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...
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