Carolyn Forché

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 887

Born in 1950 to Michael Joseph Forché, a tool and die maker, and Louise Nada Sidlosky Forché, a homemaker, Carolyn Louise Forché, the oldest of seven children, spent her first five years in Detroit, Michigan, before moving to the suburbs with her family. With the encouragement of her mother, Forché began writing poems at the age of nine, often as an escape, much like daydreaming. At the age of eighteen, she published her first poem, “Artisan Well,” in the October, 1968, issue of Ingenue.

At Justin Morrill College, an experimental college of Michigan State University, she attracted the attention of several professors, who became mentors and encouraged her writing. In 1970 and again in 1971, she won first prize in Michigan State University’s poetry competition. At college, she majored in creative writing and minored in English literature and French but also took courses in international relations, philosophy, and history. In addition to French, she studied Russian, Spanish, Serbo-Croatian, and Tewa (Pueblo Indian)—perhaps following an interest generated by her Slavic-speaking relatives. After receiving her B.A. in 1972, she entered the M.F.A. program at Bowling Green State University in Ohio; she received her degree in 1975. Her thesis, “Secret Histories,” suggests the direction that her poetry would take: the chronicling of the lives of those who have been forgotten.

As a student she worked on the poems that formed her first collection, Gathering the Tribes, and she completed it at age twenty-four. The collection was well received, entering its third printing only a year after its publication. She then turned her attention to the period involving the Vietnam War. In high school, she and her working-class friends had been supportive of the war, but in college, she joined the antiwar movement. She struggled to understand Vietnam partly because her first husband, whom she married when she was nineteen, was psychologically scarred by the war and partly because her political conscience had been stimulated by Terrence Des Pres’s Survivors: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps (1976), which she had read while convalescing from viral meningitis in 1976. She made Des Pres’s acquaintance, and the two writers entered into a correspondence that lasted until his death in 1987. His last work, Praises and Dispatches (1988), explores the relationship between poetry and politics, a subject that is of importance in understanding Forché’s poems.

During the 1970’s, Forché developed an interest in Central America. In 1977, when she was translating the poems of Claribel Alegría, she traveled to Spain to consult the exiled poet. There she met a number of Latin American writers and began to learn about the region’s human rights problems. Returning to California, she taught English at San Diego State University but also worked for Amnesty International. When she received a Guggenheim Fellowship, Leonel Gomez, Alegría’s nephew, suggested that she use it to travel in El Salvador; other friends, however, suggested Paris. Gomez argued, “Do you want to write poetry about yourself the rest of your life?” Answering in the negative, she chose El Salvador. From 1978 to 1980, as a journalist and human rights activist reporting to Amnesty International, she traveled in El Salvador, witnessing the poverty of the peasants, the ill health of the children, the rural hospitals where operations were often performed without anesthesia, and also the luxurious homes of members of the military. During this period, the notorious death squads were becoming active, and she learned about the missing people and the torture of political dissidents. Once back in the United States, she lectured and wrote articles concerning her experiences, following the Salvadorans’ plea: “Document it. . . . go back and tell them what you’ve seen.” Her poems on El Salvador are included in The Country Between Us, which gained for Forché a reputation as a political poet. Perhaps that designation is not, or should not be, unusual, for as Forché points out, “History and politics affect everyone’s life, everywhere, always.”

As she had after her first collection, she again took a hiatus from poetry, explaining that reflection and solitude were necessary for writing poetry and the political situation allowed her neither. Instead, she turned to writing a series of essays on places she had visited. The first, on El Salvador, appeared in American Poetry Review in 1981, and she planned additional essays on Lebanon and on Northern Ireland. While in Lebanon, she presented a series of news documentaries on Beirut (parts of which reminded her of Detroit) for National Public Radio’s program All Things Considered.

Forché was married on December 27, 1984, to Henry E. Mattison, a photographic correspondent with Time magazine whose assignments included Nicaragua, El Salvador, Lebanon, and South Africa. They were together in South Africa but left in 1986 for the birth of their son, Sean Christophe, for they did not want their child to be born under the apartheid system.

In 1974, Forché began to teach English and writing, becoming a writer-in-residence at various universities, including Michigan State University, San Diego State University, the University of Virginia, New York University, Vassar College, and Columbia University. In 1989, she settled at George Mason University, which became her academic home for the next nine years. In the fall of 2008, after being invited as visiting professor to Georgetown University’s Lannan Center for Poetry and Social Practice, Forché accepted a permanent position in the school’s English Department.

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