I first met Judith Ortiz Cofer at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in 1981. I was there as a Fellow on the basis of my just-published first poetry collection, The Last Magician; I believe Judith was attending as a Scholar, which meant she had some submitted some non-book work that some committee had adjudged highly promising.
Among the Kodak moments I recorded during those two weeks in the Vermont mountains—Brownie cameras and flashbulbs, folks—are images of John Irving, William Stafford, Linda Pastan, Roland Flint, Michael Collier (now the long-time director of the conference), and Caroline Marshall. I also have a shot of Judith standing by a stone wall in front of one of the main old buildings on campus—Judith garbed in the black dress she was nearly always wearing even then, Judith with that great smile.
We reconnected when Judith came to Athens for what proved to be the first of two teaching jobs at the University of Georgia: the first was a temporary assignment that lasted a few years, after which she was passed over for a permanent position; the second, following a gap of some years and a lot of publishing success, made the UGA creative writing program her career home and led to her achievement of a distinguished university professorship.
For Spring/Summer 1990, The Georgia Review published its first-ever double issue, with all 340 pages focused on “Women and the Arts.” Judith made her GR debut there, in the company of Eudora Welty, Joyce Carol Oates, Eavan Boland, Rita Dove, Maxine Kumin, and many others. Judith’s essay “Silent Dancing,” which became the title piece for her first prose collection, explored the history of her Puerto Rican family and culture via the literal lens supplied by an old soundless home movie that captured moments from a family gathering decades earlier: “When I have asked my mother why most of the women are in red that night, she has shrugged, ‘I don’t remember. Just a coincidence.’ She doesn’t have my obsession for assigning symbolism to everything.”
Giving sounds to a wide range of scenes, people, and ideas, and doing so with a writer’s obsession—this was Judith Ortiz Cofer’s work across decades of published nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. She will be missed by many, among them those of us here at The Georgia Review and the University of Georgia.
A memorial service will be held on January 27 from 3-5 pm at the UGA chapel. For more information, click here.