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Carolyn Forché's Life and Career

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Carolyn Forché is known as a political poet, calling herself a "poet of witness" [source]. Growing up in Detroit in the 1950’s, poet Carolyn Forché recalls discovering photographs from a Nazi concentration camp in Look Magazine. After her mother confiscated the journal and hid it, young Forche re-confiscated it, marking perhaps the beginning of a poetic vocation devoted to exposing tyranny, injustice, and bearing witness to the atrocities of the 20th century.

Born one of seven children to a Czech-American housewife and a tool and die maker, Forché describes herself as a “junkheap Catholic” perennially drawn to issues of social justice. The winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize for her volume Gathering the Tribes (1976), Forché’s work sustained a remarkable shift following a year spent on a Guggenheim fellowship in El Salvador. Working closely with Archbishop Oscar Humberto Romero, human rights activist later killed by right-wing assassins, Forché assisted in finding people who had disappeared and in reporting their whereabouts to Amnesty International.   The shock of witnessing countless atrocities in Central America generated the volume The Country Between Us (1981), which stirred immediate controversy because of its overt politics: “My new works seemed controversial to my American contemporaries who argued against the right of a North American to contemplate such issues in her work, or against any mixing of what they saw as the mutually exclusive realms of the personal and the political.” Forché ’s “orchid-like” reputation was tarnished forever. One publisher agreed to publish the collection only if the poet would agree to balance images of war-torn  El Salvador with lighter poems on more traditional subjects. Forché refused. After much encouragement from fellow writer Margaret Atwood, Forché sent the manuscript to Harper and Row and obtained a contract just three days later. Perhaps the most disturbing and memorable poem in the volume is “The Colonel”-- a prose poem in which the speaker conveys with chilling flatness a horrific story:

[. . . .]

In The Angel of History (1994), Forché turns away from first-person, lyric-narrative form in an effort to engage in a poetic meditation which examines, on a broader scale, the accumulation of a century of atrocities. Divided into five parts, the first three
sections follow the narrator as she floats like an angel through the ruins of Europe--leading to death camps and across time to
more recent events such as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The Angel of History functions as a meditation on the possibility of
history itself--evoking the speech of those who have otherwise been forgotten. Taking her title for the volume from Walter
Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Forche draws a connection between the poet’s role and that of the angel.
Aware of the approaching millennium, the poet/angel warns: “The worst is over/ the worst is yet to come. . .”

[. . . . ]

Commenting on the threads which seem to connect all the disparate voices, Forché notes : “What I discovered was that extremity does mark language. Language fragments at the core of trauma, no matter what the subject matter, if a poet comes out of prison after a long time and writes about snowflakes, I began to sense that you could see the prison in the snowflakes.”

The question of the possibility of poetry in a century of horrors circulates throughout the volume, and poets such as Brecht
struggle with the undeniable responsibility which comes with language:

“What kind of times are these/ when a talk about trees is almost a crime/because it implies silence about so many horrors?”

Over the years Forché’s quest to understand the individual’s struggle with social upheaval and political turmoil has taken her from El Salvador to the occupied West Bank, Lebanon, and South Africa. Her preoccupation with silence is, as Calvin Bedient notes, “so profound it approximates prayer,” and has culminated in a new genre of North American poetry--the poetry of witness. [source]

Online Interview with Forché

Carolyn Forche doesn't shy away from atrocity. The power she wields makes the political horrifyingly real.

Hers is a vital voice, bearing witness to the sins of the world and showing how people live through it.

Her latest collection is The Angel of History. She says the poems in it are less about experiences and more "consciousness of passing through them."

"I'm attempting to show the voice of the soul through this," she said during a phone interview from her Maryland home.

Forche seems to speak of her own voice in the poem "The Notebook of Uprising": "You loved the shabbiness of the world: countries invaded, cities bombed, houses whose roofs have fallen in, / women who have lost their men, orphans, amputees, the war wounded. / What you did not love any longer was a world that had lost its soul."

"Yes, that's an important line," she said. "It's a deep spiritual worry that I have."

She offers haunting images: a blank-eyed boy aimlessly pedaling a bicycle with a naked broken doll in its basket, crows descending on a child to pull hair for their nests, a baby crawling over its dead mother seeking milk. These she seems to draw into her, embracing them with a kind of maternal love.

It's the search for the world's soul that is more troubling.

"And the world is worse now than it was then," she writes in the voice of a woman whose husband was a soldier fighting the Nazis.

Spanning decades and continents, the ambitious The Angel of History was 14 years in the writing, and a lifetime in the making.

Forche (pronounced For-SHAY) began writing at her mother's encouragement when she was 9, and seriously at 19. By 24, she had published Gathering the Tribes, a collection of poems that spoke of the bonds between families. She recalls her childhood and adolescence, calls upon her ancestors, delves into American Indian culture and explores her emerging sexuality in this volume.

She invokes the memory of a Slovak grandmother whose "hands were like wheat rolls shelling snow peas," who "knew how much grease / How deep to seed / That cukes were crawlers." She recalls waiting in a pony stall "for a boy / To come, circle his tongue / In my mouth" and loving a woman: "With her palms she / spread my calves, she / moved my heels from each other."

Her work then lead her to the poetry of Salvadorian writers. She translated Claribel Algeria's Flowers from the Volcano and she also co-authored Women in the Labor Movement.

This then "lead to human rights work," she said of her experience as an activist in El Salvador. She lectured on human rights and was a correspondent for National Public Radio in Beruit.

"The human rights work lead to socially engaging poetry," she said of her collection The Country Between Us. The book was controversial at the time in its awakening of political consciousness.

One of its most noted poems, "The Colonel," tells of how the man at a dinner party in his home "returned with a sack used to bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this."

Rather than recoil in horror at the almost surreal experiences of human cruelty, Forche shows how people survive in an unbearable world.

After she was changed forever by what she had seen and experienced, she was moved to find other poets of witness, other writers who had the ability to tell of atrocities humans commit against each other. She compiled and edited a collection, Against Forgetting: 20th Century Poetry of Witness.

"During the gathering of these poems, The Angel of History came out," she said. The poems trace the landscape of France, Japan and Germany and the effects of war on the land and its people.

The book is in homage to Jewish German philosopher Walter Benjamin, who died in 1940. She prefaces the book with a quote from Benjamin that the angel of history sees the past as "one single catastrophe" and that he would "like to make whole what has been smashed" but is rendered helpless by the future.

When Forche reads from her work, she hopes her words will stir her listeners, move them forward. "I enjoy creating a community with an audience," she said. "I'm always hoping the audience will be somehow moved to thoughtful contemplation in some way."

A dynamic storyteller and reader of her work, Forche said she has always enjoyed performing. "When I was a child in Catholic school, the nuns encouraged me to read interpretively," she said. "It seemed coincidental to writing when I was growing up."

Consequently, when she speaks her work, the words come alive from the page, as relevant now as when she first wrote them.

from Rambles: a cultural arts magazine. "Carloyn Forche: Facing up to the Atrocities. An Interview by Daina Savage, September 1996.

David W. Faulkner Introduces Forche
at the NYS Summer Writers Institute, 7/2/97

I don't know if Detroit produces poets of conscience routinely, but I do know that two of the best such poets, and two of the best poets by any measure are Philip Levine and Carolyn Forché, and both are from Detroit. Oh, Detroit has produced other great "writers," among them Gerry Milligan and John Lee Hooker, and doubtless other great poets, but Carolyn Forché stands in relief.

When Forché's, Gathering the Tribes was published in 1975, Stanley Kunitz's selection that year for the Yale Younger Poet's Prize, Kenneth Rexroth wrote with prescience: "Carolyn Forché is beyond question the best woman poet to appear in the Yale Younger Poet series since Muriel Rukeyser, whom in a special way she somewhat resembles. She is far better education than most poets, not just in school, but in life.. .She is also something nobody ever seemed to be able to find in the 30's whe  they were in demand--a genuine proletarian poet."

Rexroth was stumbling, more for what Forché herself later called the poetry of witness than the poetry of political class, but the comparison to Rukeyser is nontheless inviting.

I happily remember sitting in the library room of the Yale University Press more than twenty years ago to witness the emergence of a poet of stature, certainly the best writer in the series to have come along in a good while, man or woman. I remember still an electrcity in the room during her reading, an echo of Gertrude Stein's acknowledgement of good writing: the bell rings. What I most remember is the satisfied smile on Kunitz's avuncular and beatific face. He knew his choice was right. Forché's second book, The Country Between Us, published in 1982, focused on El Salvador, and fully announced a poetry of conscience. At the time, she said in an interview, when asked about whether she was an activist writer, and whether such writers have an obligation to speak out for human rights, 

"I believe that citizens have an obligation to act upon or voice support for their principles in this regard. No special obligation accrues to writers. My human rights activism has arisen out of this moral and social obligation. I have felt that that is one particular work and my poetry is another work, so rather than referring to myself as an activist poet, I might perhaps accept the idea of being an activist and a poet. The point at which they intersect is something artistically circumstantial. I didn't determine to write poems with a certain subject matter. Poetry can't be placed in the servce of anything other than itself."

That last line is most powerful to me, for it gets at the way in which Forché's poetry never leaves what is at the core of its nature: truth-seeking through memorable speech. And as such, poetry is work that partakes of the transformative vision: to see, transform, and thereby transcend, subsuming all that has come before, a process which is at the heart of all artistic endeavor.

I had organized a reading for Country that was memorable, not just for its poetric jeremiads and the overall stunning brilliance of Carolyn's work, like a light cast upon the reaches of the soul hitherto held in darkness, but also for two young men vying for Carolyn's attention (unbeknownst to her), who ended up in a parking lot fight. At issue was my copy of the book, but it had somehow come to represent, metonymically? synecdochically? Carolyn's attention. The one was arrested, the other got    black eye. I'm not sure who got the book, but I never saw it again.

In the early 90's, Carolyn Forché produced a work of editing almost as moving as her poetry, "Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness." People, save for those who edit, seldom approach an act of editing as anything approaching a work of art, but this work, the design of it, like good cabinetry, or architecture, allows both the poems contained and the reader reading a place, a place to dwell, and to remember. A place to join the stand against forgetting.

In the Introduction to that work, Forché wrote:

"Something happed along the way to the introspective poet I had been. My new work seemed controversial to my American contemporaries, who argued against its 'subject matter,' or against the right of a North American to contemplate such issues in her work, or against any mixing of what they saw as the mutually exclusive realms of the personal and the political. Like many other poets, I felt I had no real choice regarding the impulse of my poems, and had only to wait, in meditative expectancy. In attempting to come to terms with the question of poetry and politics, I turned to the work of Anna Akhmatova, Yanni  Ritsos, Paul Celan, Fredrico Garcia Lorca, Nazim Hikmet, and others. I began collecting their work, and soon found myself a repository of what began to be called 'the poetry of witness.'"

Forché's most recent book, 1994's The Angel of History works with that sense of witness, within the ruins of twentieth century culture, and its misplaced optimism about perfectibility. It moves through fragmentary elocutions to elegiac wholeness. Toward the end, in the Book Codes poems, she writes of time, its passing, its evolution, and its witness:

an afternoon swallowing down whole years its every hour
troops marching by in the snow until they are transparent
from the woods through tall firs a wood with no apparent end
cathedrals at the tip of our tongues with countries not yet seen
whoever can cry should come here

Powerful work by a supremely talented writer who has done nothing but deliver on the promise Kunitz saw. Please welcome Carolyn Forché. 

Online Source

"Carolyn Forche: The Poetry of Witness"
by Steven Ratiner

All journeys are wise - when viewed with enough time and distance. Looking back on life's passages, the wrong turns and chance meetings, even dead-end streets can assume a place in a clear and purposeful progression. It's in the day-to-day navigation that an individual's inner compass and determination are tested. And for an artist, the sum of those daily choices, both mundane and monumental, leave an indelible mark on the character of the individual and the content of the creation.

Entering the middle passage of her life, poet Carolyn Forche has received more acclaim and notoriety, witnessed more instances of cold brutality and generosity of spirit than one might expect in several lifetimes. This past month saw the publication of "The Angel of History," the first new collection of her work in over 13 years. I met with the poet at her Maryland home. The two-hour interview I'd arranged somehow expanded into an eight-hour marathon conversation. And the lasting impression I came away with concerns the tangled, dangerous, and utterly guileless path she has traveled in her life. Hers has been a triumph of the honest choice over the expedient, the strength of personal commitment over the tidal sway of public opinion. Along the way, and very likely because of it, she has created a collection of verse that addresses the terror and inhumanity that have become standard elements in the 20th-century political landscape - and yet affirms as well the even greater reservoir of the human spirit.

Her literary career had the most auspicious of beginnings; her first book, "Gathering the Tribes," won the Yale Younger Poets Award in 1976. A Guggenheim Fellowship followed shortly after. Trying to work her way through writer's block, she began to translate the poetry of Claribel Alegria, a Salvadoran poet living in Spain. She was invited to spend the summer in Deya, Majorca, at Alegrs home. In 1977, Forche was a young poet making her first trip away from the United States.

Her friend, the writer Terrence Des Pres, insisted she make a little pilgrimage during her brief stopover in France. "Terrence said, `when you get to Paris, go to Notre Dame ... and walk across the quay and look for a black iron gate and a white stairwell."' He would not tell her beforehand what she'd find. Dragging her huge suitcase down the shadowy steps, she found herself in "the memorial to the 200,000 people who were deported from France during the shoah. There were white rooms with stone walls, poetry carved into the walls, different poets who had been in the camps. And there was a tunnel with 200,000 tiny beads of light embedded in its walls, one for each of the lives.... And you could hear the river rushing past the windows. I stayed there for a long time."

Forche copied down some of the poems in her journal, but later in Spain, the notebook was accidentally left out in the rain. The lines of poetry remained but the author's name was washed away. A decade of searching never turned up the poet's identity.

Forche spent three months working with Alegria, dazzled by the international coterie of artists and writers who would congregate daily at her house. The experience reinforced in her the desire to do something, to make a difference with her work.

After the summer, she returned to California, taught creative writing at San Diego State College, and felt largely uninspired. "One day I was home alone and I heard a truck pull up in the driveway.... It had Salvadoran license plates and was covered with dust." A man emerged accompanied by two little girls. With some trepidation, she ascertained that this was Leonel Gomez Vides, the "crazy nephew" of Claribel Alegria. "He carried a roll of white paper with him and a fistful of pencils.... He walked into my house like he owned the place and asked me to clear off my dining-room table ... and announced `we have work to do.' He put his books and papers down ... and didn't leave my house for three days and three nights."

He became her self-appointed teacher, conducting a crash course in Central American history from the Spanish conquest to the present. At first Forche was fascinated by his intensity and thought of his stories as background for her translations. But his final challenge was a daunting one: "He said, `Claribel tells me you've won a Guggenheim Fellowship. Congratulations!' Then he asked me if I'd understood the Vietnam War when it was going on? ...`Would you like to see one from the beginning? ... My country is going to be at war in three to five years. And your country is going to be involved ... and I want to invite a poet to come down there now so that when all of this happens, this person can inform people here about what's going on."'

Forche explained to him that poets lack a compelling credibility in the United States and suggested that it might be more useful to invite a journalist instead. But Leonel insisted that "he needed a peculiar kind of sensitivity" for this task. In the end, she believed that this man was either exaggerating or just plain wrong in his vision of American entanglement in another third-world conflict. But she allowed curiosity to win out over caution and accepted his invitation. Paris or Rome might have been the more romantic choice for a poet on a Guggenheim fellowship seeking the illusive muse. Though her friends were unanimously opposed to the idea, Forche journeyed, not east toward to the "city of lights," but south to San Salvador in 1978.

In the end, her mentor was not wrong in the details of his predictions, only in the timing. By the autumn of 1979, the first of several coups had toppled the government, a civil war was erupting, and Forche found herself in the very eye of the storm.

For a year she met with people from all around El Salvador, worked for Archbishop Oscar Romero's church group, documented horrifying cases of human rights abuses, and began to take her first tentative steps back toward poetry. By 1980, when the fighting was becoming too dangerous, Archbishop Romero requested that Ms. Forche return home. "`Talk to the American people,' he said. `Tell them what is happening to us. Convince them to stop the military aid.' He had this whole program of things he wanted me to do." He sat with his white cassock in the little kitchen of the nuns' Divine Providence Hospital, 20 feet from the chapel where, one week later, he would be assassinated.

Back in the United States, the young poet struggled to justify Romero's faith in her. She wrote articles and traveled across the country, reading her poetry and talking about the conflict in Central America. Her poems both startled and galvanized audiences with their depiction of the pervasive brutality being employed in El Salvador against their own people.

Literary publishers turned away from Forchs new book, citing the charged political nature of the poetry - even though the El Salvador poems comprised only an eight-poem section. Finally, with some assistance from writer Margaret Atwood, "The Country Between Us" was published and became an almost immediate success. The El Salvador conflict had suddenly been thrust into the American consciousness by the killing of four American church women, and Forchs book became a part of the national debate on Central American policy.

The brand "political poet" was used to both damn and lionize her work. She found herself mired in what she now sees is "the cyclic debate peculiar to the United States concerning the relationship between poetry and politics .... And I felt that the debate wasn't a useful one, that the grounds were reductive and simplistic and unhelpful to anyone who wanted to think about the responsibility of citizens, much less writers.... There was no notion that language might be inherently political or perhaps ideologically charged whatever the subject matter and even when the person isn't aware of [it]."

A few writers went so far as to suggest that Forche fabricated her entire El Salvador experience. (The mention of this brings an ironic smile to her husband's face; photojournalist Harry Mattison met his future wife in El Salvador while covering the war for Time magazine.) Yet others defended her work, arguing that no one would have thought anything amiss had a man ventured into this war zone and authored these poems. The sadness for Forche was that all this sound and fury focused attention on the personality of the writer, obscuring the poems themselves.

Still, "The Country Between Us" was awarded the prestigious Lamont Poetry Prize, and the poet found herself reading and teaching all around the country. Most writers would thrive on the prospect of a national readership; it had the opposite effect on Forche. Between the hectic travel schedule, the absence of solitude, and anguish over the deaths of Salvadoran friends, she felt that something of herself was being obliterated in the process. She was learning that this was the price of her desire to "do" something. In the following years, she taught, traveled, reported for National Public Radio from war-torn Beirut and South Africa, and worked for Amnesty International. But the inner voice that had brought her the poetry was gone.

Or, if not "gone," altered. "At this time," she remembers, "I was writing something that was unrecognizable to me.... The work on the page was rather fragmented and unusual looking. And so I thought these must constitute notes toward poems. Because I was still laboring under the assumption ... that a poem was a first-person lyric narrative free-verse construct. That it had a voice which was governed by an authoritative subjectivity that could experience the world and express that experience with all its truth-claims.... And what I was doing was not that at all.... I was very frustrated, and I put it all in boxes and didn't know what to do. And seven years passed."

About to have her first baby, Forche and her husband moved to Paris. To ease the physical discomfort and the lonely hours, she embarked on a new project: "There was a book in the cupboard of French poetry. I went and got a very large French-English dictionary ... because I decided that if I was going to have a baby in France, I should learn some French! And I had this romantic notion that I was going to learn French by translating poetry.... I had almost worked my way through the French text. And what was on the last page? The lines I had copied from the Holocaust memorial! I had found him! It was the poet Robert Desnos who died in the concentration camps."

The discovery not only led her to eventually publish a translation of Desnos's work, but also inspired an even larger undertaking. "I was having difficulty writing at all, much less writing politically or nonpolitically.... I felt there was something broken within me, and that brokenness manifested itself in the language on the page. And I began to read the works of other poets who had endured warfare or ... had been imprisoned or forced into exile. I was interested in the impress of extremity on the poetic imagination.... And if a work was not explicitly about war, would you be able to tell that the poet had been through this?"

She began obsessively reading and collecting contemporary poetry from around the world. In 1992, after a decade of gathering poems, she published "Against Forgetting," a giant compendium of what she calls "the poetry of witness." Forche sees this anthology as "a symphony of utterance, a living memorial to those who had died and those who survived the horrors of the 20th century." And indeed, her reading of this literature convinced her that "if a poet is a survivor of the camps during the shoah, for example, and the poet chooses to write about snow falling, one can discern the camps in the snow falling...." Perhaps without realizing it, she had also opened the next path on her own journey.

In 1987, Forche moved back to the United States. While her husband had to be away, she and her young son, Sean, took a small apartment in Provincetown, Mass. A friend, poet Daniel Simko, lived nearby. "He was upset that I wasn't writing ... and he said, `I'll take Sean for two hours every afternoon.... I'll take him out in the carriage, I'll take him to the beach.... but you have to promise to write poetry while I'm gone...."' And knowing she might succumb to the impulse to clean or shop during these respites, he added "And I want to see the pages when I get back here with him."

The gift of time was precisely what was needed. The same cryptic multivoiced lines began appearing in her mind, but now she had the means to receive them, to pursue their leads, to shape them on the page. "And I realized that now it was emerging as something intact in and of itself. And yes, there were absences in it and disruptions in it, and there was not this discernible first-person voice sustaining itself and gathering momentum.... No, this was something ongoing and building, interrupting itself and shifting course."

What emerged as "The Angel of History" is a mosaic of voices in four long poem-sequences; it creates the feel of an overarching memory in which the people and events of our century hover. So transparent and unaffected is the writing, we are drawn into offering our own memories, our personal voices into the gathering presence. "There's a line in [`Angel'] that says: `The earth is wrapped in weather, and the weather in risen voices.' And all I could feel when I was writing was that I was somehow pulling at these pieces, these fragments, these swatches of human language. Some of the work obviously issues from my own circumstances, but I don't know where the others come from."

April 7 is Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel, and for two minutes each year the entire country comes to a standstill. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin commented that "the Holocaust is part of all our personal biographies, even if we were not there." Creating a more expansive stillness, Carolyn Forchs book accomplishes much the same purpose. Its web of voices lifts us from the benumbed condition in which we usually consume the daily news and compels us to experience other lives, other struggles, as if they were part of our own memories. The gift of Ms. Forchs "Angel" is that we emerge from this text feeling not less but more human, more aware of the motion of our lives and - though I say it with some sadness -- a bit wiser for the journey.

© Copyright 2001 The Christian Science Monitor. Online Source

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