Clinton St. Quarterly, Vol. 9 No. 2 | Summer 1987 (Portland) /// Issue 34 of 41 /// Master# 34 of 73

CAROLYNFORCHE BEARINGWITNESS BY DOUG MARX ILLUSTRATION BY STEPHEN LEFLAR T n the spring of 1980 ,1first heard Carolyn Forche read the poems that 1 came out of her experiences in El Salvador. Mount St. Helens had recently erupted and the ghostly, dry, gray mist of volcanic ash drifted through the city, dusting everything. Like many others, Iw as eager to hear Forche. I was familiar with her 1976 y a k Series of younger Poets prizewinner G a th e r in g th e T ribes , and expected more o f the same-poems charged with the electric sensibility of a woman coming to terms with her working-class, immigrant roots, poems tinged with a particular, informed eroticism. Instead, a rather haunted figure took the stage. Forche explained that she had just returned from two years in El Salvador and began to read poems about what she saw there—in the hospitals, in the streets, in the dining rooms of colonels, in prisons, in the mass graves— poems that would eventually find their way into her award-winning and controversial collection, The Country Between Us. Earlier that March, her friend Mon- senor Oscar Romero had been assassinated while standing before his Sunday morning congregation—one of several Salvadorans she had come to know, love and leave behind—dead. In a level, impassioned voice not much above a whisper, Forche let her poems speak for themselves. Her audience was stunned. One could sense in that collective quickening of conscience a belief in the possibility that art and politics were compatible after all, necessary in fact. That one human being could make a difference, bearing witness to the “ outer” world where suffering and injustice are realities rather than grist to be ground into the subjective abstractions of an artist’s angst and despair. How Forche happened to travel to El Salvador and the way in which those experiences irrevocably changed her vision of the artist’s role in human affairs is best described in her own words (see “ El Salvador: First Person,” in the Clinton St. Quarterly, Spring, 1982). Still, the nature of her journey, the combination of fate, circumstance and heart that impelled it bears repeating, however briefly. For Forche did not go off in search of a cause that would give to her career the allure of romance and danger in exotic places. The world, as it were, came to her. In 1977, suffering from writer's block in the wake of the publication of Tribes, her concerns still very much apolitically typical of most North American writers, Forche travelled to Mallorca. There she worked with Claribel Alegria, a Salvadoran poet in voluntary exile whose poems Forche was translating. She also spent time around other Latin American writers-in-exile. She returned to her home in San Diego unsure of what she might do about the plight of Central Americans. She became involved with Amnesty International, but despaired that it “wasn’t enough.” Then, a knock on the door. A le g r ia ’s nephew, Leonel Gomez [Vides], stood on the step, asking that she go with him to El Salvador to prepare to report back to the people of the United States about the tragic events taking place there. Against the advice of her fellow-poets, who were urging her to go to Vermont or Paris where she might “ become a real poet,” Forche went with Gomez to El Salvador. The “ education of [her] heart,” as she put it in a recent essay, “A Lesson in Commitment,” had begun. She is unabashed in describing her “ former self” as politically innocent, naive—ignorant even—and a part of her effectiveness lies in her ability to describe the transformation that took place within her. Now married to photojournalist Harry Mattison, whom she met in El Salvador, she has, over the last five years, travelled extensively, speaking “ continually and to whoever would listen about the tragedy of Central America and what [she] then perceived as the blindness of U.S. policy rorchedidnotgooffinsearchofa cause that wouldgive tohercareertheallureof romanceanddangerinexotic places. Theworld, as it were, came toher. there.” Her concern has taken her to Northern Ireland, the Israeli-occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza S t r ip , G ua tem a la , Sou th A f r ic a , Nagasaki, Hiroshima and, currently, to the Mesabi Iron Range region of Minnesota where, with Mattison, she works with jobless coal-miners. ately in Portland to give readings at Catlin Gabel High School and Mount Hood Community College, Forche consented to an interview. Leaving facts and statistics to the side, I wanted to talk to her generally about art, politics, the nature of U.S. foreign policy, and the value of the individual in this perilous last half of the 20th century. Because hopelessness seems so pervasive these days, an utter despair that makes even the most concerned among us apathetic and inactive, I wanted to know how or where Forche found the strength to resist philosophical pessimism and carry on her work. Returning from El Salvador in 1980, she was idealistic and credulous, believing U.S. foreign policy in Central America was misgu ided ra the r than p rem ed ita ted . Certain that the killing and bombing would stop once she brought the message home, she at last came face to face with the interventionist juggernaut. “ M onseho r Romero warned me against bitterness,” Forche explained. “ He warned me against despair. He warned me against having any personal stake in the outcome emotionally, so I tried to adhere to his precepts. There was a period when I was still in El Salvador when I actually thought that all one needed to do was bring out the facts, to make it known in Washington and the right places, to bypass the usual channels and go right to Cyrus Vance. That dropped away while I was still in El Salvador. So when I came back to the United States, what I did believe was that all I had to do was go to the American people. I travelled. I went to 49 states. I read sometimes in 5 or 6 cities in these states, and at Rotary Clubs and things like that. There have been over 800 appearances now. In that first year I was gone something like 257 nights. I was living out of a suitcase in airports and motel rooms and sleeping on people's couches. I met many, many wonderful Americans during that time. And l wasn’t always preaching to the convinced.” Forche speaks with a low, steady voice and her eyes seldom leave her listener’s. As an activist, as someone charged with b r ing ing people into an h is to r ica l awareness, her greatest strength lies in her ability to read her poems and essays or talk to her audience in terms of their needs, concerns and self-interests. She eschews platitudes and rhetoric. Political buzzwords are absent from her vocabulary. She appeals to the moral conscience of her listeners rather than argu- ing p o l i t ic s in te rm s of te x tboo k dialectics. I asked her to talk a little bit about her method. “Well, what I talked about in the Rotary Clubs was the theft of American foreign aid by the Salvadoran government, in particular the Salvadoran military, and appealed to the ir sense of business honesty.. . . “ It isn’t very easy to use terminology in this country; the ground of discourse isn’t developed here. People don’t know the difference between a communist and a socialist, for instance, much less the difference between a Marxist-Leninist and a Maoist. Then you further compound the problem by talking about left and right. But, especially as I’ve learned working with unemployed mine workers on the Iron Range. . .people are capable of looking injustice in the face, they're perfectly developed in those regards, so the appeal to morality for me most often coincides with what I believe to be politically the case. “The poet June Jordan once said to me— ‘ I know what I would like to help have happen in the world’—and certainly I have that. I do avoid using terms that I believe are not understood well enough to be used.” How much of this is strategic, I wondered, and how much of it is a desire to resist ideological cant? Or are both at work? “ I ’ m not a p o l i t ic a l , ” Forche re ­ sponded. “ I have, for example, argued with Amnesty International about economic sanctions and the American section of A.I. has resisted movements to Ti m Br au n Clinton St. Quarterly—Summer, 1987 27