Don’t Talk to Poets

Poet Carolyn Forché and fiction writer Micheline Aharonian Marcom will be leading writing workshops May 7-10, 2009, about writing in witness. Here, we present part of an interview with Carolyn by Bill Moyers about her book "The Country Between Us." You'll see why we titled this post the way we did when you reach the end of this interview.

Moyers: "The Country Between Us." What is the country?

Forché: It's complicated because that book emerged while I was working as a human rights activist in Central America and in the United States and those poems turned out to be very different from the poems I had previously written. They were still first-person lyric narrative free-verse poems, but I didn't realize how much I'd been changed by my experiences in El Salvador until those poems reflected that change.

The Country Between Us The country between us is perhaps the distance between one human being and another, how long it takes one human voice to reach another human voice. It's probably also a reference to El Salvador, which was the country that came into my heart when I was just becoming an adult, and the country which probably shaped my moral imagination. But perhaps it is the United States too, because for me the United States is very complex. It was the people of the United States who all through that war were very concerned and who cared about human rights and responded very favorably to all appeals while at the same time the United States was a government that didn't seem to know how to listen to any of that. So I have two countries in my mind: the country of my people and the country of the government that I knew as I was growing into adulthood.

Moyers: Your mention of El Salvador brings to mind "The Colonel." It's the poem of yours most quoted in anthologies and most used in classes. How did it come about?

Forché: I was in El Salvador. It was 1978. Very few Americans who didn't work for the embassy were there. There were a few Peace Corps people, but it was an unusual occurrence for an American to come into the country. I was being taken around and educated about conditions in Salvador by members of Claribel Alegría's family. My presence in the country came to the attention of the military, they were intrigued and wondered if I wasn't also working for the U.S. government because, in a way, everyone thinks that all North Americans there are doing that.

So officers began to want to talk to me. I realize today that they were hoping that the United States would desire their services and pay them for information and intelligence and so on, but I didn't know that then. it became clear to me, however, as I was having these meetings with military officers, that they were very upset about the human rights policy of President Carter. They believed that the United States was being hypocritical in its relation to them: they were still getting support, but they were embarrassed because they were being insulted internationally about their human rights behavior.

On this occasion I was taken to dinner at a very high-ranking officer's house and I don't think he realized that what I said about myself was true–I really was just a twenty-seven-year-old American poet. He got a little intoxicated and angry, and he wanted to send a message to the Carter administration. He wanted me to go back to Washington and tell President Carter, "We've had enough of this human rights policy," and his actions were his way of demonstrating his contempt.

Moyers: He literally poured ears on the floor?

Forché: He poured them on the table. I learned later there were a number of officers who had a practice of keeping bounty of various kinds. Some Vietnam veterans also told me that had happened in Vietnam, so what I saw was not as uncommon as I thought when I first saw it. I remember feeling sick and dizzy, but nothing happened to me. Everything was fine. His wife brought us out into the living room for coffee and tried to make everything better because she felt the dinner party was ruined. But he was not the worst man I met, not even the worst officer. In fact, this officer tried to warn priests when they were in danger.

Moyers: "Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground." Are they listening to something?

Forché: I'm happy you know that about the image, because sometimes people are puzzled, they don't understand why I describe in this way. But there's an expression, "ear to the ground," you know the way you can hear a train coming if you put your ear to the ground? I think that when we're writing a poem, sometimes our associational memory magically makes these connections. There were many such moments writing "The Colonel."

I thought the moon in the poem was just the moon until someone pointed out that it seems to be a white lamp shining in a box in an interrogation room. People have interpreted many features of this poem, but when I wrote it, I was just trying to capture details so that I would remember. I didn't even think it was a poem. I thought it was a piece of a memoir that got mixed up with my poetry book. So when a scholar read the manuscript and said, "This is the best one. This is the best poem," I said, "Oh, no. That's a mistake. That's not a poem." It took me years to accept it as a poem and not just a block of memory.

Moyers: The Colonel, what happened to him?

Forché: He's dead.

Moyers: The victims?

Forché: Dead.

Moyers: But the poem survived, so for whatever consolation it is, memory has a chance.

Forché: Yes. That's the hope.

Moyers: Had I reported that incident as a journalist, I would have been quite literal: who, what, when, where, and why. What's the relationship between these facts as a journalist would report them and the truth that you're trying to reveal?

Forché: Some writers whom I admire very much say that facts often have little to do with the truth. What I was trying to do with this piece, as I finally allowed it to be in "The Country Between Us," was to acknowledge that something important had actually occurred. But the poem also contains a truth about the brutality of that situation which seems to reach deeply into people. When I came back to the United States and began reading the poem, I noticed that some people were very moved by it and others were very angered by it. And some people simply didn't believe it, they said it could not have happened.

There was a fierce denial and yet several years later a reporter for The Washington Post interviewed soldiers in El Salvador and they apparently talked about the practice of taking ears and all of that. In fact, one of these soldiers read the news story about his practice of taking ears and was so proud of the story that he actually clipped it out and laminated it and carried it in his wallet. Because now he was famous, you know, for this.

Moyers: That's what can happen to a journalist's account. But the poem is a condemnation.

Forché: It is a condemnation. As a journalist, maybe you wouldn't have been able to use the obscenity, and perhaps you wouldn't have been able to quote him directly. But more than that, I don't think it would've happened to you because I don't think the message was intended for the press. It was intended for a quiet communication back to Washington, and unfortunately they told the wrong person. They told a poet.

Moyers: Lesson for politicians and military leaders: Never talk to poets.

Forché: Never.

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