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At the AWP literary conference in Minneapolis this past weekend, local poet Carolyn Forché insisted that “there are some experiences from which art cannot hide.” Forché’s four books of poetry, two edited anthologies of “poetry of witness,” articles, and other critical work are a testament to her lyric prowess and passionate commitment to the defense of human rights. She is most known for the body of work she produced in response to her time in El Salvador before and during that country’s bloody civil war. She feels she has no choice but to write about contemporary moral disasters, and the world is better for it.
Forché teaches at Georgetown University and directs the school’s Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice. On Saturday, as a panelist and featured reader at AWP, her hypnotizing reading capped off a full weekend of events. Before the conference, she found time to chat with Arts Desk about political poetry, the influence of D.C on her writing and thinking, and the place of poetry in American society.
Arts Desk: Can you talk a little bit about being labeled a political poet?
When I was first accused of being a political poet back in 1981, there was a strong division in the United States between those who felt that all forms of the arts, including poetry, should be deeply engaged in the world, and those who felt that politics had no business in poetry. My thinking about the poetry of witness was really a response to what I think is a false debate. My work was to try to conceive of a social space in which all publishing is done, all debates held about the issues of having to live in community with other human beings. I really didn’t think of myself as a political poet. I mean, in Central America, if you’re political, you belong to a party and you go to meetings every night. Being political for me meant being officially organized into something. But apparently it means something a bit more amorphous in the United States.
But things have changed. After September 11, American poets seemed to become more open to the possibility of addressing certain concerns in their work, explicitly as well as implicitly. I no longer think that it’s such an anathema to be writing in a politically engaged way as it once was. The United States is still unique in the world in its eagerness to keep poetry apart from all else in human life. I mean, the relationship between poets and politics isn’t really questioned anywhere else.
One of things you’re most known for is messying the categories of “personal” and “political” poems and creating a possible third column of “social.” I wonder if for you, D.C. is a place where those neat categories are especially muddied, where official and street culture are constantly in tension. How does this city inform your writing and thinking?
Well, I’m from Detroit. And Detroit is a very special city and was important in my own formation, partly because of the civil rights movement, which I became interested in as a very young girl. Racial tensions during my high school years had a very profound effect on me and led to further involvement in social justice, human rights, and the antiwar movement during Vietnam.
I first came to Washington, D.C. and lived in Southeast in 1973 for a year. That was a very important time for me—it was my first time out on my own and living alone after college, being away from Michigan, away from the Detroit area. But D.C. felt very familiar to me, very comfortable. Not for what I call “the wedding cake” on Capitol Hill but the community itself. I finally came back to Washington, D.C. in 1989 after teaching and living in various places, including Central America, Lebanon, South Africa (which was then still under apartheid), and Northern Ireland. My journey was very interesting, and a circuitous one, but I think the whole journey began in Detroit and in that first year of adulthood in Washington.
When one is living in close proximity to injustice—which almost anyone anywhere on earth could say they are doing—but when you’re awake and you’re conscious, it can’t help but affect your work as an artist and in all other areas of your life.And Washington is interesting because it is, of course, the seat of institutional politics in the United States, and therefore in many ways the seat of institutional violence. But it’s also a community that is deeply politically involved. There are immigrant communities from all over the world. During the time of my work in Central America, I was very impressed with the activism among the Central American refugees here. There’s also the black community and its continuing struggle for civil rights and civil liberties and struggles for home rule and against taxation without representation. The political struggles here are palpable, apparent, and energized—-and so yes, if you’re living as a poet here, I suppose it’s somewhat different from living as a poet in other places.
Yes, for so many societies, poetry is and was a matter of life and death, important enough to risk imprisonment. It sometimes feels sadly inevitable that poetry won’t occupy that space in this culture.
I understand how isolated the United States is in some respects from the rest of the world: We tend to be monolingual; we tend to consider ourselves the most important country in the world; we tend not to read the literature of other countries; and we tend not to know as much about other countries as they seem to know about us. But I feel a certain kind of patience and understanding for attitudes here.
But I actually think poetry is really alive. It’s alive in American prisons; it’s alive in American schools. I don’t think it’s ever going to be as strong a part of the culture as it is, for example, in Latin America, Greece, or the former Soviet Union. However if you look at [the anthology] Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English, 1500-2001, I think we’re arguing that poetry in English, including poetry in the United States, has never been an isolated enterprise. The poet in the ivory tower is a kind of myth, and English language poets have always been deeply engaged. Many of the poems we imagine as having been written in tranquility and solitude were written in the Tower of London, pending execution of the poet. We have a false image is what I’m saying. I really think poetry is more important that people realize, even in our own culture.
I notice that whenever poetry is written about in the media, it always begins with “no one reads poetry” or “does poetry matter anymore.” They keep saying this and asking this and one begins to wonder, if it doesn’t matter, then why do we keep wondering it if does? The truth is poetry is very powerful, and it affects people who don’t even read it because it affects the world in indiscernible ways. It touches the luminous web of all human interaction even if people don’t walk around with their nose in open poetry books in the street. And not all poetry lives on the page. As anyone who’s paying attention knows, it lives on the stage too. We have slam poets, spoken-word poets, poets performing all over this city. On any given night, you can go to a performance or a reading to packed audiences. Then when I see those headlines I think, “Well there’s an old saw that’s being repeated and reported as true.” We have to break that assumption. It’s an untruth or a half-truth that’s perpetuated as an idea in our culture and it’s a joke.
Another not-truth or half-truth that may be changing is that for Americans is that wars happen elsewhere. I’m thinking of something you’ve previously written, that “the cities bombed are other people’s cities. The houses destroyed are other people’s houses.” When you’re working with young people now, do you feel that this is no longer true?
On September 11, we lost three buildings and there was severe damage to a fourth—-but because the attack happened on our soil, it broke through the illusion that it would never or couldn’t happen here. And that created a sense of vulnerability. That’s one of the reasons in the recent decade or so that poets have been much more politically available on the page, awake if you will. I don’t even like the word “political.” They have an understanding of their commonality with other human beings in the world, more than they perhaps wished to have before or more than what was possible for them before. That attack in New York and in Washington had an effect. The damage was actually quite controlled, but it was the fact that it could happen—and did happen—in the United States and on American soil that really shocked people.
Young people also feel concern for the imperiled environment. People in the United States have been concerned about the environment for decades, but the fact of the vulnerability experienced by every human being is beginning to be registered. My students are very aware of that and have been throughout their lives. There hasn’t been a moment in their lives when the concept of environmentalism began—they were born into it just as they were born as digital natives. They are native speakers of that awareness; they’ve lived with the imperiled earth all their lives. They’re not subject to the draft in our ongoing and continuous wars anymore, of course, but they’re aware of the seemingly eternal nature of those wars. They’re much more aware of racism than previous generations, or the effects of it, or the wrongness of it, the injustice of it. I experience this with my students.
I’d love to hear more about your work at the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice at Georgetown University.
I’ve been the director since 2009, and what’s been very interesting is creating a space for the intersection of the world republic of letters, literary art, and human rights and social justice. It all comes together. Writers engage with activists, journalists, thinkers, public intellectuals, and poets around various issues. It’s the only center I know that focuses on this convergence of literary art and social practice. We all felt that there’s this deep connection—and it’s an evolving connection—between writers’ creative work and their thought and how it intersects with the thought, practice, and activism of others.
Photo by Don J. Usner