Forché, Carolyn (Vol. 83)
Carolyn Forché 1950–
(Full name Carolyn Louise Forché) American poet, journalist, editor, and translator.
The following entry provides an overview of Forché's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 25.
Chiefly regarded as a political poet, Forché is best known for The Country between Us (1982), which graphically documents the horrors inflicted upon the Salvadoran people during the Civil War of the late 1970s. Reacting against critics who fault her inclusion of partisan themes, Forché has asserted: "All poetry is both pure and engaged, in the sense that it is made of language, but it is also art. Any theory which takes one half of the social-esthetic dynamic and accentuates it too much results in a breakdown. Stress of purity generates a feeble estheticism that fails, in its beauty, to communicate. On the other hand, propagandistic hack-work has no independent life as poetry. What matters is not whether a poem is political, but the quality of its engagement."
Born in Detroit, Michigan, Forché was raised in its neighboring suburbs and attended Catholic schools. She developed an interest in literature at age nine when her mother gave her a poetry anthology to read and suggested that she try writing a poem. Forché has commented that writing then became "an escape. Writing and daydreaming. Writing was simply the reverie that I recorded, and I wrote volumes of diaries and journals. Then, when I wasn't writing, when I was doing housework or whatever, I kept some sort of little voice running in my mind. I told myself narratives, and I made a parallel life to my own. It was completely imaginary, and most of the time everything would take place a hundred years earlier on the same spot where I was. I suspected, when I was young, that this was madness, but I couldn't give it up." Forché attended Michigan State University and later earned an M.F.A. from Bowling Green State University. After the publication of her prizewinning debut collection, Gathering the Tribes (1976), she traveled to Spain where she lived with exiled Salvadoran poet Claribel Alegría and, in translating Alegría's poetry into English, learned of the Salvadoran Civil War. Upon her return to the United States, she was visited by Leonel Gómez Vides, Alegría's cousin and an activist in El Salvador who encouraged Forché to witness the situation in Central America. Forché journeyed to El Salvador in 1978 in an attempt to document the war. Fearing for her life, she left the country in 1980 at the urging of her friend Archbishop Oscar Romero—two weeks before he was assassinated. A staunch critic of the United States's military support of the Salvadoran government's repressive forces, Forché wrote of her experiences in various journals and, eventually, in The Country between Us. Forché continues to remain politically active: she has served on various committees studying the situation in Central America; she has worked for Amnesty International and the Western chapter of the International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists and Novelists (PEN); and she has been employed as a foreign news correspondent in Beirut, Lebanon.
The largely autobiographical Gathering the Tribes, which won the 1975 Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, has been praised for its focus on community, kinship, memory, ritual, and sexuality. The long poem "Burning the Tomato Worms," for example, concerns Forché's sexual awakening, her relationship with her Slovak grandmother, and her grandmother's upbringing. The Country between Us, for which Forché earned the 1981 Lamont Selection of the Academy of American Poets, established her reputation as a political poet. The collection is divided into three sections: "In Salvador, 1978–1980," "Reunion," and "Ourselves or Nothing." The first details the horrifying events Forché witnessed in Central America and her eventual return to the United States. In the prose poem "The Colonel," for instance, she focuses on El Salvador's totalitarian regime and the mutilation inflicted on political prisoners. The second and third sections of the book continue to emphasize the importance of memory and witness, but additionally stress the importance of interpersonal relationships as a means of achieving peace and communion. Comprised of a single poem, the third section is dedicated to Holocaust scholar Terrence des Pres and is often considered representative of Forché's poetics and political beliefs. The piece concludes: "There is a cyclone fence between / ourselves and the slaughter and behind it / we hover in a calm protected world like / netted fish, exactly like netted fish. / It is either the beginning or the end / of the world, and the choice is ourselves / or nothing." Focusing, in part, on the acts of genocide that have occurred in Latin America and the inhumanity of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, Forché's book-length poem, The Angel of History (1994), is similarly concerned with war, human misery, remembrance, and survival.
Forché has been the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships yet her work has often been faulted for what some critics consider its overt polemics. Some scholars, however, argue that all poetry can be interpreted as a political message on some level and note that Forché's work signals the need for new schools of criticism and poetics that deliberately emphasize the political arena. Sharon Doubiago has asserted: "[This] poet, this extraordinary woman has already gone further than most ever will in trying to authenticate her voice, immersing herself and her language in the 'real' and very dangerous world. She has used her verbal training like a guerilla uses intimate knowledge of the land, taking the aesthetic jammed into her as a young working class woman gone to college and jamming it right back into the real, the political. This is a poetry of terrible witness, the strains of our villainies on the language and ethical constructs undoubtedly show. Thus the phrase 'the country between us.'"
[An American poet, Levis won the International Poetry Forum United States Award in 1971, the Lamont Poetry Prize in 1976, and a National Poetry Series Award in 1981. In the excerpt below, originally given as a speech in July 1981 at the Aspen Writers' Conference in Aspen, Colorado, he discusses the problems associated with attempting to convey the atrocities of war through literature and Forché's poetic treatment of the subject of violence.]
What is it like to write about or to photograph a war that is going on now, that was going on last week, last year? In the post-Vietnam era, I believe that one of the most difficult problems is to convey, simply, information, facts which sound, to those who are comfortable, like "improbable tales." For any advance which might be called humane and positive, there are advances in warfare which might be called cynical and retrograde. Anyone writing about war now must bear witness to two phenomena common to any war but ostensibly more intentional and widespread now: torture and mutilation.
Item: June 20, 1981. I am staring at a photograph by Susan Meiselas which depicts a dead Nicaraguan, apparently a man and, in all probability, one who rebelled against the deposed dictator, Anastasio Samoza Debayle. I assume this because the location of the photograph, "Cuesta del Plomo," is a hillside near Managua where the National Guard carried out its assassinations....
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[The following is a revised version of a speech Forché originally gave in March 1981 at one of the first meetings of PEN West, the International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists and Novelists. Here, she discusses the atrocities she saw in El Salvador, the role of the United States in the region, the relationship between poetry and politics, and her literary aims.]
The year Franco died, I spent several months on Mallorca translating the poetry of Claribel Alegria, a Salvadorean in voluntary exile. During those months the almond trees bloomed and lost flower, the olives and lemons ripened and we hauled baskets of apricots from Claribel's small finca. There was bathing in the calla, fresh squid under the palm-thatch, drunk Australian sailors to dance with at night. It was my first time in Europe and there was no better place at that time than Spain. I was there when Franco's anniversary passed for the first time in forty years without notice—and the lack of public celebration was a collective hush of relief. I travelled with Claribel's daughter, Maya Flakoll, for ten days through Andalusia by train visiting poetry shrines. The gitanos had finally pounded a cross into the earth to mark the grave of Federico Garcia Lorca, not where it had been presumed to be all this time, not beneath an olive tree but in a bowl of land rimmed by pines. We hiked the eleven kilometers through the Sierra...
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[Cott is an American editor, producer, poet, essayist, and critic. In the following, Forché discusses her childhood, her literary influences, her travels in Central America, and her writing.]
[Cott]: Walt Whitman once wrote: "The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it." How do you see the state of American poetry today?
[Forché]: I was talking to a poet the other day, and he said something very interesting. "I feel," he told me, "that I'm in exile in my own country." And it seems to me that much of the poetry written today is about this exile. In a way, there's a tendency for poets to abandon the culture at large and to write about the alienation that they feel. Throughout the Seventies, I noticed a poetry of refined and elegant language that somehow seemed to convey a sense of being detached from the culture. Many young poets who grew up in small towns were writing poetry that read as if they'd spent their childhoods in Europe, had the benefit of a classical education and had the luxury to develop a kind of distanced boredom. You get the impression that they lived very differently from the way they really did. There were exceptions, of course, but a lot of the poetry during the past decade seemed more descriptive of itself than it was of any kind of reality outside. Poets were pretty much writing for each other. And so they probably shouldn't complain...
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[An American educator and critic, Diggory is the author of Yeats and American Poetry: The Tradition of the Self (1983). In the following excerpt, he provides a thematic analysis of The Country between Us, discussing its relationship to Gathering the Tribes and its focus on political concerns.]
The honors showered upon Carolyn Forché during her brief career so far do not compensate for the misunderstanding that has accompanied them. Following her debut in the Yale Series of Younger Poets with Gathering the Tribes (1976), her second volume, The Country Between Us, was written under NEA and Guggenheim sponsorship, judged by the Poetry Society of America to be the best manuscript in progress, and awarded the Lamont Poetry Selection for 1981. A dust jacket blurb by Jacobo Timerman has Forché "replacing" Pablo Neruda as the poetic voice of South America.
Here the misunderstanding clearly surfaces. True, eight of the poems in Forché's volume deal with South America, specifically El Salvador—although, significantly, Forché takes her title from a poem about a friend from her Michigan girlhood ("Joseph") in another, longer section of the volume. That section serves as a confirmation of what should be apparent even in the El Salvador poems if they are read attentively. As the Cuban writer Mario Benedetti warned Forché prior to her involvement in El Salvador, her perspective on...
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[In the essay below, Greer examines Forché's poetry "as a phenomenon that is, in its very constitution and production, social, historical, and political."]
In the four years since their publication, the poems of Carolyn Forché's The Country Between Us have been identified with a renewed debate concerning the claims, the merits, and the possibilities for "political poetry" in contemporary America. They have been taken as an occasion for critical pronouncements on the question of "mixing art and politics" and have been widely praised as well as strenuously criticized. The apparent plurality of critical opinion surrounding The Country Between Us would seem to suggest that the question of poetry's relationship to politics is once again productively open, but in fact it masks a more disturbing consensus: whatever their merit, these poems belong to a specialized genre—"political poetry." They are to be evaluated for their ability to "reconcile" or "balance" impulses generally regarded as contradictory: the personal or lyrical on the one hand, the political or engaged on the other. I see several problems with such a notion of political poetry. First, it implies that certain poems are political while others (the majority) are not, and it thus functions to marginalize those poems regarded as political without yet having explored the social and political constitution of all literary discourse. More importantly, such a...
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[Taft-Kaufman is an educator. In the following interview, Forché discusses her aims as a poet, her works-in-progress, and her experiences as a public speaker and political activist.]
[Taft-Kaufman]: Carolyn, you described your original experience in El Salvador as having created a "focused obsession" for you. Can you speak a little bit about that?
[Forché]: Well, I've discussed elsewhere at great length the conditions under which I went to El Salvador and what happened to me there. But to address the concern about the singular focus that emerged from that experience, I think it was highly personal for me, my response to the sense of obligation that I felt toward people that I had left behind there, people who had educated me and who were in very grave danger themselves. And because of the intricate complicity of my own government in those conditions, I felt a moral obligation to respond when I returned home. And I feel that there was a period in which I believed that American public opinion influenced foreign policy decision making. And as long as I believed that there was a direct relationship between American public opinion and foreign policy decision making, I continued to believe in the validity of speaking in this country of conditions in El Salvador. So I spoke for five years in universities, and churches, and synagogues, and Kiwanis Clubs, and community centers. And finally I realized … it was...
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Right. So, it's now eight years. I've many, many notebooks, but what I see when I examine the notebooks now are phases of development toward the work I'm doing at present. I see it in embryonic stages early on, and I begin to see what I thought were simply notes, because they didn't resemble my earlier work, were, actually in early form, the work that I have now begun to do … the new work, in other words. I didn't recognize it at first. I thought it was failed old work.
So, you see it now as the culmination of an implicit building process, that you were not aware was actually happening. Can you describe how your 1981 work, which was, as a lot of people would say, political … although I think that's an artificial distinction … and I know certainly you feel that all work is political…. Can you see a through line between what you're doing now and what you were doing then? Can you articulate that through line?
Well, you see, the way that I composed my work has changed. I still recognize and accept that work as my own, and the person who composed that work is me in another form in an earlier version of myself. But even though with The Country Between Us I had been radically transformed in writing that work, the form that the work took was very conventional. There was nothing particularly transformative or evolutionary about it.
Despite the fact that there was "The...
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Doubiago, Sharon. "Towards an American Criticism: A Reading of Carolyn Forché's The Country between Us." The American Poetry Review 12, No. 1 (January-February 1983): 35-9.
Responding to negative reviews of The Country between Us, Doubiago lauds the volume's political content and calls for a new school of criticism that recognizes that all writing—whether poetry or criticism—is politically motivated.
Gleason, Judith. "The Lesson of Bread." Parnassus 10, No. 1 (Spring-Summer 1982): 9-21.
Applauds Forché's focus on the Salvadoran Civil War and the need for community in The Country between Us.
Lapinski, Ann Marie. "The Education of a Poet: El Salvador Sojourn Gives Life to Her Art." Chicago Tribune, No. 347 (13 December 1982), 1-3.
Feature article in which Forché discusses her experiences in El Salvador and the composition, publication, and reception of the poems collected in The Country between Us.
Mann, John. "Carolyn Forché: Poetry and Survival." American Poetry 3, No. 3 (Spring 1986): 51-69.
Thematic and stylistic analysis of The Country between Us.
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