6th Annual Literary Festival
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The Mace & Crown, Monday, October 10, 1983

Carolyn Forche's poetry is an act of art

Leigh West Abraham

Carolyn Forche gave an address on "political poetry" as one of the events of this years Literary Festival. She discussd the term political poetry in view of her experiences in El Salvador and from her book, "The Country Between Us," which won the Lamont Poetry Selection in 1981. In 1977, Forche met a woman poet exiled from El Salvador, and translated some of her poetry. One of this woman's nephews went to Forche, explained the history, culture and turmoil in El Salvador, and asked her if she would like to go to El Salvador to understand and report to Americans, the United States' involvement there. She agreed to go, more as a journalist than a poet, and spent two years in El Salvador from 1977 to 1979. Many of the poems in "The Country Between Us" concern her experiences in El Salvador. Many people have described these poems as "political." Forche suggested that these poems are probably said to be "political" because, she said, "the poems, somehow, in their subject matter, where they were about something, a region of the world, are associated in our minds with political turmoil." She added, "I also found out that the word political, when affixed to poetry, is often used pejoratively; that is, as an adjective taking something from what poetry should be, which is something called pure art." Forche went on to describe what makes a good political poem and what makes a bad one. "I must tell you," she said, "that I believe that all language is 'political,' with a small, lower case 'p.' That is to say, all language can be analyzed in terms of the sensibility which produced it, the historical time which produced it, perhaps in the register of language and the diction, the education level of the person who produced it, what they had access to as a child, and how they view the world. You can analyze things in a soft political sense, in a broad political sense." "So what is this creature,the Political Poem?" she asked, She said that many people say they don't like political poems because they sound like "manifestos and political commands." "So what is the dif ference," she exclaimed, "between the process of writing a poem which has a political subject and writing a poem which is political" in a pejorative sense in that it is not really a poem at all, but something else." Forche declared that this difference has something to do with the writer's intention. "What I came to personally, is that, if you meet the page as an artist, you are meeting the page somewhat openly; you are saying, I'm not clear what I want to say. I am in the process of literary discovery. I am relying upon my imagination and all the associative powers of language, memory, and consciousness, and I'm not sure yet where this is going because every act of making art is an act of discovery. And if you come to the page with an intention to do something else, a hidden agenda to betray or to glorify or to decry, and if you come to the page with too narrow and emotional rage, too hardened and singular and emotional response to your subject, you have restricted the rich ambiguties and complexities of human experience." She added that in writing, if one has such a degree of conscious intention "you have cut off your imagination. One must know. One must not be sure." Forche also approached the question of how to write about "some event that moves you." First of all, she said, "you have your experience and you have your imagination. You have acquired whatever experience you have in a zone like this, purposefully or not. And then you have how you can imaginatively enter into that, what connection you can find between that and your own life, how you can make that connection so that connection will be made to the reader." She also declared that one does not go to a place like El Salvador in order to write about it, anymore than one gets a divorce in order to have written poems about the disillusionment of a marriage. So the idea of going somewhere in order to write about it is out. "So what about that way in?" Forche described that the way to do this is to "render the experience accessible" by giving the reader "a way in, a way of dealing with it, a way of understanding it..." These devices, evident in "The Colonel," are what Forche believes makes that poem the one she is most asked to read for people. The poem describes a "dinner party" she attended at a Colonel's home in El Salvador. Forche brings the reader into the horror of seeing a bag full of "human ears" pour onto a table by citing familiarities such as, "daily papers, pet dogs, television," and a "parrot" saying "hello on the terrace" that the reader can relate to. The presentation ended with a brief question and answer period.
Carolyn Forche speaks on political poetry at the Literary Festival