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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Carolyn Forché
(b. 1950)

Carolyn Forché’s spirited paternal grandmother, Anna, a Slovak immigrant, spoke “a funny English,” in the poet’s words, partly to display her resistance to American culture. Forché’s life and poetry have responded to the challenge in Anna’s declaration: “in your country / you have nothing” (“Endurance”). Anna nicknamed Carolyn Piskata, “Chatterbox,” and passed on to her granddaughter an old homily: “Eat Bread and Salt and Speak the Truth” (“Burning the Tomato Worms”). Forché was born in Detroit; her father, Michael Sidlosky, labored as a tool and die maker ten and twelve hours a day, six and sometimes seven days a week. Her mother, Louise, bore seven children before attending college.

Forché was educated in Catholic schools and then graduated from Michigan State University. She has an M.F.A. from Bowling Green State University (1975) and an honorary doctorate from Russell Sage College (1985).

Her first book of poems, Gathering the Tribes, received the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 1975. These poems derived partly from Forché’s alternately living among Pueblo Indians near Taos, New Mexico, and backpacking in the desert regions of Utah, on the Pacific Crest Trail, and in the Okanogan region of British Columbia. As its title suggests, this volume is characterized not by the self-absorption of much twentieth-century American verse but by a desire for community—incorporating, among other voices, those of the “silenced” Pueblo Indians and her own Slovak ancestors.

From January 1978 to March 1980, Forché made a number of trips to El Salvador; during this period she documented human rights violations for Amnesty International, verifying information and evaluating the organization’s reports on El Salvador. While living in El Salvador, she also wrote seven of the 22 poems included in The Country Between Us, her second collection and the Academy of American Poets’ 1981 Lamont Poetry Selection. In 1980 Forché worked closely with Monsignor Oscar Romero, the beloved Archbishop of San Salvador who was assassinated that year by a right-wing death squad; after several attempts had been made on Forché’s life, Monsignor Romero asked that she return to the United States to “tell the American people what is happening.” She has said that her El Salvador experience transformed her life and work: it “prevent[s] me from ever viewing myself or my country again through precisely the same fog of unwitting connivance” (“El Salvador: An Aide Memoire”).

Forché continues to travel and to act on her beliefs. In 1983 she accompanied a congressional fact-finding delegation to Israel; in 1984 she contributed to the program All Things Considered on National Public Radio from Beirut, Lebanon; from December 1985 to March 1986 she lived in South Africa. She has held numerous teaching positions at American universities.

Denise Levertov’s praise for The Country Between Us suggests what Forché accomplishes: a seamless merging of the “personal and political, lyrical and engaged.” Her important anthology, Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, and her 1994 collection of poems, The Angel of History, a consummate book of fragmented images and characters who voice the largely untold narratives of modern wars, brought her the Swedish Edita and Ira Morris Award for Peace and Culture in 1998.

Constance Coiner
State University of New York at Binghamton

Linda Wagner-Martin
University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill

In the Heath Anthology
As Children Together (1982)
Because One Is Always Forgotten (1982)
Elegy (1994)
from The Recording Angel (1994)
from The Country Between Us
      The Colonel (1982)

Other Works
Women in American Labor History 1825-1935: An Annotated Bibliography, with Mary Jane Soltow (1972)
Gathering the Tribes (1976)
"El Salvador: An Aide Memoire," American Poetry Review (July/August 1981) (1981)
Flowers from the Volcano (translations of the poetry of Claribel Algeria) (1982)
El Salvador: Work of Thirty Photographers (1983)
"A Lesson in Commitment," Tri-Quarterly (Winter 1986) (1986)
Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, ed. (1991)
The Angel of History (1994)

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Carolyn Forche: Facing up to Atrocities
An interview conducted by Daina Savage for Rambles: A Cultural Arts Magazine in September, 1996.

Long Poem Group Newsletter #2
A review of Forché's poem The Angel of History.

New York State Writers Institute
Biographical and literary introduction to Forche.

Poems by Carolyn Forche
Texts of The Visitor and Return.

Secondary Sources