Ortiz Cofer emerged as an important writer of multicultural and feminist poetry at the end of the 20th century. She is representative of the latest generation of poets who express a new, more inclusive sense of ethnic American identity. Her method of combining poetry with prose also places her at the forefront of a contemporary movement that is in the process of expanding and redefining literary genres and that includes Gloria Anzaldua and Theresa Hak Kyung CHA. Her literary influences, which include Virginia Woolf, Lillian Hellman, and Emily Dickinson, reflect her interest in a variety of genres as well as her attraction to the power of the female perspective.
Cofer was born in Hormigueros, Puerto Rico. She was raised in Paterson, New Jersey, and became a resident of Georgia as a teenager. Her first collection of poems won the Riverside International Poetry Competition in 1985. In 1994 her collection of poetry and prose, The Latin Deli, received the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and in 1999 she was honored with a Rockefeller Foundation Residency in Bellagio, Italy. In addition to volumes of poetry, Cofer has published a novel and mixed-genre collections of essays, stories, and poems, as well as a creative nonfiction memoir.
Cofer primarily writes narrative poetry, and most of her short, descriptive poems depict the tensions of characters who move between cultures or the complex lives of women in patriarchal societies. Though her poetry is in English, Cofer often incorporates select Spanish words or phrases into her writing. Juan Bruce-Novoa describes this technique as a way to create "the inter space where new meanings are negotiated in a process of synthesis" (96). Most often the themes of family, identity, culture, and spirituality are woven into detailed poems marked by their economy of language and multiple levels of signification.
One of Cofer's most prevalent themes, and the theme that speaks most directly to the condition of living at the turn into the 21st century, is that of multicultural experience. Some of her poems depict the clash of cultures and the fear and division that it can produce. "El Olvido" (1986) begins, "It is a dangerous thing / to forget the climate of your birthplace." The imagery of young Puerto Ricans trying "to choke out the voices of dead relatives" in "bare, cold rooms with no pictures on the wall" reflects the conflict inherent in the desire to assimilate into mainland society. Other poems, such as "To Understand El Azul" (2000), represent the fusion of cultures as something positive. The opening line, "We dream in a language that we all understand," expresses unity, and as the poem progresses Cofer fluidly integrates the imagery of Puerto Rico with that of her adopted home in the American South.
Cofer's most memorable poems deal with the places where the intersections of culture create something new, interesting, and even painful out of which to make art.
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