Interview with Carolyn Forche.
THE following interview was conducted while Carolyn Forche held the AMUW Chair of Humanistic Studies at Marquette University, August-December, 2015. Dr. Ed Block, Emeritus Professor of English, interviewed Ms. Forche in the Club Room of the Pfister Hotel, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on Monday, November 29, 2015.
CAROLYN FORCHE is author of four collections of poetry, Gathering the Tribes, 1976 (which was the Yale Younger Poets award winner), The Country' Between Us, 1981 (which sold 60,000 copies in its first printings), The Angel of History, 1995, and Blue Hour, 2003. She has also edited Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, 1993, and co-edited, with Duncan Wu, Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English 1500-2001. Her next volume of poetry, currently titled In the Lateness of the World, is due out in 2017. Having been frequently interviewed about "the poetry of witness," Ms. Forche, for this interview, was happy to talk about her family, her early life and education, and some of the influences on her poetry.
EB: It has been a real honor to have you here at Marquette this semester.
CF: It's been wonderful. I think the students have been remarkably receptive and hardworking. I am worrying now whether they'll go on.
EB: There are a few you know who will.
CF: And the rest of them will have enjoyed this, and they will at least know something about poetry and may start reading contemporary poetry.
EB: When your next book comes out, they'll be able to say, "I took a course from her!"
CF: And maybe when those literary terms come up, somewhere in their lives, they'll know what they mean.
EB: To start with some family questions. You're one of seven children. Are you the youngest?
CF: I'm the eldest. Five girls and two boys. That's how we referred to it when we were younger; now we say five women and two men. We were born between the years 1950 and 1961, a large Catholic family.
EB: And you're still close?
CF: We are. We're all alive. My father is also alive. My mother died three years ago. But my father is now 95 and living on his own in Michigan, still doing everything for himself, and we tend to gather as a whole group more often now at weddings and funerals. We're divided between the Washington, D.C. area and Michigan. Half of us live up there, and half of us live down here.
EB: In that wonderful Lannan video-tape you talk about doodling in the margins of your notebooks as a child. In another interview you mentioned that your mother encouraged your writing.
CF: I have a memory of myself at nine years old. In Michigan we were often snowed in because we had blizzards where I lived as a child, and so there were "snow days" with school cancellations. A mother of seven children dreads snow days because it means she's locked up with all seven of us all day. And in a fierce storm we couldn't even go outside to play.
So I remember one day we had such a snow storm, and my mother took down a poetry collection from her shelf that had been a textbook of hers in school, and she showed me metered and rhymed poetry. I remember in particular a couple of sonnets. My assignment for the morning was to write a poem. Each one of us had an assignment. She knew that I loved to read and also to write. I was already writing stories. She showed me what iambic pentameter was and, I was assigned to write in iambic pentameter. And I did this, but my poem was doggerel. I accomplished the metrical line; it was a poem about snow. But my mother, well, she would say to us all the time; "nothing ventured, nothing gained." She encouraged me to write and even to enter writing contests when I was a little girl. I won a few of those as a child, and that was really something. One was for an archdiocesan essay contest, and for that I received a papal blessing from Pope John XXIII. This was my first writing award. And then I received a Scholastic Arts medal. The next was for an essay I wrote for Ingenue magazine. I also wrote a short story for Seventeen. All of these were written prior to the age of eighteen. So I was writing fiction at that stage as well. It wasn't until college that I focused on poetry exclusively, because I wrote in all genres before that. It seems that we do tend to specialize in one genre in the United States. Or at least that used to be the case. It might not be any longer. There's a particular history to my choosing to focus on poetry. I had a great passion for it, but I also had a passion for prose. So it really had to do with being accepted into the poetry workshop as an undergraduate, and not being accepted into the fiction workshop.
EB: At MSU?
CF: Michigan State University, Yes. The fiction workshop was taught by a man, and all of the writers in his workshop were young men. He didn't think that I would survive the harshness of the workshop as a young woman. So I marched across the hall and was accepted into the poetry workshop. And that really probably determined my destiny.
EB: And was that taught by a woman?
CF: It was, yes--Linda Wagner Martin, who was a poet herself but is known more widely for her work on Sylvia Plath and Denise Levertov. She was very encouraging and became my mentor. I had other mentors as an undergraduate, but she was the only one with whom I studied writing. The others were professors of history and philosophy.
EB: Did your father have any influence on your writing?
CF: My father was very proud of my writing. I would set my typewriter up at the kitchen table after dinner; after we washed up everything from the nine people, nine people who ate dinner every night. My mother would have an easel there, and she would be painting, and I would put my typewriter there and write. Once, my father came to peek at what I was writing, and I covered it up as I, instinctively, would do, and I remember seeing that he was hurt by that, and I never got over the guilt I felt about this, because he was embarrassed, and I felt guilty.
I was also a figure skater when I was young, and my father would construct a rink for me in the back yard in winter, spraying night after night, layers and layers of ice, in a frame that he also built, and he would also take me to skating practice on the indoor rinks.
He worked sometimes seven days a week, sometimes double shifts, as a tool and die maker, very long hours, and despite that, and the fatigue he must have felt, he really did encourage all of us in our different pursuits.
But my mother was really a talented writer. And she gave it up, I think, because of us. She wrote and published poetry before we were born. She had a box of clippings, of published poems, mostly published in newspapers, because in the forties, poems were still published in daily newspapers. My mother worked at the Detroit News at the time, and she wrote a bit for the Detroit News. I believe that she gave that up when I was born. Because there were seven of us, as a friend of ours later said, there was no "help," in that she couldn't afford to employ anyone. / was the help, from the time I was five, six, seven years old. How much help could I have been? I remember doing a great deal of childcare, housework, and even cooking. Despite the difficulties of raising the seven of us, my mother still wrote and painted in the evenings, at least during certain years. In our family, growing up, we always tried to guess who inherited their abilities from whom; so it was said that my writing came from my mother, and my stubbornness was bequeathed from my grandmother.
EB: Can you talk a little bit about your Catholic background?
CF: I attended the Catholic school for twelve years. I was educated by Dominicans. They were very strict, mostly Irish Catholic Dominicans, from the Adrian motherhouse in Michigan. It was a co-ed school, which in our area was a bit unusual. The University of Detroit was a boys' school, Mercy and Madonna were girls' schools. So we had a co-ed school, because there weren't many students in our parish at that time. I went to school with the same 87 students for twelve years. We were split into two classes with forty plus each, which by today's standards would be considered somewhat large.
The class size was not a problem, however, as the Dominicans were very strict. You could hear a pin drop in that classroom. We had to keep silent with our hands folded at our desks. We had to rise to our feet to speak in class. There were scheduled periods of prayer throughout the day, and Mass in the mornings. We studied Latin. It was a very good education, but it was based upon memorization and drills. Therefore, I can spell and also diagram sentences. I can conjugate Latin and do the declensions. But my math skills are weak. My mind tended to drift during math.
We also had one Jesuit priest, Fr. L, who, I now realize, was cooling off from something or another. He was loaned to the parish, to the school. It would be unusual for a Jesuit priest to teach in a co-ed Catholic high school, but he did. We had him for religious history and theology. That was very important, because his was a much more sophisticated approach than I would have been given by the Catholic nuns. I was, at the time, a little rebellious, and reading Protestant theologians. This was something of a scandal. But it opened me up to other ideas. This was around the time of the Vatican Ecumenical Council, Vatican II, which was quite explosive for my generation, because we were young; we were in our teens, when, suddenly, the Church completely transformed itself. We weren't really prepared for this change. We were not prepared by the adults, partly because they were not themselves prepared.
Our absorption of Catholic teaching was quite doctrinaire. The monsignor who founded our parish and was the head of my school throughout my life was an arch-conservative, Opus Dei priest--a diocesan priest, who did not rise past the rank of monsignor, I suspect, because of his affiliation with Opus Dei. He was quite sympathetic with fascism. He used to have high regard for Generalissimo Franco of Spain. And he believed in a very strong, conservative, iron-fisted Church. It fell to him to obey Vatican II and to enact all of these changes; so if you have a choir of saints one day, who are suddenly found to have never existed the next day, you begin to have a lot of doubts. I was quite young when some of the certainties of the Church were withdrawn. As a teenager, I would have been confused. What was true and what not true? I did not take well to the vernacular Mass. I enjoyed Latin, and I enjoyed the music of the old liturgy. I was not at all a conservative person, but I was somewhat a mystic, and I actually missed the Tridentine Mass, which allowed for a certain meditative detachment. Between Vatican II and the conference at Medellin [Colombia, 1968], I was a bit adrift. And because the theology of liberation never took hold in North America, that was a period of syncretic experimentalism in my life. I studied lots of different religions.
They gave awards to the seniors in the class, when we were graduating, for every discipline. Someone would get the geography award, and someone would get the mathematics award. I, of course, got the English award. That's what I was good at. I was the class creative writer. We all had our roles to play; our assigned places. But I had stopped attending Mass, and I had stopped receiving the sacraments. I was involved in the theologians that did not have the imprimatur, and these seemed also to interest our Jesuit teacher. He and I would have discussions about the ontological proof and that kind of thing. The scandal was that during my senior year I received the theology award. There was a sharp intake of breath when that was announced, because I was considered a fallen Catholic. And the Jesuit was responsible for choosing me. The awards were given out in the gymnasium, and I remember him leaning against the gym wall, this concrete block wall. He always had a big fat, unlit cigar in his mouth. He was rolling it around in his mouth and smiling, like Groucho Marx or something. I caught his eye and snapped him a look, you know; as if to ask, what are you doing? And he just laughed and nodded. Later, he said that the prize had gone to the one who engaged the material of the course, never mind that she was "fallen."
EB: Who would have been the theologians that you were reading?
CF: Hans Kiing, particularly on papal infallibility. I also remember reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer and also the philosopher Karl Jaspers. The reading was along those lines. It wasn't until I went to El Salvador in 1978 that I was exposed to liberation theology and what was then called "the popular church," which was a living Faith. This was a powerful experience for me. It returned me, for a time, to the Faith of my childhood--utterly transformed--but recognizably Roman Catholic. I suppose that I had thought very highly of Pope John XXIII, an admiration of the papacy I would not hold again until the election of Pope Francis. In the intervening years, I felt no particular affinity with any of the popes.
EB: That's not uncommon.
CF: There's a Catholic joke, you know the joke. The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost get together to decide to go on vacation. The Father says, so what do you think about going back to the Garden of Eden? And someone says, I don't think that exists anymore. And then Jesus of Nazareth says, you know, we could go back to Nazareth. And then the Holy Ghost says, that didn't turn out so well for you last time, did it? Then, the Holy Ghost says, well, what about Rome--we haven't been to Rome since 1965!
EB: Yes, indeed. What, if any, place does Catholicism or Catholic cultural heritage have in your work?
CF: Well, I think it's very difficult to ascertain these influences because they are formative. And if you are deeply inculcated with the particular ideology or doctrine, as a child, as many Americans are, the ideology extant in the United States, and in particular, if you have a religious education, it would be hard to imagine yourself not having had that. You don't know what it is not to have been inculcated with that. It's not just a body of thought--our year was liturgical, our seasons were liturgical. Everything was measured in Catholic terms. I think the Fatin language had a strong effect on me as a child. Because there were three languages running through our house: my grandmother's Slovak-Czech, her Hungarian, and English. Then there was Fatin. in school and in church. So languages became fascinating, and the music of language was apparent to me as a child, because each of these languages had its own music, and I suppose a certain inclination toward mysticism probably came from Catholicism, although this wouldn't necessarily be the case, and an awareness of a consciousness about me, around me, not just within me; a feeling of immanence, as well as transcendence. There is a sense of divinity that is available to children who grow up in this kind of environment, if so inclined, and if they are well disposed to this. I had that disposition. So I think there was a convergence of elements that made my vocation as a poet possible: maternal encouragement, spiritual awareness, and linguistic richness: there were all of these things. Maybe, absent one of them, I wouldn't have been a poet.
I know a lot of poets who began writing poetry in adulthood. I began in childhood. I didn't become a poet in order to become a poet. I began writing poetry at a young age and discovered what it was I was doing, gradually, and then became serious about what I was doing, and came to awareness that poetry had a life in the world, and that there were living poets. Even this realization I came to, gradually.
EB: Just a little bit, then, about Michigan State.
CF: I attended Michigan State at a precise time in history, from 1968 in the autumn, until I graduated in 1972. It was the height of the anti-war movement. I suppose I majored in that, the way that many of my peers did, but I particularly was involved with the anti-war movement as a student, for a lot of different reasons, although I left behind a community that supported the Vietnam War. The Catholic Church, the Catholic school that I attended, the working-class community where I lived, were all supportive. When I got to the university, I discovered that there was another view entirely of this matter, and I began to learn about the Vietnam War in another way. The anti-war movement in Michigan was sometimes violently opposed by deployments of State police.
I suffered an injury at Michigan State from a state trooper. Ironically, I was not marching and chanting at the time I was attacked, but standing on the sidelines watching. I was a senior, and I was watching. I remember being cold. I remember watching the marchers go by and wondering what was going to become of all this. And all of a sudden, I saw stars, and I was pouring blood, because head wounds bleed profusely. It doesn't take much. So these medical students with their armbands, who were there to provide first aid to the marchers, scooped me up and hauled me off to the medical school. And that's why I have a permanent ridge in my skull. Anyway, we encamped on the administration lawn; we had frequent marches. I went to Chicago to march there; we took buses. And, in between these things, I went to class.
I felt very lucky in that I was mentored by a professor, James Anderson, for whom I wrote a paper on Paul Tillich, another of those theologians. Based on the paper, I was admitted to the honors college and to Justin Morrill College, then a residential college of Michigan State University. It was, among other things, a good place to study languages. I studied French there. Prior to that I had studied Spanish, but in the conventional way that people do--which is to say that you learn the elements of the language, you learn vocabulary, and you learn to read, but you do not learn to speak. In the Justin Morrill College you studied by immersion. You went to the language classes every day for hours and hours. In our residence halls, we sat at certain tables where we were to speak the language we were studying. We lived on floors according to our language studies. We became functionally fluent. That kind of concentrated work was what was required. Justin Morrill specialized in international culture and relations. All of that was very useful later in my life. At the time, it made no sense at all. I didn't know what I was going to do with my life, or with myself.
My mother had gone to college for two years before we were born, but no one else in my extended family of aunts and uncles and grandparents and so on had ever gone. I chose a very large university; so I did not have very much direction. I changed my major several times, and because of the intensity of those years--had many difficulties.
I married a man who had just come back from Vietnam. He saw very heavy combat in 1967 and 1968. He needed considerable medical attention. He suffered from what is now called PTSD. I was nineteen and didn't know very much about it. He was in the anti-war movement as well. He was one those former soldiers who threw his medals at the White House.
This interrupted my undergraduate education, though I never failed to enroll, but I think my education during my undergraduate years came from elsewhere; not in the classroom. What saved me was my writing ability. My ability to write extended essays on different subjects, these essays got me through. The professor saw the essay, he would [say] "Well, all right, so you missed class twenty times, and you got a C on the exam, but this essay ..."--that's how I survived.
EB: You told the story about getting the international relations major at the very last minute.
CF: It was an accident. That was the year before I started Justin Morrill, and this professor said I think you have accidentally majored in international relations. I had a couple more things to do in order to complete it, but that was it; so I was saved by that. At the time I didn't quite understand what it meant to have a major or a minor, and how you not only had to take classes you were interested in, but you actually had to fulfill certain requirements. I didn't seek advisers, and I didn't understand the system. I actually naively thought you could study what you wanted when you got to the university. I was so naive that I took a 300-level existential phenomenology course as a freshman. That tells you everything you need to know about what I understood about formal education.
But I will say that the other thing that saved me as an undergraduate was having attended twelve years of Dominican school, because university was a little bit easier after that. We had already done a lot of the work. It was a good school. Academically, it was a good school.
EB: How about Bowling Green?
CF: I was very lucky with Bowling Green, because Linda Wagner Martin got in touch with me after graduation and asked if I was planning to study toward a Master of Fine Arts degree. I didn't really know what that was. There were only six or seven programs at the time, perhaps more, but not very many more--Iowa, Irvine, Greensborough, I think. Stanford, maybe Columbia. And she said, well, I know the faculty at Bowling Green, and I can recommend you. Galway Kinnell, who had visited Michigan State when I was there, was also willing to recommend me, and, of course, Linda Wagner Martin. One day I got to read the letter of recommendation that Galway Kinnell wrote for me, and it was wonderful. I wish I could write that kind of letter now. It said, "Please accept her, she will do well, Galway." Nothing else. The whole letter was one sentence. I wish I had that letter now. Someone showed it to me; they shouldn't have. The letter was confidential. But it got me in, and I went to Bowling Green. I chose to go there rather than anywhere else, because it was the only school that gave me a graduate assistantship; I did not have to pay tuition, and they paid me $3,000 a year salary for teaching freshman composition, four classes for the year. I was actually able to live well on $3000 at that time. I mean well. I couldn't buy books, but I could share an apartment, buy groceries, and put gasoline in my little VW. One couldn't do that now, even on the equivalent of what it was then.
So what was it for me there? It was a wonderful moment for Bowling Green because many students, both fiction writers and poets, whom I was in school with, are still writing and publishing. We were lucky. We were a little cohort, a group that had arrived at a certain moment. We all really took each other seriously, and we worked on each other's writing. We were not easy on each other, which sometimes made our relationships difficult. It was a tough group. Particularly, the poets were tough.
EB: And who were some of them?
CF: I can tell you a few names of people that I was in school with. Dara Weir, who is now at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, she was a very good friend of mine. Beth Copeland was my roommate. Tony Ardizzone, a fiction writer now living out in Portland; James Thomas, a fiction writer and the editor of anthologies of flash fiction. There were a lot of us.
Workshop was, in those days, not so much taught as it was "arranged and conducted." The students had as much say in workshop, if not more, than the instructors. The instructors were facilitators in a certain way. And, in a way, that was a good thing for me, because I was left alone; and in my second year, the fiction writer, Phillip O'Connor, spent five or six hours with me, going over my manuscript, and he showed me what I was doing. I had been writing instinctively, but he unpacked all that instinctive writing and took it apart, showing me how it worked, and why it was, when it was working, when it wasn't working, and why it was or why it wasn't, and that was invaluable. That was an invaluable experience.
EB: You were writing fiction then?
CF: I was writing poetry, but I thought he was a brilliant teacher of writing. I wasn't in the fiction program, but I showed him my manuscript, and he told me he was prepared to dismiss it; he didn't think much of poets at the time. But he read it, and said he would talk to me about it. We sat down at a bar, the Red Cedar, and spent five or six hours, smoking cigarettes and talking about the manuscript. I felt taken seriously in those hours. He was a stunning critic. He was not easy on the work. After an hour or so, he started to test me. O.K. Now, apply what I just said from this poem to this next one. Do you understand now? What would you do with this poem? It was very Socratic; he led me to close reading, and I started to ... know what I was going to do to revise that whole manuscript, after only those hours.
EB: Would that have been Gathering the Tribes?
CF: Yes. This became Gathering the Tribes. That manuscript was submitted the year prior to the year that it was chosen, the year that Maura Stanton won the prize . I didn't know this at the time, but I had been one of the finalists. Stanley Kunitz wrote a letter to me, by hand, telling me that the choice had gone against me, but he also told me what he liked about my work, what he thought I should do, and so on. I thought he wrote letters to everyone who was not chosen. I was a very naive person; so I just put the letter away and put the manuscript away and my thought was, well, it just wasn't good enough. I'm going to put it away and maybe write another manuscript. I didn't think to try again.
I got a phone call from someone who knew Stanley Kunitz, about six months, seven or eight months later, almost a year later, and the person asked, well, have you entered the Yale again? I said no; I'm not going to do that. Well, why not? I explained that my manuscript had been rejected, and even though I had been revising it all year, I had decided not to enter the Yale award contest again. I lacked the confidence. Well, this person said, I think you should enter the new version. I said, I don't have time, my (then) boyfriend is coming to visit, from out of town. I said I didn't have time to type a clean copy, as it had to be typed a certain way. It had to have certain set margins. It couldn't have any mistakes. The person said, Listen to me. If you never listen again in your life. I don't care if your boyfriend is coming. Sit down and type the manuscript and mail it to the Yale prize. The deadline is Monday. I didn't want to do it. I thought it was a waste of time. But a dutiful Catholic person takes orders; so I sat down and typed the damned thing. It was hard to do--all the liquid white-out for correcting errors and all the crap. I stayed up all night, so I could still have the visit with the boyfriend, then I mailed it, and forgot all about it. It was like buying a lottery ticket. You don't actually believe you're going to win the lottery. One day that autumn, I received a message from another professor at San Diego State that there had been a phone call for me from an area code in Connecticut. I didn't know anyone in Connecticut. I wasn't about to answer the phone call. I thought it was some kind of collection agency, from my days as a student. Maybe I had not paid something. I wasn't going to call. Finally, I got curious and called.
If I hadn't entered the manuscript, if the friend hadn't urged me to do so, I would never have won, and if I hadn't won, I wouldn't have been invited to remain at San Diego State, and had I not remained there, I would never have undertaken to translate Claribel Alegria, and if that hadn't happened, I would never have gone to El Salvador.
EB: How well did you know Stanley Kunitz?
CF: I met him in New York the night before we were to take the train together to New Haven. We went out to dinner: Stanley and his wife, and another person, and then the next day we took the train together. We had a wonderful conversation. He was very grandfatherly with me. We had the time at Yale and, in later years, we met again in England. I was living there for the summer, and we spent a lot of time walking around Oxford University and talking.
He knew that he had transformed my life, entirely. He understood where I was from. He understood my naivete. He knew that I didn't know much about the literary world. He knew that he had essentially plucked me out of what was going to be a very different life, and he asked me several times: did I realize how much my life had changed because of this award? I answered, yes, but, of course, I didn't. I remember we were riding in the top of this double-decker bus; maybe we were in London. He said: did you ever imagine you would see this? London? I said: never. He just would chuckle at those things. He took a great pleasure in this. It was a little like Pygmalion, you know? He gave me a lot of advice. He was not happy particularly with my going to El Salvador. He wanted me to be focused on poetry. He didn't want me to write more poems out of those experiences. All right, he said, you've done it. Now enough. Now you go back to your writing. I don't know how much of that was fear, because he understood how dangerous it was, or whether he really, fiercely objected to that kind of--what was regarded as contamination at the time; contamination of literary art by world experience of a particular nature, of a particularly political nature. I didn't perceive my experiences as political. I don't know why this was. I experienced it as spiritual, and certainly as moral and ethical. I spent so much time around people involved with the Church in Salvador. There was Archbishop Romero, there were the nuns of Divine Providence, there were my friends who were working for the Church's radio station, there were the people working for the Church's human rights office. Everything was religious, for me, but this is not how it was perceived in the U.S., where fear of communism overwhelmed all else. There were committed Marxists, for sure, but almost everyone I knew was acting out of deep moral and spiritual conviction.
EB: A final question about Stanley Kunitz. Have you read his poetry? Do you like his poetry?
CF: Stanley's poetry? O, yes! Stanley was a great discovery for me, and what was helpful to me was that I could connect Stanley, finally, with a poet that I fell in love with in graduate school, Theodore Roethke. Later in my life, I was able, in the University of Washington library, in Seattle, to find a box that was filled with Roethke and Stanley's correspondence. I made copies of all this correspondence and gave it to Stanley. He was very happy, because he himself did not have this correspondence. These were the days of typewriters. You sent a letter off in the mail, and that's the last time you ever saw it. So if someone preserved it for you, that was a good thing. People don't even know the etiquette of this correspondence anymore. If someone dies, you are supposed to return their letters to their estate, but people don't understand that. I have a friend who was a poet, and when he died, his girlfriend burned all of his correspondence because she didn't want him to have had a life prior to his involvement with her. It's just very difficult. I'm happy I was able to give Stanley back his correspondence with Roethke.
Stanley's meditative lyric influenced me. He did say that much of what passed for meditative poetry at that time suffered from a poverty of what it was meditating upon. He demanded a kind of depth, and I was influenced by that, and by certain very tender moments in his work. He had a capacity to achieve a kind of fusion of lyric pathos and linguistic toughness that I found really thrilling. His poem "Touch Me" is an example.
EB: Is there a sensibility for the spiritual to be discerned even in poets who do not acknowledge it?
CF: Yes, well, I think so. I read for that sensibility. If a spiritual dimension is intended, it probably would ruin the work, because intentionality interferes, I think, with the associational combustion that's required of real discovery on the page. So you can't precede the poem with an intention to articulate some particular spiritual or political thought. Spiritual poetry suffers from the same affliction that political poetry can suffer from, or any kind of poetry that serves as a vehicle for a particular message.
But reading is another matter entirely. Just as for me, reading for witness is a mode of reading, rather than of writing. It's a certain kind of close reading that focuses on the mark of extremity, or evidence of extremity; one can read for a spiritual dimension in a work. I'm not saying that every poem rewards such a reading, but many more do than one might imagine and they are often written by poets who would not consider themselves as particularly spiritual.
EB: So, people reading your poetry and finding the spirituality there would be finding something that was there?
CF: It would have to have been there already. I know that it's there, but I only know this because I know from whence my poetry comes. I know how it arises. Certain books are much more inclined that way than others. The Angel of History and Blue Hour, if one can say this, have stronger spiritual elements, than, say, the others, although there are also poems in The Country Between Us and also in Gathering the Tribes that make reference to religion or to spiritual ideas, or spiritual perception. I think that in my later works it's more a mode of perception.
My friend Fanny Howe, is, I think, a great religious poet, although she is more widely read as an experimental poet. She is a deeply mystical person, and when I read her work, I recognize that. It's interesting to read her work in light of her particular interiority.
EB: On the Lannan tape, you spoke of Oscar Romero as probably a saint. The way you said it suggests you believe in people, souls, who are saintly. Your poetry, too, bespeaks a belief in the spiritual realm, in spiritual reality.
CF: I do. I've been really blessed to have been in the presence, in the flesh, in this life, of people I consider to be holy beings, to be saints as I understood the concept as a child. I'm not talking about canonization now, or institutional sanction. I'm talking about a certain spiritual presence that is unmistakable, irrefutable, and palpable. Msgr. Romero was such a person, and I have met others who aren't known; they're not famous in any way, but I've known some others, and I think I've been aware of others, on earth, at the same time as we are. I believe that that is possible. I think Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a saint. I think Dorothy Day was a saint. I think Nelson Mandela was a saint. But he would not describe himself as a saint, or as a religious man. It's not for any one person to make this judgment upon him or herself. One looks for their effects in the world. Christ said that; Christ said, "By their fruits ye shall know them." So I look for the fruits. I'm in the orchard looking for the fruits. When you see the tree laden with fruits, you know. That's all.
EB: That sounds like a very capacious understanding of holiness, and one with which I completely agree.
CF: Also, saints are not necessarily--they're also sinners at the same time. But we're talking about saintliness now, not absence of sin.
EB: How did your mature poetic process evolve, and who would you credit for good or bad ideas?
CF: Mature poetic process? I think Joseph Brodsky had an effect on me. We taught together at Columbia University, and I used to sit in on his courses. We used to ride the taxi together back, downtown New York, where we lived--separately of course. I had a lot of conversations with Joseph that were compelling. He never read my poems I don't think--unlike Derek--Derek Walcott actually looked at my work and talked to me about my work. Joseph never did. But Joseph talked to me about ideas and poetic process. And he was influential in that way.
I suppose I am thinking about the adults, those poets whom I met and interacted with as a mature poet, who influenced me later in my life. I would have to say those people would be Derek Walcott, Joseph Brodsky, James Tate, whom I knew briefly when I taught at U Mass at Amherst. I had some very important conversations with him. Mark Strand, also, at Breadloaf, when I was younger, and beyond; Terence DesPres who was not a poet, but who was author of The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps. We were very close friends. Daniel Simko, who was only published posthumously in a volume called The Arrival, published by Fourway; Daniel was my closest friend for three decades. Our families were both from the same small village in the Tatra Mountains, in Slovakia. Daniel was like an uncle to my son, and like a brother to my husband. He lived with us from time to time, when he was translating Georg Trakl. He died quite suddenly in 2004, in the summer. He was very important to me, and we shared a deep interest in continental philosophy and European poetry. Later, my long friendship with Ilya Kaminsky, whom I began working with when he was a student, and we had some years together while he was still a student. Then, we made a trip to Odessa and St. Petersburg, and he remains a very close friend. I'm trying to think of the different people. Fanny Howe certainly has been influential in our adult friendship. I collected her and read her when I was young, in the 70s and in the 80s. I never dreamt I would someday not only know her, but be a close friend of hers, and that we would spend time together in a monastery in Ireland.
For many summers I had conversations with Marilynne Robinson, when the two of us taught at the New York State Summer Writers' Institute. We were neighbors. We used to stay up late at night, talking mostly about literature and theology. It was through Marilynne that I came to a different understanding of Jean Calvin. Most of our discussions had to do with politics and religious faith, and I think she was certainly formative for me.
So there were a number of different people. I knew Kenneth Rexroth when I was a young woman. He was a "releasing spirit." He was pulling me in another direction; what he called "the bear shit on the trail" school of poetry. He wanted me to drift to the West Coast and become a freer spirit and not to be so influenced by what he called "the squares" in the academic world. That was a healthy thing.
I'm trying to retrace my steps and imagine who these different influences were--everyone that I've encountered or known has influenced me in some way or another. I'm trying to think about the ones that made a difference, the living beings who were poets or writers, who had the most influence on my writing.
I don't have a group of poets, contemporaries, with whom I am very, very good friends. I'm not part of a group. I'm acquainted with many contemporary poets, but I know very few of them personally, deeply, as friends.
Oh, Larry Levis. Larry Levis and I were very good friends. I miss him. That was a big loss for me. For various reasons I was not, after a certain point in time, particularly drawn to Philip Levine |also a Midwestern, Detroit poet], but Larry Levis, who was influenced by Phil Levine, and who himself influenced Phil Levine, became almost like a brother, and I could absorb much of Phil Levine's strengths through Larry, I suppose. Larry was as interested in the Spanish Civil War as Levine was, maybe because of Levine, and I was too. So there were strong affinities there, and I was interested in that meditative lyric again, that recurs in Levis; that meditative lyric that Stanley was achieving in a more formal sense. I began reading other poets who were working in a completely different vein, and some of them were French: Edmond Jabes, Jacques Roubaud, Yves Bonnefoy, Anne-Marie Albiach.
EB: Do you think Brodsky's idea of "poetry as a resistance to reality" has been adequately appreciated?
CF: No, most of what Joseph had to say hasn't been adequately appreciated. People saw certain aspects of Joseph, and in his work. The arguments regarding his work are quite superficial, and they have to do with whether he translated well into English and whether he should have been translating himself, as he did from time to time, and the differences between Joseph's poems in Russian and Joseph's poems in translation. And there was also the "curmudgeon" factor because Joseph could be quite harsh and dismissive of American poets.
I think he's quite exacting as a person, but if you really want to delve deeply into Joseph Brodsky, you should read his essays, which have been collected in Less than One: Selected Essays. His "resistance to reality" has to do with his stance as a poet in the world, and that was formed, of course, in Soviet Russia, where he was accused of parasitism, and he resisted the totalitarian, Soviet state and society. So that was the "reality" he was pushing against. If you'll remember in the New York Times, when the transcript of his show trial was published in the New York Times Magazine, on the cover of the New York Times was an illustration. It was a white brick wall divided in half, on the cover, and there were two mannequin heads, also white. In one, the mannequin head was breaking apart, throwing itself against the white brick wall; in the other one, the white brick wall was crumbling down and crashing on top of the head. Poetry in America; poetry in Russia. So, his sense of the importance of poetry, of its function, of its power, derives from his formative experiences in the Soviet Union. If we are talking about "resistance," we are not talking about escapism. We're talking about a resistance to a particular form of reality.
EB: Which we need a lot more of.
CF: Readers in the U.S. can't be expected to imagine well enough that [Soviet] system and what it meant for people. They don't adequately imagine their own system and its effects.
EB: Do you know the work of Charles Simic?
CF: Oh, yes. Very well. Charles is a friend.
EB: Do you like his poetry?
CF: I do. Very much.
EB: He seems to go in several different directions; I wouldn't call it cynicism, but there's an edge to it.
CF: He's very humorous, but he's a serious man. My affinity with him comes from our shared Central European heritage. He's Serbian American. I'm Slovak American, on one side. And I've always been drawn to that sensibility, which he never lost. He's also influenced by surrealism. He's not a surrealist, but there's an element of that in his work.
You know, I really enjoy his poems about history, that have settings that allow him to speak about horrific events. The books that influenced me a great deal, when I was younger, were Dismantling the Silence and Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk. They were beautiful books. The other ones too: White, and certain others. And then the book that he won his Pulitzer for, which begins with a poem, "My mother was a braid of black smoke. /She bore me swaddled over the burning cities" [The World Doesn't End, 1990]. He does not shy away from history and the horrible vicissitudes of fate.
EB: We said we were going to talk about the evolution of your four volumes of poetry. How does Blue Hour, the most recent one, fit into the evolution of your work? Please talk about all four of the volumes to this point.
CF: Well, there's four, and there's a fifth that's now completed that isn't published yet.
EB: It's complete?
CF: Pretty much. yes. And its title is In the Lateness of the World. At least that's what I think its title is. O.K. So: the first one. I began writing it when I was nineteen. The oldest poems were written when I was very young. I finished that volume when I was twenty-four. The book is the tree that grew from my thesis; my MFA thesis. You know, it was very experiential also; first person lyric narrative, free verse, influenced by Roethke if anyone, I would say, whom I was reading at the time. Influenced somewhat by Gary Snyder, and it comes from experiences in the Pacific Northwest and in the Southwest, experiences of wilderness, of an indigenous community.
EB When were you in the Southwest and the Pacific Northwest?
CF: I first traveled to the Southwest, particularly to the Mojave Desert, in 1971. After the death of a close friend in 1973, I traveled to the Pacific Northwest, where I hiked in the Cascades and on the Olympic Peninsula. Shortly thereafter, I traveled to Utah and New Mexico, hiking in Zion and Bryce, and in the Sangre de Christo mountains. In the winter of 1974, I lived in Taos, New Mexico, first at the Wurlitzer Foundation and then with an elderly couple from the Taos pueblo.
EB: And the other books?
CF: The second book arose very differently. It's still first person lyric narrative, free verse, but it was marked very much by my experiences in El Salvador, and even though those experiences informed only seven poems in the book, it is read in light, principally, of that time and place. The Country Between Us has a political dimension, and I'm using that word the way Americans use it, rather than as I now understand it. It has a political dimension that perhaps is not as easily read in the first book. If you look at the first book, there's political awareness in it, having to do with colonization and the situation of indigenous people, and the environment.
Now the third book is, for me, the most marked shift in poetics. That book came out of a contemplation of the twentieth century, particularly two events of the mid-century, coterminous with the Second World War; both of which are somehow thought to be part of the Second World War, but which I don't read as such. The first is the Holocaust, of course, which would have happened, with or without the war, I think; and which, if anything, interfered with the German military prosecution of the war because many of the resources dedicated to operating the death camps and committing the massive genocide distracted them from their own war effort. The other event, the purported end to the Second World War, was the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I believe these atrocities were committed to demonstrate the capacity of nuclear weapons to the Soviets. I believe that the preponderance of evidence, produced by scholars since the war, suggests the principal reason for going ahead with the use of these weapons was just that demonstration.
I was interested in those two [historical] things. Formally, I was uneasy and shifting in my poetics. I felt that the form I'd been working in for the past was no longer going to suffice for me, and I began experimenting with polyphony. I wanted a different form, and I found that it in the poetry of Edmond Jabes, with his four-volume book of questions [The Book of Questions, 1976], and also found in the publication of the transcript of Claude Lanzmann's Shoah [film, 1985], which are the subtitles of his nine-hour documentary of the same name. But that form, with its long lines and with its fragmentary quality--if you read a film script like Shoah, with its sequence of speaking voices, there is an interleaving of testimony. You don't see the film. What you're reading is the space between what is said. You're reading silence. I began to read for silence. I think Jabes's thinking influenced me, as did the poets of that time, particularly Paul Celan and Jabes. I was interested in silence, and in the absence of a governing narrator. So The Angel of History became a very experimental work for me. It bears little resemblance to my earlier work; there are images, and there is language, and there are tonal qualities, and so on, that you can connect to earlier work, but I think that's the real break, The Angel of History. It was my first mature work, where I did feel that I knew what I was doing, and what I was doing had a conscious aspect, and a form that the previous works did not have. They were collections of poems, written in their time.
I took it further; and as far as I could in Blue Hour, which is also experimental. There are a few poems about which one can say, these are poems written in their moment, but the poem "On Earth," which is not really an abecedary at all, but uses alphabetization to organize what would otherwise be a completely chaotic distribution of thought having to do with the mind's passage from life into death. There are two poems in Blue Hour, the title poem, and "Nocturne," which are polyphonic sequences that include different "voices" or "speakers," much the same as drama.
I went as far as I could. Terence Diggory, a critic and scholar of the New York School, whom I really regard highly, had written very insightfully about The Country' Between Us when it was published. When Blue Hour came out, he asked me what I was going to do now. It seemed to him that I had taken this form as far as I could, and he was right. I returned to the earlier meditative lyric. This new book is composed of self-contained poems that are not polyphonic; they are first person lyric meditations in free verse again. I think there are people who say that the obsessions are the same, as are the motifs, that there are identifiable threads through all of the books. I can't bear to go back and look for them. I don't know whether this is true or not. I leave that to others. But I'm not going to write the same book over and over. That is not going to happen.
EB: In various interviews you show a familiarity with a number of philosophers and critics like Emmanuel Levinas, Walter Benjamin, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Hannah Arendt, and Hans Magnus Enzensberger--to name just some of them. Are these authors you've largely read on your own? Leaving aside Benjamin, whose presence in The Angel of History is clear, how important are these writers for understanding your work?
CF: They are deeply important to me. I read continental philosophy as an undergraduate, mostly existentialists and existential phenomenologists (Sartre, and later Husserl and Merleau-Ponty). In about 1987, I taught for a semester at the University of Minnesota, where I met Wlad Godzich and Johann Schulte-Sasse, who together edited the series Theory and History of Literature for the University of Minnesota Press. The university was electrified by this thought at the time, and mostly under the guidance of Schulte-sasse, I read the theorists and philosophers of the time. Later I became involved with scholars Sandor Goodhart and Tony Brinkley, who were working with Geoffrey Hartmann, then collecting holocaust testimony for the Fortunoff archive at Yale. We formed a group, and participated in panels on various subjects having to do with witness at the International Association of Philosophy and Literature. I would say that today, Emmanuel Levinas remains an important thinker for me, a pivotal one, perhaps, and I will always read Walter Benjamin.
EB: Do you see yourself as a woman poet, or how much of a factor has gender been to your development and maturity as a poet?
CF: I resist the labeling, the hyphenizations, the hegemonic understanding of "poet" to mean a white person who is male, because everyone else gets hyphenated, absolutely everyone else: women-poets, African-American poets, Hispanic-poets, Latino-poets, Asian-poets, Native American-poets and so on. There is no reason why any of us should be hyphenated. We are poets. However, I'm very conscious of being a woman and what that means in our society, and in other societies.
I grew up during second-wave feminism. My mother was a feminist before second-wave feminism took hold. I was never forced to internalize the concept of the female that others of my age had internalized. I was always surprised when I encountered or became aware of sexism, even though I should not have been surprised. It outraged me as a species of unfairness that was completely unacceptable, but I wasn't actively part of the feminist movement, only because my focus was elsewhere. I'm fully aware that poets of my gender are read a certain way, and are perceived a certain way, and that perception is pervasive, and it's very difficult. "Writing while female"--we're not over that; it's not over, and being taken seriously, being reviewed seriously, and read seriously--that is, unfortunately, yet to come.
I'll tell you a vignette that will help with how I see it. I was recently at an international festival in Tiblisi, Georgia [old Soviet Union], There were four or live women there, and the rest were men at the festival, and the men very quickly congregated themselves amongst each other, and the women took the message; so we all hung out together and sort of made ourselves happy and had conversations. All the tables were gendered, and the seating was also gendered, but one of our little group, Svetlana Alexievich, won the Nobel Prize soon after that. Those men, who had relegated us to the sidebar, didn't have the chance to get to know the new Nobel Laureate. Does that help?
EB: Yes, indeed. Now turning to a different topic: how has illness affected your poetry?
CF: Cancer? It affected everything in my life. I'm sure that other people who have had this diagnosis and gone through all the treatment would say that there's life before cancer, and there's life during and since. I felt a sudden shock of recognition of human time, of mortality, of brevity. Cancer was an experience that / will never forget and have not forgotten. Occasionally I let it slip from my mind, for a time, and then I remember again. I feel the difference in my work, in my thought, in my life, my focus, my sleep, my sleep habits, in everything. I see everything differently, and I feel life differently. I don't know what it would be like to be back where I was before this. I think very few things have affected me so decisively and irrevocably as going through that experience, and thinking, as all cancer patients think, however long they think it, that they're going to die; that this is what they're going to die of, and that they have no more time. There is no more time. And so, we live with that. Doctors will not tell any of us that we're cured. They just say something like, "for now you are cancer-free." Or they use the word "remission," but that word has mostly fallen into disuse. The word has a certain taint also. But they won't tell you you're cured, because cancer cannot be cured yet.
I haven't written about this, except in a small essay published in Creative Non-Fiction. Usually it takes me some years to write about something important in my life. The El Salvador experiences were surprising in that they didn't take very many years at all--more like months. But in every other case, usually I write about something four to seven years after it occurs, and sometimes longer.
EB: Besides people like Terence Diggory, are there any other critics whose work you value? Whether of your own poetry or of that of other poets you admire?
CF: That's an interesting question. I appreciate Charles Simic's reflections on poetry, and always those of Hans Magnus Enzensberger. Ilya Kaminsky has written interesting critical reflections, as has Garth Greenwell and many other younger poets. I appreciate the work of James Wood on fiction. I wish there was more poetry criticism.
EB: Besides Ilya Kaminsky, what other living poets' work do you admire, find compelling, moving?
CF: Oh many! And of course, the living poets of my generation and older are rapidly diminishing. We just lost C. D. Wright, a very close friend whose work I admire greatly. But of the living? Many black poets: Ishion Hutchinson. Jamaal May, Patricia Smith. Ross Gay, Jericho Brown, many others; and Native American poets, most especially Joan Kane and Sherwin Bitsui. I'm making discoveries all the time.
EB: Do you compose in long hand? How about doing revisions?
CF: I write in long hand in notebooks all the time. I write in long hand, and I also write on the computer; I used to write in long hand and on the typewriter. I write with pens, with pencils. I have many notebooks, and I write in long-hand. If you read these notebooks, you'll get nothing out of them. They're composed of completely disjointed thoughts and images, impressions, and quotations. They're not anything you would transcribe into some kind of coherent work. But there are about a hundred and fifty of these notebooks now, maybe more.
EB: How big are these notebooks?
CF: They're varying sizes. I graduated down. My notebooks kept getting smaller and smaller because I wanted to carry them with me everywhere, and I now use small Moleskines. I got this from the poet Robin Robertson, who's a wonderful Scottish poet--the habit of using Moleskines, because they're lighter. You fill them quickly, and then you can move on to a fresh notebook. Robin was buying these in the UK, and I couldn't find them anywhere in the US, and now they are here. I advise my students to keep their Moleskines with them, because these are the little gold mines where they will deposit the treasure from which they will write.
EB: Near the end of a 2000 interview with poet and critic David Wright, you say:
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.
How would you modify, augment, or intensify that comment today, some fifteen or sixteen years later?
CF: Today I would say that poetry is an uncommodifiable art. I'm not sure what I meant by this when I talked with David Wright, but it may have had something to do with careerism. I remain steadfast in my belief that poetry is an art that helps us to sustain our capacity for contemplation and attention.
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|Author:||Block, Ed, Jr.|
|Publication:||Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2016|
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