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Poets write a particular kind of history. While they might cite dates and names, as normal history books do, what poets record is an essence, their personal and political stories distilled into lines that evoke eras.
Poet Carolyn Forché, known for her own poems about civil war atrocities in El Salvador, spent more than thirteen years collecting work from poets around the world who had endured imprisonment, exile, repression, censorship, war.
In the 816 pages of Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, Forché anthologized more than 140 poets from five continents, spanning history from the Armenian genocide to the massacre in Tiananmen Square. And when it was published in 1993, she coined the term poetry of witness, to denote the method of describing history that poets under extreme conditions developed.
“I was interested in what these experiences had done to the poets’ imaginations and to their language,” Forché explained. “And whether or not, regardless of the subject matter, whether one could feel this suffering and the extremity in the poems.”
The work in this week’s Poetry Moment is a tiny excerpt of a longer poem, “Requiem,” read by Forché, but penned by Anna Akhmatova. Forché remembers being captured by this poem as a student, she says, it is perhaps the reason that her anthology exists.
Akhmatova was a Russian poet and translator who survived the Great Purge and Stalinist terror, more than fifteen years of her books being banned and suppressed, grinding poverty, harassment, and threats from the state police.
While the government restricted her, Akhmatova composed her poem “Requiem.” Subject to constant danger of search and arrest, Akhmatova told the long narrative poem, line by line, to her closest friends to memorize, then burned in an ashtray the scraps of paper on which she had written her poetry.
She conceived of the poem while standing in line with hundreds of other women outside Leningrad’s prison. All carrying baskets of food they hoped to smuggle or bribe their way into their beloved prisoners, the women were waiting, like Akhmatova, to hear news of their families. One day, another woman heard that she was a poet, and asked her to get out the news about their vigil.
Akhmatova began writing. Her son was dragged from home in the middle of the night by state police because Akhmatova and his father, another subversive poet, spoke against the government. His father died in prison. Akhmatova waited outside the Leningrad prison for the seventeen months he was imprisoned there, and then at home when he was sent to a forced-labor camp. For decades she wrote in secret and hoped to see again her son, who after twenty years was eventually released and became a historian and translator.
Akhmatova chose not to emigrate, instead staying in the Soviet Union to act as a witness to the horrors around her. Because of its criticism of the purges, “Requiem” was not published in the USSR until 1987.
The Antioch Review wrote that the poems of Akhmatova, as well as the other poets that Forché collected, provide “irrefutable and copious evidence of the human ability to record, to write, to speak in the face of those atrocities.”
Forché said her anthology takes its impulse from the words of Bertolt Brecht: “In the dark times, will there be singing? /Yes, there will be singing./About the dark times.”
Especially in dark times, poets must sing.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer, The Writing Life
Portrait of Anna Akhmatova by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (The painting is located in the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16605586)
This repression order by the Soviet government condemned those speaking against the government. People placed into Category I were executed by shooting, people placed in Category II were sent to gulag forced-labor camps.
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,
On October 30th at 4 pm, HoCoPoLitSo hosts Carolyn Forche for the Annual Lucille Clifton Reading.
Here is a reflection by Sama Bellomo who is a rehabilitation technologist who writes accessible curricula to help individuals with disabilities gain employable skills on their way into the workforce. Sama has previously contributed to this blog with a letter to HoCoPoLitSo after attending the 2014 Lucille Clifton Reading event with Michael Glaser.
When it is not possible to stop the suffering of others the decent thing to do is listen and bear witness. When we validate someone by hearing and retelling their story we help them carry the heaviest bricks of the human condition to a new space where their suffering can be built into something meaningful.
By devoting years of her life to the protection of human dignity in war-torn places Carolyn Forché gives people’s pain a way to connect, to rest. First she collects the writings of devastated people. She listens, empathizes, and surely cries. Next, she connects the works with those of others who endure similar horrors, breaking their isolation by organizing and cataloguing their grief. Perhaps she reunites neighbours, lovers, or siblings among the pages. Maybe the loneliest are finally in good company. Wars ruin lives – but poets like Forche give that tremendous sense of loss a new purpose, a community, a voice.
I’ve been revisiting my studies of Carolyn Forché, whose book, “Against Forgetting,” has a permanent spot in my living room. I keep it in plain sight so that it’s a ready tool when I need to share an example of ordinary people who do extraordinary things on the worst and last days of their lives. The book is so thick and yet it was pared down from thousands of poems for whose inclusion Forché fought individually. Forché wrote an introduction to every single author, giving their poetry context, finding what the poem needed to say and clearing space for it in the reader’s mind. I flip through it to remind myself to keep ownership of my responsibility to improve the human condition where I can. I use the dog-eared pages to empower budding self-advocates. I harvest the hope and earnestness that Forché writes into each author’s leading biography to play my part in suicide prevention, which I spend a great deal of time doing, with no regrets, and with great thanks to http://www.IMAlive.org for training me to do without fear.
I gratefully tip my hat to Professor Jean Sonntag at Howard Community College who had a profound impact on the way I view myself and the world around me, through the lens of others’ written voices. She supported my investigation into the Japanese Internment further by giving me an Incomplete grade at the end of the semester which gave me time to catch up on the coursework I’d set aside. She was teaching me that I could and should make time to grow as a decent human being when there was something I really needed to understand. Because she taught me that making time was possible I got my first good look at how delicate we are, at how quickly we will treat each other poorly if we are not careful. The work I did to assimilate E.O. 9066 into my prior knowledge of “Great Man History” changed my sense of what it means to be proud of American History. But even then, the most gruesome inhumanities had yet to hit me because there are so few first-hand accounts and even fewer images from the Japanese Internment Camps. First-hand accounts have a unique way of haunting a reader’s conscience about what cruel acts people can commit against each other in deeply evil times, when just yesterday they had been neighbours.
Also at Howard Community College, Professor Lee Hartman first introduced me to Carolyn Forché. In a Creative Writing class Professor Hartman played a video where Forché spoke with HoCoPoLitSo. Forché told me in that recording what it was going to take for me to become a force to ease human suffering: I would have to listen, and it was going to hurt.
Of course I’d known what the Holocaust was, and of course I was sorry about it – for as sorry as a then-twenty-something could be about what public high school had said about it. Forché told me through her talk that I knew too little and could not be sorry if I did not truly know how the Holocaust had undone an entire people.
Fanni Radnoti published “The Borscht Notebook,” a posthumous final volume of her late husband, the Hungarian poet and writer Miklos Radnoti. To get the book she had sifted through a mass grave, through more than twenty bodies’ worth of human remains. Hoping and dreading that one of those bodies belonged to her beloved, whom she had not seen in more than two years since they had been separated by the Nazis, she found him. The book was in his pocket. Forché dutifully told these details to my Creative Writing class through her video recording session with HoCoPoLitSo and I was no longer just sorry. Sorry was no longer enough, and it never will be again.
My two neighbours at the time had been Holocaust survivors from Poland, who had been devoting their lives to recovering artifacts and human remains for proper burial, remains that had been turned into decorations such as tattooed skin lampshades and shrunken, sand-packed heads. After I saw Forché speak in that video I knocked on my neighbours’ door and asked them humbly about their experiences. They spent the next six hours showing me what they had recovered, articles and letters they had written, denials they had gotten from museums and private collections for items that had no hallowed ground.
It puts a strain on their marriage. They lose sleep. Their basement is a fully devoted workshop of recovery. They write home. They live modestly. They carry themselves happily despite the torture that continues in their histories, in their daily life. I was able to provide some technical support, a modest kindness to help their heroic efforts. We have lost touch but not a day passes that they are not in my heart, a part of who I am now, determined to help with activism, closure, and rehabilitation, using any skills I have.
As a member of the LGBTQ. community I am still trying to assimilate the confusing and overwhelming truth that I myself would not have survived the Holocaust, nor would much of my community, had I lived in Eastern Europe, where part of my family is from the former Yugoslavia. Forché’s works brought up the question in me: what do I have yet to learn about LGBTQ history, what should I be against forgetting? I have grown to raise awareness of genocide and to resist cultural eliminativism, be the acts overt or covert.
Knowing better leaves no excuse for not doing better, and then-twenty-something me was learning that in my college years. Somewhere in the world starvation, murder, and torture have happened today. They happened yesterday. They have happened since time immemorial. They have never happened to me, and they likely never will. That means I am in a position to do something about it. Knowing better leaves no excuse for not doing better: what can I do for my part to move the world forward?
Forché is featured in “Voices in Wartime,” another anthology volume that portrays exactly what one would imagine it does. A video documentary bearing the same title accompanies the book on my shelf and bears witness to the fact that Forché is not alone in her work. There are others concerned with trying to put words on the unspeakable, to educate, an appeal for peace, a chorus of humanitarian voices.
Regretfully, I’ve read comparatively little of Forché’s own poetry. Am I worried about what else she is going to teach me? Am I afraid my own conscience will become too heavy a boulder, that I won’t have the strength or won’t summon the will, to push it up the mountain? Am I afraid she will have a lighter side, and I’ll then have to find my own ways to lighten up?
Forché is so big a force in my life that it is not possible to count all the places in which her efforts have propped me up when I have stood up for myself or others, and my legs wobbled. Lest we forget, Carolyn Forché chronicles what we need to know about human suffering if we truly wish to end it.
To reserve your ticket for the Lucille Clifton Reading to hear Carolyn Forche and her Poetry of Witness at Monteabaro Hall at Howard Community College, please visit: http://brownpapertickets.com/event/2568971
I have a lot of HoCoPoLitSo memories. They start from way back when I was in high school and I had no idea the organization existed or what it did. All I remember was that I was on a field trip that left me wanting to be Derek Walcott once I grew up. Though a favorite HoCoPoLitSo memory, that is another story. Today I want to share a few moments of writers coming to see writers and what an honor it is to be in the midst of such occasion.
Many stories start with Irish Evening for HoCoPoLitSo. It is a landmark event. I think my awareness of other writers coming to HoCoPoLitSo events to see our headliner started one such evening. Maybe it was the Guinness, but more probably it was Colm Tóibín that brought Colum McCann down to our neck of the woods from his Manhattan apartment for the 21st annual Irish Evening. At that point in the now world famous career of Tóibín, it was a rare thing to him to this side of the Atlantic. McCann took advantage and a train to visit Columbia a year after he himself had read for Irish Evening.
I remember little of the reading that night. I seldom remember Irish Evenings and that is not for the drinking that often followed. They are labor intensive occasions to produce and I tend to be tending to that aspect. Tóibín’s voice is still in my head and bits of The Heather Blazing from that reading; I did catch some of it. What I do remember is that there were a handful of folks, me lucky enough to be among them, that headed off into the night with a number of bottles to listen to Colm and Colum talk about writing once the event was done and packed away. What an honor.
Quite recently, Colum McCann, now many books into his fame, came to another Irish Evening to read from Transatlantic, just about to be published. It was his first reading of the work to an audience and a fascinating occasion as he caught a sentence he hadn’t right and promised us he would go back to the galleys to correct it. An honest moment in the creative process.
I spotted a number of Howard County writers in attendance that evening. They were joined by none other than Alice McDermott and, I am told, George Pelicanos. The two had come from Baltimore and Washington, respectively, to take in one of the masters of prose in suburban Columbia. If we are dropping names here, I’ll add that the Governor came from Annapolis and even joined in to play with the band. After the evening at the green room party, McCann himself joined in the singing of songs.
Perhaps my favorite coming together of writers to see a particularly treasured writer was for the poet Stanley Kunitz in 1993. We all knew Mr. Kunitz was old old, 88, and that this would be the last opportunity we would have to see him. In a space that no longer exists as a venue for readings – the lower Nursing Lounge on the campus of Howard Community College – Kunitz read to a standing room only crowd that adored each and every syllable. The audience well knew his work and you could tell that he could tell: he put on a commanding performance.
I remember crowded in that room with us were Carolyn Forché and Gregory Orr who had come up from the University of Virginia for the occasion. Afterwards at a reception, all whispered to each other in awe and confirmed how lucky we were to have shared this intimate occasion with the great Stanley Kunitz. I went on to hear him read a number of times since that occasion: our collective luck grew as he lived to be 100.
Why do writers come to see other writers? For the occasion of Kunitz, it was likely reverence and the notion of ‘this might be the last time’ and one not to miss. On other occasions, it is probably more outright a taking in of craft, an opportunity to learn and admire. I know I go see other writers to learn and affirm what common language can do in the hands of masters. Thank you for that, HoCoPoLitSo.
Co-chair, HoCoPoLitSo Board
Have a favorite HoCoPoLitSo memory? HoCoPoLitSo is currently celebrating its 4oth season and would love to hear from you. Visit the Share Your Memory page and share a favorite story or two with us. As we collect favorite memories, we’ll share them in a future blog posts.