When poetry lovers attended a Carolyn Forché reading Oct. 30, they probably expected gorgeous wordplay. But beyond the language, the world’s troubles — even those we didn’t know about — were laid bare.
Should we expect any less from the writer who coined the phrase “poetry of witness”?
At HoCoPoLitSo’s most recent event in the annual fall Lucille Clifton Reading Series, Forché gave HoCoPoLitSo audiences an exclusive — a reading from her yet-unpublished manuscript, In the Lateness of the World.
The whole world crept into the theater on the coattails of her words: the refugees fleeing Syria in flimsy rubber boats and her grandmother’s crossing of the Atlantic to reach Ellis Island, the siege of Sarajevo and the resistance of the Russian poet Pushkin.
Despite being thick into recovery from pneumonia, Forché delivered a forceful reading of her work, and answered questions for half an hour after the reading with the audience about how she helps translate poetry from Vietnamese, Bulgarian and Arabic, the tradition of oral poetry and human rights around the world. Even in the questions from the audience, in which one poetry lover talked about the thousands of annual deaths along the Rio Grande, the world’s woes were evident.
Author of two collections of poetry of witness, including the seminal Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (1993) and the more recent Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English, 1500 to 2001 (2014), Forché has always been both a human rights advocate and a poet.
During the afternoon’s taping of HoCoPoLitSo’s The Writing Life, a thirty-minute writer-to-writer talk show hosted by Grace Cavalieri (also the host of the Library of Congress’ The Poet and the Poem: https://www.loc.gov/poetry/media/poetpoem.html), Forché talked about her beginnings, and about “my poet’s responsibility.”
She talked with Cavalieri about winning a Guggenheim, meeting someone in California who talked with her about El Salvador, and about voyaging to Central America to find out what was happening. Turns out, it was death squads, the military dictatorship’s brutality and an impending revolution. She began writing to Amnesty International, and putting poems on paper. Those experiences gave rise to her book The Country between Us (1981), which became that rarest of birds, a poetry bestseller.
At the tail end of the question session after her reading, a student asked, “What would you tell young poets of witness?”
“Stay open, stay awake,” Forché said, and don’t think you have to travel the world to find trouble. There’s plenty here at home. “Enlarge your capacity for empathy.”
“Poetry,” she told Cavalieri during The Writing Life taping, is “the natural prayer of the human soul,” and can work to heal the world.
— Susan Thornton Hobby,