Interview with Carolyn Forché — April 25, 2009
Carolyn Forché is the author of four award-winning books of poetry; the most recent is Blue Hour. She is also the editor of the anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness. She has translated the poetry of Claribel Alegria, Robert Desnos, and Mahmoud Darwish. She teaches at Georgetown University. In February, 2009, we spoke at Arizona State University's annual Desert Nights writers' conference.
Christopher Nelson: When you consider your four books of poetry, what has remained constant and what has changed?
Carolyn Forché: My obsessions have remained constant and my formal investigations have changed. Certain readers tell me that they discern in each book the seeds of the next one. They see a trajectory in ways that I don’t; it isn’t as obvious to me. I experience each book as a departure from past work. If I consider the four of them—(and there are only four; I publish one book every decade)—I think there are obsessions that drift from book to book and that are amplified over time. Probably those have to do with the problem of good and evil [laughter], the experience of extremity and how language is marked by extremity, history, legibility, and in recent years, an exploration of the elegiac. When I look back I see that elegy has always interested me because of the circumstances of my life and perhaps my cast of mind and the leanings of my imagination—I don’t think we really know why: that’s a personal puzzle that needs assembled over the course of a lifetime.
If there are poets who perfect the poem over the course of many books, and they are recognizably themselves in ways that are grounded in formal concerns—I’m not that. I’m not of that family. If there are poets for whom each book is an individual event or investigation—that’s what I think I do. I haven’t been comfortable remaining in a particular poetic mode. It’s not interesting to me to write a certain kind of poem over and over. For example, while I admire, and am interested in, many first-person, lyric-narrative, free-verse poems that have an arc of disclosure and a building of rhythmic momentum toward an epiphanic resolution, I don’t want to write that poem over and over; I’ve found in my current manuscript, however, that poem has recurred. I feel that I made a journey away from it with The Angel of History. The departure had to do with entering into a kind of polyphonic meditation. I wanted to see what I could do beyond creating a first-person speaker who was herself a figure in the work. So my tendency in the ten years while I was working on The Angel of History was to remove myself, to absent myself, from that figure whom I had been in the previous two books, and that got interesting for me.
And I had other influences: Edmond Jabès; Claude Lanzmann (the filmmaker), particularly the subtitles for his Shoah; French philosophy and the Frankfurt School, principally Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin; Gershom Scholem; and Hannah Arendt. I was also reading Emmanuel Levinas (by way of Martin Buber) and Jean-Franҫois Lyotard, whose philosophical concerns arose out of contemplations of twentieth-century history. And I had for years been studying Holocaust literature, documentary, and memoir. So particular events of twentieth-century history—the Holocaust and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—became central to the The Angel of History.
Then during the period of Blue Hour there was again a departure. I had an interest in different theologies, and certain poets—what in America they call “experimental poetics,” which I think is an unfortunate term: “experimental” is too scientific, “avant-garde” is too military. I’m interested in poets that a lot of people don’t seem to think much about—and maybe wouldn’t associate with my work: George Oppen, for instance, is very important to me, and Saint-John Perse, Paul Celan, Yannis Ritsos, Odysseas Elytis (particulary in Olga Broumas’s translation), Joseph Zobel, and certain French aphorists. I was inspired by poets who were sort of fooling around with genre and line, and I was studying the play of line stops against syntactical continuations. There’s a wonderful little book called The Art of the Poetic Line by James Longenbach; in it he articulates very well what fascinates me about the play of line and syntax—and I love his abandonment of the term “line break.” … Blue Hour was also a very personal book. It might not be obvious, but for me it was much more personally revealing than my previous books; there’s much more autobiographical material in Blue Hour.
Nelson: You said that you publish a book a decade. Is that because you write less than many poets, or are you more selective in what you publish? Many poets publish a book every two or three years.
Forché: I’m not against publishing more frequently. It’s just that I don’t have something that I consider worth the paper of the trees and the time of the reader as often. And I don’t really enjoy publishing. I think that’s part of it. I find it a very difficult experience. I try to avoid it if I can, which is why I don’t send poems out to magazines often. If I happen to have a poem and someone happens to ask me, or persuade me, to give it to them—that’s how my poems are published in magazines. Otherwise, I don’t send work out. I think that comes from an aversion to publishing, and that comes from personal experience. I think the reason is that I published too young in book form. I was twenty-five when my first book, Gathering the Tribes, appeared, and I was a young twenty-five. I’d had a fairly difficult life in my early twenties, so I wasn’t very strong when it was published. I wasn’t ready to be a public person. After it was published, I retreated into a kind of silence and into an agonizing struggle with my work.
Then I went to El Salvador and my life changed utterly, and because my life changed my poetry changed. El Salvador was a country that no one could really find on a map; it wasn’t a country anyone thought much about. And I wrote poems that I wasn’t even intending to publish. (I write a lot for myself, for the page, for the drawer; if I ever started a literary magazine I’d call it The Drawer.) But then you see what happened: the publication of my second book, The Country Between Us, was delayed because it was rejected by a publisher I respected very much. So I thought maybe it wasn’t ready; maybe it was something I shouldn’t publish. So I put it in the drawer. That delay meant that when it was published El Salvador was prominent in the news, which led that book to reach a wider audience than most poetry books. Had it been published when I actually finished, that might not have happened; a few years earlier, a few years later—the situation would have been different.
The experience of publication with the second book was worse for me than the first book, because of the added difficulty of extra-literary concerns: the controversy surrounding the book and the controversy surrounding who I was and why I had done this, and the accusation that the work was political. I was very committed to speaking and working against the Intervention, so I plowed myself into that and into human rights work. I tried to ignore the poetry world and that controversy. But when I had come out of El Salvador, I was not in very good shape, and I was not strong enough for what transpired. So once again, a decade long retreat and the project of the anthology, Against Forgetting, which was really a beautiful experience for me. I was so engaged, and it was such a pleasure to do the research and the reading and editing. I didn’t have to worry about anyone else. It was a labor of love. My friend Daniel Simko encouraged me and made it possible for me to start writing my own work again because he came and took care of my son everyday for a few hours, on the condition that I would write while they were gone. So I started The Angel of History really because of Daniel.
It takes me quite a few years to write and revise and write a book. I suppose if I could do it more quickly and publish more frequently I would, but it doesn’t seem to be the case with me. It’s already been six years since Blue Hour. I’m halfway through a new manuscript—halfway!—at the six year mark; it might even be longer than a decade this time. Everyone has their own rhythm—their own imaginative, intellectual, spiritual rhythm—with regard to these matters. And I suppose some people enjoy publishing—some people crave it, possibly. I can’t answer for them, but I can say that my situation is otherwise. And I’ve learned that I’m not the only poet who feels, or has felt, that way. There’s quite a tradition of people who don’t like to publish. People who do it, but don’t enjoy it. I’m not alone. I’m even in some good company, so I don’t worry about it anymore.
Nelson: I love that your poems are very much of the world—its physical things and an acute observation of its emotional circumstances—while also moving beyond it, reaching toward the ineffable. I think of “On Earth,” in Blue Hour, and the sort of un-reality of the war poems in The Angel of History. It makes me wonder what compels you to write poems?
Forché: I have different experiences of this at different times. In writing certain poems I know where I am, but I don’t know what the poem is going to be. I’m in a moment imaginatively—which usually begins with an image, or a glimpse of something, or something fires off from the past, or something flashes before me—and I start writing toward someone. Then I find out what it’s going to be. Other times I actually meditate through the poem. In some of those polyphonic poems in The Angel of History I allowed myself great leaps in time and space between the different sections. I let myself move from Beirut back to the place along the sea shore: maybe I felt the spray, the salt foam, that was lifted out of the Mediterranean by the helicopters in Beirut, and I was writing through that, and then I was back at a window facing the sea. When I was in Beirut it was a very difficult time. It was the winter of ’83–’84. We came under shell fire. One night I was in the basement listening to all the explosions. After that night, for awhile I felt that my mind was behaving as a kaleidoscope: I couldn’t sustain a thought the same way, and when I wrote, I couldn’t sustain the speaker on the page. It was a kind of staccato rapid firing of images, perceptions, and memories in my consciousness—all the time. I thought, to my horror, that it was going to last forever, and that’s how I was going to be. It didn’t last forever, but while it was happening, I decided that since I couldn’t stop it, I would set it to paper, that I would work with it, rather than against it—write my way out of it. The breaking up of the language in The Angel of History started because I was writing in that mental state. Everything was kind of swirling around, so I thought I will make something with this broken glass; I will glue it together, because if I don’t do that I won’t be able to do anything.
I think what saved me was that I became a mother, and I spent a year in Paris, which was, unfortunately, the year of the Paris bombings, 1986. There were a lot of bombings of department stores and metros, but otherwise Paris was quite peaceful, as Paris can be. It calmed me down. And I had my son; I was a young new mother. I think that in creating a safe, lovely environment for my son, I accidentally created one for myself. There were lots of peaceful walks in cemeteries—because cemeteries are safe places; no one would set off a bomb there. And cemeteries are beautiful: filled with flowers and gardens and pigeons and stones and cats and old women sweeping. I lived facing Montparnasse, a beautiful small cemetery, and I visited interesting people there, like Julio Cortázar and Jean-Paul Sartre. That spring Simone de Beauvoir died, and she was buried next to Sartre. I’d just make my rounds and visit different people. I started—without knowing it—writing The Angel of History there. So I had my baby and I went to school, because I was also translating Robert Desnos and I needed more French. It was a beautiful year. Now that I think of it, it was one of the best years of my life. I lived as an ordinary French housewife lives: shopping the market, cooking, taking care of the baby, going to the post office, getting flowers from the market. Life was like that, and it was heavenly. If I could choose a way to live now, I would live like that again.
I think that how and where I’ve lived have effected my work. With The Country Between Us, I had been in Central America, and that had been horrifically difficult, dangerous, intense, emotional; it got worse and worse and worse while I was there, and that didn’t let up during a twelve-year civil war. The Country Between Us has an intensity about it that reflects that. And maybe The Angel of History is quieter, more meditative. I was raising a child, so there’s a child in the meditation. By the time I wrote Blue Hour, I was older. Interestingly there are things in Blue Hour that didn’t come true for a few years. Three years after it was published I got diagnosed with cancer—which was a transformative experience, terrifying and illuminating. Some of what I wrote in Blue Hour seems to portend that; I see things there now—and my friends see them too—phrases and images that are uncanny, that have to do with—maybe—the fact that while I was writing it I had cancer, but I didn’t know it. And now the new poems are almost a return to an earlier mode, first-person, largely lyric poems, not particularly polyphonic, not particularly experimental. So I have to think about how and where I was living and what were the pressures on my psyche. Who was I reading and what was my life like? My life has changed so radically so many times. Before Paris I was in South Africa during the last days of apartheid, which was also very intense. I haven’t written much about South Africa, which surprises me. Not all of my lived experiences come into the poems. There are whole countries of lived experience that have never visited me on the page. Maybe someday; I don’t know. Beirut: very little. South Africa: very little.
Nelson: And in these many different places that you’ve been, how do you see poets’ and poetry’s roles in those cultures? Is it different than in America?
Forché: Absolutely. American poetic culture is very lively: there are many more readings and publications and magazines and festivals and conferences in the United States than anywhere else in the world, as far as I know. It’s very dynamic. A Salvadoran was visiting with me a few months ago, and he picked up Poets & Writers and said, “My goodness, we have nothing like this. This is amazing! Look at all of these things you have!” And I thought, “Yes, he’s right.” But poetry and poets are regarded differently in other countries, and I’m somewhat more comfortable in other places in that respect. For example, in France if you say you’re a poet, the first you’re asked is not “Have you published?” It’s enough to be an artist or a writer; you don’t have to be recognized; you don’t have to be known. People are just interested in what you are doing. I find that really refreshing and lovely.
Also the poets are more expected to be intellectuals and to have an active interest in history and politics and everything going on. They’re not expected to be sequestered in a literary culture. They’re not expected to have no opinions about events in the world. They’re expected to have more seriously considered opinions because they’re poets—and not necessarily predictable opinions. It’s not bad to be an intellectual in certain other countries if you’re a poet. And there’s less commercialization there. And there’s less opportunity, but there’s a quieter, more serious experience in some ways.
Poets in the rest of the world are very much interested in other poets in other countries. Many countries host an annual or bi-annual and invite people from all over the world to come, and their poets all come. There are three or four days of fireworks and torches lighted and gala dinners and celebrations. Often in America the poetry festivals tend to be more staid and academic and decidedly American, rather than international. I could be wrong, but that’s how I’ve experienced it. If I go to a conference here, most of the poets I meet will be Americans; we’ll have panels and readings, but it won’t be this sort of festive, jubilant, celebratory thing I’ve seen in other countries. Also, in other places I’ve been, there is more of an inter-arts connection: there will be a film show or a jazz band that plays before the reading, and there will be a photo exhibit out in the gallery—lots of things going on. The other artists drift toward the poets and want to present their work and play and make exchanges. In America it seems that when people come together to share literary culture, there’s less involvement with the other arts, especially in academic venues.
And for all of our interest in poetry from other countries—and I think we do have that—we translate very few poets from other languages, relatively speaking; we publish very few; we review almost none of the books that do make it into print. Sometimes poets we regard highly are poets from other countries—Czeslaw Milosz, Joseph Brodsky, Wisława Szymborska, Seamus Heany, Derek Walcott—but we don’t know much about the younger poets and poets who haven’t won Nobel prizes. We don’t know much about poets who have never lived for a time in the United States.
Nelson: One of the beautiful things about your anthology, Against Forgetting, is that it introduced many American readers to poets we hadn’t encountered before, and who knows if we would have encountered them if not for your work.
Forché: It was terrible to realize that the poets I was not able to include might never be anthologized in English. I felt in some ways that I was abandoning certain poets or poems to an oblivion of sorts—that they would be sleeping in the library for another decade, or maybe forever. And the anthology is twice as long as [the publisher] W.W. Norton wanted it to be. I was to have 400 pages maximum, and too late I showed up in their offices with 700-plus pages. They let it go through, but that’s not the length they wanted it to be. You know, a thicker book has a bigger price tag. How much you can charge for the book really matters. The person who can pay $19.95 is not the same person who can pay thirty or forty dollars. Sales drop off precipitously. … Publishing may have a difficult time in this economic decline. For example, hard-covers may not sell as many copies as before; certain kinds of books may not do as well, and that will change literary culture, and that will affect what is published in the future.
…. But in terms of the experience of being a poet in certain countries—I would say Nicaragua, El Salvador, among them—people know about their poets more than Americans know theirs. They can tell you about poets, they’ve memorized poems, they know the poets who are alive in their time. In America I think if you walk down a street and randomly ask people to name a living poet, they might have a hard time. For many Americans poetry isn’t part of the shared culture.
The one thing that I do feel more comfortable with when I’m in other countries is that no one “gets on my case” for my other interests. My work is never dismissed because I wrote about some colonel in El Salvador; that doesn’t happen. I don’t suffer from that.
Nelson: “Suffer”—that’s interesting. In America, I imagine that many people who know your work associate your name with “The Colonel.”
Forché: Yes. And in America that poem is controversial, but in other countries it isn’t. No one questions writing about something like that. Or at least, no one thus far has.
Nelson: What do you think is behind that questioning, that being critical of political subject matter?
Forché: I think it’s complicated, and I think the criticism of my own work wasn’t really about politics in the largest sense. Some people have suggested to me that I had done an unexpected thing, that I had written an unexpected book that had unexpectedly gotten unexpected attention, and that this was resented by some people. There’s that. And I’m a woman, which may have had something to do with it. Also we humans have a tendency to project our own feelings and motivations and concerns onto others, so people who focus very seriously on their literary careers might imagine that other people focus also very seriously on their literary careers. To give you an example, in print someone said that my working in El Salvador had basically been a career move, which is absurd. In the beginning I thought that the resentment was a vestige of Cold War American government propaganda: the narrative was that there was a Communist uprising in El Salvador and Cuba was behind it. But as years go by I think it had to do with much pettier reasons. I was a young woman who went to another country. Things had gotten bad. I had done something else with my life for a little while, and I wrote about it.
There was one other factor that contributed to that book receiving more attention, a kind of resented attention: two newspaper columnists, Nicholas von Hoffman and Pete Hamill—neither of whom had been in El Salvador—, wanted to write about El Salvador around the time my book was published. Both began columns with The Country Between Us as a “hook,” and both columns suggested that it was peculiar that we were getting our news from a book of poems. Those columns were syndicated in several hundred American newspapers right around the time my book was published. I was soon invited everywhere—synagogues, churches, universities, chambers of commerce. Everyone wanted to know about El Salvador. I was happy about that because I could fulfill a promise I made to Monsignor Romero to speak about those events in the United States. But it was exhausting too. I had no governor on my schedule. I went everywhere and did everything anyone wanted me to do. I was on the road almost all the time, and I was doing that because we had several movements we were trying to build: an anti-intervention network, a solidarity network, Witness for Peace, and the Sanctuary movement. These were begun locally, by community activists working in concert with people moving around the United States—in little towns and cities—and talking, making appeals. The network was built overnight, partly because the people who had organized the antiwar movement during the American war in Southeast Asia were still around and were willing to give their energy to this, and because it needed to be built overnight. It happened phenomenally fast, and I was taken up with that and obsessed with it. … Now we’re all philosophical. When Salvadorans come to my house we talk about the old days, about what happened and what didn’t happen, what was achieved, what wasn’t achieved—I feel like an old lady. I still honor those years and feel committed to the same things; but I was a poet before I went to El Salvador, and I’m a poet many years after El Salvador. It’s just that there was a moment, and that moment blessed me with the curse of being better known than I would have otherwise been.
Nelson: I hear that you’re working on a memoir. Is that something you can talk about?
Forché: I taught the poet Ilya Kaminsky for seven years. When I met him he was nineteen—a profoundly deaf émigré from Ukraine. I met him at a workshop in the New York State Summer Writers’ Institute. We became friends. We had very interesting conversations over the years. I began writing—for the drawer—my little prose account of our conversations. Then in January 2003 my house was destroyed by water, right at the time Blue Hour was published, and we had to rebuild, which took us four years. The insurance was a mess—it was terrible. So I took these pages out of the drawer and sent them to New York because I needed money for plumbing, and I knew the only thing I could sell was prose. The unfinished manuscript was shown to a publisher, and they bought the book unfinished and gave me an advance. I then became committed—having spent the money on plumbing—to actually write the thing, and I’ve been working on it ever since. I finished a first draft, and now I’m going to do a second draft. It’s called The Horse on Our Balcony, and it’s a memoir that accounts for all those years and things, prompted by Ilya’s questions: How did you become the poet that you are? What happened to you? Why the differences between the books? Why did you go to these countries? All of those questions. And I decided after I was diagnosed with cancer that I had better make an accounting for myself before someone else interpreted my life. I wanted to tell my story from my own point of view and say things I hadn’t said; shed some light on things that maybe people have wondered about. It’s just that. I’m hoping to finish it soon. I like prose, I like sentences; I’ve enjoyed the writing.