Utne Reader Visionary: Carolyn Forché

We need to become workers together

| March-April 1996


No one has worked harder to bring the brutal extremities of political life in the 20th century into the orbit of American poetry than Carolyn Forché, poet, translator, anthologist, and human rights activist. Her 1982 volume, The Country Between Us, commemorates two years spent working with human rights advocates in El Salvador; it contains some of the most powerful poems of political violence and political commitment ever written in the United States. Balancing art and activism, she has lived in Paris, Beirut, and South Africa; has translated exiled Salvadoran poet Claribel Alegria, surrealist Robert Desnos, and 19th-century French visionary Arthur Rimbaud. Her 1993 anthology, Against Forgetting, gathers the work of poets around the world who were imprisoned, tortured, murdered, or otherwise tormented by the forces of 20th-century political darkness.

“We would be much better off if more of us understood ourselves to be workers. I have a white-collar occupation—professor—but I am one paycheck away from poverty like millions of others. If we truly understood ourselves to be workers and wage earners, we would take better care of one another—after all, who is going to look out for common working folk if not other common working folk?

“We are becoming aware, I think, that we are all interrelated. Once we relate in a way that doesn't reduce or dominate either party—Martin Buber’s I-Thou relationship—with a spouse or a loved one, I think we begin to appreciate the radiance of the larger web of interrelatedness, and we wake up. There is no “social Beyond.” The division and suffering in Bosnia is neighbor to us, it’s possible for us. We already have gated communities; we’re already taking part in a refeudalization of our community life, in order to realize something called security. 

“It’s an illusion. We’ll never be secure while life is insecure for millions. The security of anyone is contingent upon the safety of everyone.”