of English and creative writing at the University of Georgia in 2013 and leaves behind, her husband, John, daughter, Tanya, brother, Rolando, grandson, Elias and many extended family members. She also left us with a wealth of poems and stories to cherish.

I had the good fortune to meet Judith in 2005 when I interviewed her and reviewed her third volume of poetry, A Love Story Beginning in Spanish, for Athens Magazine. She brought me several of her books that night and we had a long conversation over pasta at DePalma’s about writing and family, plus living and working in Athens, Georgia, where we both agreed creativity floats in the air. We talked about her literary inspirations that night. Her favorites included Georgia-born writers Flannery O’Connor and Alice Walker, as well as Virginia Woolf and Lillian Hellman. She told me about emigrating with her Puerto Rican family to Paterson, New Jersey as a child and how living in those two very different worlds influenced her life as well as her poetry and prose. Judith also loved living in Georgia. I enjoyed running into her at several literary events after interviewing her that night, including the Decatur Book Festival where I sat in a crowded roomful of festival attendees and savored Judith’s voice as she read her poetry.

Judith Ortiz Cofer was a literary writer who wrote, thought and spoke in both Spanish and English. Her work won many awards, including a 1991 PEN/Martha Albrand Special Citation in Nonfiction and a Pushcart Prize for her memoir Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhoodand a Pulitizer Prize nomination for her first novel, The Line of the Sun. In 2010, Judith was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.

Writers live in a dual world. There’s the physical world where they go through their days doing many of the same things non-writers do. And there’s the inner world where a writer is always writing, where the words flow but don’t appear to readers until they are displayed on a book page or an e-reader screen. When a writer dies, the heart stops beating and words stop flowing. But what remains, in addition to those who loved the writer as a family member, friend, or reader is the written words. Judith Ortiz Cofer’s published words still float in the air over Athens, Georgia and all over the world, including her beloved Puerto Rico. Judith the person died too young, but her beautiful, lyrical words live on in the hearts and minds of readers. The depth and music and meaning of her words will comfort us in the days and weeks and months and years to come.

#JudithOrtizCofer

 

 

You can read more about author Judith Ortiz Cofer on the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame website.

From Gone With The Wind to Gone From These Woods

From Gone With The Wind to Gone From These Woods

“Wanna go to a movie?” My grandmother Myrt asked one hot summer day of my childhood. Our Athens movie theaters, The Palace (a parking garage is there now), and the Georgia Theater (newly rebuilt after a devastating fire) were the only air conditioned places I knew back in the late 1950s, when Myrt issued her invitation. So of course I said yes, and climbed into my grandmother’s hot 1950s Ford for the ride up Lexington Road, into town, having no idea as the wind through the open car windows whipped my dark hair into a new, wild hairdo, that I was about to meet Gone With the Wind.
I’d never been to a four-hour movie before. Squirming in my seat next to Myrt, I felt special to be part of such a grown up activity. This wasn’t a kiddie movie, like I saw at the Palace Theater on Saturday mornings. These larger than life men and women were grownups and just being there that day, watching them dramatize Margaret Mitchell’s grown up book, made me feel grown up. So I tried to follow the story. But somewhere along the way, I fell asleep. When I awoke, it was intermission and then there was more movie. A lot more. I fell asleep again, waking up in time to see Bonnie Blue bite the dust. Back home, in my grandmother’s living room, she proudly showed me the GWTW book and boasted that she’d read every page and planned to read it all again. It’s the only book I ever remember her telling me she’d read.

Later on, I read the book, too, and admired every word, even the ones that seemed, well, extra in my teen aged mind. Sometime during my teen aged years, my aunt Judith and I (she’s only three years older than me, so we were more like sisters) visited Stone Mountain Park with my other grandparents (Judith’s parents). We met Butterfly McQueen there. The real “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ no babies, Miz Scarlett, Butterfly McQueen. As I listened to her sweet, distinctive voice talk about the historic home she was leading us through, I had a flashback to the cool Georgia Theater and the larger-than-life Prissy character on the screen and I wished I hadn’t fallen asleep.

Flash forward, from the 1950s to 2007. My new editor, Michelle Poploff, of Random House, is talking to me about titles for my debut children’s middle grade novel. Why do we need a new title? I wondered. I liked my title, D-Man, my protagonist’s superhero nickname, given to him by Uncle Clay. I went into great detail, explaining why I had chosen D-Man as the title and what it meant to Daniel and the story, and to me.

“How about Mouse Creek Road?” Michelle suggested. There is a Mouse Creek Road in my book, named after the road with the same name that runs through Cleveland, Tennessee, where my mother lives. But my book wasn’t about Mouse Creek Road. It was about Daniel, or D-Man, as his uncle called him.

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“Well, then, let’s go with Gone From These Woods. The words are right in the book. And . . . ” As Michelle talked on about why Gone From These Woods was a good title for my novel, I found myself back in that cool Athens Theater again. Sitting next to my grandmother, trying to pay attention to the story on the big screen, admiring Butterfly and Hattie and Rhett and Scarlet and Melanie and all the other bigger-than-life characters and the magnificent, romantic story unfolding before me. Gone With the Wind. Gone From These Woods. Somehow, it seemed sacrilegious to call my book by a title so similar to Margaret Mitchell’s book. Was this even legal, I wondered? I knew you couldn’t copyright a title, but . . .

My book, Gone From These Woods, was published in 2009 by Random House and reissued as a Yearling paperback in 2011. My grandmother died long before I sold my first book, so she never even knew I was a novelist, much less that I’d someday hear one of those “Yankees” from New York tell me why Gone From These Woods was the perfect name for my book. Michelle didn’t tell me, but I suspect that she must have met GWTW in a dark, cool movie theater of her childhood, too, or maybe she met Scarlett, Rhett and company in the pages of the book.

I take in my movie theater movies these days at the Carmike on Lexington Road with daughter Jenny. It’s always cold in there, and warm, too, as I bask in the company of family, just as I did so long ago, sitting in the Georgia Theater with Myrt. And, yes, I still fall asleep, even during great movies like GWTW and anything Harry Potter. Some things never change.

Margaret Mitchell

Margaret Mitchell

Fans of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind are celebrating the book’s 75th anniversary in 2011. My book will be two in August (the published version – I first began writing GFTW around 2005 and carried the idea for the book for many more years). Now, when I hear the title, Gone From These Woods, I remember Margaret Mitchell’s book, proudly displayed in my grandmother’s house, and I feel the cool air of the theater and hear the voices and see the character’s faces on the big screen. My book isn’t a movie (yet), and it’s not nearly as big, in any way, as Margaret’s Mitchell’s classic. But both books are southern and written by southern authors. I’m proud to have the privilege to carry on the tradition and proud to have a book title that reminds me of the book my grandmother loved.

Happy 75th anniversary, Gone With the Wind! And thanks, Margaret Mitchell. What a gift you gave the world.

 

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