Courtesy of Don J. Usner and Blue Flower Arts

May 10, 2021

Carolyn Forché Reads from Her Work for Zalaznick Reading Series

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On April 29, renowned poet and memoirist Carolyn Forché read for the final event of the Spring 2021 Barbara and David Zalaznick Reading Series: Together. The readings were from What You Have Heard Is True, a 2019 memoir on her experiences in El Salvador, her 2020 collection In the Lateness of the World and an excerpt from a work in progress. 

Known for coining the term “poetry of witness,” Forché has received numerous awards for her poetry and human rights advocacy. Her first book, Gathering the Tribes, won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize. However, it was her experience witnessing the outset of the Salvadoran civil war that inspired her next volume in 1981, The Country Between Us, and set her apart from less “political” peers.

Over 80 attendees tuned in to watch the livestream. Prof. Ishion Hutchinson, Department of Literatures in English, introduced the Zalaznick Reading Series. Prof. Valzhyna Mort, from the same department, introduced Forché herself.

Forché began by reading “Museum of Stones,” which she described as an invocation poem. It was followed by a brief documentary-style segment from Penguin Press, produced and edited by Sean Mattison, which included a previous interview where Forché described her trip to El Salvador with activist Leonel Gómez Vides, which she only recently chronicled in her memoir, What You Have Heard Is True

This is what she read from next, as Forché described in visceral detail the scale and depth of human suffering that she witnessed in El Salvador. She told of a deserted village, a man who has been decapitated and dismembered, and a hospital ward sheltering emaciated workers. I was struck by the descriptions of limbs strewn across the ground, a woman with bed sores that must be treated with peroxide and maggots — suddenly aware that these were not faraway events, that I was in the presence of someone who had seen these very things.

Another excerpt told of the treacherous gorge El Imposible, and a moment of unexpected beauty in the night, followed by a frenzied litany of deteriorating conditions in pre-war El Salvador, which Forché discovered in her own notebook. It ends with the chilling line: “No one wants to eat the fish from Lake Ilopango anymore. The fish have been eating the dead.”

Next was the sixth excerpt, featuring an encounter with the famous archbishop Oscar Romero — sometimes called Monseñor Romero — who was assassinated after speaking out against government-sanctioned violence. Only later would Forché understand that “here the dead and the living were together, and those who stood alive before him, he was blessing in advance.” 

Returning to poems once more, Forché read “The Boatman,” which tells of a refugee from Homs, Syria, and other poems In the Lateness of the World. For Prof. Mort, Forché then revealed a prose piece for a new book she is working on, focusing on Belarus, Ukraine, and refugees moving into “alienation zones” surrounding Chernobyl.

Moving into the Q&A, Prof. Mort asked about the relationship between the poetic The Country Between Us, which both Gómez Vides and Romero asked her to write, and the prose memoir What You Have Heard Is True

Forché responded that the poems were written very “immediately near” to the events she’d experienced, and that she needed a more “capacious” place for which prose allowed her to better convey the necessary detail while also capturing the full story. While she delayed writing out of a fear of reliving some experiences, the publication of What You Have Heard Is True felt ultimately freeing.

Though there was little time left for questions, I was lucky to have mine relayed to Forché by Prof. Mort, in combination with another, similar question. Mine was: “You touched on this in your last poem, but you’ve often addressed urgent political and humanitarian issues in your work. Would you say that there are any unique limitations or advantages to writing as a means of documenting these issues?”

In response to this, Forché contrasted the documentation of events by a journalist, also in writing, with the task of a poet or literary writer. For the latter, she said that “It’s not information you’re after” but “something deeper… something that can reach the human soul,” which allows people to “imaginatively experience” your subject.

Following the Q&A, Forché ended the reading with a final poem. Also from In the Lateness of the World, I was surprised to learn that “What Comes” came to her while she was in chemotherapy. The poem served as a poignant conclusion to both the collection and this event: a meditation on the nature of death and acceptance in the face of uncertainty.

Having reviewed In the Lateness of the World for an earlier article, I’d still been unsure of what to expect from this event — and even, I confess, a little intimidated by Forché’s reputation. But I realize now that my nerves were unwarranted. From the genuine emotion that pervaded her reading to her well-considered answers to our questions, I believe that Forché deserves her reputation as a humanitarian poet. She gave every impression of a person who has witnessed horrors, had time to reflect on them deeply, and emerged irrevocably changed. 

For those interested in hearing her words directly, the recording can be found here.

Amy Wang is a Freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at saw289@cornell.edu.