Carolyn Forché talks about the poetry of witness



hello I have the pleasure of sitting today with Carolyn for Shay an American poet whose first book gathering the tribes was a Yale younger series selection selected by Stanley Kunitz that made her a well-known poet and greatly respected her second book the country between us which one the Lamont Prize in 1981 has made her famous in fact world-famous it has the astonishing publishing and sales record of having sold 60,000 copies today we're here on the occasion of her having published a collection of poems concerning what she calls poets against the extreme in the 20th century poet suppressed by my civil oppression or political military and other forms poets from all over the world and a hundred more than 140 of them we are met here especially to talk about those about this collection and to and I think especially or I'm especially interested in hearing Carolyn forshay read from that collection her favorite some of her favorite poems but I but there are other matters that we may get to and other questions that we may ask and I would like to say hello first of all Carolyn nice to be here with you and to ask you first how you found a publisher these days when poetry gets so little notice a publisher for a book of 800 pages how did that happen well for some years I'd been gathering the material and I ran into an old friend who asked me what I was doing these days and I told him about the anthology that I'd been collecting and he said well that might be something for us and I said well where do you work these days and he said WW Norton & Company and of course I was flabbergasted actually because it's a very well-known company and especially for publishing anthologies when I went to New York to meet the editors there I was asked to give a presentation which I didn't know I going to give and I was unprepared for so I spent a half an hour extemporaneously talking about my project and at the end of this talk one of the editors asked me well what is a poet of witness you're talking about this poetry of witness and could you tell us what a poet of witness is and how is a poet of witness to be distinguished from say any other poet confessional exactly and I wanted to restrict I had restricted my gathering to poets who had endured conditions of extremity in the 20th century and I had confined myself to poets who had been interned in the camps during the Holocaust or who had suffered under during warfare or under military occupation or had been forced into exile or had been imprisoned or tortured in prison and in the case of South Africa poets who had been under banning orders or censorship or house arrest so personal witness of these yes poets who had actually been through these things themselves and had somehow survived and subsequently written poetry I was interested in what these situations what these experiences had done to the poet's imagination to their language and whether or not regardless of the subject matter whether one could feel this suffering and this extremity in the poems and so when this gentleman at Norton asked me well what is a poet of witness and can you give me an example of a poet of witness I chose to tell the story of miklos radnoti Nichols Fred note II was the foremost Hungarian poet of his generation and in 1942 he was arrested by the Germans and forced march to Yugoslavia where he spent two years in a military labor camp in 1944 the Germans realized that they were losing the war and for some reason decided to force March these laborers back into Hungary they forced March some 3,000 laborers and only 22 survived the March among them the poet miklos radnoti when they got into Hungary they tried to the the remaining soldiers who had accompanied the marchers tried to put the marchers in a hospital across the Hungarian line and the hospital personnel were frightened and they said we have no room we're full go away leave us alone so the soldiers wanted to get rid of these prisoners and essentially get back to their units so they took these prisoners to the forest where they were executed and buried in a mass grave two years after the war miklos radnoti widow Fanny radnoti who is still alive to my knowledge went to the site of the mass grave with fellow villagers and they exhumed the gravesite they took out these 22 bodies and she went from corpse to corpse until she found the corpse that she identified as her husband's and she went through his clothing and from the pocket of one of his pockets she pulled a small notebook and she peeled apart the pages and dried them in the Sun this notebook came to be called the borscht notebook which contains the last poems that miklos radnoti wrote and they were written while on this March and I explained to the publishers at Norton that these were the poems I wanted to include among those in this anthology and that that's how I was envisioning this idea of the poet of witness and somehow I think they were moved by the story and asked me subsequently well how long would it take me to finish the project so I was and that's how it came to be accepted and how long ago was that I was first contact well you know I told them because I really wanted them to publish I said I could have the book ready in a year well that was four years ago and I'd already been working on it for something like nine years before I went to Norton so it I think it was fully 13 years in the process it is an amazing story ya know radnoti story in the country between us Carolyn for shade distinguished herself as a poet of witness herself it concerns her years spent in El Salvador working syrup for civil rights in Elsa the door and some remarkable people have praised her poems in that in that way and I want to read from one of them Denise lever tov who is in a way the mother of social activism among American poets says for she is creating poems in which there is no seam between personal and political lyrical and engaged and she's doing it magnificently with intelligence and musicality with passion and precision this new collection of poems which is called against forgetting has extraordinary early responses from distinguished writers and critics all over the all over the world including Arthur Miller and Nelson Mandela it could hardly be more distinguished and it's in its launching and you must be pleased by by that part of it I was thrilled the morning I had sent Nelson Mandela copy of the book in tribute because I had spent some time in South Africa and subsequently received a fax from the president of the African National Congress and I nearly I had a coffee in my hand when it came over the fax and I nearly spilled ink on the floor I was delighted well it's quite a quite a quite a testimonial to have from Nelson Mandela as I say I'm anxious to hear some poems from the collection but after hearing you talk about how it came to publisher I had another question concerning its preparation it was a long time in preparation and I think anyone reading it would be impressed as I was reading it reading about in it and reading your introduction at the astonishing education you've given yourself in the world poetry of this century concerning poets in extreme and I I wondered apart from personal affinity in this way how you made your actual choices did you have a research team at the publisher is is there a book on the subject that you consulted I mean how did you get to all of such an astonishing range of thoughts well I gathered this anthology because if one didn't exist yet and I was when I returned from Salvador I think I was rather like a person who has a disease and goes to the medical library and starts reading everything they can find because I was confused about this relationship between poetry and politics and the arguments that were ensuing at the time of my return from Salvador concerning the relationship and I I was gathering this work to try to understand well what else had been written in the 20th century that might be accused of being political and is there another way to view this work and so there was no source book and I was alone essentially there was no research team but but I did have a lot of help people started to realize that I was collecting this work and they sent it to me and so my house filled up with with books and pamphlets and monographs and Xeroxes of this kind of poetry and I think that what I a helpful decision I made early on was to restrict myself to work that had already been translated into English so that I didn't have to survey work in languages I was unfamiliar with and I also was able then to you know to bring this collection down to something manageable ironically it never became manageable the original collection was three thousand pages long and this collection is eight hundred pages and this is a compromise in the publishing process we couldn't possibly publish the whole thing it was deemed unaffordable did a diminution size because you included fewer poems by each poet or did you include few reports from both mostly I had to eliminate poets and many poets were not included I would like to have scene included but I argued vigorously for every page of this present collection and the absent pages represent the arguments I lost yes yes oh I I don't know really quite how to describe the process I worked constantly but not every day and if my my house filled up with books and resources and I did a lot of library work and consulted librarians and knowledgeable poets and scholars especially when it came to deciding between one translation and another and those were the decisions that required extensive consultation so you did consult with say native speakers in the original languages and so on yes who also looked at the translations yes well they they were usually familiar with existing translations because I would you know contact someone who knew Greek literature very well 20th century Greek literature and they would say well you must use this translation in that translation and so it was very helpful and and they in turn recommended other poets yes there they would say well have you seen this poet or that poet and some of the major translators of 20th century poetry are themselves poets in the United States particularly I think of poets such as WS merwin and and Robert Bly a number of them in Mark strand and Charles Simic have themselves extensively translated and they were very helpful as well I know that you teach full-time you do teach full-time at George Mason University and the creative writing Department I know that you are married and have a husband and son yes and you have your own writing you have a new book coming out in the spring of 94 I believe so so it's a it seems to me a relevant question how do you how in the world do you did you get any extended leave time did you have leave with or without pay from the University did you have summers free did you did you work on it in big blocks of time no or not mostly steadily little by little and then big blocks of time in the last four years when I was trying to get it ready for publication and I didn't have leaves but it simply took over my life my son my little son grew up with this book it's so much so that we were on an Amtrak train once and he said Mummy Mummy there's poetry back here on the train and I followed him and there were cardboard boxes taped up behind the last seat in the car and he thought that all cardboard boxes contained poetry and we're on their way to your house well he just never conceived that a cardboard box might have something else in it well I'd love to ask you all kinds of questions about I suppose writers questions about about the book but I think I think in fairness to to others who are watching we should hear some of these forms of witness I'd like to begin with a poem by Jorge chuckle Jorge chuckle what a leading avant-garde poet who enlisted as a dispensing chemist or a pharmacologist in the Austrian army and after the defeat of the Austrian army at gradec Jorge chuckle found himself he wasn't a doctor he was a dispensing chemist but he found himself in charge of ninety wounded men and these 90 wounded men were suffering horribly and he had no medications and he wasn't able to help them several of them apparently committed suicide in his presence and this caused Jorge truckle himself to begin to lose his mind this is a poem called downfall written in that period and it is an example of a poem that isn't directly about these experiences but I I began to feel as I read more and more of this work that if a poet was imprisoned or was had a horrible experience of warfare and subsequently wrote poems one could feel that like say it wrote a poem about a snowfall one could feel the imprisonment in the snowfall so these aren't necessarily poems that directly treat their subjects and this is an example with a downfall above the White Pond wild birds have flown away in the evening an icy wind blows from our stars above our graves night leans down with its shattered or head under the Oaks we rock in a silver skiff the town's white walls keep ringing beneath the arches of thorns o my brother we are the blind hands climbing toward midnight tomorrow who's Daniel Simcoe who published a volume called autumn Sonata which contains all of these translations I first read charcoal and the James Wright translation years ago yes wonderful for this is a poem by Anna Akhmatova the great Russian woman poet of the early part of this century she actually lived until 1966 and she I think she is the greatest of Russian poets and one of the greatest women poets of the world in the 20th century but in during the period after the Revolution in the Soviet Union she lived through a terrible period in in Leningrad the chief of police was a man named yes Huff and her son was imprisoned at that time in Leningrad and she as as the other mothers with the other mothers would gather outside the prison and stand in line with baskets of bread and sausage and things that they had prepared hoping to smuggle these things through a gaurd into the prisoner no one ever knew whether these baskets reached the prisoners or not but at one Anna Akhmatova was already a poet then and she was standing in line with the others and she writes a poem called requiem for her son this is by the way this translation of Stanley Kunitz and max Hayward and this is I will read just the beginning of this poem and it's preface Requiem no foreign sky protected me no strangers wings shielded my face I stand as witness to the common lot survivor of that time that place instead of a preface in the terrible years of the Yousaf terror I spent 17 months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad one day somebody in the crowd identified me standing behind me was a woman with lips blue from the cold who had of course never heard me called by name before now she started out of the torpor comin to us all and asked me in a whisper everyone whispered there can you describe this and I said I can then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face that's wonderful example a deliberate example in a way of poetry of witness that she this was the first poem it moved me as a young girl and it was the first poem that told me what poetry of poetry's responsibility in a sense of what was really at stake here and so I I was always fond of this poem in this particular translation and maybe it was one of the reasons this anthology happened there's another by antonio machado the spanish poet and he of course went through the Spanish Civil War and has a little poem called coke glass which is very haunting coke plus in the high wilderness I see some cold poplars and a white road in that stony place landscape of the moon does no one remember it the gusts of February rip through the lemon trees I don't sleep so I won't dream wonderful it's a kind of fear in there that is really extraordinarily expressed I Bertolt brushed as a central poet in this anthology and when this book first came out I was often asked in May I was asked well do you have any poems that speak to the situation in Bosnia or in Sarajevo and of course I didn't the last event in Mayan tholly is the uprising and the repression at Tiananmen Square in China but I said well there is a breast– poem that might help us all to to understand or well not understand but at least live through and with these events in Bosnia and it might inform us in some way and there are two little excerpts the first is from when evildoing comes like falling rain the first time it was reported that our friends were being butchered there was a cry of horror then a hundred were butchered but when a thousand were butchered and there was no end to the butchery a blanket of silence spread when evildoing comes like falling rain nobody calls out stop when crimes begin to pile up they become invisible when sufferings become unendurable the cries are no longer heard the cries to fall like rain in summer that's very much to the point of what you say in the introduction about Adorno's fear that that we seek a kind of Oblivion and avoidance of such memory yes and Berto brush can also be a little funny he uses a the children's primer as a as a model as a form for his poem from a German War primer and there's some very interesting little little passages in this primer among them he says when the leaders speak of peace the common folk know that war is coming when the leaders curse war the mo zatia order is already written out and then he in a more serious note and I think a very true one he writes the war which is coming is not the first one there were other Wars before it when the last one came to an end there were conquerors and conquered among the conquered people the common people starved among the conquerors the common people starved too and then the in the last little excerpt he says this is something that I think and we can all feel – and it is from the worlds one hope when a child is about to be run down by a car one pulls it onto the pavement not the kindly man does that to whom they put up monuments anyone pulls the child away from the car but here many have been run down and many pass by and do nothing of the sort is that because it's so many who are suffering should one not help them all the more because they are many one helps them less even the kindly walk past and after that are as kindly as ever they were before walking past so that's a in a way a product of forgetting yes well it also is a way of explaining to ourselves that these things can happen I remember when I was in when I was a little girl I used to think if I had lived in Germany during the Second World War I would have done something to stop the Holocaust I would have worked against it and then I lived in South Africa during the states of emergency and I watched not a Holocaust but a horrible repression of a population while the world stood by and I began in in my own terror to realize that such things happen and that people during these events as we are doing with Bosnia Sarajevo deliberate well what would be the best course of action historically who knows how we will be judged or how but it made me think deeply about this there's a poet in the anthology who was a prisoner of war of the Americans during the Second World War Gunther Icke and he wrote a poem that is in the form of an inventory I should say that many of these poems take interesting forms some of them borrow from religious forms and they are hymns or chants or prayers and then there are poems which take the form of anthems national anthems or or ironic anthems and then in this poem there's an inventory taken and in many poems inventories are taken as is if the poets are saying what do we have left let's make a list let's discover what it is that we can still assemble and gluant our ike writes in inventory as a prisoner of war this is my cap this is my coat here's my shaving gear in a linen sack a kind of rations my plate my cup I've scratched my name in the tin scratched it with this valuable nail which I hide from avid eyes in the food sack is a pair of wool socks and something else that I show to no one it all serves as a pillow for my head at night the cardboard here lies between me and the earth the lead in my pencil I love most of all in the daytime it writes down the verses I make at night this is my notebook this is my tarpaulin this is my towel this is my thread wonderful it seems amazing but we're just about out of time is there something suitable too well I would like to read all the chimneys by Nelly socks and this is a poem by a woman survivor of the Holocaust and it begins with the epigraph from job and though after my skin worms destroy this body yet in my flesh I shall see God oh the chimneys on the ingeniously devised habitations of death when Israel's body drifted as smoke through the air was welcomed by a star a chimney sweep a star that turned black or was it array of Sun oh the chimneys freedom way for Jeremiah and job's dust who devised you and laid still upon stone the road for refugees of smoke oh the habitations of death invitingly appointed for the host who used to be a guest or you fingers laying the threshold like a knife between life and death oh you chimneys oh you fingers and Israel's body as smoke through the air it's a translation by Michael roll-out wonderful and awful at the same time do could you read the little selection from Hannah Aaron of course yes have a few seconds but maybe will Hana Arrington had a passage which explains well perhaps why one would want to do this and why it's not hopeless to bear witness and resistance doesn't fall into holes of oblivion she says the holes of oblivion do not exist nothing human is that perfect and there are simply too many people in the world to make Oblivion possible one man will always be left alive to tell the story the lesson of such stories is simple and within everybody's grasp politically speaking it is that under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not humanly speaking no more is required and no more can be reasonably asked for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation a wonderful place to end thank you very much thank you and thank you for joining us today

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