By Myra Saturen
April 10, 2014
As a young woman, Carolyn Forché stood at a crossroads: she had just received a Guggenheim Fellowship to write. Where should she go? Friends suggested poetry-evoking places like Paris or New England. Believing that poets can have a political impact, she chose El Salvador, a country on the verge of a civil war, a place already marked by disappearances and death squads. There she documented human rights abuses for Amnesty International. One night, she had dinner with Monseigneur Oscar Romero, a Catholic bishop and human rights champion; he was assassinated the following week. Since then, she has woven together her empathy for oppressed people and her sensitivity to language.
Forché read from her work at Northampton Community College's (NCC) annual Len Roberts Poetry Day, on April 10 at the Main and Monroe campuses.
Her poetry is mostly based on her travels as a witness to trauma all over the world. In the documentary prose-poem The Colonel, shattering images capture the grotesque violence of late 1970s pre-war El Salvador. In Letter to a City Under Siege, "bullet-proof vests out of cardboard" capture the helplessness of children in Sarajevo during the Serbia-Bosnian war. Over many years, her work has brought her to South Africa, Ireland, the Ukraine, and other lands.
Forché attributes her love for language to her Czech grandmother. Multilingual, but not entirely fluent in English, Forché's grandmother mingled words from different tongues to create new ones. This improvisation made the poet pay attention to language at an early age. "My grandmother is in everything I write," she says.
Her willingness to go outside comfortable spheres has opened paths to Forché. "On a given day, you never know what decision, that seems small, is especially significant," she told her audience. "Fill your rucksack. Something small will happen, but it will change your life, although you may not know it at the time. Pay attention and remember everything going on."
Forché's books of poetry include Blue Hour, the Angel of History, The Country Between Us, and Gathering the Tribes. Her work has received numerous awards. She is also the editor of Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness and the co-editor of Poetry of Witness: the Tradition in English 1500-2001.
In addition to the Guggenheim Fellowship, Forché honors include fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2013, she received the Academy of American Poets Fellowship, given for distinguished poetic achievement. She has also been awarded the Hiroshima Foundation for Peace and Culture Award.
Forché is the director of the Lannan Center for Poetry and Poetics and holds the Lannan Chair at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
A Detroit native from a working-class family of seven children, she earned a bachelor's degree from Michigan State University and a master's in fine arts from Bowling Green State University. NCC's annual poetry day is held in memory of Len Roberts, the poet and NCC professor who started a yearly poetry day more than thirty years ago. Among the early artists he brought to campus was a gifted young poet from the Midwest- Carolyn Forché.
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