Born 28 April 1950, Detroit, Michigan
Writes under: Carolyn Sidlosky
Daughter of Michael Joseph and Louise Nada Blackford Sidlosky; married Harry Mattison, 1984; children: Sean Christoph.
Poet, translator, essayist, activist, and teacher, Carolyn Forché was raised in rural Michigan and educated at Justin Morell College of Michigan State University (B.A., 1972) and Bowling Green State University (M.F.A., 1975). She won the Yale Younger Poets Award the year of her graduation from Bowling Green, for Gathering the Tribes (1976), a ceremonial, sometimes-cosmic collection of lyrics about people and places, written in a densely simple language centered on nouns and names. She has published frequently and fairly steadily since then—poems, translations, essays, reviews, interviews, and prefaces—and won many prizes and fellowships, including the Lamont Poetry Selection Award for her bestselling second book of poetry, The Country Between Us (1981). Appropriately for a distinguished translator and reader of many languages, her own poetry has been translated into German, Swedish, Russian, Spanish, Czech, Greek, Dutch, and Japanese.
Forché's status as an international figure in the arts and politics is based in her identification as a "poet of witness": she has lived in and written about many areas of the world where poverty and oppression are social norms, from the Mojave Desert to Johannesburg and, perhaps most crucially for her work, El Salvador. After spending the summer of 1977 on Mallorca with the self-exiled Salvadoran poet Claribel Alegria, translating Alegria's poems for the volume Flowers from the Volcano (1982), Forché was encouraged by Alegria's cousin to go to El Salvador as a journalist and to bring back testimony to North America. This she did, in many forms: in magazine articles; in speeches, radio programs, panel discussions, international conferences; in her teaching; and in the poems of The Country Between Us.
Forché's interest in other languages and other cultures has been a constant, starting perhaps from the important childhood relationship with her grandmother Anna, an immigrant Slovak peasant about whom Forché has written regularly since her death in 1968 (see especially "Burning the Tomato Worms" in Gathering the Tribes). Her first book of poems includes a long section based on her experiences living close to Native Americans in the Southwest and British Columbia. This urge toward contact and empathy with those outside her own region, nation, and native tongue, took on the focus of a mission once she began the "moral and political education" ("El Salvador") offered by her harrowing years in El Salvador. As she put it in a 1987 essay ("Letters to an Open City"), "there are…two human worlds and the bridges between them are burning."
Two of these bridges are poetry and translation: in addition to that of Claribel Alegria, Forché has also brought the poet Robert Desnos into English (The Selected Poems of Robert Desnos, with William Kulik, 1991) and completed an anthology, Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (1993). She has also written prefaces and forewords to a number of books by lesser-known poets as well as translations. Photography is another important, if problematic, medium of "translation." Forché, who is married to the war photographer Harry Mattison, has written prose texts for two collections of photographs, El Salvador: Work of Thirty Photographers (1983) and Shooting Back: Photography by and about the Homeless (1991). Her poem, "In the Garden of Shukkei-en," provided the text for a 1991 exhibit of photographs at the Arizona State University School of Art.
Among her talents, Forché is also a teacher. Like many contemporary poets she has held visiting positions at colleges and universities across the country. Since 1989 she has been a tenured faculty member at George Mason University, where she teaches the literature of witness as well as the craft of writing. In her public life Forché has claimed every available forum for her testimony: speeches, conferences, readings, classrooms, radio, television, film, photography, arts journals, newspapers, and newsweeklies. Hers is a voice apparently compelled to speak, coming from the heart of one who has seen much that is unspeakable in places where, often enough, speech is against the law. Her Angel of History (1994), begins with a long poem, "The Recording Angel," which aptly names the function Forché has come to share with other "poets of witness" in the global village of a genocidal century.
Angel of History, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Poetry, was Forché's first full-length book of sole authorship in 13 years, and it marked a departure from her previous style. The book is divided into five numbered sections, dealing with war in France, Japan, and Germany as well as her own experiences in war-torn Beirut and El Salvador. She focuses on Hiroshima and the Holocaust as two defining events of our generation and assumes that past atrocities predict current ones.
Angel of History is placed within the contexts of history, art, and philosophy. It reflects the poet's personal vision, incorporates the words of characters both real and fictional, and is influenced by Forché's reading, taking in snatches of texts by the likes of Elie Wiesel, Franz Kafka, Elias Canetti, Georg Trakl, and Ren Char. The experimental style, which received mostly favorable reviews from critics, is characterized by long lines as well as a combination of finished and unfinished thoughts and a lack of closure. A review in Publishers Weekly noted that "though Forché's previous books have been groundbreaking works of political and moral depth, this new volume may be the most remarkable." Don Bogged, writing in the Nation, agreed: "The collection represents a deeper and more complex engagement with her political concerns and a startling departure in style to achieve this. It's clearly a breakthrough."
Intended not to explain but to prevent forgetting, Angel of History has been described as powerful but not easily understandable. Despite its difficulty and the horrors inherent in the subject matter, critics praise the book as poetry of exceptional beauty.
Women in American Labor History, 1825-1935: An Annotated Bibliography (with Martha Jane Soltow, 1972). History and Motivations of U.S. Involvement in the Control of the Peasant Movement of El Salvador (with Rev. Philip Wheaton, 1980).
Essays (selected): "El Salvador: An Aide Memoire," American Poetry Rev. (July-August, 1981). "A Fantasy of Birches," Singular Voices: American Poetry Today, (ed. by Stephen Berg, 1985). "A Lesson in Commitment," The Writer in Our World; (ed. by Reginald Gibbons, 1986). Foreword to Janet Levine, Inside Apartheid (1988).
CA 109 (1983), 117 (1986). CAN 50 (1996). CLC 25 (1983), 83 (1994). Contemporary Poets 4 (1985). DLB 5 (1980), 193 (1998). FC (1990). WWAW, 11th ed. (1979).
APR 22:2 (March/April 1993). Book Forum 2:3 (1976). Carolyn Forché (film, 1990). Commonweal (Nov. 1977). Five Fingers Review 3 (1985). Library Journal (1 Feb. 1996). Ms. (Jan. 1980, Sept. 1982). Nation (May 1982, Oct. 1982, Oct. 1994). Nightsun 9 (Fall 1989). NYRB (24 June 1993). Progressive (Oct. 1993). PW (31 Jan. 1994). Rolling Stone (April 1983). Salmagundi (Spring 1984). TVAR: Literarni Tydenik 10 ([Prague] 1990). Time (March 1982). Whole Earth Review (Spring 1996). Witness in El Salvador (film, 1982).
—MARY B. CAMPBELL,
UPDATED BY KAREN RAUGUST