Photo by Harry Mattison.
What We Can Do: An Interview with Carolyn Forché
by Lee Rossi
ALTHOUGH CAROLYN FORCHÉ has been writing poetry since the 1970s, she is as well known as a political activist and advocate for human rights. Her new book, What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance, an account of her experiences in El Salvador during the early 1980s, reflects that perspective, and was named a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award. Her first book, Gathering the Tribes, won the Yale Younger Poets prize, but her second book, The Country Between Us, which included poems about her experiences in El Salvador, made her famous outside the poetry world, igniting a storm of controversy. Celebrated on the left for unveiling U.S. government involvement in right-wing atrocities in Central America, she was accused by poets of abandoning poetry and by conservatives of making it all up. In fact, everything she had written was true. During that time she was placed on a secret government watchlist. Stung by the intensely personal criticism, she determined to re-invigorate the poetic tradition of political protest.
One fruit of that effort was her anthology Against Forgetting, a collection from over thirty languages of poems "written in extremity," usually political extremity. The other was her third book of poems, The Angel of History, a series of meditations on war and other forms of social and political violence. In addition to teaching, she worked as a campaigner for human rights in places like Lebanon and South Africa. More recently, she assembled another anthology, Poetry of Witness, poems of extremity written in English over the last five-hundred years. In 2003 she published Blue Hour, a meditation on the birth of her son and the world into which he was born. And her new collection of poems, In the Lateness of the World, was just published in March 2020. The former Director of the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice, and currently Professor of English at Georgetown University, she has won many awards and honors.
This interview was conducted on March 26, 2019, by Lee Rossi at Poetry Flash, Berkeley, California. The conversation focused on What You Have Heard is True.
Lee Rossi:Thank you for agreeing to speak with me. It's such a privilege to meet you. You've given the world not just your poetry but also an immense amount of important service in the areas of human rights and social justice.
I also want to say how much I enjoyed your new book. It's an exciting book: entertaining, informative—I learned a lot about agriculture—thoughtful, frightening, and ultimately liberating. It's about the growth of a spirit, a consciousness. Parts of it are very touching. I actually cried in spots, for instance when you describe your final interview with Archbishop Romero.
Here's my first question: roughly two-thirds of the way through the book, Leonel Gomez Vides, your guide in El Salvador, tells you that the reason he brought you to his country is for you to learn something about your own country, the United States. What do you think you learned about the U.S. from your experience in El Salvador?
Carolyn Forche: Oh my, it would be difficult to sum that up succinctly. First of all, I became fully aware of the extent of our complicity in crimes against humanity that were perpetrated by dictatorial military regimes throughout the Western Hemisphere, throughout South America and Central America—how deep that was, how extensive and pervasive, and how long that had been going on. So I had to come to terms with what my government was and who we were. And also I had to come to terms with my own formation and the gaps in my awareness. It's not so much a gap—I had no awareness. I had to learn that about myself, and I learned that we have been encouraged to consider ourselves individually powerless. And we are not. But it's very convenient for a repressive system to have a citizenry that believes that there's not very much they can do.
I also had to come to terms with the fact that I had not learned to notice things. I had not learned to interrogate the world around me. I was drifting in a dream-like state. It might have been because I was a poet. I daydreamed a lot. I took the world in in a sensory way, and I saw things in terms of their appearances. So if something looked beautiful or graceful or lovely, I never looked deeper to know why it was that way and what was going on below the surface. My formation did not include probative questioning of my environment. I was lulled into a kind of complacency, so I had to learn not only how to look at the world and how to think differently and be differently. It never occurred to me, before I worked with Leonel, that there were these vast chasms in my thought. I didn't know they were there. It's not simply a question of ideological formation or gaps in our schooling and our knowledge of history, it was also a way of looking at the world.
When I listen to people of color talk about white privilege, they are describing a version of this thing I'm talking about. When they talk about white people and how white people behave, and the obliviousness of white people to the conditions that other people have to endure, that is the closest thing which is common in the United States to what I am trying to describe. Leonel wanted to show me the world, but he also wanted to study me. He wanted to know whether it were possible to change how a North American, a U.S. citizen thinks.
LR: You were his test case.
CF: Sort of. He told me once, "You know, Ho Chi Minh studied the French. Ho went to France and he studied the enemy. And in a similar way, I am studying U.S. Americans." It wasn't quite as clinical as that—at least not with his American friends—but he was curious about what it would take for a U.S. American to empathize with others who were not U.S. Americans. What would it take for them to see the conditions under which people were living and to question it? What would it take for them to begin to perceive their own government and its institutions differently.
LR: You've just described this process of loss of innocence, especially political and institutional innocence. We've all met Americans who go to a place like Central America and say, "I'm just a tourist. I'm here on vacation." and then proceed to screen out everything that's unpleasant or systemic. You've been doing human rights work for a long time. What do you think it's going to take for Americans to shed their ignorance about conditions in places like El Salvador, places where so much of the suffering is the direct result of American foreign policy?
CF: I don't know why this is true—it's not impossible, but it is very difficult. It's not common for U.S. citizens to regard the people of other countries as the same as themselves, as equal to themselves, as people who bear suffering as they bear suffering. We're encouraged to see ourselves as apart from others, encouraged to see our country as somehow special or unique in the world. Our leaders provide the explanation for us: we're a country of immigrants; we came from all over the world; we're a nation based on the ideals of our founding documents; we're unlike any other country. But what we really are is we're a settler country. We're a settler country, and we depopulated this land in order to take possession of it, so the founding genocide is not really acknowledged as a genocide.
That's the first thing, and the second thing we don't acknowledge is that the wealth of our nation was amassed in slavery and through control of ninety percent of the world's cotton trade during the nineteenth century. And that ninety percent control was achieved by the exploitation of African slave labor. What we think of when we think of slavery—we think of plantations, cruel masters—something that's now over with. And sometimes we Northerners like to imagine ourselves as heroically having fought against this horrible institution of slavery and prevailing, and now it's over. Well, slavery was not a matter of a lot of little plantations. It was an industrial, institutionalized, utter and complete exploitation of one human being by another, but on a massive scale. So that allowed the United States to accrue the wealth that enabled the U.S. to be a rising world power by the turn of the twentieth century. It's not that we're not taught it, but the way we're taught it does not allow us to acknowledge the profundity of its effects on our country and our lives and our society.
We also like to imagine that the past is in the past. And we don't like to acknowledge that we're still living in the aftermath of those events. So for Americans to shed their ignorance about themselves and the rest of the world—the quick way is by enduring something themselves. I think some Americans were affected by the 9/11 attacks. At least their world was a bit shattered. The people that actually lost people there, that's another matter. But the ones that were at some remove from it but were nevertheless affected: "it's an attack on our country." Well, that was unthinkable before. Their sense of reality and stability and safety was shaken, and we reacted very badly to that. Now by 'we' I don't mean individuals who went out and tried to learn something about Islam. The institutions of our State did probably the exact opposite of what they should have done. And so we've been living with that ever since.
So the short answer is that humans learn best by their own experience. The other answer is, we may not have time for that. U.S. Americans must give up a certain sense of themselves, and understand that they are one among many nations and that they are vulnerable human beings, especially now with the escalating degradation of the environment. Planetary survival is at stake. We have to understand that we are the country that's using the most resources and we are responsible for the most environmental damage. I don't have any answers about what is going to motivate or inspire North Americans, but I have a lot of faith in this new generation, the young people who are in high school and college, and even younger, because they are animated by concerns and a seriousness of purpose that I haven't seen in some decades. I'm very impressed with them.
LR: Not since our generation, the generation of the sixties.
CF: Not since our generation, but they're better than we were. For one thing they don't have the freedoms we had, to indulge ourselves in certain ways. And there's more urgency. The urgency was there then, but we didn't perceive it. But they perceive it, and they understand what has to be done. This isn't a costume ball for them.
LR: This is the end of the world.
CF: This is the end of the world. It's much graver, and they are willing to make sacrifices, these young people. And I see it not only in the United States, but all over the world. There's something about this rising generation that's very inspirational for me.
The other thing that I'm inspired by is the vast network of Americans, U.S. Americans, who have been willing to work quietly to subvert projects such as massive detention. People are quietly working against the more evil tendencies of our current regime. I know that that's happening, and to the extent that it's happening, it's very heartening. I used a quote at the beginning of my new book by the great Salvadoran novelist Manlio Argueta. Because I write about fairly bleak things, sometimes I'm asked about hope. People want to know, what do you base your hope on? Do you have any hope? Hope is not optimism. Some people think hope should have an optimistic effect. But listen to Argueta: "Hope also nourishes us. Not the hope of fools. The other kind. Hope, when everything is clear. Awareness." What you can find hope in is the fact that you're not being deceived anymore. You can see the moment you're in, and see it fully. That's what Leonel taught to me, and not only to me. But for me it was a very special education.
LR: You can't buy an education like that.
CF: Of course, I had no idea what I was getting into. [laughter] I promised him years ago—the only thing he asked of me ever, the only thing Monseñor Romero asked, was to write about this. Not even right away. Just write about this some day. Leonel said: "I'm not going to tell you what to write, I don't have anything in mind here; I just think that what you went through and what you saw has to be preserved."
LR: Let me interject briefly. It seems to me that the problems you identified in the book, which were the problems forty-plus years ago, have not gone away. We have the same kind of people in our current regime that we had back then in the State Department, the CIA and USAID. It's a multigenerational struggle to overcome that domination by the U.S. of the rest of the world.
CF: For example, there's an inverse relation between decision-making authority [in the U.S. government] and knowledge of the region. So in American foreign policy the people who know the least and are not on the ground are the ones making the decisions. And they're dismissive of or hostile to the knowledge that gets transmitted to them from people who actually do know what they're talking about. Anyone who works in any kind of bureaucracy knows how this functions, but I'm saying it also functions in foreign policy. So that's one thing, and another thing is that there are good people working throughout the system as individuals, but they're not making policy. A lot of it is lazy thinking. Or very narrow thinking. Well, we want to control this or that resource, or this or that shipping lane, or this or that…so whatever it takes, that's what we're going to do. So if the guys we enlist in this operation of control abuse their power, we think that's not our problem.
Well, it is our problem. The problem is that we think narrowly, we think lazily. And even progressives like us, it becomes pretty easy to blame this or that institution or this or that agency. But really it's much deeper and more pervasive than that. We have to change our thinking altogether. It's very interesting to me, that process.
And the other thing that we have to stop doing is to stop saying there's nothing we can do.
LR: Because we have an ethical responsibility to do something.
CF: Yes, of course. But we also have infinite capacity to do something. The question we have to ask ourselves is what are we willing to do. It's not what we "can." What are we choosing in our daily lives, moment to moment.
LR: That raises a whole hornet's nest of interesting issues. For example, before I came here today I bought a cup of coffee. I had no idea where that coffee came from or the conditions under which is was produced or the conditions of the people who planted and harvested that coffee. We're insulated by our institutions and our economy from the information we need to make responsible decisions.
CF: Our clothing, our food. Everything in our lives. That's the larger problem. When I first started writing this book, I was sort of writing a prose memoir. It took me a long time to realize that I had to focus on that period of my life, not the whole life.
LR: Let me ask about the process of writing the book. The book you've written is very contained and focused. It covers, what, a three- or four-year period?
CF: Yes, with a few flash forwards and flashbacks.
LR: But you spent fifteen years writing it! What was the process like during that period? Where did you start, and how did you get to where you are today?
CF: For the first twenty-three years after this period I didn't write this story at all. Perhaps half of that time it was because of the war and the fact that the people in this book were in the midst of the war. So it couldn't be written then. There were too many things about what some of these people were doing that I didn't want to reveal during the war. That was one aspect. The other aspect, of course, was that I wasn't ready, I wasn't mature enough, I didn't have a good enough perspective on myself or what had happened. I needed time.
I realize now that I was very traumatized for the first few years. El Salvador is not something I understood or acknowledged then, because we like to think, Oh no, I'm fine. I'm here, I'm alive. I can't talk about anything that happened to me, because look at all the people that disappeared or died—that's what we should be talking about. I repressed all that. There were other reasons for the delays, but when I finally started writing, it was 2003. Besides, I'd never written a prose book before. I'm a poet.
Number one, a prose book requires something other than what poetry requires. It requires that you're with it, that you're in it, that you live that book all the time. You can't write a prose book by fits and starts. You have to have the whole of it in your mind. And you have to be aware of what you've already written and what you've already referred to. There are a lot of simple things like that. So it took me a long time. I wrote three other versions and cast them off. They're gone. And finally I found what I needed to write, and then it was like going into a tunnel you couldn't go backwards in. You had to go forwards, only forwards. It was almost like the earth was collapsing behind you. It was dark. I didn't know where I was going. I not only had to write this book, but as I was writing it, I had to re-live it. And that got very hard. But there was no way out but through. I had to do it. If I was going to write this book, that was what I had to do. Fortunately my memory of those particular years was very vivid. Very vivid. Other years, not so much. I have years that collapse into themselves, so there's nothing left. With these it's almost photographic.
There's lots of dialogue in this book, and they are replications of actual dialogue that I vividly remember. I checked them with some people: "I said, what do you think, is that what we said?" And they were kind of surprised.
LR: From my experience of memoir writing, that sounds very unusual, that you have such a clear memory, especially of dialogue.
CF: I was writing about something that was burned into me. Also, I had notebooks, and I had boxes of ephemera and paraphernalia and clippings. But what I really had was my mind, and I was writing the portrait of the memory of it. I had to find a way of altering the language so that those mental states that one enters under extremity could be experienced by the reader. So I made an early decision that the reader would never know more than I knew at the time. I wouldn't flash forward and let the reader in on something. I wanted to know if someone reading this could come with me through that experience and what it would be like at the end. And that would be the most valuable thing, if say a young person, who wants to do some good in the world and doesn't know what that's like and what it means, is able to come with me and get the education that Leonel gave to me at the time, but on the page.
I also had to figure out what I had to leave out. I had to leave out a lot. You can't put every single thing that happened, even in that three-year period. So some things had to be left out. Sadly, there wasn't room. And finally, when I finished it, I still had to cut ten thousand words because it was just too long. I did that with the help of a brilliant editor I had at Penguin Press, Christopher Richards. He found the places where I could cut and it wouldn't hurt, it wouldn't show. So I was writing, writing, writing. But I'm a poet, so what do poets like to do, we like to polish language. We like to tumble it like a rock. We want everything to be perfect. The diction. Everything. Nothing extraneous. That slowed me down a lot. That's just the way poets are. It's how we handle language.
The problem was also not to be poetic, most of the time, and to write cleanly and sparely and with reticence. There are scenes in here that are really harrowing, sometimes pretty scary. Chekhov says, "Be cold." So when you're writing about really intense things, you need to be very reticent and very sparing with emotion. I tried to be as spare, bare, and stark as I could.
Of course, I indulged myself when I'm talking about the terrain, the weather. Then I could be poetically effusive.
LR: Did you see the review that came out in The Atlantic a couple of days ago?
CF: It has a couple of errors in it which I'm concerned about. I was happy to see it. But I never worked for the Human Rights Office at the Catholic University. I don't know why the reviewer said that. Also, I did not speak Spanish well when I got to El Salvador.
LR: That's very clear from what you say in the book.
CF: I have no idea how those two things got into the review. I'm trying to get them corrected so they're not replicated by other people.
LR: The reviewer mentions that the growth of consciousness you experienced in El Salvador entails a movement from being inner-focused to being outer-focused and that that movement is replicated in the writing as it becomes more direct and reportorial. And I think that shows up most clearly in those short sections transcribed from your notebooks, toward the end of the book. For me, those read as prose poems, ones that for whatever reason didn't make it into The Country Between Us. I thought they were very compelling.
CF: Thank you. Oddly, I never felt introspective when I was writing. I didn't really talk about my own feelings. I let those come out sometimes in dialogue and my reactions to Leonel. But I tried not to be particularly reflective in the prose. For instance, I don't oscillate between the present and the past. Once I go into this story, I stay in it. I want to ask The Atlantic reviewer to show me where I had been introspective. If I knew I had done that, I might of taken it out. [laughs!]
LR: Well, like you, she lives in Washington, D.C.. You'll probably have the opportunity.
CF: I'm curious about that. Because I had trouble talking about myself in the book. It was awkward for me to say how I felt about something.
LR: She gives just that one example.
CF: She talks about how I register physically what happens to me when I see a dead body. Oddly, it doesn't mean you're not seeing a dead body. It means you're noticing that something is happening to you. When you're in the presence of a dead body, especially a body that's been mutilated like that, you can't not see it.
LR: And you can't not react.
CF: No, you can't not react. You can choose not to write about your reaction, but it's all there.
LR: And it's traumatic. Especially in those circumstances.
El Salvador went through a horrific twelve-year civil war. Is the situation any better now than it was then after the war?
CF: No! One thing that happened as a result of the war, was that the opposition, those who fought against the repressive military regime, broke the back of the repression caused by that military regime. Death squads were not operating after the peace agreement, after the war. There were no more death squads preying upon subversives or people they thought of as subversive. The problem was the failure to enact many of the requirements of the peace agreement, to re-integrate combatants on both sides into society, and to address the issues of those combatants, their injuries.
There's so much that didn't happen, especially in terms of land redistribution. There were many other things that didn't happen. And what happened instead is that you had a very weak economy, a fledgling government and institutional structures, a very weak civil society, a very weak judiciary. And what happened in El Salvador was that the corruption which was nascent throughout the period and had been very well developed within the military took hold of the society at large. And that was compounded by narco trafficking. And then the United States exports gang members back to the country, and those gangs proliferate, becoming thoroughly predatory upon the civilian population.
LR: Instead of death squads you've got MS-13.
CF: Yes, you've got random bullying and extortion, random kidnapping and killing. There are no political lines there. It's not even organized the way an asymmetrical, low intensity guerilla war would be organized. So I believe that while you don't have death squads operating anymore, you now have a collapsed society, a failed state. And the reason that this is so important is that it could have been otherwise. After the war there was just a scramble to make money and to re-establish certain centers of power.
So what happened was that corruption took hold throughout the society, in a similar way that it has here, although we don't like to pay attention to that here yet. So El Salvador now is in a state of random violence such that the people who are leaving the country and walking through the desert and coming to our borders, they're not migrants, they're not day laborers, they're not anything like that. They are refugees. And they're refugees from a situation that the United States in large part created, either through neglect or direct involvement. What we have here are people who are fleeing a situation so horrific that anything they imagine in front of them is not as frightening to them as what's behind them.
People don't pick their children up and walk through a desert, through thousands of miles with nothing, not knowing what's going to happen. They don't throw their kids on a moving train and throw themselves on a moving train and cast themselves on the mercy of the U.S. government if they're not absolutely terrified.
So what happened to us is we stopped processing asylum applications the way we once did, routinely, as a matter of paperwork and waiting a certain period, with an appeals process. We militarized our border. We allowed the private prisons to go back into business to detain refugees. We're out of compliance with international law. We're a rogue state. What we're doing is illegal internationally. We have to acknowledge that. For example, when Leonel came into exile in the United States, he presents himself at the airport and asks for asylum. He fills out some paperwork. He moves on to Washington. He's allowed to work here. His asylum appeal begins to go through a three-year process, at the end of which, if denied, he has another three-year appeals process. That's how it used to work, when we were in compliance.
LR: When was that?
CF: Leonel came in '84. Throughout the '80s there was no detention of asylees unless they were criminals. What we're doing now, and what we were doing under President Obama, too, was out of compliance with international law. You can't detain asylum seekers.
Parts of Europe have the same problem right now. They call them refugee camps, but they're detention camps. They can't leave. What these people are is they're refugees from a collapsed state. And the story I tell in the book contains the seeds of what caused this. I don't know what the outcome is going to be.
ICE, for instance, is in violation of all kinds of international protocols and laws, and they are pursuing people, hounding and hunting people in a way similar to what the Gestapo was doing. People are running away and hiding.
LR: This is just a side note, but a number of local churches are providing sanctuary for asylum seekers.
CF: As long as the local authorities respect your sanctuary, that's okay. But that's on very shaky ground. There's no U.S. law. It's just an ancient practice to allow the church to declare itself a sanctuary.
LR: Speaking of churches, your description of the Catholic Church in El Salvador is very different from my experience of the Catholic Church in the U.S. Why do you think it was so different there and what has happened to it since the civil war?
CF: There were two churches in El Salvador. There was the institutional church, traditional, hierarchical, conservative. The bishop of San Miguel, I believe, was a military officer. But the institutional church was not very strong at the time. And then there was the popular church. That was the church that caught fire among the campesinos and the priests who worked among them, and in that crucible of that particular period of time, the theology of liberation arose and answered the call of the poor. The commitments that were made at that time to the poor were significant and profound, and had to do with the preferential option for the poor. So if you worked for the poor, on their behalf, you also shared their fate. You didn't try to avoid that fate.
LR: And Archbishop Romero was the great example of that.
CF: Yes, he was the institutional voice against oppression. He stepped into that role and he embraced it with great courage and quiet conviction. He was unswerving. I'm not saying he wasn't afraid. We were all afraid. He said he was afraid. He talked about being afraid sometimes. But that didn't affect how he was going to speak and how he was going to act, because courage is about being afraid and doing something anyway.
LR: There's a scene in the book in which Archbishop Romero is interviewed a day or two before he was murdered. I felt that there was an implied criticism of the media in that scene. The reporter is trying to get the Archbishop to say something inflammatory or controversial that will surely get him killed.
CF: The reporter was after a story. It wasn't that he was trying to trap Monseñor Romero, it was just that he wanted Monseńor Romero to declare himself, how he felt about the FMLN [the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front] and about the coming insurrection and war. However justified or not justified, war was coming. And Monseńor Romero was very, very good at avoiding traps. He would just say, I am a shepherd. They are all my people. People have a right to defend themselves. He preached non-violence, but he also did not condemn those who had taken up arms against the government. He did challenge the soldiers in the Salvadoran military not to obey unjust orders. But he was not going to be cornered by anybody in the press. You know, it's not that the press wants to trap people. In my view, they want the most exciting story they can write. And so they go after the most exciting things they can possibly go after. Getting him on record as supporting the guerillas would have been a coup, but it wasn't going to happen.
If you watch all of this, it's like a play. All the different actors, the agony, the whole struggle, with all these different components. It's like a shattered mosaic. Everything coming into conflict with everything else. It took me years to see it, to be able to back up and look at it from some distance.
LR: Was the reporter an American?
CF: He was Venezuelan. Monseńor made notes in his diaries, including most people's names. But of course there were people he did not make note of in his diary, like for instance Leonel Gomez. If it was an official meeting that had some kind of business with the church office, that went into the diary. Other things didn't.
Photo by Don J. Usner. Courtesy of Blue Flower Arts.
LR: Plausible deniability.
CF: Plausible deniability, right.
LR: Let's shift gears a bit. I'd like you to talk about your experience as a poet, a teacher of poetry, an anthologist, all topics that bear on the current state of poetry in the United States. Things were very different when you started. There were very few MFA programs, and many fewer poets back then. But now there are thousands upon thousands of people with writing degrees. How is American poetry different today than when you were writing your first two books?
CF: It was a really different world. When I published my second book [The Country Between Us], it was very controversial. It was praised by some people, but it was attacked quite a lot for its content. They didn't necessarily try to scrutinize a particular poem, but they attacked my subject matter. Also the U.S. government had a discrediting campaign against journalists in Central America and anyone who seemed to be influencing policy in a way that the U.S. government didn't approve of.
LR: And you were on that list.
CF: I was on that list, and the problem was that someone started the rumor that I invented the death squads, that I was making all of this up. I didn't know where all of that was coming from because I didn't know about the list then. I was a controversial person, but I was only thirty-years-old. And I was a traumatized thirty-year-old because I'd just come back from El Salvador for the last time. I wasn't equipped at the time.
LR: But who would be?
CF: I don't know, but it wasn't me. I was accused of being a political poet.
LR: A terrible accusation.
CF: At the time it was terrible. Now happily what has happened as a result of the democratization of literary culture—to the degree that that's occurred—voices that were suppressed in the past and given no air, no light, no audience are now emerging, and have been emerging for a couple of decades, and are now the most exciting poets in the United States. These are poets from communities of color and immigrant communities and LGBTQ communities—all of that is happening. And also now politics are allowed in poetry, not just allowed but celebrated and attended to, and so in today's environment, I see my task as one of amplification, to support and promote those voices, which is what I think all of us should be doing. It's a different time entirely. That's something to be heartened by.
Sixteen years ago I left MFA teaching, and I went to teach undergrads at a small college and then I went to Georgetown and began running the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Justice, which is dedicated to the convergence of public intellectual life, literary arts, and social justice and human rights issues. My working life as a teacher changed profoundly because I was no longer involved in the preparation of young poets for careers as poets. The reason why I wanted to stop being involved in that, for a while at least, was that it was that moment when they weren't getting published anymore and they weren't getting jobs anymore, and I couldn't help them anymore beyond the last workshop they took with me, and I began to feel uneasy about that.
So I shifted my focus. As my work in human rights in different parts of the world grew and took hold, I needed to re-direct myself. But I think there's been a shift and a change in the literary culture, an exciting one, and I think we're in a better state of affairs. I also think that poetry is on the rise in the U.S. It's being read more and celebrated more. And there are many more events. It's exciting.
LR: It really is.
CF: It really is. And this was not the case when I started.
LR: Exactly. You'd go to a poetry reading and it was a liturgical event. People would sit there and have the words wash over them. There might be some flicker of emotion. But now poets will scream at you for ten or fifteen minutes and you wind up crying.
CF: I really like all this engagement with the audience. There's a thing call Page and Stage in New York and I was there with Saul Williams, who's an incredible poet but also a hip-hop artist, performance artist, and we went back and forth together, and it was really energized, and our two audiences mixed and converged. It was one of the most exciting events I've ever experienced, because it was the most multi-generational, multi-racial reading I've ever been in. So I guess it was that night I began to see what was happening, the turn.
LR: I think that change has happened not just in poetry but throughout literary culture. But of course that's just "soft power." We still have to do the hard work of political organizing.
CF: Yes, we have to do that. But the artists are no longer being condemned for producing art that is responsible to our moment. Besides, soft power lasts the longest. Seriously, I do think that all of it has to be done, but I don't think poets are viewed with as much dismissiveness as they once were.
LR: These poets from marginalized communities have audiences that live and die by their words, something that white male poets often don't have.
CF: The [white male poets] who do have it are the ones who have seen the horrors of war and have returned from the war zone. There's an urgency to our moment, and it requires everything, all the artists, all the poets, all the activists, all the organizers. The space is large. A lot of people say, well, there's no room for the white male poet anymore. There's the same room there used to be for everyone else. [laughter] Exactly the same room.
LR: I was just thinking about the fact that we're going to the AWP in a couple of days and they have a number of events that are focused on graduates from the writing programs finding alternative careers.
CF: Which is what all the liberal arts are engaged in right now. What do you do with a classical education? Not just the poets, but the historians, the philosophers, everyone. What do you do with your degree in philosophy?
LR: When I graduated [in 1968], you went into the CIA or the FBI.
CF: The problem is now we think almost entirely in terms of vocational utility. And that's not what it ever was intended for.
LR: Nor what we need in our moment of crisis. Let me ask you a question about the education of poets. There's a seminar at the AWP called "Getting Beyond 3%," which is about translation and the literary marketplace.
CF: Right, because only three percent of works published in the United States are works in translation.
LR: And in the literary world it's even less than that; it's less than one percent. Do you think that the people who undergo an MFA or a Ph.D. in Creative Writing should learn to do translations as part of their training?
CF: It's an art in itself. And I'm not sure that every poet or writer would necessarily translate well. You have to be able to enter the work of another and almost channel their experience.
LR: You started with Claribel Alegría.
CF: Yes, I started with Claribel, and I've done quite a lot of translation now. It's another art entirely. The best translators I know don't write themselves. They are translators. But I do think that with poetry it's very helpful to be a poet yourself. And to work with someone who has a profound knowledge of both the source language and the target language or to have that knowledge yourself. What I want to do is to encourage translation education because we have to open our literature up, our readerly audience up to the rest of the world. That's the next step. We have to read the rest of the world.
When our soldiers were in Vietnam, the soldiers that they encountered on the other side in the years after the war would say, Well we read your Whitman, which ones of our poets did you read? [laughter] And of course our soldiers read nothing by the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese were stunned by that. How did you expect to fight us if you didn't know our literature? We didn't do so well, did we?
It's very important that we transcend our horrible xenophobia and open to the rest of the world. And the only way to do that is to have works available in translation. I think Americans should commit themselves to at least being bi-lingual.
LR: That's one of the main points you made in putting together your first anthology.
CF: For me Against Forgetting was a response to some of the sillier arguments about poetry and politics. But because I made it international I wound up with poetry from thirty different languages.
LR: You popularized the term "Poetry of Witness," which is a way of legitimizing certain kinds of political poetry. You may not see it in quite those terms.
CF: For me that anthology was about opening space between the political—meaning the institutions of the state, the depredations of the state—and the intimacy of the hearth and personal lives. I wanted to talk about 'the social.' But when we say political poetry in the United States we usually mean that pejoratively. It's a dismissive term: "Oh, well, this is just political poetry." The suggestion is that it's polemical; it's dead propaganda.
LR: That it's not as well crafted as "real" poetry.
CF: So what I was trying to do was to think about it in entirely different terms than the political. And to think about people who, for example, are civilians under an occupation by a foreign military. That's not necessarily political, but it has an effect—it's a situation of extremity, and if they write, their work might be marked by that occupation.
What I'm thinking about is the way we write in the aftermath of extremity, rather than whatever Americans mean by the word political. It can be very difficult to pin down what U.S. Americans mean by political. And I know because I've interrogated many Americans and asked them what do they mean by 'political.' When they start talking they get a little wrapped around the tree. They don't really know what it means. It's a catchall term they can use to dismiss something that is about a subject that they are uncomfortable with or that challenges the ideology they didn't know they had. [laughter]
LR: This is a more theoretical question. As you were putting together your anthology Against Forgetting did you notice any particular formal characteristics to the poetry you were including in the anthology? Is there a predilection toward surrealism or collage?
CF: I see something now that I find exciting, people who are working in docu-poetics or documentary poetry. There's a kind of hybrid form evolving that has to do with lyric art but also with historical sources—clippings, and as you say collage, redaction and erasure, and all of that. But usually it's because there's a subject involved, and research. And I'm thinking about highly lyrical poets like Layli Long Soldier or Claudia Rankine, but I'm also thinking poets who really work that documentary vein more, for example, Mark Nowak, Phil Metres. There are a number of poets in that vein. So yes, that does have a formal aspect to it. They are working out a way of enlarging their poetics.
But in Against Forgetting, no, it was all over the place. There were formal poets and surrealists and symbolists, whatever literary movement was extant in the countries or language groups at the time. They were poets and they were writing in the aftermath of some extreme experience, and sometimes they didn't even write about that experience, they just wrote. And so I was interested in what happened to the creative imagination under the impress of extremity. For some of my poets, people would ask me, why did you include that person—like Ezra Pound, or Gunter Eich, a poet who was a German and also a prisoner of war. Why would you have a German prisoner of war in this book? Well, because I'm not compiling a political anthology. I'm compiling an anthology that gathers the work of poets who have endured extremity, and who are not necessarily on the same political side as me. I was interested in something different than that. You can criticize the anthology all over the place about what it isn't, but then you should go do your own anthology. I was able to set the terms for this one because I did the work. That's what you get to do when you're the editor. If you spend a decade crafting an anthology, you get to make the rules. I was trying to get us to think beyond politics, beyond "political," as Americans use the term.
For instance, I didn't consider myself political after I came back from El Salvador, because as I understood the term in El Salvador, you went to meetings three or four times a week, you were in an organization, you were under a party discipline, and you furthered the line that your party developed and promoted. That's what political meant. It didn't just mean having some kind of opinion that other people didn't like. It doesn't mean the same thing in every culture.
LR: What haven't we mentioned about the book that you would like to talk about?
CF: Well, I tried to make it formally interesting. What I wanted to do was find a way, through the language, to mark a shift of consciousness. This isn't really a book about the history of that period. This isn't really a book about El Salvador. It takes place there, a lot of it, but it isn't about that place. There are things in this book that are going to surprise people, because they've never been published anywhere, things that have not been known until now about how certain things happened. That's one aspect. But another aspect for me is that I was writing a book about a many-faceted experience of consciousness and its evolution. It could've happened anywhere. It's set somewhere, but that's not really its subject matter.
As I said in the acknowledgements, I'm not a journalist; I'm not a historian.
LR: It's a bildungsroman, in the classic sense.
CF: Yes, and a work of memory. I checked and double-checked and triple-checked everything in here. I'm pretty sure there are no errors in the book. There are gaps, but there are no errors.
LR: You talked to people who experienced the same thing.
CF: I talked to a lot of people, especially people who knew the central figure of my book [Leonel Gomez Vides]. I interviewed a lot of them. Everyone had their own Leonel. Everyone had their own way of experiencing him. I was very happy that everyone I talked to who's read the book so far feels that they completely recognized him. So I felt okay. I looked at his photograph, sitting on my shelf at home, and I said, I've done it. I hope you like it.
LR: I think he would have liked it very much.
CF: I wanted it to read like a novel. I wanted it to be something that people wouldn't want to put down. I wanted everything. [laughter] I wanted to be capable of writing it as a poet.
LR: You never know.
CF: No, you never know until you go into it. But I will say it's a lot more involved than I would ever have imagined before I did it. …So I have a new poetry book coming out [March 2020]. Same publisher.
LR: I know it's coming out in England with Bloodaxe Books.
CF: And with Penguin Press here. I'm really happy with it. It's been seventeen years.
LR: I know, you take a long time between your books.
CF: This one has been long in birthing, and I think it's ready. I'm not usually happy with my work, but I'm happy with this book. I took long enough so if I'm not happy, something's wrong with me.
LR: How is it different from your previous book, Blue Hour?
CF: It's a strong departure from Blue Hour. Blue Hour was kind of an experiment; it was a radically different book for me. With this one, there are individual poems. There's a lot of interaction between the poems, but it's not a project. It's not a book-length poem about one particular thing, although it has a subject, several subjects. The title is In the Lateness of the World. And so it's very much of this time, of this moment. It's toward the end now.
LR: Is it the lateness of your own life, or is it the extremity of the world?
CF: It's the extremity of the world itself. I tried to take the mode of elegy as far as I could. It's probably about death. There are a lot of threads to it. And I'm writing tentatively another prose book, but I don't know what it is yet. It'll be very different from the El Salvador book.
LR: So you haven't narrowed it down to a particular subject yet?
CF: No. But it'll be very different. It won't have anything to do with Central America.
LR: You've lived all over the world. It could be about South Africa or Lebanon or wherever.
CF: So I'm excited, but…I'm almost sixty-nine years old, and I'm thinking I could write a lot in ten years.
LR: No reason why you shouldn't.
CF: I've been working so much and teaching so much. I haven't given myself the time to write. I write a lot, but I discard it all and put it in boxes. [laughter]
LR: Are you going to stay at Georgetown, or are you going to retire from that.
CF: I can't imagine retiring, but I don't think I'll move to another institution. It's so exhausting to do that. I don't know for sure what's going to happen. I don't have a sense of it. I can't see very far ahead. I like my work at Georgetown. I suppose I will some day retire from teaching, but I like teaching. I enjoy teaching, I always have. It's not something I just did in order to make a living. It would be very hard for me to walk out of a classroom for the last time.
I know there are lifelong teachers who have done that and who've been quite happy leaving it behind, but I don't see how I could do that. Also this new generation, the ones I told you about, they're wonderful, and they need us, and I want to be there for them. They're going to do the important work, and they're going to take control, I hope, of this situation. In short order. Because the people who were formed by the Second World War, Vietnam, and all of that, and Jim Crow, and all of that, just aren't equipped for this moment. They're just not.
So I guess that's enough for now. I've enjoyed talking to you.
LR: And I've enjoyed talking to you, and I'm sure the readers of Poetry Flash will enjoy your comments and observations. Thank you so much.
Lee Rossi's new poetry book is Darwin's Garden: Studies from Life. His previous collections include Wheelchair Samurai and Ghost Diary. A staff reviewer and interviewer for the online magazine Pedestal, he is a Poetry Flash contributing editor and a member of the Northern California Book Reviewers; his poetry, reviews, and interviews have appeared in The Beloit Poetry Journal, Poetry East, Chelsea, and elsewhere. He lives in San Carlos, California.
— posted April 2020