Carolyn Forche shares her poetry at Saint Leo 

Poet and human rights advocate Carolyn Forche learned a lot about life and language from her paternal grandmother, Anna, an immigrant from the former Czechoslovakia.

Her grandmother spoke five languages, said Forche, but her English was inventive. She described a colander as “macaroni stop water go head.”

Forche paid attention.

“I thought, ‘Oh, you can play with language, make things up.’ It helped with my writing,” she said.

The poet was a scribe at an early age, composing her first poem at age 9.

She didn’t write her first serious poem until she was 20.

Her grandmother and relationships among family and friends often are reflected in her poetry.

Poet Carolyn Forche read her poetry to a crowd of about 100 people at Saint Leo University. She shared both new and old works. (Courtesy of Jonathan Shoemaker/Saint Leo University)

Poet Carolyn Forche read her poetry to a crowd of about 100 people at Saint Leo University. She shared both new and old works.
(Courtesy of Jonathan Shoemaker/Saint Leo University)

But, it was a second book of poems, drawing on her experiences in war-torn El Salvador in the 1980s, that first brought her renown.

“The Country Between Us” became a national bestseller, a rare occurrence for a book of poetry.

During her long career, Forche has garnered acclaim as a poet, a translator and a human rights advocate.

She gave a reading from her works on Jan. 21 for about 100 people at the Student Community Center at Saint Leo University. The university’s Daniel A. Cannon Memorial Library sponsored the event.

Forche currently is working on a new book of poetry, and a memoir about her personal experiences in El Salvador, Lebanon, South Africa and France.

Some of her poems are about witnesses or victims of the brutality suffered during wars, torture and imprisonment.

In her poem, “The Colonel,” she describes an encounter with a Salvadoran colonel who angrily dumps a bag of severed human ears onto a table – his trophies from people put to death during the civil war that began in the late 1970s.

Forche dedicated that poem to Oscar Romero, the Catholic priest who was assassinated during the Salvadoran civil war.

One week before his death, he helped Forche get safely out of the country.

Forche had gone there on a Guggenheim fellowship, as an observer for Amnesty International. She helped in efforts to find out what happened to people who had “disappeared” or who were imprisoned.

Some observers, she said, would go to “body dumps” to match faces of the dead with photos.

She recounted her visit to try and map the interior of a prison by visiting a prisoner she pretended to know.

She has been called at times a political poet, but Forche doesn’t accept that label.

Instead, she describes what she writes as a “poetry of witness,” regardless of whether the subject is political or not.

Her themes are personal ones reflecting on how events, memories or relationships shape and give context to how people live.

“I’ve never been a political person. I’ve never been in a political organization,” she said. “I think artists and writers tend to be too weird for political organizations.”

Responding to a question about how to make the world better, Forche said people can learn a skill that people need.

Doctors without Borders, for example, might need a dental hygienist.

Volunteer service in the community can help, too.

“Get a project,” she said. “Look at a small problem and solve it.”

Marketing student Amanda Topper, 19, asked about Forche’s creative process.

Forche said the creative process isn’t easy to define. She does keep a moleskin notebook handy. “I’m writing in it all the time.”

Inspiration can’t be forced, she said, noting she doesn’t choose a subject and then start writing.

“If you overthink it, you can screw up your inspiration,” she said. “But, you do have to sit down and work, even if you aren’t inspired,” Forche said.

The poet said she does at least 20 minutes a day of free writing.

While she read her poems with assurance, Forche said reading for an audience took practice.

“I’ve always been terrified of standing up and giving poetry readings,” she said. “I was a shy kid. I learned to do this. It wasn’t natural to me.”

Her poetry books include “The Angel of History,” “The Country Between Us” and “The Blue Hour.”

She also edited two anthologies, “Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness” and “Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English, 1500-2001.”

Her translations include the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s “Unfortunately, It Was Paradise: Selected Poems,” and Central American poet Claribel Alegria’s “Flowers from the Volcano.”

She currently is director of the Lannan Center for Poetry and Social Practice at Georgetown University.

Published January 27, 2016

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