Award winning poet Carolyn Forché spent 13 years compiling Against Forgetting: 20th Century Poetry of Witness. It is an exhaustive and illuminating work of breadth, beauty, wisdom and tragedy.

This work demonstrates our belief in the role of culture in healing atrocities.Against Forgetting: 20th Century Poetry of Witness was praised by Nelson Mandela as “itself a blow against tyranny, against prejudice, against injustice.”

In our 2 part interview Forché explains how she came to create this work and talks about her own experiences as a writer and activist.


How did you come to a poetry of witness?

Well I was very troubled in childhood by learning about the Holocaust. And I read and read. I suppose like all little girls it began with Anne Frank’s diary, but it led to much more. I was deeply disturbed by this event and I read more than other children did about it. I imagined, I tried to imagine, what I would have done had I lived in those times. And I wanted to imagine that I would have opposed it at risk of my life. I wanted to imagine that.

When the civil rights movement happened in the United States I was a teenager. I was born in Detroit, and I lived very near Detroit. It was impossible to escape knowledge of the utter lack of civil rights in the United States, and the utter rightness of Martin Luther King Jr.’s movement. And I, of course, lived in a community, a rural – somewhat suburban, but mostly rural – white community; and I was shocked to realize that there were classmates of mine who were openly racist. So I fought them in school. And I got in a lot of trouble with my classmates because they didn’t understand me, and I didn’t understand them.

Then comes the Vietnam War, and my classmates are among those who fight in the war. And I go away to college because of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society Program, which allowed people without means to go to college. And when I arrived at university of course the anti war movement was flowering. It was 1968 and I was a freshman. I had not been exposed to antiwar movements before and I linked them to civil rights movements and linked the whole thing to the Holocaust and linked the dying Vietnamese to the people who died in the Holocaust. It was all linked together, I felt that – so I joined the antiwar movement.

I didn’t understand the war in Vietnam. It took years of reading before I understood the utter nihilism that must have afflicted our leaders to take us into the war and prosecute the war in that way.

When the war was over, everyone seemed to disappear. It seemed to me that the millions of people in the streets, the tens of thousand protesting the war, the great mobilization had vanished. Suddenly we were going on with our lives and everyone was gone. And I didn’t understand that. I was teaching, and I loved teaching, but I felt that I wasn’t doing something about this lifelong commitment of mine. And so I joined Amnesty International, and I began learning about human rights – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the various protocols. And I joined the Urgency Action Network, and I kept writing letters to world leaders who were holding people prisoner, and so on. And that was good work but it didn’t quite feel like enough.

Then I travelled to Spain to translate the poet Claribel Alegria who awakened me to life under military dictatorship in Central America. She awakened me to the political realities in Central America. And when I went back home to my teaching job and my letter writing, I was depressed. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I put out a call to life and the universe and the cosmos. What should I be doing? What should I do?

There was a knock on my door one day. I heard a vehicle in my driveway and I wasn’t expecting anyone. It was a man with two little girls with him, 11 and 9 years old. And he had a woven bag filled with documents that included subcommittee hearings from the US Congress. I opened the door and he said, “You are Carolyn Forche?”

And I said, “Yes.”

And he said, “I am Lionel Gomez.”

The man I’d read the poem about. And he asked to come in. I’ll skip a little bit of the story about how I tested him to see if he really was who he was – I was young and a little paranoid. He came in and spent three days talking to me.

He had learned form Claribel’s daughter, his cousin, that I had received a Guggenheim grant. And he asked me what I was planning to do during my Guggenheim year. I said I had just learned the news myself, “I don’t know.”

And he said, “In 3 to 5 years there is going to be a war in El Salvador. It’s going to horrible. And American public opinion is going to matter to what happens in the prosecution of that war.”

And he said, “So why don’t you come to El Salvador and learn as much as you can about the situation there. About the reasons why this war is inevitable. And when it begins you can come back to the US and explain things, explain matters, to the American people.”

And I said, “Well, firstly I don’t think we are really going to get involved in another war after Vietnam. I don’t think that will happen. Secondly how can you know that a war is coming in 3 to 5 years? And also even if I was to come there, and come back when the war starts, how would I explain anything to the American world. I’m a poet.”

And he said, “Well that’s the reason. Because you are a poet.”

And I said, “But Americans don’t tend to take poetry seriously in the way you are imagining.”

I knew that in Latin America poets became diplomats or were imprisoned or were executed. He didn’t know that we were treated rather lightly here. And so he said, “Well you’re going to have to change that.”

And I thought the man was mad, truly and utterly – and he may well have been if madness is an ability to completely devote yourself to a cause such as his, which was betterment of the world.

So I arrived in January 1978 and during the course of two years became a human rights activist. I had some pretty harsh stories to tell when I came back to the States. The Colonel poem among them but many many more. And much harsher.

I think my poetry book arising as it did from my own personal experience, as all my poetry has, shocked some people. And because our government, the US government, was supporting the military government of El Salvador, and then hence supporting the atrocities that I was describing, I was viewed as political. Not only political, but anti-American. Not only anti-American, but anti-patriotic. I had never really felt myself to be political, becuase I had always imagined that politics was about political parties. Especially in Latin America, if you were political you not only belonged to a party, perhaps even a small one, but you went to meetings all the time. And you did what the party wanted you to do. So if that’s what political was, I wasn’t political.

And so I tried to imagine what it was that I was. Well, I’ve only been off and on religious in my life, so I wasn’t religious. So I began to explore. Was it a question of morality? No, morality is the way we treat individuals one on one. Ok, so its ethics. But one doesn’t say, “I’m not political, I’m ethical.” Because one would not call oneself ethical, although one should be able to. One can say I’m political but not say I’m ethical? I remember the poet June Jordan once said to me, “I don’t know what my politics are, but I know what I want to help have happen.” I always liked that phrase.

What role does poetry play in cultural regeneration?

Well, you see the accusation of being political is what led me to the exploration of poets of the 20th century who had endured conditions of extremity. I decided to restrict my study to poets who had endured extremity collectively inflicted through the deprivation of the state, through the failures of the state, or through warfare and so on. So I was interested in those who were incarcerated, those who endured occupation, house arrest, forced exile, torture. I found that outside the English-speaking world, most poets of the 20th century endured some kind of extremity.

And I became interested in the mark of that extremity…in the language itself. I know that there has been a lot said about how language, novels, poems, stories, cannot possibly represent an event as large as the Holocaust for example. But I began to think not in terms of representation but in terms of evidence. The language is evidence; it is itself evidence that something occurred. And whether or not the poems were explicitly about the experience of suffering in the extremity, I believed that they held within them the trace and mark of that experience.

For example when the Turkish poet Nasim Hikmet is suffering in prison and writes about the spring ice thawing and writes about his wife far away, you feel that he is writing with prison bars between himself and that ice. So I began connecting it all together, initially for my students. It evolved into the anthology.

And when I was making the presentation for the anthology’s publication, the concept of a poetry of witness seemed difficult for the editors to whom I was making my appeal. So, in order to tell them, I told them the story of one poet. And the story I told was of Miklós Radnóti, who was the foremost Hungarian poet of his generation.

In 1944 Miklós Radnóti was force-marched into the country that would become and once was Yugoslavia, to do military forced labor. The Nazis, toward the end of the war, made peculiar decisions. Historians are still studying these decisions. Decisions to evacuate this camp and send all the prisoners to another camp. One of these decisions was to force march 2000 of these slave laborers from Yugoslavia back into Hungary, among them the poet Miklós Radnóti. And before they left he was able to obtain a small notebook, no one knows how. Force-marched in the snow, with a unit of German soldiers, back into Hungary. They get across the Hungarian border and there are only 22 survivors of that march, among them Radnóti.

The German soldiers wanted to get back to their units and they saw a hospital across the Hungarian border. They tried to leave these 22 prisoners in the hospital, but the Hungarians barred the door. They were full, they were frightened, they didn’t want anything to do with this. So the German soldiers took these 22 people to the forest and executed them. They buried them in a shallow grave, a common grave.

Two years after the war, Miklós Radnóti’s widow went with the other villagers to this site in the forest. They exhumed the bodies themselves and laid them out on the field. And Fanni Radnóti went from corpse to corpse until she found her husband. He had been in the ground for 2 years. She went through the pockets of his clothing, pulled out the little notebook, peeled the pages apart, and dried them in the sun. And they held the last of his poems – the poems written on the forced march. Those where the poems I wanted to publish in Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness.

Miklós Radnóti
Forced March

The man who, having collapsed, rises, takes steps, is insane;
he’ll move an ankle, a knee, an arrant mass of pain,
and take to the raod again as if wings were to lift him high;
in vain the ditch will call him: he simply dare not stay;
and should you ask, why not? Perhaps he’ll turn and answer:
his wife is waiting back home, and a death, one beautiful, wiser.
But see, the wretch is a fool, for over the homes, that world,
long since nothing but singed winds have been known to whirl;
his housewall lies supine; your plum tree, broken clear,
and all the nights back home horripilate with fear.
Oh, if I could believe that I haven’t merely borne
what is worthwhile, in my heart; that there is, to return, a home;
tell me it’s all still there: the cool verandah, bees
of peaceful silence buzzing, while the plum jam cooled;
where over sleepy gardens summer-end peace sunbathed,
and among bow and foliage fruits were swaying naked;
and, blonde, my Fanni waited before the redwood fence,
with morning slowly tracing its shadowed reticence. . . .
But all that could still be– tonight the moon is so round!
Don’t go past me, my friend– shout! And I’ll come around!

— translated by Emery George

And that story somehow persuaded the editors and they understood what it was I was trying to do. And so the next phase of my work began, which was to track down the poems, find the best translations, gather permissions. And then, because I hoped that teachers would be able to use this book, I wrote historical head notes for each section so that students would have a little knowledge about the Armenian genocide before they read the Armenian poets, and so on. So that volume begins with the Armenian Genocide and it ends with Tiananmen Square, because Tiananmen Square was the last event before I published the book.

This volume begins with a quote by Bertolt Brecht:

In the dark times, will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing.
About the dark times.

And then at the end, 145 poets later, writing in 30 languages, across time, across national borders, there is another Brecht quote which is:

This, then, is all. It’s not enough, I know.
At least I’m still alive, as you may see.
I’m like the man who took a brick to show
How beautiful his house used once to be.

I love these bookend mottos. And what I found true of these poems, and I had four times the amount of poems I was allowed to publish in this volume…I could have made four volumes…what I found was that the human soul endures in the poetry. And that the poetry is as some say, as Rilke and Celine after him, the natural prayer of the human soul and a depository for all that occurred.

I also found that the poets were talking to each other. Sometimes actually very directly – one poet would write a poem for another poet who lived a world away and very distant in time – there are many such poems, cross currents of poets writing to each other. And then there is also, you know, the images that leap from culture to culture and language to language. Obviously the flesh and blood and snow, but also roosters. Roosters are universally disliked by the poets, they’re always crowing at the wrong time, or they are harbingers of something terrible. I thought, “Ohhh, none of them like the roosters.”

I started tracking the images and studying what happened in the poems.

Often the poet announces him or herself. They’ll say who they are. They’ll appeal to be believed by readers they know will be incredulous, because they know the events that their poems will describe will be unbelievable to people who haven’t experienced them.

And there are other things. They experience themselves as severed, their past self and their present self as different selves. They experience the past as dreams as if it’s another country. They experience the impossibility of forgiving and the impossibility of remembering. They experience the vital importance of language and the absolute inadequacy of language. They struggle through all of these things.

And the poems emerge and they sing of those times, just as Brecht said in his motto. So if there is a cultural repository it is in art, and in literary art.

My husband was in Ecuador once, and he was looking at beautiful pottery, case after case after case, in a museum. And he comes to case in a certain period of time where the pots were just made of mud and not decorated, and then another case of beautiful pots. So he asked the docent, “What happened here?”

The docent said, “Oh, that was a period when we were at war. We were a war culture – nothing beautiful happened then. But we thought we would gather these anyway so people could see, so there would be continuity.”

I think about those pots often. And I think yeah we’ve accomplished a great deal human kind, but how much more could we have if we had just stopped killing each other?

How many Einstens did we kill after all?

Does poetry make us whole?

No, I believe that what we do is we repair the damage in the aftermath. We glue the broken vessel together again. It’s beautiful again, but its cracks will always show. Perhaps it will leak a little, but it will be glued back together again. This is Benjamin’s image of what the translator does. You see I don’t believe in closure, I don’t believe that we get over things. I believe that we learn to live with them for the rest of our lives and we consciously attempt to spare our children the damage that was done to us. But not so much so that they don’t understand the mystery of the suffering withheld from them.

If we experience something but we don’t tell our children they know that something is there, a secret is there withheld from them. I find in our culture that we use this word closure. ‘How are you going to reach closure?’ parents are asked right after their children are murdered. I find this a very peculiar word. The other expression is ‘to get past this,’ ‘to get over it.’

As I said I don’t believe that we are living after these events, we are living in their aftermath. They are legible and readable all over the world, not only in the rubble of the buildings but in the rubble of the human heart. So I think what we have to take on is not a magical erasure, a historical erasure, but rather the dedicated work of repair, and the dedicated work of mitigating suffering, and the dedicated work of preventing further occurrence of suffering.

So we can recuperate, we can preserve, we can soothe, we can heal, we can suture, we can mend, but I don’t want that to include the idea that we will ever get away with living as if it never happened. And that’s why it shouldn’t happen again. Because we don’t get to live without it, ever. So if we allow it, it is in our hearts forever.

That is one of the reasons we shouldn’t allow it, not the greatest one. You see this is something that if we think that we can move on from, if we have the illusion that we can live undamaged by what we allow to have happen, not only what we do but what we fail to prevent…we are living under an illusion if we believe that we can ever live without it in our hearts – for what we have done and what we have failed to do.

So one of the things I find peculiar is when people say they aren’t political. I agree with that statement, I agree that its possible, but I don’t know what that means. If we mean by that that we don’t take action in our lives, that we don’t oppose injustice in humanity, and that we don’t stand against a government that is inflicting pain – if that is what being apolitical is then I am not apolitical.

Has your work led you into situations of extreme danger?

In El Salvador everyone was in danger. For me, I didn’t experience a confrontation with harrowing danger until early March or late February 1980. I had four near misses and then Leonel convinced me to go back home. I was with him in the hospital at the Sisters of Divine Province, in their convent kitchen. We had supper. He said “You must leave tomorrow.”

And I said, “No I just want to stay about two more weeks. I just have a little more to do.”

And he said, “No, tomorrow.”

And I said, “But you are first on the death list, number one, please you must come too. You must leave too.”

And he said, “No, my place is with my people. And now your place is with yours, your people.”

And I had never thought of myself as having a people. Americans don’t really think of themselves as ‘our people’ because we are not actually in that sense – the blood rooted centuries old sense – we are people of an idea born when our country was born, but we are not a people. However I took that on. I thought, “All right I’ll try.”

But I told him that I wouldn’t be able to speak to large numbers of Americans because I was a poet. We speak to very tiny numbers of Americans. And he said, “No, you will see. You will talk to them. You will see. It will happen. All you have to do is prepare.”

So I thought, “well they don’t understand.”

And later when the book was published, suddenly it came at a time when El Salvador was important to the United States. That time was fleeting, and is over in many ways, but because of that the little book got a lot more attention than any poetry book would ever. And so I did get to speak to Americans. And he was right and I was wrong. At least for a time.

There are several poets in against forgetting that wrote poems describing their own deaths…

Vladimir Mayakovsky
Past one o’clock

Past one o’clock. You must have gone to bed.
The Milky Way streams silver thought the night.
I’m in no hurry; with lightning telegrams
I have no cause to wake or trouble you.
And, as they say, the incident is closed.
Love’s boat has smashed against the daily grind.
No you and I are quits. Why bother then
to balance mutual sorrows, pains, and hurts.
Behold what quiet settles on the world.
Night wraps the sky in tribute from the stars.
In hours like these, one rises to address
The ages, history, and all creation.

— translated by George Reavey

That was his last poem. It was written just before he took his own life. Some people feel it was written as a suicide note. But there are others who made predictions and those predictions were filled.

There were many quite astonishing things about this poetry when it is studied together, when it is collected and read as a whole body, rather than as separate works by poets living at different times in different literary cultures. It seemed to me that sometimes it was almost like a symphony of utterance; a world voice of what it meant to be a human being in the 20th century, and now in the 21st.

What is the responsibility of the arts?

I don’t think art can be tasked, but I would say, in a certain way, poetry resists becoming a commodity. In writing poetry one retrieves from human consciousness a knowledge that can’t be retrieved by any other means. So, you can read in poetry something that you cant find anywhere else. I believe that. Any one who reads a great deal of poetry will find that to be so. Poetry sustains our contemplation. It slows our consciousness. It allows us to inhabit another being’s conscious. It allows us to increase our empathic imagination. Very little in contemporary culture seems to achieve that now. So yes, I believe that poetry does that, and is always doing that.

And I believe that poets, when they are really writing poetry, are standing against injustice. They simply do that by recuperating from the human soul its natural prayer and consciousness. So, it doesn’t matter whether the subject matter is dedicated to a particular event. In fact very often it will not be. No I don’t think you can say, “Poets, you must write about genocide.”

However, I think the poetic act is an act in the province of human becoming and that would include humans becoming a species incapable of annihilating itself.

I worked in El Salvador and I now know, I admit now, that I was affected deeply by that work. And then my husband and I were in Beirut during a period of warfare during 1983 and ’84, and then we were in South Africa during the last days of apartheid. Also I did work in a few other countries – in Belfast during the Troubles and in the West Bank – so by the time I emerged from Beirut where we were under shell fire I found myself unable to write as I had written before – coherently, fluently, able to write. I couldn’t. Everything was shattered. I felt that the images were almost like the broken glass in a kaleidoscope, just crushed together. Swimming through me and there was no…I couldn’t write.

So when I sat down to write The Angel of History there was an entirely new form that emerged. It was polyphonic and I heard other voices coming into my work and I stopped trying to control it in that first person feverous way. I had to let things be as they were, and I had to work in another way for a long time. I think I am better now. I think I have come through. It took becoming a mother, raising a son, and providing security, stability and love for him, which accidently, then indirectly, supplied it for myself. And also just coming through, maturing, writing through it, getting through it.

Carolyn Forche
The Colonel

What you have heard is true. I was in his house.
His wife carried a tray of coffee and sugar. His
daughter filed her nails, his son went out for the
night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol
on the cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on
its black cord over the house. On the television
was a cop show. It was in English. Broken bottles
were embedded in the walls around the house to
scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his
hands to lace. On the windows there were gratings
like those in liquor stores. We had dinner, rack of
lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for
calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes,
salt, a type of bread. I was asked how I enjoyed
the country. There was a brief commercial in
Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was
some talk of how difficult it had become to govern.
The parrot said hello on the terrace. The colonel
told it to shut up, and pushed himself from the
table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say
nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to
bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on
the table. They were like dried peach halves. There
is no other way to say this. He took one of them in
his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a
water glass. It came alive there. I am tired of
fooling around he said. As for the rights of anyone,
tell your people they can go f— themselves. He
swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held
the last of his wine in the air. Something for your
poetry, no? he said. Some of the ears on the floor
caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on
the floor were pressed to the ground.

May 1978

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