Carolyn Forché Biography


(Poets and Poetry in America)

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...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Carolyn Forché’s interest in responding to human oppression can be traced to her early childhood in Detroit. When she was five she discovered a series of photographs in Life magazine documenting the liberation of the Nazi death camps. Disturbed by these pictures of immense suffering, Forché hid them between her mattresses and returned to them throughout her childhood.

Later, she was affected even more profoundly by war. At nineteen Forché married James Turner, who, like a number of her high school classmates, fought in Vietnam and suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Forché and Turner eventually divorced, but her poetry and work as an activist for Amnesty International continue to be informed by this experience with the psychic cost of war.

After being graduated from Michigan State University with a major in creative writing in 1972, Forché pursued her interest in writing at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, receiving her M.F.A. in 1975. A year later she published her first volume of poetry, Gathering the Tribes, which focuses on the displaced and the forgotten, including her immigrant European forebears and Native Americans.

In 1975, Forché spent several months in Mallorca, living with and translating the poetry of Claribel Alegría, a Salvadoran exile who had chronicled the oppression in her native country. After returning to the United States, a relative of Alegría invited Forché to El Salvador to observe the abuses of the United States-backed government. Beginning in 1978, she was in El Salvador for two years. Forché has described her time there as “a moral and political education” that “would change my life and work” and “propel me toward engagement.” After returning from El Salvador, she spent the next four years lecturing in the United States about the injustices she observed there. Some of these experiences are documented in The Country Between Us, which she characterizes as poetry of confrontation and witness.

In 1984, she married Henry Mattison, a photographic correspondent for Time whom she had first met in El Salvador. Accompanying him on assignment in Lebanon, she became a correspondent for National Public Radio. Her most recent works continue to expose and resist human brutality. Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness is an anthology of protest poetry, and The Angel of History is a long poem that explores, among other things, the ramifications of the Holocaust and the dropping of the atomic bomb.