Sunday, 28 December 2008

Carolyn Forché interviewed by Sandeep Parmar

Carolyn Forché has published three books of poetry in Britain, The Country Between Us (1983) from Cape and two collections from Bloodaxe, The Angel of History (1994) and Blue Hour (2003). Her first collection Gathering the Tribes won the Yale Younger Poets Award. She edited the Norton anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (1993). Among her translations are Mahmoud Darwish's Unfortunately, It Was Paradise: Selected Poems (with Munir Akash, 2003); Claribel Alegria's Flowers from the Volcano (1983), and Robert Desnos's Selected Poetry (with William Kulik, 1991). Carolyn Forché has won many prizes for her poetry, including awards from the Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Society of America for The Country Between Us and The Los Angeles Times Book Award for The Angel of History, and was given the Edita and Ira Morris Hiroshima Foundation Award for Peace and Culture in Stockholm. She lives in Maryland.


SP: You have written that 'surely all art is the result of one's having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end'. Each of your collections, in particular The Angel of History and then in Blue Hour, formulate a kind of ending, whether it is the end of human history, or of prophecy, and where either uncertainty or rebirth must lie. The end becomes a continual one, an ongoing process, much like the 'open wound' of memory. How much has the need not to reach an end, or not to forget, contributed to the writing of both these books?

CF: We can think about going through an experience all the way to the end if we think of experience, as Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe has suggested, as from 'the Latin ex-periri, a crossing through danger'. A risky crossing. He cautions against thinking about experience as the anecdotal material of a life lived. So we are continually crossing the abyss as we write, and to do so we must keep moving. We must be, as Paul Celan advises, en route but without destination. In this sense, I experience poetry as resisting eschatology , whether addressing the death of an individual or the larger, cosmic sense of the end of humanity or the world. The end is continual, open, and unknowable. The Angel of History attempts a poetic meditation on the twentieth century, and it closes with the birth of a cloud rising above an annihilated city, and with that cloud, a knowledge of ends unable to be borne. In Blue Hour, in the decade following, a consciousness at once singular and collective passes from life into death. So, yes, meditations on ends, but on ends without endings. As for memory and forgetting, these are large and intertwined subjects, deserving of more time than we have here. They have been my continual devotions.

SP: You've been involved in translating the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, in particular his selected poetry: Unfortunately, It Was Paradise (2003). You have spoken about how poetry can become 'part of the life of the community'. Darwish is an example of such a poet. To what extent are Western poets able to write for a community?

CF: Mahmoud Darwish told me that for him, when he tells his own story, he inescapably tells the story of Palestine, and that destiny has ordained that his history would be read as a collective history, and his people be recognised in his voice. He shares the fate of his people, and they are spoken for in his poems. That has been both his blessing and his burden, to write in a state of continual emergency without respite. When Archbishop Oscar Romero asked me to leave El Salvador and return to the United States in March, 1980, only a week before he would be assassinated, I begged him to leave El Salvador as well. He was regarded as the voice of his people, the only voice to speak against institutional and state violence, and he was most prominent on the list of those targeted by death squads. His response to my plea was to smile and tell me softly that his place was with his people, and my place was with mine. As an American of the United States, I had never thought of myself as having a people, much less writing for a community, but I think now, after these many years, that artists, poets, philosophers and all humanitarians write for the party of the whole, and constitute a community of those who are keeping watch over all that we value: civil society, tolerance, enfranchisement, freedom of conscience and thought, social and political well-being and the preservation of the earth. This community was imagined by the French resistance poet Robert Desnos as an earth lit by thousands of fires, each a spirit keeping this watch, and when called upon, one bivouacs all over the world. So yes, poets of Europe and the Western hemisphere can begin to imagine ourselves as speaking for a community, as those from other parts of the world have long done. Part of that speaking is the language of the interior life.

SP: Partly in response to some of the criticism of The Country Between Us and the implication that the book was 'overly political' you said that 'Poetry can't be placed in the service of anything other than itself'. It also struck me that you were urged by those who remained in Salvador to go back to America and write about their collective experiences as well as your own. Did you feel that the poetry you were writing on your return was, in a sense, written for a "political" purpose?

CF: That poetry was written during my years as a human rights advocate in El Salvador, and in the aftermath, when I spoke publicly against military intervention and on behalf of those who sought asylum. My notebook and pen were always with me, and were my refuge. The poems were first-person lyric-narratives and in that mode, closely resembled my earlier work. I hadn’t recognized the perceived shift to the political in the poetry because I hadn’t recognised it in my life. I was not active in any political movement or party, and attended no meetings. I thought of the work I was doing as a matter of ethics rather than politics as I understood it, and the purpose of my poetry was poetry. I wrote essays about El Salvador, and answered Salvadoran requests by traveling the United States and speaking to students, church groups, and community gatherings. The idea of writing poetry with a particular intent is a fraught one, and perhaps, in the end, impossible.

SP: You are often called a 'Poet of Witness'. How far can one embellish to satisfy the craft while still being faithful to a kind of "documenting" of experience (whether it is your own or of a community)?

CF: The controversy surrounding The Country Between Us had to do with the perception that this poetry was political, and it seemed that there was a strong but until then unspoken prohibition against exploring certain subjects—war, brutality, injustice— in poems, even though it had been done, and for thousands of years. In the academy in the United States, controversy usually leads to symposia, and I was invited to participate in all manner of panel discussions regarding the relation of the poet to the state, and poetry to politics. On the one hand, there were those who decried the absence of politics in poems, and celebrated any poem that gave strong support to the reader’s political views. On the other were those who disapproved of poets writing about political struggles, wars, and man’s inhumanity to man, believing in some way that these subjects were not in the province of poetry. I came away from these meetings in despair, feeling that the arguments were simplistic and reductive, and this led to a thirteen-year project, beginning with research into poetry of the twentieth century, written by those who had endured conditions of extremity and suffered the depredations of the state: war, ethnic cleansing, exile, imprisonment, torture, censorship, banning orders, house arrest. Most poets of the twentieth century endured these things, especially beyond the English-speaking world. I read the poems for the mark of this extremity, for its impress, rather than for positions advocated or subjects addressed. I was interested in the legibility, in the poetry, of this experience, and also in the realm of the social, between the institutions of the state (and politics) and the private life of citizens. This is 'poetry of witness'. I’m not sure that I recognise the category of 'poets of witness'.

Regarding fidelity to truth, one does tell the truth in poems. Good poems are true. They are often more true than newspaper articles and certainly more true than the speeches of politicians. And they express a truth that endures far longer than language’s other life forms.

SP: Leonel Gomez Vides urged you to go to El Salvador and write about the war even before it had begun. His insistence that he wanted a poet (and not, say, a journalist), someone with a 'peculiar kind of sensitivity' was at odds with your feeling that an American audience didn't believe poets had credibility. Do you still, after having published The Country Between Us and others since, feel that Gomez was right to want a poet there?

CF: This is somewhat uncanny, but Leonel Gomez Vides was in my house last evening for the first time in many years, and so I posed your question to him. Would you ask a poet again, under the circumstances? “Of course. There is no doubt. You, as a poet, were open to what was going on, without preconceptions or professional constraints. You could see the place, you could smell it, and you were able, later, to bring the world of it alive to others, what it was like to be living in such a time. Read the newspapers of that period. There is nothing there. Maybe in two hundred years, people will be reading the poems.”

As for me, yes, I agree now with Leonel Gomez, but at the time I thought his idea compelling but also incomprehensible. That turned out to be a form of wisdom.

SP: Do you think it is possible for poets writing and living in the West to be 'poets of witness'? Are our experiences of war abroad too distant and mediated?

CF: We all write out of our deepest obsessions with language and experience, secrets and disclosures, speculative thought, music, a search for something, moving along the perimeter of what might be said. That given, we bear witness to the experience of human subjectivity. As to the understanding of ‘poets of witness’ as poets writing about war, or by extension, all forms of extremity, the battlefield is not the only vantage point. What concerns poets in this moment of crisis in the United States, most of whom are far from the wars, is the unease we feel, our apprehension regarding our historical moment and our future, our agency or lack thereof, our anger, our horror, our helplessness. How do we speak as poets to our people in a time of need? How do we exercise conscience? What is the loss of our country as we knew it doing to our minds and our art? If one feels distanced and removed, one can write of distance and removal, about what is being kept hidden and the task of seeing through the scrim of mediation.

SP: After having compiled Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, how did this broaden your awareness of poets living and writing in exile today?

CF: In response to the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie, a Norwegian town offered him asylum, and inspired by the courage and generosity of this town, a small group of writers began the North American Network Cities of Asylum, extending refuge to writers and poets under threat of death or imprisonment. These writers are adopted by cities and towns across North America. There is a similar organisation in Europe and one in Mexico, and all are linked by mutual concerns. Our group consists of Russell Banks, Wole Soyinka, Michael Ondaatje, Caryl Phillips, Jayne Cortez and myself.

SP: In an interview with David Wright in 2000, he quoted you as saying that the artists and thinkers you admire are a community of 'archivists of the incomprehensible'. How are these writers able to order and preserve those experiences or ideas that are in some way unreachable by thought?

CF: Writing is a means of retrieving from consciousness a knowledge irretrievable by other means.

SP: Your last two collections, The Angel of History and Blue Hour, mostly dispose of the solid first-person narrative voice. Witness seems almost to come from a community of voices, rather than just one, in these poems. Do you find that this plurality of the speaking voices acts as a protective conduit for the individual "author"? Is the move away from a recognisable 'I' a kind of anonymity?

CF: While I have long worked in a polyphonic mode, and welcomed the inclusion of other voices into my work, this openness to the ‘community of voices’ to quotations and dialogue is not quite the same as the occulting of the first-person voice, or the shift from the authorial, first-person speaker with single point perspective. The polyphonic poems are dialogic. But there is another mode that I began to explore in Blue Hour more intensely, and that is the I/Thou of encounter, speaker to other, even the other within oneself.

SP: The long poem from Blue Hour, 'On Earth', was influenced by Gnostic hymns dating back to the third century and takes on the abecedarian form. Among its obliteration of moments and objects and thought, you use quotes from various "thinkers", such as René Char, Julia Kristeva and Robert Desnos. How did you imagine that the form and its apocalyptic vision aligned itself with the Gnostic texts?

CF: The hymns, dating to the third century A.D. were recovered, along with Christian and Buddhist texts, from small towns on the northern fringe of the Taklamakan desert in the twentieth century. They aren’t like English abecedaries, because they are much longer than twenty-six lines. These mnemonic hymns offered a felicitous form for what might have been a very digressive, almost chaotic text, having to do with the passage from life into death and including the recollections of earthly life. The quotations are memorable for the consciousness disclosing itself: my own. The images and moments, epiphanies and notations are from my life. I see the poem as apocalyptic only when it is read as collective utterance, but on as the experience of an individual, it simply reveals one’s experience of mortality. The poem is formally influenced by the hymns, but not in terms of Gnostic belief.

SP: The line from 'On Earth': 'open the book of what happened' resonates with all of your work. And yet in this instance it is one of the many voices that interferes and does not clearly identify with an authorial speaker. Does this kind of decentering comment on the impossibility of witness or knowing, that which Burgess says is 'lost to our eye'?

CF: 'Open the book of what happened' is spoken, but by whom? It might be the poet herself, or the voice of an Other to whom the poet is listening. “Open” is an imperative, either from without or from within.

SP: You write about your son, Sean, in both The Angel of History and Blue Hour. In The Angel of History you write that when your son was born you became 'mortal'. For someone who has lived in the midst of great personal risk, do you feel motherhood made that kind of risk less worthy?

CF: It made the choice of that risk unacceptable, but we know that mothers live with their children in terrible conditions all over the world, including in war zones. It is not widely understood that over half the deaths in twentieth-century wars were those of women and children.

SP: You've commented in the past that the American poetry world is very conservative and concerned with reputation and marketability. Has this been your experience elsewhere, for instance in either Britain or Europe? If, at all, how do you find the British audience differs from American audiences?

CF: I don’t know how things are for poets in Britain or Europe. I have impressions. In Europe, people are less concerned with where one has published, or if one is “known”. I also don’t know whether the British audience differs from the American one, but readers in Britain seemed to understand Blue Hour very deeply, whereas the reception was more confused in America. The British and Irish reviews were very interesting to me, perceptive and intelligent. I learned something from them.

SP: What are you working on now?

CF: I am writing a memoir and a book of essays, as well as a new book of poems. Thank you, Sandeep, for your questions. I enjoyed thinking about them.

A shorter version of this interview appeared in issue 14 of The Wolf (March 2007).

Since giving this interview Carolyn Forché has joined the International Advisory Panel of The Wolf. Sandeep Parmar has subsequently become a Reviews Editor for the magazine, and was recently selected as one of the poets for James Byrne and Clare Pollard's anthology Voice Recognition: 21 Poets for the 21st Century, to be published by Bloodaxe in September 2009.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Obama's inaugural poet Elizabeth Alexander interviewed by Natasha Trethewey

NT: What was growing up in Washington like? Did it have an effect on your work?

EA: Washington was a great place during the 60s and 70s. I grew up surrounded by electoral politics as well as the street politics and protests of the late 60s. The 1963 March on Washington was an often invoked benchmark of my family’s move from New York to that city. Washington’s disfranchisement was a vital issue throughout my childhood, and my father was a candidate in the city’s first mayoral election in 1974. So a sense of national issues played out on a local stage, and vice versa, and of private lives made public was a part of my upbringing.

Washington is also an international city, and an internationally black city. My childhood awareness of the rest of the black world was sometimes imprecise, but omnipresent, and my much admired and adored late grandmother was proudly an “internationalist” who grew up in D.C. as well and roller-skated to the embassies ‘to see that the rest of the world was there’, as I write in ‘Feminist Poem Number One’. I think that curiosity about the black world beyond my black city, and how I fit into it all, is important to my work, even when inexplicit.

My parents are New Yorkers – more specifically Harlemites, which is where I was born – and that is a fierce identity that never leaves you. I feel lucky not to have been too circumscribed by localness – any localness can have its limitations – to have something else to belong to and to fantasise about as well, which you see in many mentions of New York in my poems. I seem to be very interested in “real” or “natural” identities and their tug with constructed ones, and the romance of racial and geographic identification.

NT: You have a poem in your collection Antebellum Dream Book called ‘Race’. Reading the poem, and particularly the last two lines – ‘What a strange thing is race and family stranger still. / Here a poem tells a story, a story about race’ – I get a glimpse of not only your thoughtfulness, but also your sense of humor. It’s as if you said, ‘Okay, I’m going to deal with it once and for all – here’s the banner title.’ Can you talk about the role race plays in your work?

EA: There are great storytellers in my family, as in so many of our families. But sometimes it’s rare that those stories are transportable or translatable intact into poem form; somebody talking to you is not the same as how you would tell a story or use narrative in a poem. These stories about color and about passing and even about siblings and their adult relationships and the readjustments of their adult relationships, as you have in that poem are the stones that so many of us have and do tell or don’t tell.

As for the ‘banner headline’, ‘Race’, I always loved the way that my grandfather, and to a lesser extent my parents, used the word race to talk about ‘the race’ – meaning, of course, black people – as a thing that they could imagine, a body of people that we could imagine, that you could almost get your arms around, that the race was something tangible and palpable. I think it is in some very important ways generational. I also thought about the idea of what it meant to be a ‘race man’ or a ‘race woman’, what it meant to ‘do something for the race’, or what it meant to ‘bring shame upon the race’.

NT: You’ve written some successful persona poems about historical personae. How do you go about making their voices real, as in ‘The Venus Hottentot’, which is about Saartjie Baartman?

EA: With invented voices, how do we really know if they are accurate or not? There’s no way of knowing. Certainly in writing ‘The Venus Hottentot’, one of the big challenges was to hold on, especially when the Venus Hottentot herself speaks, because that’s a longer part of the poem – to create a voice, and then to hold on to it and keep it consistent when it was not a voice that felt close to my own.

NT: You make it look effortless, though.

EA: Oh, I labored! [Laughter] To really, really be tight and to strike the proper historical note and tone, I did a lot of historical research, though there wasn’t a lot to be found about Saartjie Bartmaan at the time. But I read about carnivals and circuses and London in the early 19th century, and all kinds of different things that would give me a sense of her world. I didn’t want to be anachronistic, although at the same time there are very deliberately anachronistic moments – for example at the end, when she imagines her daughters in banana skirts and ostrich-feather fans, which is alluding to a Josephine Baker act, not something that she would have known. But that is where poetic license comes in handy.

I think in a poem like ‘Race’, in a way, I’m speaking in a voice that is more familiar. Certainly that, too, is a very formal poem in its way. It has a set of rules that it follows, but it’s trying to be a little chattier, a little more contemporary. The speaker is a contemporary person like myself telling a story, with the things that I know and my vocabulary to call upon. What I’ve always been interested in about ‘The Venus Hottentot’, and what I think is such a great teaching tool about persona poems, is that if you write about a character who obsesses you, you might not even know necessarily why that character is so compelling to you. Much later, after writing ‘The Venus Hottentot’, I thought, ‘Well, of course I know about being a black woman who is the subject of objectification, who is in some people’s eyes a spectacle simply for being a black woman, who is in some people’s eyes sexualised simply for being a black woman.’ That’s something that we all know as black women in the world.

NT: In your third collection, Antebellum Dream Book, did you find yourself taking uncertain paths? And did much of the book’s surreal imagery come from actual dreams you were having?

EA: Much of it did; some of it didn’t. Obviously, much of it was made possible by first trusting the surreal images that came out of actual dreams. I’ve been lucky to always have been a really great dreamer. And I’ve always been fascinated by my own dreams and the dreams of others, what different cultures believe about dreams: how they guide you, how they tell you things that you should pay attention to, how they sometimes look ahead to the future, how they’re a place where the ancestors can come and speak to you. So I’ve used dreams before in poems, but I just went further this time, really trusting that these strange juxtapositions could work as poetry.

NT: So you aren’t afraid to trust that kind of surreal dream imagery to take you to new places?

EA: Well, I have a great fear of getting stuck in a rut. I think there are certain kinds of poems – such as poems in the ‘Venus Hottentot’ mode, poems that engage a black historical figure, an aspect of black history – that I sort of know how to do, and that I feel I can do well. I don’t want to do that kind of poem to death, although certainly there’s so much to write about in that whole area. That’s just to say I wouldn’t want to be someone who just writes the same version of a poem she wrote before over and over and over again. That would be the worst thing.

NT: Your first book begins with a poem that imagines the voice of a woman who has been objectified and thus rendered a mere body. Then you have a second collection entitled The Body of Life; and your next collection, Antebellum Dream Book, seemed to deal with the body in many more ways. In your work, what does it mean to ‘write the body’?

EA: I think, certainly for women, that the stories of so many bodies are not the stories that we have heard. I remember once, teaching Descartes, one of my feminist colleagues saying that she asked the class, ‘If Descartes were a woman who had given birth, would he have written “I think, therefore I am”?’ In other words, what would a more embodied version of that statement look like? What that means to me is ‘What would so many versions of our history look like if the body of the physically abused woman, the body of the sexually exulting woman, the body of the child-birthing woman, the body of the slave, the body of the domestic worker all spoke and told their stories and narrated their embodied experiences?’ That’s a huge, vast terrain. If you let a body speak, it gives you access to all sorts of concrete sensations that are vital, the stuff of poetry, the way a poem convinces. When my oldest child began to realise that he smelled things, he started telling me what everything smelled like: ‘Oh, it smells like toast in here’ or ‘Oh, it smells like sickness in here’. He’d go through experiencing the world only through smell. What a gift to go through life being aware that we’ve been given these senses and that you should live in them: something to look at, something to smell, something to taste – all as a gift.

Elizabeth Alexander is a leading American poet whose work has been inspired by a wide range of influence, from history, literature, art and music, dreams and stories to the ‘rich infinity’ of the African American experience. She is Professor of African-American Studies at Yale University. In January 2009 she reads the inaugural poem for the swearing-in of President Barack Obama. Elizabeth Alexander has published four collections in the States: The Venus Hottentot (1990), Body of Life (1996), Antebellum Dream Book (2001) and American Sublime (2005), as well as a collection of essays on African American artistic life through literature, painting, film and popular media, The Black Interior (Graywolf, 2004). Her first British publication, American Blue: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2006), draws on all these. Copies can be ordered from

The above interview is an extract from ‘The Far, Deep Things of Dreamland: an interview with Elizabeth Alexander’ by Natasha Trethewey, from Poets & Writers (Nov-Dec 2001), reprinted from Bloodaxe Poetry Introductions: 1 (Bloodaxe Books, 2006). Bloodaxe Poetry Introductions: 1 is an anthology of work by Elizabeth Alexander, Moniza Alvi, Imtiaz Dharker and Jackie Kay. Bloodaxe Poetry Introductions are a new kind of anthology aimed at the general reader as well as the poetry lover. Compiled by Staying Alive editor Neil Astley, each book in the series covers four leading contemporary poets in depth, with substantial selections covering the whole range of each writer’s poetry, as well as intriguing and illuminating background material, including profiles, interviews, essays and commentary by the poets. To order from, go to this page:
American readers can order it here:

Natasha Trethewey is Phillis Wheatley Distinguished Chair in Poetry at Emory University. She won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for her collection Native Guard (Houghton Mifflin, 2006). Her first two collections Domestic Work (2000) and Bellocq's Ophelia (2002) were published by Graywolf Press.