12th Annual Literary Festival
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Carolyn Forche speaks at Lit Festival
By Andrea Wiggins
Staff Writer

It was a cold and snowy Michigan morning when nine year old Carolyn first began to write poetry. After Carolyn whined about being bored, her mother suggested that she write a poem. Naturally, Carolyn wrote about snow.

The little girl grew up to be Carloyn Forche, the prize winning poet and guest lecturer at Old Dominion University's Twelfth Annual Literary Festival.

The poetry writing, that originally began as a cure for boredom, eventually led to a college scholarship and numerous awards. Among them, in 1975 Forche was awarded the Yale Younger Poets Award for her first book entitled Gathering the Tribes. Another book, called The Country Between Us, won the Lamont Poetry Award from the Academy of American Poets.

According to Forche, winning the Yale Younger Poets Award was "something like being Junior Miss. for a year. All of a sudden, I was a poet." And just as suddenly, at twenty four, Forche found herself in a dry spell and stopped writing. She became a freshman English teacher at San Diego State in California. There, she was encouraged by a friend to translate the word of exiled Salvadoran poet Claribel Alegria.

Forche got a Spanish dictionary and attempted to translate the book, but she did not understand the poems Alegria wrote concerning life under military dictatorships and torture. Forche could not tell when Alegria was being literal or figurative, so she visited Latin America and met the poet herself. The final translation was entitled Flowers from the Volcano.

Carolyn Forche speaks on stage at the Literary Festival

Later, at the urging of Alegria's nephew, Forche went to El Salvador on January 4, 1978. He wanted her to explain the conditions of El Salvador to the people of America. He felt a poet would be able to see things in far greater detail than a journalist, so he enlisted Forsche's help. By her seventeeth day in the country, Forche noticed a considerable deterioration in the Human Rights aspect. As a result,she became a contact person for Amnesty International. Her experiences in this country became the focus of her book, El Salvador: Work of Thirty Photographers.

By March 16, 1980, Forche made her last trip out of El Salvador. And, she was writing poetry again. However, Forche was having a hard time getting her book published for political reasons. She kept the books for eighteen months before it was published.

After publication, El Salvador: Work of Thirty Photographers became a controversial book. "People feel threatened by things that have a social or political context. It might force them to live, think, and act differently," explained Forche.

But Forche's poetry had not always had political and social contexts. She also wrote about nature, girlfriends, backpacking, men going to Vietnam, her grandmother Ana, and her wordly travels.

For example, in 1983 and 1984, Forche traveled to Japan and her new published poetry is based on her experience there. She focussed on Hiroshima, uprisings, and life and death in concentration camps and its survivors. Her upcoming novel is entitled The Angel of History.

For now, Forche's world traveling has come to an end. Now a teacher at George Mason University, she feels it is important to spend time with her son. My husband and I have decided that it as long as our child needs us, we won't go back into war zones. Besides, there is plenty of work to keep us busy here in the United States."

Forche believes that poetry should serve as voice. However, when asked if she was going to write a poem about drugs, she responded, "Never plan poetry. Poetry is discovery. Don't decide beforehand what to write. If you decide ahead of time, write an essay. A poem is supposed to make a discovery and allow the reader to make one also."

Finally, Forche added advice for aspiring writers. "If you want to be a good poet, you have to educate yourself; self education is important. Learning and understanding that you can be educated by other people, even those less priviledged, is important to know also."