Living Writers Series: Carolyn Forché

a poet of witness shares her story

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Photo courtesy of the Poetry Foundation

On Nov. 11, American poet, translator and teacher Carolyn Forché visited Muhlenberg as a part of the Living Writers series. She was the fifth writer and second poet to come to campus for the series. Forché is known for coining the term “poetry of witness” which is anthologized in “Against Forgetting: Twentieth-century Poetry of Witness” (1993). She was born in Detroit and earned her MFA at Bowling Green State University. Forché began writing poetry at a young age and won the 1975 Yale Series of Younger Poets Award for her first book of poems, “Gathering the tribes” (1975).

As a translator, Forché worked with Nicaraguan-Salvadoran poet Claribel Alegría, whose cousin invited her to El Salvador before the civil war period of 1979-1992. “The Country Between Us” (1981) details this witness and explores the broader implications of U.S. involvement in Latin American oppression. Her other books, “Angel of History” (1994) and “Blue Hour” (2003) explore family history and mythical subjects. After 17 years, she wrote her memoir “What You Have Heard Is True” (2019) which includes details of her time in El Salvador. 

The Living Writers class read In the Lateness of the World (2020) which is a collection of poems that span decades of Forché’s life. The class received a lecture the previous week from Cathy Marie Oulette, Ph.D., and Alec Marsh, Ph.D., about Forché’s role as a poet of witness versus what in her early career was deemed a “political poet.” The collection of poems reflects being a poet of witness in the aftermath of extremity in the 20th and 21st centuries.

In the Q&A session with the class, Forché spoke about her experience of being a poet of witness, “which is not an identity or a kind of poetry, but simply a way of reading poetry written in the aftermath of extremity.” She also mentioned that “In the Lateness of the World” took 17 years to write because she was working on her memoir at the same time. While it was on the shelf for four years, she added four poems that she “thought the book very much needed to have.” Another factor was that she “always take[s] a long time to write poems and revise them and come to believe in them and feel that they’re finished and assemble them into something. And this book, unlike the two previous ones…is a collection of poems. They’re related, they’re in conversation, but they don’t have an overarching subject.”

One student asked what the process was like to write these poems, and what the difference was to have some poems with dedications. Forché explained that for the people in her life that have passed, “I think about them still and I keep them in my heart, as we do with the dead. I think a lot of the [poems] that are dedicated here are dedicated to people who are gone.” As for her creative process, she added, “Raw experience isn’t enough for me, it has to shape itself. It has to become something. And often with my poems, they become something other than what they begin as being. I’ll start off with something and then the poem takes on a life of its own, a will of its own. It changes the subject.” 

Faith Maldonado ’23 commented, “Forché seems more interested in individual experiences, but they’re not necessarily her own. She relates the consciousness of others, often channeling the memories of people she has encountered into her poems… I think this has something to do with her experience in translation, too, this ability to momentarily take on the psyche of another and breathe their being onto the page.”

Maldonado asked a question about translation to which Forché responded, “Translation is like channeling someone,” and that knowing another language, “changes who you are. It’s a lovely thing to have more selves.” She also advised the students to learn one other language to “expand your world.”

“That really stuck with me—it’s a cool way of thinking about empathy,” Maldonado says about this answer, “and couldn’t have come from anyone else but her.”

About the title of the collection, it came from a Robert Duncan poem, “Poetry, a Natural Thing” (1960). She chose it because even before COVID, “I felt intuitively that humanity was on a precipice of some kind. I felt that something was coming. I felt that we were going to be shortly in another reality… I was meditating on not only my own mortality, but the world’s.”

“Teaching Forché’s poems to my own students felt like passing the torch and reminding young writers that writing needn’t be a narcissistic enterprise… it can, instead, very much have to do with our vulnerable and shared humanity.”

-Dawn Lonsinger

Forché also advised young poets of witness that reading is the most important thing a writer can do. She also said that sometimes, for extremely difficult subjects, giving them space can also help, such as writing in prose as she did in her memoir. “The other advantage of writing in prose is that more people will read it… People are afraid of poems,” she added. “I don’t know why they are afraid. Except that poems are really powerful.”

On the evening of Nov. 11, Forché read several poems from the collection, including “The Boatman,” “The Lightkeeper,” “Exile” and “Morning on the Island.” She also spoke about her friend Daniel Simko who was a librarian at the New York Public Library. Simcoe died unexpectedly in 2004, and his poems were published posthumously. Forché read an unpublished poem called “Translator” that she wrote for Simko who was a translator for Georg Trakl.

One of the Living Writers’ professors Dawn Lonsinger shared, “The Living Writers class and visiting writers series always feels a bit like coming home to me. As the sole poet on a campus, and one of very few creative writers, to be amid other creative writers is enlivening… Meeting and spending time with Carolyn Forché was particularly meaningful to me, as she was one of the first poets whose work I fell in love with when in college at Bucknell University. As a young activist, who was figuring out that my greatest talent was with language, it was heartening to see a pathway to combining the literary and those larger concerns for the betterment of the world, especially for those who were most marginalized or oppressed. Teaching Forché’s poems to my own students felt like passing the torch and reminding young writers that writing needn’t be a narcissistic enterprise… it can, instead, very much have to do with our vulnerable and shared humanity.”

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