Poet, human rights activist, and professor Carolyn Forché has been widely recognized for her ability to join her poetic sensibilities with her commitment to social and political change. Some of that recognition has come in the form of literary awards: The Yale Younger Poets Selection for Gathering the Tribes (1975); The Lannan Award for The Country Between Us (1981); and The Los Angeles Times Book Award for The Angel of History (1994). In 1994 she also edited and published Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, a selection of work from 145 poets from around the world who, as says Forché in the introduction, “endured conditions of extremity during the twentieth-century.” For her combination of writing, editorial work and ongoing activism, Forché also received the 1998 Edita and Ira Morris Hiroshima Foundation Award for promoting peace in a cultural field.
Such recognition has not come without criticism. Forché’s critics have ranged from the Reagan administration to literary reviewers and critics who see her refusal to separate poetry and politics as damaging to the quality of both.
Aware of such criticism, Forché nevertheless remains committed to what she terms a “poetry of witness.” She insists that her work (along with the work she has anthologized) is received problematically because of the American poetry world falsely separates the literary and the political. Forché insists, though, that “political” poets are no “less poetic because they had a subject matter and were naively representational. I wanted to argue that rather than reading these poems as representational, we can read them as evidence of the wound -- as what happened to the language when these things happened to the poet and the poet’s world.”
The following conversation took place on the campus of Newman University in Wichita, Kansas after Forché had delivered a complex lecture relating the work of philosopher Emmanual Levinas to the acts of writing and witnessing that have been the focus of her life’s work. In this conversation, the poet clarifies how she sees the “evidence of the wound” and its importance for writing poetry, her belief in how the sacred and community inform her work, and her response to the American poetry world and the ways readers have received her work.
Carolyn Forché: What you would like to ask?
David Wright: In the talk you gave last night, you commented that you grow out of a community of artists and thinkers that you called “archivists of the incomprehensible.” I like that term, but I wonder in what way is it a community in any recognizable sense? I mean, it’s a community in the sense that these folks have common concerns or have common experiences of extremity, but when I think of community I think of it on a more knowable plane of existence, something more daily, in the way you would think maybe of a neighborhood or a church or a family. How do you think of community?
CF: My sense of community was very coherent when I was a child because I grew up in a rural Catholic area. Our lives were bounded by the liturgical year, and we attended school with the same 82 students for 12 years. I spent most of my childhood in the same house, in the same neighborhood, which is where I first began writing poetry.
DW: So how does this community of “archivists of the incomprehensible” connect to that sort of community?
CF: I left home to go to the university and subsequently commenced with a kind of a nomadic life that I inherited somewhat from my paternal grandmother. I’ve been told that on my father’s side of the family (the Czechoslovakian side) there’ve always been women who have wandered, including my grandmother, who was the first to come to America.
She first left Slovakia when she was 11 years old, and when she arrived in America she worked in a needle factory and earned passage not only for her parents but also for their parents to come to America. So it was this child bringing the rest of her family.
She lived with us when I was growing up, but she would disappear for periods of time when I was a child. She’d leave and come back in six weeks or eight weeks.
DW: Did you know where she went?
CF: No one knew where she went. But she would come back with stories about staying with Mennonites in Pennsylvania and with Native Americans. After she died, people kept showing up at the doorstep of my Aunt Anna -- my father’s oldest sister -- saying “Well, we knew your mother and she came to stay with us and invited us to come and stay with her.” So my Aunt Anna was hosting people for years that were the scattered community that my grandmother had assembled.
DW: That’s an interesting phrase -- the idea of a scattered and assembled community.
CF: This is how I started to perceive my own life because I was very nomadic in my first years of adulthood, from age 18 until about age 37. I never stayed anywhere very long. I was an itinerant professor and then for a time I worked as a human rights activist in other countries.
This period ended after we left Paris in December of 1987. Our son was just nine months old, and we came back to the United States. We remained itinerant in the United States for another two years before I settled at George Mason University. I’ve been there now for 10 years and have had my first stable home life in my adult life.
What happened over these decades of moving around was that I had to assemble community wherever I went. For some reason it was not very difficult for me to enter into other communities. I felt very at home anywhere I went.
DW: Do you think that’s what partly allows you to do poetically some of what you’ve been able to do? Where you can write in an authentic way or in an honoring way about El Salvador? Or collect the range of voices that are in The Angel of History? I mean the danger is writing tourist poems. And you’ve been criticized for that sometimes -- I don’t know that it’s an unexpected criticism.
CF: You know, I was thinking about that recently, thinking about what tourism is. I don’t like to draw negative distinctions and judgments about people’s experiences of travel because I think you can have an extremely intense experience in a matter of days; you can also stay somewhere for years and never really connect with it.
DW: I agree. Not knowing the ground underfoot.
CF: So these judgements about “tourist poems” are usually leveled by people who don’t have very much knowledge of what the person did what it meant to them and how it formed relationships.
DW: It’s the quality of that experience that you’re talking about.
CF: It’s the quality of it, and it’s your commitment and it’s what you’re willing to do when you’re there. I was never accused of being a tourist in El Salvador.
In fact, the accusations have usually been leveled by people from the United States who don’t know me. So from the outside I suppose itinerancy can be condemned easily because if you’re not involved with that lifestyle, it can have that appearance.
DW: Denise Levertov calls that the “migrant muse.” She has an essay about rooted plants and air plants where she calls herself an air plant -- a plant without roots because in her own way she was in so many different places over the course of her life.
CF: That’s right. Fascism never tolerates itinerancy or difference but condemns it. Itinerancy has never been an acceptable mode of being for a fascist context. I’m descended from itinerants and migrants and so I don’t have that same bias against it.
DW: And those immigrants and itinerants fled fascism, yes?
CF: Yes. And that differs so much from tourism. A tourist is someone who takes in the world, or appropriates from the world what he or she can find useful. But tourists don’t really effectively change in themselves. They go to a place, and they come home. They may have some experiences to talk about, but they are fundamentally unchanged by them.
DW: That’s why there’s a McDonalds in downtown Vienna. So you can go there without being changed.
CF: Exactly. But if you’re willing to be changed, and if you submit yourself to the community in such a way that you are vulnerable to whatever happens, that’s not a form of tourism that I would recognize.
DW: So this ties up then with your recent work on Emmanuel Levinas, on the idea of looking at the face of the other as the face and not as something . . .
CF: . . . to be appropriated or known or incorporated into the self or used or modified in some way. And I came to that not after reading Levinas but after some dramatic shifts in my life, in my consciousness that were the result of being in different places. Some of those shifts happened without my knowing, but there are a few that I recognize and remember as having occurred at a certain point in time.
I had two such moments in El Salvador. I think when I first arrived in El Salvador I was seeing it as an exotic place I would see women walking gracefully by the side of the road balancing jugs on their heads very gracefully and you know it was almost the postcard vision of the world. Then of course you step into a crowded bus and a woman gets on and asks you if she can place the jug on your lap because she’s standing, and you recognize that the jug weighs 100 pounds and it’s filled with water because she has no potable water within 3 kilometers of her village. Or it’s filled with whatever equally weighty material. You no longer view her gracefulness in quite the same way.
DW: And the tourist either wouldn’t be on that bus, wouldn’t accept the jug, or would be annoyed.
CF: Annoyed -- well possibly, yes.
DW: As opposed to being taught in some way.
CF: Yes, they would certainly recognize their discomfort and want it to end. I recognize that desire too.
The second real shift for me happened when I went into a prison to try to make a map of it. I was asked to go inside and to pretend to be visiting someone whom I was to pretend to know. He was a young man who had phlebitis in his leg. He was very ill. He’d been a political prisoner for quite some time. It was obvious that he was not going to be released and that if the phlebitis remained untreated he was not going to live. So he was the person who tried to show me the layout of the prison. He knew what I was there for and what his task was.
It was a very wrenching experience. The prison conditions were gruesome. My friend who made the arrangements for me to go inside said that he thought everything would be okay, that I wouldn’t be detained and that I would be able to get out again. He told me it would go all right, and we wouldn’t be caught in our charade of pretending to know each other. But then, just before I went in, he said there was the chance that all would not be well and that he didn’t know what was going to happen if we were discovered.
At any rate, when I got outside the prison, because of the physical and psychological intensity of the experience, I got into the truck and as he drove us away I started to cry and become violently sick to my stomach. I asked him if we could go to the hotel because I needed to recover. We were staying in a hotel in this town, and I said I needed to take a shower. I needed to rest. I was exhausted.
He had planned for me to meet with some young poets in the barrio in the capital city that night. Obviously both things were not going to be able to happen. I couldn’t go to the hotel and still meet with these poets. So I begged him to let me rest and shower and have some time to myself and couldn’t we postpone this meeting.
Unbeknownst to me, of course, the meeting was very difficult to arrange. The people we were meeting were under surveillance by the military. They were in danger all the time. It had been a very intricate operation to arrange the meeting. But I wasn’t aware of it and I wasn’t registering it that way. I thought he was being unsympathetic and insensitive toward me. This was the last moment when I would identify myself as being in a tourist mentality.
But he said “Okay, okay, I understand. We’ll go to the capital and we’ll go home and you can rest and take a shower.” But he said, “I’m going to stop on the way and tell them that you can’t be with them tonight. And we have to postpone and I have to tell them so we have to go there first.” So I said ok. And instead of saying “Oh, poor you, that was rough, you know, I’m sorry,” he told me something.
He said, “I want you to pay attention to how you’re feeling because this is what the oppression feels like. When you ask me why don’t the people organize and why isn’t this like this, or that like that, remember this feeling. This is what the oppression feels like; this is what people live with every day. And this is the ground of their being. And if you pay attention to what you’re feeling, you may begin to understand what they’re going through.”
So we drove in silence. It was dark when we got to the capital, and we drove into this dark barrio, really a slum. He said, “You stay here I’ll be right back.” Then he parked the car and got out and walked away.
So I’m sitting in the cab of a pickup truck in the middle of a very impoverished district where I knew no one. And I was okay for a while. Then he didn’t come back. I didn’t know what building he’d gone into I didn’t know where he was. I was trapped in this pickup truck. I was sick, I was covered with vomit, and I didn’t know what to do. I started to cry.
As I was trying to go to sleep. finally a young man, very young -- in his twenties -- tapped on the glass. I rolled down the window, and he asked “Are you the poet Carolyn Forché?” And I said yes.
“Okay,” he said, “you know you should come upstairs with me. Your host is up there. He’s sorry he’s been so long, but my wife just had a baby, just now. Maybe you would like to come and see the baby?”
He said, “We understand how you feel, but would you like to come and see this baby. Because we don’t want to leave you out here.”
So I went up into this very, very humble dwelling, and there on the floor was a cardboard box with a newborn wrapped in blankets with about five or six young male poets standing around because they were there for the meeting. And the mother was there, happy and recovering. And there was nothing in the apartment. You know -- nothing. It wasn’t really an apartment; it was a room in one of these slums.
I looked at the baby -- the baby was beautiful -- and they all said to me, “Oh, we were told what happened at the prison, and we know you’re very tired, and we’re very sorry, and we understand and we’ll come and we can talk another night. You know, it’s so difficult and we hope you will feel better.”
I looked around the room and thought. And I felt: “No, I’m not tired. I’m never going to be tired again. I’m never going to say I need a shower again. These people are risking their lives every day. They have nothing. They’re willing to come out in the middle of the night when death squads are operating in the city. You know, for what? For what reason? Because someone they respect said that there’s someone they should meet.”
So those were two moments, and then the other moment was when I realized that the people around me were willing to protect me with their own lives. I understood if something happened that they would try to get me through it, even if it cost them.
DW: That’s what Levinas calls living for the other, isn’t it?
CF: It got illuminated for me in Levinas, later. But this was my first experience of being in a community of people I trusted to be and to feel themselves so selflessly a part of each other that the survival of each other was more important than they were themselves, to themselves.
I had never experienced that before. Perhaps in my life I had been in such a situation before. I’m sure my parents would have protected me in that way, but I had never felt it with strangers. You know, I’d never felt it.
DW: And how often would your parents have been put in that extreme situation, where they would have to exemplify it?
CF: Right -- it was a new experience for me. So working in Salvador began to be something that had nothing to do with anything but that interconnectedness.
DW: There’s the poem in The Country Between Us where you’re having a conversation in the U.S. after coming back.
CF: Yes. “Return.”
DW: Right, and it seems to be about some of these kinds of differences. You’re describing to . . .
CF: . . . . to my friend Josephine. She had lived in Latin America and she knew the experience. The poem became a dialogue, and it was a way of speaking almost to myself and of saying things I wanted to say to myself, to others, that began to be in the shape of this dialogue. We’d had similar conversations. It’s not a transcribed conversation. But it is a kind of dialogue that was deeply resonant with the truth of the situation as I perceived it.
When I came back to the United States and published the poetry book, there was a real a very jarring period where the book was received by American literary readers, or readers of poetry. And the reality into which the book was received was the poetry world. It took me a long time to realize that. I felt so estranged from the reception of that book. Because for me the book was not about a book of poetry. I wasn’t concerned about the same things as the people who were reading it critically to appreciate it as some literary artifact.
DW: Or who write criticism and do interviews?
CF: (laughter). I thought, you know, I can think of far easier ways, if one’s goal is to be a known figure in the United States, for whatever that would mean, there are far easier ways to be known.
How could anyone imagine that one would go through this?. . . I can’t even put it into words. I mean, the disconnect between that critical perception and what that life was for me was so profound that I don’t even know how to answer. I felt really pained by the realization that people could not conceive of going outside of their own spheres other than as tourists, that they had no capacity to imagine how life might be otherwise. And how they might be able to leave themselves behind in some way.
DW: And the irony of that is that we literature professors claim that’s what literature does for you.
CF: Gets you outside . . .
DW: Yes. Gets you out of yourself. Allows you to imagine in the eyes and guise of another. And I think that it can do that.
CF: Yeah, well that’s . . .that’s a beautiful idea.
DW: That’s a beautiful idea, but it clearly didn’t happen in a lot of the critical reception of The Country Between Us or The Angel of History.
CF: You know tourists generally, I suppose, go to exotic places but not to places where they would be themselves put in danger. If you go to a place where you’re in danger, there’s something else going on. You’re a doctor, you’re a relief worker, you’re a soldier, you’re a journalist which has its own set of complications. In some way, these are not places to be “touristed.”
For one thing, you’re not safe, you’re never safe in such places and I can’t imagine tourism operating outside of the illusion, at least, of safety.
DW: You’ve talked and written a little bit about what that reaction to your work told you about the poetry world.
CF: It was a sad realization that what seemed to be important or focused upon in the poetry community in the United States seemed to hinge on reputation, readership, critical assessment. All were things having to do with an illusion of self, and with a commodification of one’s art: that one would make poems not for the sake of making them; that one would publish for the sake of achieving some sort of renown that would accrue to the pathetic ego. After Salvador, it just didn’t make any sense to me.
But you see I was already doing another work, so I was spared it in a way because I didn’t have to worry that I no longer valued those things, if I ever did. I don’t think poetry was ever that for me. You know, I started writing when I was 9, I had no knowledge of this mode of perceiving poetry.
DW: A few years back, in the introduction to Against Forgetting, you talked about making a new space for poetry, something you called “the social.” You described the social as this kind of third space between the personal and the political.
CF: That was in the days when I was trying to deepen or somehow complicate the debate about poetry and politics.
DW: Have you given up that debate?
CF: Given it up?
DW: Or just decided you’re done? I mean, the recent work on Levinas seems to be a part of that same conversation.
CF: I think I am picking it up again. But you know, what I realized was that the whole understanding of what constitutes the political is not very deeply appreciated in the United States. There are communities which do very much appreciate it, but I don’t think the political is understood or matters generally here.
Politics here is only perceived oppositionally. It’s not perceived in its essence as the ideological formation of those who benefit from the status quo. It’s only rendered visible in opposition. I think I sort of gave up on trying to clarify for a while.
When Against Forgetting was published I was very exhausted by that oppositional debate. For me the anthology was what I wanted to say. So I didn’t continue with it. I went into a period of reclusivity and quiet and meditation and began to think what is next for me in the world?
DW: And eventually that silence gave way to The Angel of History?
CF: Yes. At the time I was taking care of my son, was being a mother. And although I was living a very private domestic life, I was still so deeply involved in a meditation on the century. I was very young still, and feeling and thinking my way toward the poem.
DW: This meditation on the century, you’ve talked about it several places. That term in itself has such an explicit spiritual, sacred connotation. But you’ve also said you don’t want to sacralize literature.
CF: No. Not literature. Sacralize the sacred but not literature.
DW: So how do you do that with poetry?
CF: The sacred can appear in language. It does appear in language and it appears in poetry. But poetry’s not useful to the sacred. I mean one doesn’t submit poetry to a kind of usefulness. It doesn’t have utility in that way.
The sacred is resonant in the language but this has nothing to do with literature as it’s socially constructed and perceived as a body of human labor, as a product of socially constructed genius or anything else. I don’t fetishize literature. Maybe that’s better than sacralize.
DW: I think both are good. And I think both keep literature from removing itself from the world. If I can quote you at yourself, you’ve talked about how literature can hold open human wounds, the wounds of history, how poetry can allow us to see the ruptures in the language, the ruptures in the self, the ruptures in the culture that occur in situations of extremity.
It strikes me that the story you were telling about the prison and going to the barrio and being in that room. That’s not a story you’ve allowed to heal over in any way. It’s a wound that’s supposed to be held open in some way.
CF: Yes. Because I don’t want to lose what I learned there. And I don’t want to move on. And I don’t want closure. And I don’t want to recover. Because I don’t want to lose what happened to me. I don’t want that to be changed back. I don’t want to return to the obliviousness that I had participated in before that. You have to hold things open in order to nurture whatever new awareness was born there.
DW: I think that’s one of the things I find valuable about community as a site of resistance in postmodernity. It’s a different construct from the state or from the self; it’s a way of having this kind of heterogeneous social self, but with limits. It’s not the sort of globalized, industrial self or the media-saturated self. It’s a self . . .
CF: Or the mediated self of the media. Or that which is reflected back to us to construct ourselves as consumers or whatever.
DW: I think it’s inevitably mediated on some levels.
CF: Well, all life is.
DW: But you had to eventually make choices about which lines to put in The Angel of History, and which ones to exclude.
CF: Right. Exactly. There’s always mediation. But I think I was referring to the way in which our psyches are being colonized by forces we don’t want to mediate us.
DW: I think that’s where community potentially becomes a grounding for our existence. Because in a community you can hear different stories than the Nike ad. Or you hear stories different from the triumphal narrative of American progress.
CF: Which is what I encounter all over this country, those alternative narratives. When I’m uncertain if I can continue to write here in the U. S., I find that what’s happening everywhere else is also happening here.
I’ve traveled a considerable amount in the last twenty years, and the more I meet people and encounter people, even in the most remote areas of the United States, I find intact and radiant, compassionate communities all over this country.
And they know each other, they care for each other, and they’re very awake and have a great deal in common. Their perceptions are quite in concert with the perceptions of other such communities elsewhere even though they’re not necessarily in contact.
What really stunned me was during the period of the building of resistance work in the United States during the American military involvement in Central America, was a kind of spontaneous bursting forth of these communities all over the country. Many of them were quite unaware of what was going on elsewhere or that they had companions. It was so heartening to see and to see how willing they were to work and to travel and to engage themselves.
DW: What’s the importance of poetry then, for you, or for those communities?
CF: The occasion for these gatherings was always ostensibly a poetry reading. But it would be the poetry and the talking and the urgency and the concern, the involvement, the compassion. And everyone felt that these were deeply connected to the poetry and to the sharing of the poetry.
DW: But the poetry wasn’t just some sort of utilitarian catalyst or some sort of educational tool?
CF: No. It was part of the life of the community.
DW: Is that what you saw in in Central America or in South Africa or in other places where you were?
CF: Absolutely -- all over the world. I’ve never been in a place where I couldn’t find them. And now it’s become very easy to find them. For instance, when I went into Northern Ireland in the early, very early 80’s, all it took was walking into a bookstore on the Falls road. And I started looking at the books, and they were books of opposition to British Rule. So I started asking a few questions of the bookstore owner.
Immediately I found myself sleeping in a house with a bunch of people who were activists and intellectuals. I was passed from hand to hand all over Derry and Belfast and all over the North. I found myself getting completely educated -- they didn’t know me from anyone. But they were willing to engage. People will take you in and they will help you and they will give you guidance and they will give you books to read and they will introduce you to people. And I found myself doing this in Northern Ireland and receiving an education from them at their hands.
DW: So has your status as a well-known poet now, as a teacher in a creative writing program, helped or hurt that engagement in any way? Because you talked about the literary establishment, and the games that get played, and in some ways, like it or not, you’re seen as a key figure there.
CF: Sure. But it’s very easy to move outside of that sphere. Because poetry -- the literary establishment -- is very small, and the world outside of it is very large. The only places I’m really recognized outside of that poetry world are maybe bookstores, independent bookstores, if I go into one and sign a check, I will occasionally be recognized or noticed.
In America you don’t have to worry about notoriety as a poet interfering with anything because there is no such thing. In El Salvador for a long time no one knew I was a poet. In the world of human rights activism no one much knew that I was a poet. Some people did but it wasn’t a meaningful fact. It was like saying well I was a painter, or I was a plumber. . .
DW: Or someone making maps of prison. . .
CF: Yes. I was doing other kinds of work. And any kind of recognition I had as a poet didn’t enter into it at all.
DW: I guess what I’m wondering though is . . .
CF: But later it did. Later they discovered that I was publishing these books in the United States and so on, of course. Then there was a kind of collision of worlds. But for a long time I kept it separate. Or I kept it as separate as I could -- partly because I didn’t think they really had anything to do with each other.
I was writing poetry, yes, and I was also doing this other work the way that some poets fly fish or have other interests in their lives.
DW: And they write about it.
CF: And they write about it but they don’t expect that every fly fisherman is going to be affected by the fact that they’re a poet. I didn’t think about those things. And I wasn’t particularly famous before The Country Between Us, and I would say that it was difficult to have that notoriety. It was painful. It got fairly ugly in the poetry world. So I took refuge outside of the poetry world. You know, I left the country.
DW: You went to Beirut.
CF: Yes. And I didn’t publish a book for how many years? I used to know this figure. I think it’s fourteen years.
DW: Right. 1981 to 1994.
CF: So if I were hell-bent for leather to become a famous poet I probably wouldn’t have waited fourteen years.
DW: You should have published more poems.
CF: I could have written another book right away. I certainly had a lot of material. I’d been in Beirut and South Africa. But this was not my interest. It still is not my interest.
DW: So once you did decide to write again, how did you find The Angel of History? You’ve written about the process of trying to listen and meditate and pay attention to the silenced or shattered voices of the century, all those notions you write about in the notes at the end of the book. But I’m still interested in where the self intrudes in that process. Or do you not see that as an intrusion? Do you understand me?
In the composing process you talk about almost a kind of channeling experience. You describe how these voices would show up and all of a sudden here’s this old woman in a Paris hotel speaking, and you have to let her in; and your grandmother speaks and you have to let her in. And the woman at the . . .
CF: I suppose it’s the experience novelists have.
DW: Like when the woman at the Peace Garden in Hiroshima shows up and talks to you and you let her talk for a while and you realize you have to . . . .
CF: And why not?
DW: Because what she has to say is so compelling.
CF: Right. Very important. And why not?
DW: But where does the self or where does the lyric voice go, the one that shows up, say, in Gathering the Tribes or in parts of The Country Between Us? Where does that show up in the composition process, and how do you decide when you’re going to let that voice in and when you’re going to exclude it? Or do you not decide?
CF: What I knew powerfully was that I didn’t want to use the first person. There are moments, but I did not want it to be first person lyric -- which derived from anything resembling myself in the world. I didn’t want to write The Angel of History in a confessional lyric mode. Or in a mode that was explorative of the self and its sensibilities.
So I put a limitation on myself. I enjoy limitations. I had a project there for the first time; I knew I wanted to write in a mode of wakeful listening; in a mode of receptivity; in a mode of recording rather than in a mode of pronouncement or confession or establishment of lyric identity and selfhood. So I didn’t allow myself the first person.
DW: That’s the reason people write sonnets. It’s to put limits on themselves, right?
CF: Right. Exactly. Any kind of limit like that. A poet I really admire, American poet Louise Gluck, takes a look at what she’s just done in her most recent book and then disallows herself those devices in the next one to try to push herself.
DW: I don’t have that kind of courage, but I admire it.
CF: But I wanted to do that. I wanted to say, “No, I’m not going to fall back on this foregrounding of a self having experiences and I’m not going to write out of that.”
DW: Well, that’s where I was interested in the contrasts between your work and Denise Levertov’s work. In one way, you have so many similar experiences. For instance, her trip to Vietnam grew into The Freeing of the Dust, which is so much like The Country Between Us, because both occur right after really powerful visits to war-torn areas where the U.S. is doing shitty things.
CF: Yes. But the books are about more than that, too.
DW: Yes, but there are some similar stages that the voice goes through in those two books. Yet later in her work, Levertov maintains that more personal lyric voice that you are working away from. One of the ways she does that, I think, is that she connects herself more explicitly to Catholicism.
CF: Sure, and she was very criticized and dismissed as being a political poet by much of the literary establishment.
DW: But her poetry and politics find a home in a liturgical community, or liturgical voice that allows her to have the self without it being selfish.
CF: Right. Exactly. This is one of the points of taking on spiritual exercises, which are always in part about overcoming the weaknesses of the self.
DW: Losing your life so you can find it.
CF: Exactly. And she that is how she did it.
DW: And then she was criticized and dismissed for being a devotional poet. But those two, the devotional and political never got separated for her.
CF: Well, they’re not separate. Which is part of my point about the sacred appearing in poetry but not needing poetry.
DW: What’s kept you from writing more explicitly religious poetry?
CF: A long time ago I wrote what you might call religious work. But then it was a different kind of mode and consciousness -- the religiosity was the subject matter. Which is no longer my process -- to see spirituality as existing somehow for the poetry.
The book I’m working on now is a very spiritual book for me. It’s still very much in process, not at all complete, not at all ready for anyone to see. But it is emerging in a raw way, even a formally unusual way for me.
Part of what I’m trying to do is write out of the sensibility of the present for me without contriving it. What I have had to understand is that I am going to live my entire life as Denise did. And it’s interesting to think about the reasons for that: the literary world, the American poetry community is in some ways a deeply conservative community. It participates in its art as if its art were a profession and as if its work were a commodity in some ways. I mean not everyone of course. But there’s a pervasive and prevailing sensibility that seems to project itself that way.
DW: And I think even those who don’t want to participate in that commodity exchange have to, to some degree. I mean, we all have to go to Wal-Mart at some point.
CF: Yes, we all find ourselves institutionalized in such a way. But you know, I’m going to be misread. What I mean is that I’ve tried to come to a place that more resembles the place I inhabited in my younger years as a poet. Which is a place that does not attend to the concerns of that artificial world.
DW: At least not in any primary way?
CF: Right. Not in any primary way.
DW: Do you have a community that sustains you? Do you have other writers, or family? Or who are those people for you?
CF: Oh yes. Other writers, other artists. I have very deep friendships. My friends are quite varied in the universe. We’re all together but I have friends who are working as rural doctors and friends who are digging sewers in remote areas for people. I have friends who are, most of them, are doing something. Environmentalists, activists.
DW: So this is another one of these assembled communities.
CF: Oh yeah. They’re assembled communities and they’re environmentalists, and activists, and Native Americans, and others people who are working on the World Trade Organization. And I have a few experimental poet friends.
My community of friends is scattered all over the world. We don’t see each other very often. We write letters. We make trips. We are on email a lot.
DW: Do you ever wish for the more settled community of your youth?
CF: I won’t have it again. I mean, yes, I live in a place. I know my neighbors, I have my son, my husband, and my sisters are around me. I have family in that city. I have a place, a community.
But in terms of my work in the world and my spiritual calling and my artistic calling -- that community is an assembled international community, and I take heart in their existence.
DW: Couldn’t you say that The Angel of History is an assembled, historic, international community?
CF: And some of them are dead, but that doesn’t matter. I’m friends with a lot of dead people. You know what I mean? And sometimes it bothers me that they left me alone here. But I a lot of my friends are dead, and I’m still friends with them.
DW: What I think becomes important though is the difference between assembling that community in a generous way that looks in the other’s face with faith, versus the sort of way we have global corporations assembling communities.
CF: It’s not a community they’re assembling.
DW: Well, they claim they are; and they play it off that way.
CF: They borrow the language, but what they’re doing . . .
DW: They’re homogenizing.
CF: That and they are commodifying all natural and human resources. They are usurping the democratic right of all peoples to enact laws protective of themselves and their communities. What the WTO actually circumvents is all national, federal, local, municipal, provincial, and state laws if they interfere with one fact and that is free trade. And the free trade barrier is invoked to override or, what is the word for this, to circumvent?
DW: To supercede?
CF: To supercede all laws that might interfere with global trade. And that includes laws governing labor rights, environmental protection, and so on. So my real concern right now is that usurpation.
DW: The disassembling of settled communities.
CF: What these corporations or the WTO have effectively done is dismantled or usurped the power of whatever participatory democracy we had on the earth. The countries that are going to suffer more are the countries of the undeveloped world. So I’ve got a big concern there. My community is made up of people who are trying to think through this problem and think through what sort of agency is capable of opposing it, and think through what’s going to happen and what we can do.
DW: So let me ask you the question that my wife asks me: If you’re concerned about all these kinds of things, why write a dissertation on poetry? Why write poetry, why not become a sociologist or a doctor or a politician? You’ve already talked about how poetry is not primarily utilitarian.
CF: No, but poetry’s part of that world. And poetry’s this sort of spiritual expression of it. Poetry arises out of. . . you know, poetry is where the language discovers itself and where language enables us to experience experience. Poetry is what maintains our capacity for contemplation and difficulty. Poetry is where that contemplation and difficulty converses with itself. Poetry is a very important endeavor. It’s so important, it’s so sacred a practice that the way in which it’s been commodified is an angering problem for me. I don’t want it to be that way. I’ll continue to write it out of joy and longing to do so.
But there’s also no reason why you can’t do other things at the same time. Look, you have a lot of time -- I do a lot of work that has very little to do with writing.
CF: Teaching is important. Writing is important. And doing human rights activism or environmental activism is important.
DW: Taking care of your son.
CF: Yes. Taking care of my son. My son is the most important work I’m doing right now. And also making other people’s work possible and helping other people to do their work.
Giving poetry to people who are spending their days digging sewers is a good thing to do. I try to help my friends who are digging the sewers because I’m not digging the sewers.
DW: In the same way that they’re digging sewers is not a bad way to support writing poetry. I can’t dig my own sewer.
CF: No you probably can’t. And I do have friends who are writers who are working their way through very difficult ethics that need to be articulated and extended for the sake of the future.
Someone like Marilynne Robinson, for instance. We’re very close and we’re working on something together at the moment. So I’m not completely cut off from the world of letters at all. I have a few poet friends but I have more friends who work in other genres. Possibly because I don’t represent anything to them. I suppose I represent something in the poetry world -- the small poetry world, and that’s always somewhat surprising to me and disheartening. It has very little to do with my experience of myself.
DW: Does it have much to do with the way readers outside of that world encounter your poetry?
CF: No. But I think being seen in a particular way may be my spiritual lesson. It is what I must work through. This response to my work -- dismissive, judgmental -- it’s what I must learn about and respond to. It wouldn’t have happened to me if I didn’t have something to learn from it. That’s really important.
DW: That seems to grow out of that Catholic upbringing -- that sense that nothing happens to you without having some sort of reason.
CF: (laughter) Yes. You get tested and must respond. I guess it’s a good operative principle, whether it’s valid or not.