A Q&A with Carolyn Forché, transcribed by Jamey McDermott

On Thursday, November 12, 2020, the Distinguished Writers Series at Binghamton University hosted a virtual reading and Q&A by Carolyn Forché. She has graciously allowed Harpur Palate to print a partial transcription of the Q&A, which was moderated by Binghamton English Professor Liz Rosenberg.


Liz Rosenberg (LR): There was a wonderful film professor here many years ago named Ken Wilson, and he was ferocious on behalf of art. Whenever I saw him, because he knew I wrote poetry, he would kind of yell at me across the hall and say, “So, Liz, what are you doing these days to change the language?” I never knew how to answer that question, but I really do believe that Carolyn Forché has certainly changed the language of poetry, and done wonderful things for the conversation inside of poetry and coming out of poetry, and we all cherish her for doing that. 

To give you some of the facts: Carolyn was born in Michigan, where apparently she never really believed she would ever go to Paris, among other places. She burst onto the poetry scene with her first book, Gathering the Tribes, which won the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize. That was followed by a more controversial collection, The Country Between Us, which bravely detailed what she had witnessed as an aide-de-camp in El Salvador during the early days of the “Disappeared.” For this, she was both widely praised and roundly condemned, for writing poetry that was political as well as social and personal—not to mention her having been threatened with death, bullied, and hunted down in El Salvador. The Country Between Us was followed by what I think of as an equally radical book, which is a blending of dozens of ghostly, haunted, and haunting voices in The Angel of History. In 2003 she published The Blue Hour, and her newest collection is titled In the Lateness of the World

Unlike many poets, no one could ever accuse Carolyn of moving lightly from one book to the next on a schedule; she is unafraid of waiting until she is sure she has something to say and knows how to express it. And she has regularly used the three tools James Joyce told us every writer needs: silence, exile, and he said “cunning,” but here I would say, “patience.” It is an impatient patience with Carolyn, but her writing is as exquisite as it is powerful. She published a memoir last year—and Carolyn, I remember talking with you about this memoir many years ago, and I think I even saw an early draft of it—called What You Have Heard Is True, from Penguin Random House. It was nominated for the 2019 National Book Awards. Carolyn has translated the work of poets from other countries and cultures, and she has published two very important anthologies: A Dance to Forgetting, praised by no less than Nelson Mandela, and the 2014 anthology Poetry of Witness

Carolyn and I have known each other for many years now, comparing notes on poetry, child-rearing, antidepressants, love, and life. I call her a friend and a true sister of the heart, and that is an honor, and I consider it an honor and a delight that we have you here tonight, Carolyn, so thank you so much.


Post-Reading Q&A

LR: Thank you so much. I have mentioned on the chat that anyone who has questions for you is welcome to write them down, and I hope that they will do that. While I’m waiting for people to do that, I’m going to ask you one question, and then move on to a wonderful question from [a member of the audience]. You mentioned [during the reading] about your scribbles in pencil, and somewhere in your new book, I believe you write about “ink on linen.” So in that sense, what do you think is the difference between writing in pencil, and writing in pen?

Carolyn Forché (CF): You know, I think ink lasts longer. The map that was drawn in ink on linen was the first map of Belfast, and you can see it if you go to Belfast. I think it’s in the library, in the city hall. Anyway, ink lasts longer, if it’s good ink. Pencil, lead—I don’t know how long it lasts, but it feels provisional. You can erase it. So I always wrote in pencil in my notebooks, so that if I didn’t like something I had just written, I wouldn’t cross it off; I would just erase it. When you’re drafting poems, you can erase the whole poem. You erase everything you like until there’s nothing left. But it makes you feel a little freer, so I always had pencils with me, and I always had a little sharpener, and I would just write in pencil. And I have these notebooks. I have many, many hundreds of them now. I write every day in them; whatever’s going on, or an image, or something I see in my reading that I want to remember. All of those things. My grocery lists. Everything goes in the notebooks.

LR: How long have you been doing it?

CF: Many, many years; many decades. I think I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. They’ve gotten fancier lately. I started putting photos in them, and I discovered a terrible thing called “Sprocket,” which is a small photo printer. You can take a picture from your phone, and print a tiny print of it, and you can stick it in your notebook. So it’s a bad thing for writers, because you should take your notes in language, and I got lazy and started thinking, “I’ll just photograph this and photograph that, and then I’ll remember it and I won’t have to take any notes.” But you’re not transforming the world into language if you do that. But it makes the notebooks look really nice.

LR: [laughs]

CF: My method of writing, for prose and poetry, is to start in notebooks. And most of my notebooks are pretty small. The fancier notebooks are getting a little bigger.

LR: So here is the question from [the audience member]. She wrote, “Given how much you have learned and lived through in your connection to El Salvador over the course of several decades, was it difficult to recreate the sense of unfamiliarity and disorientation that’s evident in the early pages of your memoir? How did you approach this from a craft perspective?”

CF: The best decision that I made was that, since this all took place when I was twenty-seven and twenty-eight and twenty-nine years old, I had to reconstruct the person I was at that age. The narrator had to be that woman, not me as I am now. Because I was trying to replicate a journey, I wanted to replicate it in the immediacy of the experience. So I had to go back and reimagine it from the beginning: how was it, really, in the beginning for me? I was uncertain. I didn’t know anything. I was scared. I didn’t really know who this man [Leonel Gómez Vides] was. I was piecing together the world. So the decision was to write it from her point of view. The problem with that is that she was kind of irritating to me. My older self frowns upon some of how I behaved when I was that age. I thought she was petulant, she argued too much, she was thinking about herself too much, but hey—that’s how I was, as I remember, warts and all. I created a character for my young self, and very rarely did I interrupt the narrative to be myself now and say something about it. Hardly at all, because I wanted the reader to come through the experience with me, as if we were doing it all over again. 

I remember those years really vividly, and I know a lot of people who are still in my life from those years. Plus I’ve got a house full of photographs from that time, because my husband was a photographer there during part of that time. So I have lots of stuff here from it, but most importantly, besides the notebooks, I have a very vivid memory of those particular two years. I think it was because it was so intense. You remember things more vividly if they’re very intense when you go through them. There are whole parts of my life I can’t remember at all, I have to tell you. There are years I can’t remember. I can’t keep track of time anymore. I can’t remember when I met people, or where I knew them; if I see someone out of context, I get confused. But not about those years. 

So the work of memory wasn’t so hard, but what was hard from a craft point of view was making decisions that would limit me in some way. The number one decision was that it was not going to be written as a novel. So what does that do? It automatically confines you to only what happened. You can’t just make something happen. It has to have happened, and you have to remember it, or be able to research it. It has to be real. That’s one decision, and the other was the decision to walk through the experience—to do it a bit episodically, but nevertheless chronologically as it happened, and to be that young person. From a craft point of view, it’s helpful to have restrictions. The first version of this manuscript was a kitchen-sink book. It was all over the place. I did not know how to write a long-form prose book. I had never taken a prose class; I had never been in a workshop for prose. I didn’t know how to structure a book, so I wrote three other versions besides the one I published. Finally got one that worked. But I had to unbraid the narrative. I had to take most of my life out and focus on that time, so I took all the pieces out that didn’t have anything to do with it—they were just other parts of my life. I was writing a very chaotic autobiography rather than a memoir, in the beginning. I guess that’s the best I can do from a craft perspective.

LR: I have a question here from one of my wonderful students…He asks, “How can you both witness such agony and terrible situations as you did in El Salvador, and yet write beautiful commentary on life? As someone who hasn’t witnessed anything close to what you have, I feel like I would be stuck in a constant gloom, and lack the ability to see beauty in the world, even if it was in front of me.”

CF: There are so many ways that humans respond to their experiences. Someday your children—I’m speaking to the students now—someday your children or your grandchildren are going to say to you, “How did you ever stay in the house for a year? How did you ever not see people? I mean, what was that like? If that happened to me, I don’t know what I would have done.” You’re doing that. You’re living through something enormous. And in the background, you’re living through all these other things we’re going through, besides this plague. You’re living through the dread of the future, and climate change. You’re living through that. So for me, it was—whatever you’re going through, you kind of get used to it, and you do it. You care about the people around you, and you build up a way of coping, and when you come out of it, you feel lots of other things. You feel relief, you feel like, “I walked through something and I’m here.” You feel joy at being alive. I’ve had a lot of friends who fought in wars, and they are affected by that for the rest of their lives, like I’m going to be affected by Salvador the rest of my life. 

We don’t get over things. We just learn to live in the aftermath of what happens to us. We learn to live in that zone. We learn to dance in the zone of aftermath; we learn to breathe and live in it. It’s a myth that we get over things. I hope what people mean by that is that you’re alive and you can do it—you can inhabit that zone. But you can never live as if things didn’t happen to you. You can never be the person to whom they didn’t happen. You can’t go backwards, so what you do is that you learn to walk through the fields of the future in the aftermath of what happened to you, and live, and move on. And you find all sorts of glimmers of peace and hope. That’s what one does. If you talk to any older person, like somebody, say, who’s over eighty: they’ve all been through lots of things. Sometimes they won’t tell you, because they think you wouldn’t understand. But if you live long enough, everything happens. [pause] That’s my view. I’m not a philosopher. I’m just winging it here. [Laughs] Those philosophical questions are the toughest ones.

LR: They are. You just mentioned joy, and one of the questions from [the audience] is, “What parts of your writing practice bring you joy?”

CF: Well, when you’re writing, you’re in this strange place. The world goes away a lot of the time, and you’re just inhabiting whatever it is you’re writing. You’re in the world of your characters, or in the world of the place that you’re wandering around in your poem. It’s pleasurable. It’s also hard, and you also get mad at yourself, because it’s not coming, or you don’t like how it’s turning out, and you wish it were better—there’s all that. I suppose it would be like when you’re playing piano, or when you’re playing guitar, or when you’re painting. When you’re doing anything that allows to be somewhere else, just in that time period. So I would rather be writing than just about anything, because frankly, when I’m awake, I don’t leave the world any other way. The only way I can leave is to start writing, and then I’m okay. 

I have a friend who went through a lot of personal, terrible things. She became what they call “hypervigilant,” so she’s always on edge, and watching, and scared, and checking her surroundings. And she said the only time she doesn’t do that is when she’s writing, so she tried to write at least a little bit every day, because that hypervigilance goes away. But it doesn’t go away any other time. Writing, I suppose, is like waking from a really wonderful dream, and wanting to fall back asleep so you can finish it. I suppose that has happened to you, right? You want to finish the dream—as if it’s a movie or something. So that’s what I would say. Marilynne Robinson, the brilliant novelist, calls writing “dreaming on paper.”

LR: Like the surgeon with Tourette’s, who only didn’t experience Tourette’s while he was actually operating on people. That kind of immersion.

CF: Right, yeah. You become someone else, and you’re drawing from a different part of your mind and being. And you become the person who’s speaking from the depths of your soul. You have a little break from being you in the normal way, which is very pleasant.

LR: [laughs] The escape from personality.

CF: Right.

LR: So you talked about writing “from the depths of your soul.” There’s a question from [the audience] about the relationship between your poetry and your translation. What happens when you’re speaking from the depths of someone else’s soul?

CF: When I first started translating, it was the poetry of Claribel Alegría, and I was really young. I think I was about twenty-five when I first started thinking about it. I thought it was about buying a big fat Spanish/English dictionary and looking up all the words I didn’t know. And I bought this big fat Spanish/English dictionary, and then I discovered that that wasn’t it at all. The limitations of the language were the least of my problems. The big problem was inhabiting the sensibility—becoming her, understanding her poems from the inside. And her poems were about things I knew nothing about yet. I didn’t know about El Salvador. I didn’t know about all the horrors she had seen as a child, and all the things she wrote about, so I didn’t understand her poems. Which is why I wound up going to stay the summer with her and talk to her, and get her to help me to understand the poems. Later, I discovered that translation involves a kind of stepping into the consciousness of someone else, and trying to move around inside that consciousness in language. You try to bring their poems into your language. What you’re really doing is translating your language into their poems. It’s a magical thing. I really enjoy translation, as I do teaching. When I’m not writing, one of the things that gets me to be okay when the writing won’t come—and that happens to me, when I’m just blank, I try and nothing comes—is to start translating. Someone else helps me to get there, by trying to make their poems in the English language. 

It’s really important, because we need to read the poets of the rest of the world. In America, only three percent of literary works published are works in translation. Three percent! So we don’t realize what’s being done everywhere else in the world. The rest of the world does. The rest of the world reads poets from other languages and countries, much more than we do. We’re very insular in the U.S. The Canadians read more from other countries than we do—much more. So I began to realize that in order to understand the consciousness of our time, we really need to read in translation as well as in our own language. And to read the poets who are in other countries, writing in our language. There are a lot of poets in India who write in English, and there are the poets of Ireland, and New Zealand, and Canada, and many smaller countries all over the world. That’s just English! That doesn’t even involve translation. I really urge you to do that.

LR: You mentioned translation just now, but you paired it with teaching. I’m wondering, is there a connection, for you, between the two? There are lots of students and teachers here tonight.

CF: That’s an interesting question. I’ve been teaching the same age group for almost five decades. They are eighteen to twenty-three, twenty-four years old. So just like a person who teaches fifth grade forever and ever and ever, I know this age group. I understand them. It doesn’t matter which generation. Each generation is a little bit different. The new one, the Zs? They’re wonderful. They are pragmatic and engaged, and they understand what they’re up against, and they’re awake. It’s a deep pleasure to teach the Zs, and I probably will retire teaching the Zs, so it’s a great generation to go out with. I think that when we are communicating with people who are coming of age in a time different from when we did—and that’s increasingly, over the decades, the case with me—I’m translating one reality into another, and so are they. 

It’s an interesting dynamic in the classroom. They’re teaching me all the time. I can tell them what happened earlier, and they help me understand the present better. They understand the present, in certain ways, much better than I do, and I’m not just talking about technology. I’m talking about what it feels like to be young now, and to look at the time to come as the future, with everything that that means. I really try to stay present in the classroom, and to understand that I’m teaching people who have very different challenges than I had. So I need to learn what those are, learn to listen to them. What is translation? Translation is learning to deeply listen to another poet. Teaching is about deeply listening to a room full of people, who often are a very different age than you are. That means you have to be aware of that. I’m pretty comfortable, still, with the age group that I teach. I feel relaxed with them, and I feel younger than—I mean, I’m seventy years old, but I don’t feel seventy years old, mostly because I’ve spent my life with twenty-one-year-olds. [laughs] So in a way, I’m sort of twenty-one; you know, a permanent twenty-one. It’s very strange. It’s interesting. I would recommend teaching as a profession for that reason.

LR: For that reason alone, right?

CF: Yeah.

LR: And many other rewards. I’m going to ask you one last question, because you mentioned that sometimes you get stuck. I know that someone here asked, “Do you have anything you practice to help free your mind before writing?” I suppose that would also be true if you have a block. Do you do anything to free yourself?

CF: There are two things that seem to help a lot of writers. One of them—nobody understands why—but one of them is a good long walk by yourself. Walking seems to get you into a writing place. It doesn’t matter whether you’re walking in a pretty place or an ugly place, or a city or a trail in the forest. It doesn’t matter. It just matters that you go for a walk by yourself, and just put one foot in front of the other. And the other thing that helps—and I do this before the walk—is I read something that I really love. I just pull something. I randomly touch books on the shelf and pull one off, and then I randomly open to a page, and that’s the page I’m supposed to read. And I read it, and I go for a walk. Then I sit down, and I forget about what I planned. I don’t have any plan. I either write with my pencil in my notebook, or with a pen, or I put my hands on the keys, and I just see what comes. I let myself do that for twenty minutes, and then I work on something, if I have something I’m working on. But I try to begin with a word or a phrase or a sentence, and not know where I’m going. I don’t want to know what’s going to happen. I just want to follow the language. Sometimes it’s hard, because sometimes you go for your walk and you do your reading, and it’s quiet, and you give yourself this time, and the page is still sitting there blank, with nothing on it. Then get up and try again tomorrow. It’s okay. Sometimes that happens.

LR: “Get up and try again tomorrow,” I think, is a great place to leave for right now.

CF: Thank you all. I feel like I’m looking at a whole bunch of windows. Like an apartment building—you’re all in a building, and you’re each looking out the window, and so am I. I’m really happy to see my friends, and to see you, Liz, and Tina, and other people I know, and to meet your students and fellow colleagues. We’re going to be okay. We’re going to get through this. We’re already making progress, aren’t we? We had two big pieces of good news this week, and one of them was, maybe, a vaccine. And you know what the other one was.

LR: Also a vaccine.CF: [laughs] Also a vaccine, yes.