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The Student News Site of Loyola University Maryland

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Renowned “Poet of Witness” gives insight into how poetry has shaped her life and legacy

Five-time author and human rights advocate, Carolyn Forché, is known for her many political poems and books. She uses her poems to portray, in-depth, all of her life experiences, informing the public on the many problems our world faces. She visited Loyola on Thursday, Oct. 28 to read poems from her new book, “In the Lateness of the World,” and answer questions from former alumni and current students.  

Forché started writing in 1976, but two years later she decided to travel to El Salvador as a journalist. Many of her profound poems are inspired by that experience in El Salvador, where she witnessed firsthand the brutality that Central America had to offer. 

“I spent the better part of 1978, 1979, and early 1980 in El Salvador. I was 27 years old,” Forché said.  “I was invited there by a cousin of a poet who was a friend of mine”. 

This cousin would spend three days at Forché’s house, providing the history of El Salvador to her. 

“War is coming to El Salvador in three to five years, and I want to prevent it, but I don’t think I will be able to… So, I need a poet to come with me back to El Salvador, to absorb everything that is happening in the country,” he said, according to Forché. “Then when the war starts, [and] the American people will understand the reasoning for the uprising”.

When she traveled to El Salvador, Forché was able to visit a prison, pretending to have known one of the prisoners. It was here that she witnessed what was truly going on behind the scenes, and the brutal treatment against the Salvadorans. Most people know Forché writes from memory and strives to be truthful, but she clarified, saying, 

“My memoir is pure nonfiction and I wanted it to be as true and clear as possible to tell the people of El Salvador’s story”. 

Besides the fact that her poems mostly took on a political form, Forché highlights a time where poetry was her therapeutic release. Through her battle as a cancer survivor, she recalls the time when her doctor told her that many cancer patients do not die. These words gave her hope that she would still be with us to discuss her life’s journey today.   

That experience was just one of many that shaped Forché’s view on how important poetry is, but she emphasized that poetry had an even bigger impact on Latin America in the ‘80s than it did in the U.S. This led to the discussion of poetry in the 21st century where she said,

 “21st century poets now have more access and more of a voice today than ever before.” 

Allie Lijewski ‘22 said, “I read ‘The Colonel’ by Carolyn Forché my freshman year, and it’s a poem that has stuck in my brain ever since then. Having the opportunity to listen to her now has just been an amazing experience.” 

Claire Marino ‘24 also had nothing but positive things to say about Forché’s event. Like Lijewski, Marino was also introduced to Forché’s work through classes at Loyola. 

“It was very interesting to hear her speak about her work after reading it and discussing it with multiple different perspectives in class,” Marino said. 

When asked what writers have influenced her, Forché said,

“James Baldwin was someone who I considered to be the greatest American writer of the twentieth century.” 

It is people like James Baldwin that inspired Forché to write about highly controversial topics of her time. 

“I read many of his works and he taught me how to write about what was going on in the world,” Forché said.

She wanted to use those topics to leave an impact on everyone that read her work and inspire future generations to come. Her works were recognized by all sorts of people, including the late Nelson Mandela who said, 

“Carolyn Forché’s “Against Forgetting” is itself a blow against tyranny, against prejudice, and against injustice”.  

Featured Image courtesy of Elisa Calvet B. via Unsplash

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Renowned “Poet of Witness” gives insight into how poetry has shaped her life and legacy