Forché, Carolyn 1950–

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Forché, Carolyn 1950–

(Carolyn Louise Forché)

PERSONAL: Surname is pronounced "for-shay"; born April 28, 1950, in Detroit, MI; daughter of Michael Joseph (a tool and die maker) and Louise Nada (a journalist; maiden name, Blackford) Sidlosky; married Henry E. Mattison (a news photographer), December 27, 1984; children: Sean-Christophe. Education: Michigan State University, B.A., 1972; Bowling Green State University, M.F.A., 1975.

ADDRESSES: Home—Maryland. OfficeGeorge Mason University, 4400 University Dr., Fairfax, VA, 22030-4444. Agent—Virginia Barber, 353 West 21st St., New York, NY 10011. E-mail[email protected].

CAREER: Justin Morrill College, Michigan State University, East Lansing, visiting lecturer in poetry, 1974; San Diego State University, San Diego, CA, visiting lecturer, 1975, assistant professor, 1976–78; journalist and human rights activist in El Salvador, 1978–80; University of Virginia, Charlottesville, visiting lecturer, 1979, visiting associate professor, 1982–83; University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, assistant professor, 1980, associate professor, 1981; New York University, New York, NY, visiting writer, 1983, 1985; correspondent for National Public Radio's All Things Considered in Beirut, 1983; Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY, visiting writer, 1984; Writer's Community, New York, NY, visiting poet, 1984; State University of New York—Albany, Writer's Institute, writer-in-residence, 1985; Columbia University, adjunct associate professor, 1984–85; University of Minnesota, visiting associate professor, summer, 1985; George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, associate professor, 1994–. Consultant on Central America and member of Commission on U.S.-Central American Relations.

MEMBER: Amnesty International, PEN American Center (member of Freedom to Write and Silenced Voices committees), Poetry Society of America, Academy of American Poets, Associated Writing Programs (president, beginning 1994), Institute for Global Education, Coalition for a New Foreign Policy, Theta Sigma Phi.

AWARDS, HONORS: Devine Memorial fellowship in poetry, 1975; First Award in Poetry, Chicago Review, 1975; Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, 1975, for Gathering the Tribes; Tennessee Williams fellowship in poetry, Bread Loaf Writers Conference, 1976; National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, 1977 and 1984; John Simon Guggenheim Memorial fellowship, 1978; Emily Clark Balch Prize, Virginia Quarterly Review, 1979; Alice Fay di Castagnola Award, Poetry Society of America, 1981; Lamont Poetry Selection Award, Academy of American Poets, 1981, for The Country between Us; H.D.L., Russell Sage College, 1985; Lannan Foundation Literary fellowship, 1992; Los Angeles Times Book Award for Poetry, 1994, for The Angel of History; Edita and Ira Morris Hiroshima Foundation Award (Japan) for her use of poetry as a "means to attain understanding, reconciliation, and peace within communities and between communities," 1997; National Book Critics Circle Award, 2003, for poem "Blue Hour."


(With Martha Jane Soltow) Women in the Labor Movement, 1835–1925: An Annotated Bibliography, Michigan State University Press (East Lansing, MI), 1972.

Gathering the Tribes (poetry), Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1976.

The Colonel, Bieler Press (St. Paul, MN), 1978.

(Editor) Women and War in El Salvador, Women's International Resource Exchange (New York, NY), 1980.

(Coauthor) History and Motivations of U.S. Involvement in the Control of the Peasant Movement in El Salvador: The Role of AIFLD in the Agrarian Reform Process, EPICA (Washington, DC), 1980.

The Country between Us (poetry), Copper Canyon Press (Port Townsend, WA), 1981.

(Translator) Claribel Alegría, Flowers from the Volcano, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1982.

Carolyn Forché and George Starbuck Reading Their Poems, Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 1982.

(Author of text) El Salvador: The Work of Thirty Photographers, edited by Harry Mattison, Susan Meiselas, and Fae Rubenstein, Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative (New York, NY), 1983.

"The Poet and the Poem" at the Library of Congress, (sound recording), Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 1990.

(Translator, with William Kulik) The Selected Poems of Robert Desnos, Ecco Press (New York, NY), 1991.

(Editor and author of introduction) Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (anthology of poetry), Norton (New York, NY), 1993.

The Angel of History (poetry), HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1994.

Colors Come from God—Just like Me! Abingdon Press (New York, NY), 1995.

(Author of introduction) Natalie Kenvin, Bruise Theory: Poems, Boa Editions (Brockport, NY), 1995.

The Angel of History, HarperPerennial (New York, NY), 1995.

(With others) Lani Maestro/Cradle Cradle Ugoy (exhibition catalog), Art in General (New York, NY), 1996.

(Author of introduction) George Trakl, Autumn Sonata, translated by Daniel Simko, Moyer Bell (Kingston, RI), 1998.

(With others) Seven Washington Poets Reading Their Poems in the Coolidge Auditorium, Library of Congress (sound recording), Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 1998.

(Translator) Claribel Alegría, Saudade=Sorrow, Curbstone Press (Willimantic, CT), 1999.

(Editor, with Philip Gerard) Writing Creative Nonfiction: Instruction and Insights from Teachers of the Associated Writing Programs, Story Press (Cincinnati, OH), 2001.

(Translator and editor, with Munir Akash, Sinan Antoon, and Amira El-Zein) Mahmoud Darwish, Unfortunately, It Was Paradise: Selected Poems, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 2003.

Blue Hour (poetry), HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2003.

Contributor to books, including Martyrs: Contemporary Writers on Modern Lives of Faith, edited by Susan Bergman, HarperSanFrancisco, 1996. Contributing editor, The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, Volume 3; poetry coeditor of The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, Volume 8. Work represented in anthologies, including The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, Volume 6 and Volume 8; The American Poetry Anthology; and Anthology of Magazine Verse: Yearbook of American Poetry. Contributor of poetry, articles, and reviews to periodicals, including Parnassus, New York Times Book Review, Washington Post Book World, Ms., Antaeus, Atlantic, and American Poetry Review. Poetry editor of New Virginia Review, 1981; contributing editor of Tendril.

SIDELIGHTS: "Perhaps no one better exemplifies the power and excellence of contemporary poetry than Carolyn Forché, who is not only one of the most affecting … poets in America, but also one of the best poets writing anywhere in the world today," Jonathan Cott wrote in the introduction to his interview with Forché for Rolling Stone. Such praise was not new to Forché. Her first book of poetry, Gathering the Tribes, recounts experiences of the author's adolescence and young-adult life and won the 1975 Yale Series of Younger Poets Award; her second, The Country between Us, was named the 1981 Lamont Poetry Selection and became that most-rare publication: a poetry bestseller. In a critique for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Art Seidenbaum maintained that the poems of the second volume "chronicle the awakening of a political consciousness and are themselves acts of commitment: to concepts and persons, to responsibility, to action." According to Joyce Carol Oates in the New York Times Book Review, Forché's ability to wed the "political" with the "personal" places her in the company of such poets as Pablo Neruda, Philip Levine, and Denise Levertov.

By the time she was twenty-four years old, Forché had completed Gathering the Tribes, described by Stanley Kunitz in the book's foreword as a work centering on kinship. In these poems, Forché "remembers her childhood in rural Michigan, evokes her Slovak ancestors, immerses herself in the American Indian culture of the Southwest, explores the mysteries of flesh, tries to understand the bonds of family, race, and sex," related Kunitz. "Burning the Tomato Worms," for example, deals with a young woman's sexual coming of age. But this poetic tale of "first sexual experience," Mark Harris stated in a Dictionary of Literary Biography essay, "is told against the larger backdrop of her grandmother's life and death and their meaning to a woman just grown."

If Gathering the Tribes "introduced a poet of uncommon vigor and assurance," as Oates wrote, then The Country between Us served as "a distinct step forward." A Ms. reviewer called the second collection "a poetry of dissent from a poet outraged." Forché herself told Cott: "The voice in my first book doesn't know what it thinks, it doesn't make any judgments. All it can do is perceive and describe and use language to make some sort of re-creation of moments in time. But I noticed that the person in the second book makes an utterance."

Forché's first two volumes of poetry were separated by a period of five years, during the course of which she was involved with Amnesty International and with translating the work of Salvadoran poets. In those years, she also had the opportunity to go to Central America as a journalist and human rights advocate where she learned firsthand of violations against life and liberty. While there, she viewed inadequate health facilities that had never received the foreign aid designated for them and discovered that sixty-three out of every thousand children died from gastrointestinal infections before age one; she saw for herself the young girls who had been sexually mutilated; she learned of torture victims who had been beaten, starved, and otherwise abused; and she experienced something of what it was like to survive in a country where baby food jars are sometimes used as bombs.

Her experiences found expression in The Country between Us. As reviewer Katha Pollitt observed in the Nation, Forché "insists more than once on the transforming power of what she has seen, on the gulf it has created between herself and those who have seen less and dared less." The poet herself admitted to the compelling nature of her Central American experience. "I tried not to write about El Salvador in poetry, because I thought it might be better to do so in journalistic articles," she told Cott. "But I couldn't—the poems just came." El Salvador became the primary subject of The Country between Us. In these poems Forché "addresses herself unflinchingly to the exterior, historical world," Oates explained. She did so at a time when most of her contemporaries were writing poetry in which there is no room for politics—poetry, Pollitt stated, "of wistful longings, of failed connections, of inevitable personal loss, expressed in a set of poetic strategies that suit such themes."

Forché is considered particularly adept at depicting cruelty and the helplessness of victims, and in so doing, Paul Gray wrote in Time, she "makes pain palpable." More than one critic singled out her poem "The Colonel," centering on her now-famous encounter with a Salvadoran colonel who, as he made light of human rights, emptied a bag of human ears before Forché. The poem concludes: "Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground." Pollitt remarked that "at their best, Forché's poems have the immediacy of war correspondence, postcards from the volcano of twentieth-century barbarism."

A dozen years passed between the publication of The Country between Us and Forché's editing of Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, an anthology collecting the works of poets addressing human-rights violations on a global level. The poems in this anthology present what Matthew Rothschild in the Progressive called "some of the most dramatic antiwar and anti-torture poetry written in this benighted century." The poems provide, Gail Wronsky pointed out in the Antioch Review, "irrefutable and copious evidence of the human ability to record, to write, to speak in the face of those atrocities." Building on the tradition of social protest and the antiwar poems of the late 1960s, Forché presents a range of approaches: "Many of the poems here are eyes-open, horrifyingly graphic portrayals of human brutality," observed Rothschild. "But others are of defiance, demonstrating resolve and extracting hope even in the most extreme circumstances."

Against Forgetting begins with poets who witnessed the Ottoman Turk genocide of one-and-a-half million Armenians between 1909 and 1918. In this section, the executed Armenian poet Siamento seems to speak for all the other poets in the collection: "Don't be afraid. I must tell you what I say / so people will understand / the crimes men do to men." Another section includes poems by Americans, Germans, and Japanese about the effects of World War II upon those who witnessed and recorded the events. There are also sections on the Holocaust, the Spanish Civil War, the Soviet Union, Central and Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Latin America, South Africa, and China.

Critics were divided upon both the selections in and the importance of Against Forgetting. Wronsky, for example, questioned why "women of all races and ethnicities are underrepresented here (124 male poets to 20 female)," while Phoebe Pettingell in the New Leader argued that the work's flaws are "outweighed by the anthology's breadth and scope, and by the excellence of most of its entries. Against Forgetting," Pettingell continued, "preaches the hope that humanity, after a century of unparalleled brutality met largely by helplessness, can finally learn to mend its ways." John Bayley, writing in the New York Review of Books, called the collection "a remarkable book. Not only in itself and for the poems it contains, but for the ideas that lie behind their selection as an anthology."

In an article in the Mason Gazette, Forché commented that "The poetry of witness reclaims the social from the political and in so doing defends the individual against illegitimate forms of coercion." The year following the publication of Against Forgetting saw Forché bring out her own book of witness, The Angel of History, which won the 1994 Los Angeles Times Book Award for poetry. The book is divided into five sections dealing with the atrocities of war in France, Japan, and Germany and with references to the poet's own experiences in Beirut and El Salvador. The title figure, the Angel of History—a figure imagined by German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin—can record the miseries of humanity yet is unable either to prevent these miseries from happening or from suffering from the pain associated with them. Kevin Walker, in the Detroit Free Press, called the book "a meditation on destruction, survival and memory." Don Bogen, in the Nation, saw this as a logical development, since Forché's work with Against Forgetting was "instrumental in moving her poetry beyond the politics of personal encounter. The Angel of History is rather an extended poetic mediation on the broader contexts—historical, aesthetic, philosophical—which include [the twentieth] … century's atrocities," wrote Bogen.

Critical response to The Angel of History was generally supportive. Calvin Bedient in the Threepenny Review claimed that The Angel of History is "instantly recognizable as a great book, the most humanitarian and aesthetically 'inevitable' response to a half-century of atrocities that has yet been written in English." Steven Ratiner, reviewing the work for the Christian Science Monitor, called it one that "addresses the terror and inhumanity that have become standard elements in the twentieth-century political landscape—and yet affirms as well the even greater reservoir of the human spirit."

While Forché is a poet of social and political conscience in an era when poetry is often criticized for being self-centered and self-absorbed, her verse does not always succeed, according to some critics. Pollitt noted an "incongruity between Forché's themes and her poetic strategies," and also commenting on a certain lack of "verbal energy" in her work. William Logan, critiquing for the Times Literary Supplement, explained that "in her attempt to offer a personal response to the horrors she has witnessed, Forché too often emphasizes herself at their expense…. Forché's work relies on sensibility, but she has not found a language for deeper feeling." Nevertheless, recognizing Forché's achievement, Pollitt commended the poet for "her brave and impassioned attempt to make a place in her poems for starving children and bullet factories, for torturers and victims." While some critics emphasize that she might not be a reassuring poet, in the words of Gray, "she is something better, an arresting and often unforgettable voice."

In 1997, Forché was presented with the Edita and Ira Morris Hiroshima Foundation Award for using her poetry as a "means to attain understanding, reconciliation, and peace within communities and between communities." Hope J. Smith commented in the Madison Gazette that while it was "surprising for a poet to receive recognition for her work outside of the usual genre prizes,… Forché's work is unusual in that it straddles the realms of the political and the poetic, addressing political and social issues in poetry when many poets have abandoned these subjects altogether. In recognizing the link Forché has made between these worlds, the Hiroshima Foundation recognizes her human rights work as much as it does her writing."



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Contemporary Poets, 5th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1991.

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Forché, Carolyn, Gathering the Tribes, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1976.

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New England Review, spring, 1994, pp. 144-154.

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Publishers Weekly, February 1, 1993, review of Against Forgetting, p. 78; January 31, 1994, review of The Angel of History, p. 7.

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Text and Performance Quarterly, January, 1990, pp. 61-70.

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Daily Mason Gazette Online, (April 26, 2005).

George Mason University Web site, (July 27, 2004), "Carolyn Forché."