Carolyn Forché chats with our host, Copper Canyon Press Publicist, Ryo Yamaguchi, about the on-going crisis in Ukraine and the evolution of the poetry of witness.
Ryo Yamaguchi (00:00): Hey, everybody. I’m Ryo Yamaguchi, the publicist at Copper Canyon Press, and you are watching season two of our interview series, Line / Break, which goes off the page and into the homes and minds of our beloved poets. I’ve been carrying on the dream, sharing the dream of my predecessor from season one, Laura Buccieri, of wanting to see more poets represented on screen, talking shop, answering questions, and taking us behind the scenes of how they do what they do. So for today, I am extremely excited, and a little nervous, awe struck, to be talking with Carolyn Forché. Carolyn, thank you so much for joining us. Can I ask how your morning’s been and what you’ve been up to, what you’ve been reading?
Carolyn Forché (00:40): It’s been quite and rainy and a lot of birds, very busy in the garden. And mostly, I’ve been thinking about the dire situation the world is in at the moment. And so reading. I read a dozen books at one time. So yeah, I wouldn’t be able to single them out. But I don’t know why I do that. I keep them all going. It’s like pots on a stove and I have them all marked, but I jump around a lot.
Ryo Yamaguchi (01:12): Yeah. The mind is a mansion of many rooms, I suppose, right, yeah. Although, I have to agree with you, it’s been difficult for me to not stay essentially glued to the news. And I probably read the news for an hour and a half or so this morning, just trying to keep up on what’s happening, and the changes. But I think we’ll absolutely get into talking about Ukraine, and I also want to talk about just obviously poetries of witness in general with you. Before we do that though, keeping with the spirit of the show, I was wondering if you could do an introduction for yourself: your name, although we’ve just heard it, any pronouns you want to identify, where you’re calling from, the most recent book you’ve published, anything else you want us to know?
Carolyn Forché (01:55): I’m a she. My name is Carolyn Forché and I live in Bethesda, Maryland, which is just outside Washington, D.C. I’ve been here for about three decades and I teach at Georgetown University. I just published a book, a work of translation with Copper Canyon Press that’s been very dear to my heart for many reasons, for many years, this is America by Fernando Valverde.
Ryo Yamaguchi (02:19): Got it here too.
Carolyn Forché (02:19): Who is a poet from Granada, Spain, like, Federico García Lorca and he made a journey to the United States. When he first started coming to the United States, he began traveling all over the United States and he got very interested in American violence and American gun violence, in particular, and visited all the places where mass shootings had as yet taken place and spent time talking to survivors, walking the grounds, trying to imagine himself in the minds of everyone involved, including the shooters.
Carolyn Forché (03:00): And he even held and fired the weapons used to see what that was and meaning on a range, of course. And it reminded me a bit of the poet in New York, of a poet when Lorca came to the United States, we were also in a very dire time. It was the depression, I believe. And, so he Valverde, while not walking in Lorca footsteps, certainly intrigued me as a kind of de Tocqueville, coming from Spain to discover America in this period.
Carolyn Forché (03:35): And the book of mind that I’m most recently published is In the Lateness of the World, which is my first book in 17 years. I’m not terribly prolific at least in terms of publishing. I don’t publish a lot of what I write. I keep it all in boxes, but… Anyway, I’m very happy to be here and very grateful to Copper Canyon for publishing my translation and for publishing such extraordinary poets for so many decades. It’s really the finest independent press, exclusively devoted to poetry in the United States and maybe in the world, I don’t know. But I’m quite… I’m beholding to it. And I’m grateful to all of you, all the staff.
Ryo Yamaguchi (04:28): Thank you, Carolyn. That’s just the most generous words and we are so thrilled to have you here as a translator and Fernando’s book is amazing. We have a long history of translation and this book is so important for us in that list, translation for everything that you just described. I thought you did such a beautiful job talking about… I never thought about de Tocqueville, but that’s such an apt comparison I think, for Fernando. I’m, very interested in Fernando Valverde, as part of this pan Hispanic cohort that you describe in the introduction. I kind of want to talk about that, but maybe before we get ahead of ourselves here, it seemed like maybe you’d have a poem to read from there? If we could do that.
Carolyn Forché (05:10): Yeah. I thought I would read… A lot of his poems are long. It’s a wonderful book and I’m so happy that it’s bilingual. Because people can read it in both languages and catch me out on my mistakes. This one is Raza. It’s
Because all the fathers and mothers of my parents,
all time past,
But also language,
words like Spanish, gypsy, black or immigrant.
Words that rise like swords, walls that are constructed
the old continents, the new continents,
with the fading kingdoms and kings over there,
on the same ruins,
on the myths and oracles,
Into her pour the children of the children of the grandchildren
Children of Roman Greece, settlers of Egypt, nomads of India,
their rivers flow into the womb of the Mississippi,
they bring the water in their veins, they water the fertile land,
and then they are food for the trees,
oxygen in the lungs of other men,
water again, in the combination with hydrogen.
America is watered with the blood of civilizations.
Past is the word that keeps the balance on their lips,
the present is yesterday,
the future is yesterday,
the fruit after a storm was bitten.
I say Spanish, and I do not understand.
I say Spain, and my eyes fill with melancholy
but also my heart with flowers gone, of a mineral taste,
as if it were the smoke of a distant fire.
Only the color of the land where I grew up is as certain
as a race.
A reddish earth often, bathed in blood.
Land that saw Phoenicians die, Romans,
of every land and country,
and also my grandfather,
and my grandfather’s father,
and also the old nuns who come every morning to the parish of
San Juan de Dios,
and the men who tried to cross the straight and are returned to the shores
of my country
by the waves of the Mediterranean,
and the people who suffer and always look toward the ground out of
shame or weakness,
or simply because they want to put an end to the journey.
My race belongs to that land,
and the word land,
and the water that cleans it,
without paying heed
that drags it away.
Carolyn Forché (07:40): So this poem reminds me a bit in its cadences of Whitman and even in its sensibility of Whitman, but it’s a kind of an invocation. It doesn’t appear at the beginning of the book, but I wanted to read it, especially because of how global it is in its vision, in this moment.
Ryo Yamaguchi (08:15): That was a very powerful reading. And I was very attached to the sonics of the English and thinking about it in the Spanish and bringing up Whitman and that kind of incantatory, bardic quality, which I think also of course, when I read Valverde’s poems in this book. I mean the Bible is always at every turn, of course, it’s thunders and blood and the earth.
Ryo Yamaguchi (08:41): But, you also mentioned Lorca and I’m, so… I’m interested in how… So going back to this pan Hispanic cohort and a sense of contemporary, Hispanic authorships. I’m really curious about your perspective of how Fernando is situated as a bridge between Europe and the Americas. But then also as a link back religio, link back to folks like Lorca and then going back to Whitman and things like that. So both temporal and spatial bridge.
Carolyn Forché (09:12): There was something that I wasn’t aware of until I believe it was in, it was either in Mexico City or Columbia, Bogotá, Columbia. I had gone to read in both cities and in both cities, both times, I became aware that there was a group of young poets. They’re all about Fernando’s age, maybe a little bit older, younger within a generation or so. But they’re, young and they’re vibrant and they’re all connected to each other and to a press called Valparaiso Editions, which is published in several countries.
Carolyn Forché (09:50): And I became aware that they were attempting to build the infrastructure for a literary culture that would bridge Spain, South America, Central America, Mexico, and hopefully, the United States. It’s a complicated question because in the United States, Spain is often thought about as a settle, a colonial imperialist country from the past. And that a country that settled other countries and colonized other countries, but today the culture and the language, they’re very connected.
Carolyn Forché (10:28): And I think that the embrace that the poets of South America and Mexico and Central America gave to Fernando and his friends in Spain was a very important moment and a very important connection that was made for the language and for the deep culture. It allowed a community to form that hadn’t formed before. And this is so important. And Fernando was thought to be one of the premier poets of this group, they all told me, “Oh, you must meet him. You must know his work. He is such a great poet.” And so of course I was curious and when I met him, I found him so warm, so open, magnanimous, curious, smart. It was just… We had an immediate connection. And we talked about my making a translation of his work. And finally that came to fruition. And I think it’s a marvelous book.
Ryo Yamaguchi (11:36): Yeah.
Carolyn Forché (11:37): So there’s Alí Calderón, there’s Federico Diaz Granados, there’s Francisco Espínola. There’s all of these poets and they’re all coming from different countries. And very, it’s a great group. I hope that readers in the United States will get to know all of their works eventually.
Ryo Yamaguchi (12:03): It seems like we’re at a very powerful moment of them, of coming together, particularly across countries. The relation to history it’s interesting to me. So I’m in Santa Fe. I’m based in Santa Fe, I’m talking to you from Santa Fe and I’m surrounded by an American Pueblo culture that is also deeply Spanish colonial. It’s a really interesting… There is a Latino diaspora and a Mexican diaspora, but it’s really Spanish colonial here. And that history is alive here. And it’s fascinating to see that in these literatures and think about the relationship between Europe and the Americas.
Carolyn Forché (12:36): And yeah, it is. You’re lucky to be in Santa Fe. I love that area of the world.
Ryo Yamaguchi (12:42): Oh yeah. It’s really wonderful. Of course, look me up anytime. A burrito on me, you know?
Ryo Yamaguchi (12:51): So I want to talk a little…. I love hearing these poems and I know that you’re very sonically oriented poet. I think when I was listening to another interview you gave, you talked about in your own writing process, pacing around and reading the poems out loud. And I’d kind of like to talk about that element in your work, as a translator. In your work of translation, sonic elements, also the moral dimensions of translation. The word I want to use here is faith. How do you enact faith toward a work?
Carolyn Forché (13:24): Translation is so special. It’s a phenomenal experience. There are two ways that American poets translate. One is not so common where they actually have both languages and work in both languages. I work in Spanish, so I’m comfortable in that mode. And then there’s also cooperatively translating with native speakers of a language, working with poets who have a great facility for American English. And, the attempt then is to make a fine poem in American English, working from the notes and input from a native speaker translator.
Carolyn Forché (14:09): There’s a lot of criticism of the latter mode, but I think it’s vital and important. And we wouldn’t have very much, contemporary work and translation without that mode. So I respect it when it’s done with respect and with attention to the sensibility of the original work and not only the lexical information that is provided by in the trot that you, in order to translate, you kind of have to enter into a very deep conversation with the original poet, whether they’re alive or not. You have to become them as a poet.
Carolyn Forché (14:54): You can’t write yourself onto the page. You can’t make them into you. Or make their poetry into the kind of poetry you would write. So what I love about it is you get to be someone else for a little while, which is a great relief from the tyranny of the self.
Ryo Yamaguchi (15:13): Yeah. Oh, I mean, it’s so wonderful. I love, that kind of, I’ll say body or minds, occupation in a way. It’s… I love… Everyone has such different perspectives on this and I’ve been privileged to hear many of them. And I think of like Tomaž Šalamun talking about translation as licking the different sides of the same ice cream cone or something like that. Well that’s so Tomaž, right.
Carolyn Forché (15:39): He was so funny. What a wonderful poet, wonderful human.
Ryo Yamaguchi (15:43): Yeah. Obviously, that image is always stuck with me. Well, I’m thinking about the tyranny of the self Carolyn. And so there’s a question that Laura used to ask in season one, and I really like to ask it every time. And this is… So let’s kind of walk back in your own self, in the tyranny of your own self, to the first moment that you can recall recognizing yourself in a work of art in a piece of literature, in a movie, in a song, something where you felt finally you were seeing yourself in something else.
Carolyn Forché (16:15): Yeah. This is a interesting thing for me because I was… So I lived in such a provincial way as a child, very sheltered, very, I never much left the state of Michigan for my first, 20 years. I went to across the border, into Ohio. I crossed the bridge into Canada, but those were very exotic places and they were only a few miles away. So, I wanted to know the rest of the world. So I was always reading to know about other people and to climb into other sensibilities. I, especially all wanted to know the past.
Carolyn Forché (16:56): I read a lot in the 19th century books when I was little. And I even started a novel when I was 11 years old, that took place in the 19th century. A century, I knew nothing about except from the books that I had read.
Carolyn Forché (17:09): And it starred a character very much like me, only she lived a hundred years earlier, but I didn’t see. I grew up in a family that was ethnic and my grandmother spoke Slovak in the household. And we were… So I was a weird combination of things. So I never actually saw my weird combination of what they call now, identities in any other literature. But later in my life, I had moments in art and in writing when I was a child, I remember the first time I was taken to the Detroit symphony, it was summer and it was held outside and an older, a very older person, a teenager who drove, invited me to come to the symphony with her and this is something no one around me ever did.
Carolyn Forché (18:04): And I watched the whole audience transfixed, and I heard the music. The stars were overhead and I was absolutely transported and thought, this happens, this happens in life. My grandmother used to tell me about the opera and all of that, but it was not something I could identify with at all. And then I was taken to the Detroit Institute of Arts and I stood infront of the Diego Rivera Mural.
Ryo Yamaguchi (18:33): Was this with the same teenage friend or?
Carolyn Forché (18:35): Yes.
Ryo Yamaguchi (18:35): Yes. Beautiful.
Carolyn Forché (18:37): She took me to the Detroit Institute of Art, she was on a self-improvement binge for herself. And she tagged me along, because she grew up very poor. This friend, very poor. They didn’t have an indoor bathroom room. So she would… She drove an old jalopy and she dragged me around to cultural events with her because she wanted to escape.
Carolyn Forché (19:00): And we did escape and I remember seeing the mural and it was gigantic and it was absolutely powerful. And it was a mural of workers in a factory. My father worked in a factory, so I’d never seen a painting of, factory workers before. And so I suppose she would say that was a moment of recognition. And then finally, I would say maybe reading on Anna Akhmatova poetry for the first time. I had… I was working… I had a job in the library of Congress and we used to be able to go up in the stacks and wander around.
Carolyn Forché (19:38): And when I was off duty or even playing hooky from my job, I would go and read the poetry in the stacks. And I found on Anna Akhmatova in a translation by Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward, and opened to that preface to Requiem. And that’s when I read for the first time, what really was at stake in the 20th century, in poetry, and now in the 21st and what poetry could really be. So that spoke to my soul, all of these moments did, but I never saw the combination that I was in any other poetry or literature or work of art. My, what they call identity now was too complex. It was too mixed for me to see myself exactly. And I didn’t really want to, what I wanted was to know what it felt like to be another person. I suppose, that’s what translation is about too, right?
Ryo Yamaguchi (20:40): Yeah. That transformation into another way of being. I’m very struck by this image of you as the young girl, from the rust belt, standing in front of the scale of a Rivera labor mural and how powerful that must have been, you know?
Carolyn Forché (20:58): Oh, wow, it was stunning. Because I didn’t know you could paint that.
Ryo Yamaguchi (21:02): Yeah. Of course tell so many stories along the Tableau.
Carolyn Forché (21:07): I’d only seen paintings of royalty and saints and, you know, so-
Ryo Yamaguchi (21:15): Yeah. I have to ask, I’m going to put you on the spot. If you remember the piece of music from the symphony. I’m a great lover of symphonic music.
Carolyn Forché (21:21): I think that was Vivaldi, I think-
Ryo Yamaguchi (21:23): Yeah. Perfect.
Carolyn Forché (21:24): I think they were doing that because it was… I remember it was a little chilly, so it must have been really early in the season. And I think that’s what happened.
Ryo Yamaguchi (21:34): Yeah. Amazing.
Carolyn Forché (21:35): I’m not… It could be wrong about that, but what was amazing to me was the attention on the faces in the audience. I watched them too, because I had never seen anyone take in music outside live before.
Ryo Yamaguchi (21:52): Yeah.
Carolyn Forché (21:53): And they were transfixed and I felt transfixed too, but I never saw other adults look transfixed in that way.
Ryo Yamaguchi (22:06): To watch someone else go through a private joy or something like that. It’s really incredible. While you bring up Akhmatova and I… You’ve kind of begun to touch on a more specific follow up, I had to this question, which was sort of the first time you recognize poetry as being uniquely suitable to account for the truth to hold others to a count. If you think reading Akhmatova is that moment or if you had others.
Carolyn Forché (22:34): Well, I wrote poetry from the age of nine, encouraged by my mother. I read a lot. We were allowed to read four books a week from the public library. We couldn’t take any more than that, but my childhood friends and I would sit under the trees and read in the summer, especially in the summer and… Because of Michigan, we couldn’t read under the trees in winter.
Carolyn Forché (23:00): But anyway, I remember the moment when I discovered one day when I was reading this probably very bad novel that I could do that, I could probably make a book just like that out of my own mind. And I started playing around with that and writing and writing on my mother’s typewriter. And then she pulled some books down and showed me what iambic pentameter was and what a sonic was. And, one day during a snowstorm when we were out of school and snowed in and school was cancelled
Carolyn Forché (23:30): she assigned me to write one and I wrote one and I was absolutely amazed by the experience. And I kept doing it and doing, I wish I could write as prolifically now, as I seem to be able to write then. But you know, the way kids color and they don’t, they just make art. I used to write like that kind of compulsively, but I didn’t know, you could grow up and be a poet. I didn’t even know there were living poets when I was a kid. I thought they were all dead because all the poets that I read were dead. And then when I was a young person, a young adult, I began to write more serious poetry. I still knew you couldn’t grow up and be a poet. I still knew it wasn’t-
Ryo Yamaguchi (24:19): You defied the odds. I think-
Carolyn Forché (24:21): So, but I knew that I was going to write the rest of my life. I also didn’t know that you could still publish poetry. It was a lot of things I didn’t know. But yeah, I would say that in terms of poetry being a path or a vocation or a way to truth, I probably felt that when I was about 22 or so, and I think it had to do with… I think it had to do with the poetry of Anna Akhmatova. All of which were exciting to me at the time. I don’t remember how I found out about these poets. That’s what I don’t remember.
Ryo Yamaguchi (25:08): Yeah. And it’s in the primordial origins of your-
Carolyn Forché (25:13): Of the muck of my past. I don’t have a memory of that.
Ryo Yamaguchi (25:17): Well, yeah. I love your sort of describing the scrappy freedom of being a child in creation and of course adulthood is always kind of narrowing in those that force. So I have to… I think we have to talk about Ukraine and you’re bringing up these, Russian authors like Anna Akhmatova, and I know that you just did a reading with some other Ukrainian authors. That was, I think it was sponsored by Lit Hub just about a week or two ago.
Ryo Yamaguchi (25:47): I know you’re a good friend with Ilya Kaminsky, the Ukrainian American author. I’m curious what I’ve been seeing…. It’s funny, I just logged into Edelweiss this morning, a little, a book kind of industry thing. And, I’m seeing all of these catalogs that people have put out just in the last week of Ukrainian titles. There’s a great list from the New York times today of Ukrainian books. And so I’m curious what perspective do you have on this tremendous literary effort that’s being undertaken now to bring Ukrainian voices to the fore, to bring them to American readers for one, but you know, and elsewhere. What’s your perspective on it right now?
Carolyn Forché (26:21): Well, I’ve been connecting to Ukrainian poets through Askold Melnyczuk who is a wonderful writer who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts now, but he is from Ukraine. And I traveled to Ukraine with Ilya Kaminsky in 2004, and Odessa is really a Russian speaking city, largely. And Ilya of course, was from the Russian speaking Jewish community as is the current president of Ukraine.
Carolyn Forché (26:49): So there’s a Russian speaking community as well. But what hasn’t been as well known are the writers who write originally in the Ukrainian language, because the Russian language while spoken and written in Ukraine is there’s also the Ukrainian language.
Carolyn Forché (27:05): And, Askold has been really helpful as has Ilya in creating bridges during this crisis, especially, but even before the crisis, well, before the crisis of bringing Ukrainian authors into English and to a wider readership. There’s a couple of anthologies now that are available.
Carolyn Forché (27:27): And one of the things that you should know that, we did two large readings, one sponsored with Lit Hub, one with Penn Voices of Poetry. Ilya did organized one, I was in and Askold Melnyczuk the other. The poets that we read with for the most part made the decision to stay in their country.And not to go into exile. We were trying to organize university’s, colleges, literary organizations to sponsor the Ukrainian refugee writers in exile. And they said, no, we’re not going so you don’t have to worry about us.
Ryo Yamaguchi (28:06): Heroic. Yeah.
Carolyn Forché (28:07): That was so moving. And we’re staying in touch in various ways now through Facebook messaging and emails and things. But it’s really important for Americans to read Ukrainian writers in this moment, because then you’re going to read the soul of the country. When Leonard Gomez was taking me towards Salvador, he said, why do you send us ambassadors who are bureaucrats, send us your poets, send us the soul of your country. So that’s when I learned this phrase, the poets are the soul of the country and Americans haven’t been reading enough of the poets of other countries and other languages. That’s why I’m so grateful that Copper Canyon is publishing works in translation. We need this because we can’t know another people unless we read their poets.
Ryo Yamaguchi (29:01): Yes. Beautifully put. So I have, I’m getting a little conscious of our time and I have this extraordinarily complicated follow up question for you on this point. So bear with me for a second. But so many years ago, I reviewed the anthology that you edited called Against Forgetting. And I got it right here. And I also want to show off my first edition of Gathering of the Tribes. I think it’s the first… It’s like the 15th printing, but nonetheless, isn’t that copyright.
Carolyn Forché (29:37): That is a very old book.
Ryo Yamaguchi (29:39): Yeah. I’ll have, you know that I traded a book for that to get that… Anyway, but long story. But I was really grateful to have it.
Carolyn Forché (29:49): Don’t say who you traded because you will hurt their feelings. Okay.
Ryo Yamaguchi (30:20): And I don’t have that here, but it’s wonderful. I highly recommend it. I want to ask you how you feel that the poetry of witness has changed over the decades. And in particular, the famous image from the Colonel where the ears are pressed to the ground, this idea of censorship, of silencing voices. But I think now we live in an age where silence is not the issue. It’s the noise is the issue, right? So how has poetry of witness changed, especially in the face of the rise of disinformation, of the rise of surveillance practices and things like this, do you think there’s a different dynamic now? You know? Yeah. I’ll leave it there.
Carolyn Forché (31:01): I think of witness as a mode of reading, rather than of writing, it’s a way to deepen our reading of works by poets who endured conditions of extremity passed through that extremity, which also marked their language and their consciousness. And, it allows us to recognize what happened. And the poetry of witness is an event. It’s evidence of what happened itself is evidence. It’s not just testimony or description, or this is what happened. It is, here’s the language that passed through this fire with me. This is what I brought to the other side.
Carolyn Forché (31:40): So when I think of, kinds or themes or subjects of witness, it has changed for me in that if I were doing, and I have occasionally toyed with the idea of doing a second volume, but then my sanity returns and I don’t do the second volume because anthologizing is very difficult and very arduous and very fraught with problems of all kinds, including ethical problems.
Carolyn Forché (32:11): But what I have noticed is that there’s a wider recognition of extremity for me now, in other words, any Black person or any Indigenous person or any Brown person, or any person of color who lives in the United States and endures that life in a… would have passed through a condition of extremity.
Carolyn Forché (32:37): And so in the past, when I was publishing People of Color from the U.S in that and selecting them for that volume, I had made it too narrow. I had thought, well, had they been in prison or had they been beaten by the police or had they been censored or had they been subject to house arrest? And now I see the extremity as much larger, there’s an extremity of poverty and extremity of silencing and extremity of degradation of the environment. In a sense, it would be impossible to do the follow up volume because, all poets are living in these dire times.
Carolyn Forché (33:16): And so, you might have to have a different way of selecting and arranging such a book. When you talk about silencing and surveillance, I got very interested in the surveillance issue around the time of Edward Snowden. And we brought a lot of experts on whistle blowing and people who were trying to alert the public to the magnitude of surveillance and how intrusive it was in our lives.
Carolyn Forché (33:50): And, I’m worried about it and I’m… And, because something seems to be being constructed. There’s a mannequin agon right now between democratic forces, including economically democratic forces and authoritarian forces, including rigid, brutal capitalism. So there’s a war going on and Ukraine brings that war once again in a moment of flashing visibility. But there have been many moments of flashing visibility, including in Ukraine beginning in 2014.
Carolyn Forché (34:35): So when does war begin, Ilya would argue, war never ended. That we’ve been in this continuous war with lulls and the human species has to come to terms with this and has to turn away from brutality, oppression, selfishness, greed, and the institutionalized forms of it and the institutionalized economic systems that promote it.
Carolyn Forché (35:00): So we’ve got something a little bit going on than we think than we always realize. And I think the poets are quite aware of it for the most part all through the world. And the reason I think this is that whenever something really horrible happens, the poets always seem to… I don’t know, very few poets, it seem to side with the Putin’s of this world. And maybe some do, but I don’t see them very often. I don’t meet them and I don’t read them and I don’t… I’m not aware of them.
Carolyn Forché (35:36): So, there are unusual cases like, Ezra Pound or, but they’re unusual. So that’s why I trust poets. I trust their… I trust them to be the canaries. Going down, flying down into the tunnels of the earth, just to see whether it’s okay to breathe. So right now I’m… That’s why I’m reading and thinking about poetry and Ukraine so much, especially in the Ukrainian language, which doesn’t get enough attention and concern in the outside world. It is so… I really hope that this war will end soon and that it won’t come to a… That World War III, which has in a sense already begun will end soon. And will not come to a conclusion that would end all of us.
Ryo Yamaguchi (36:40): Yeah. It’s powerful.
Carolyn Forché (36:41): I think that fear that people have, whether they want to admit it or not, or want to stay conscious of it or not. It’s a fear that is gawing at people’s souls at the moment. Is a kind of background subliminal, awareness that’s not impossible.
Ryo Yamaguchi (36:59): Yeah. Amazing. So powerful. I have this other question about how you feel where we are in history. I think you’ve just answered it. It’s thinking about the war and coming out of… presumably coming out of the pandemic and of course, all of the social reckoning that’s been happening over the past many years, but I think you’re right. These are all just indicative of an, agon that’s sort of always kind of churned. That’s been churning for decades, of course.
Carolyn Forché (37:28): So this is our time. We can talk about the past and the sins of the past. We can learn from the past if we’re wise, but this is our time. And each person has to decide for themselves what they are willing to do, what they’re willing to sacrifice, what they’re willing to contribute and who they are. We have to answer for ourselves who we are. This is our moment. We are alive right now. It’s our torch, right? The dead have given us the torch. This is our torch. What are we going to do?
Ryo Yamaguchi (38:04): Well, I have to leave it at that. I think, I have hope in us and I have hope in the inviolability of poets, as you, as I think you’re describing, or at least in my faith in that. Maybe, it’s a good time to read another poem. Would you like to read another poem?
Carolyn Forché (38:19): Sure. I will read a poem that I wrote for this time. I wrote this for Ilya and it was written back when we went to Odessa a long time ago, but this is about his city. And he had come into exile as a teenager. He arrived in the US when he was 16.
The city of your childhood rises between steppe and sea, wheat and light,
white with a dust of cockleshells, star gazers, and bones of pipe fish,
city of limestone, soft enough to cut with a hatchet, where the sea
unfurls and acacias brought by Greeks on their ships
turn white in summer. So yes, you remember, this is the city you lost,
city of smugglers and violinists, chess-players and monkeys,
an opera house, a mad house, a ghost church with wind for its choir
where two things were esteemed: literature and ships, poetry, and the sea.
If you return, now, it will not be as a being visible to others, and when
you walk past, it will not be as if a man had passed, but as if someone long forgotten…as if
someone had remembered something long forgotten and wondered why.
If you return, your father will be alive to prepare for you,
his mint-cucumber soup, or give you the little sweet called bird’s milk,
and after hours of looking with him for his sandals lost near the sea,
you visit again together the amusement park where
your ancestors are buried, and then go home to the apartment house
built by German prisoners of war, to whom your father gave bread,
which you remember surprised you. You take the tram to a stop
where it is no longer possible to get off, and he walks
with you until he vanishes, still holding in his own your invisible hand.
Ryo Yamaguchi (41:04): Carolyn, thank you so much. That was so beautiful. Sorry. I’m just a little overwhelmed here. Thank you so much for joining us. And this is such a wonderful nourishing important conversation, at least for me personally. And I hope also for all of you out there.
Carolyn Forché (41:22): Thank you for asking questions. I haven’t been asked before.
Ryo Yamaguchi (41:27): I try hard.
Carolyn Forché (41:28): That’s wonderful. And thank you, Copper Canyon. Thank you for your questions. That was a lovely conversation. I really enjoyed it.
Ryo Yamaguchi (41:35): Yeah, I did too immensely. I’m so grateful to have you as part of our family here at Copper Canyon. And, so… And that we get this opportunity to do this. So, and thank you for-
Carolyn Forché (41:44): You published the first edition of The Country between Us.
Ryo Yamaguchi (41:46): You know what my colleague…. So, my colleague Joseph told me to remind everyone of that. So that’s absolutely-
Carolyn Forché (41:53): It was a fantastic edition and I’m grateful for that. And so I’ve been in the family for a long time.
Ryo Yamaguchi (42:00): Yes. Of course.
Carolyn Forché (42:02): Okay. Well, thank you.
Ryo Yamaguchi (42:03): Thank you. Thank you for giving us if not hope, this recognition, it’s been wonderful. So-
Carolyn Forché (42:08): Thank you.
Ryo Yamaguchi (42:09): And we’ll see you all for the next one.