How to Write Poetry About Conflict

In the late ’70s, Carolyn Forché traveled to El Salvador on the eve of its civil war, knowing little about the country. Crucially, she understood how little she knew.

The poet Carolyn Forché has devoted much of her career to writing what she calls the poetry of witness. She coined the term in her introduction to Against Forgetting, a 1993 anthology in which she collected works by 145 “poets who endured conditions of historical and social extremity during the twentieth century.” Forché herself had not endured such conditions, but she had seen them. From 1978 to 1980, she traveled repeatedly to El Salvador, where she bore witness to the violent repression of Salvadoran citizens by that country’s military dictatorship.

Forché later called her time in El Salvador a “moral and political education—what at times would seem an unbearable immersion, what eventually would become a focused obsession.” In The Country Between Us (1981), she offered a set of poems reflecting that immersion and obsession. Her Salvadoran poems rang with clarity, and with horror. In “The Memory of Elena,” a meal transforms into “the lips of those whose lips / have been removed, mussels / the soft blue of a leg socket.” In “The Colonel,” a colonel empties a bag of ears “like dried peach halves” on his dinner table as he derides the notion of human rights.

Penguin Press

In her new memoir, What You Have Heard Is True, Forché explains how she arrived in El Salvador, and how she came to write The Country Between Us. The story begins with a summer Forché spent in Spain, translating the exiled Salvadoran poet Claribel Alegría. Alegría’s activist cousin, Leonel Gómez Vides, having read Forché’s debut poetry collection, invited her to visit El Salvador. Forché accepted his invitation in large part because she had struggled to understand Alegría’s poetry. Though she spoke Spanish well enough to translate, with assistance, Alegría’s work, she failed to grasp the poems’ “political and historical context, or, as [Alegría] would say, ‘the conditions from which the poems arose.’” In her memoir, Forché frames her decision to go to El Salvador with Gómez as a commitment to learning those conditions.

This framing is crucial. Forché never presents herself as an expert, an authority, or worst of all, a savior. She consistently emphasizes her myopia, reminding readers that “I was at the time quite young, with a romantic view of the world, and I was also an American, which made this worse.” Forché’s memoir traces her journey from political innocence to experience, and in doing so offers a model to others who might take the same journey.

Gómez serves as Forché’s self-appointed guide and teacher, though his methods are unorthodox. He responds to each of her questions by placing her “in a situation in which you might find your answer.” Often, Forché has no idea what Gómez wants to teach her, but in one case, his purpose is clear. Toward the end of Forché’s first month in El Salvador, he drives her to a prison to observe its conditions, instructing her: “See as much as you can. Memorize everything. Especially the layout and the locations of everything you think human rights groups should see.”

In this way, Forché becomes both a student and an activist. During her second trip to El Salvador, Gómez guides her to guerrillas and Catholic dissidents whose messages she can convey to advocates in the United States. Sometimes, her role is solely to be American. Once, Gómez’s friend Margarita sends her to a seminary where several hundred peasants are hiding from the military. “You must go there in this moment and [pretend to] be una periodista,” she says. “The army might not attack if they see una periodista from the United States.”

Such pretending is not without risk, and danger is essential to Forché’s political education. When the memoir starts, the poet’s safety is never threatened, but she is always afraid. The first time she sees dead bodies, not long after her arrival, she writes, “I remember the light on the road ahead like a swarm of fish, as if the tarmac were water, and a buzzing in my ears, or a rush of air.” The poetic language highlights Forché’s internal experience, emphasizing her selfishness in that moment: She remembers her own shock and fear, not the loss of life she beheld.

Some months later, on her second trip to El Salvador, Forché is walking with a priest named Monseñor Ricardo Urioste when they see a panel truck stop in the street. “Men were leaping from the back. Two of them grabbed a teenager wearing a student’s rucksack and wrestled him into the vehicle. Everyone stopped, or moved away from where they had been.” This is the only time Forché sees a death squad in action, and she conveys the scene with clinical precision. While all those around her dive for cover, she and Monseñor Urioste remain in place. This time, Forché is in true danger, but she has learned not to let fear turn her inward.

As Forché changes, so does her memoir’s language. Her writing becomes quicker, less inclined to linger. Perhaps to replace the poetic writing of the memoir’s early chapters, she begins including notes she took in El Salvador, which function as prose poetry. One such note details her visit to a place called El Playon, which is “a rock strewn with refuse and sea wrack a body a tin spoon bottle glass purple from the sun a paint can a skull with hair … El Playon is a body dump. ‘Yo lo vi,’ Goya wrote beside his sketches. ‘I saw it, and this, and also this.’” Forché’s descriptions of her second trip to El Salvador read much like Goya’s claim. She strips emotion and lyricism from her memoir writing, leaving straightforward reports: I saw it, and this, and also this.

Forché invokes Gómez to explain her stylistic transformation. After she sees a suspicious-seeming man with an attaché case at Archbishop Óscar Romero’s Mass, she reports the sighting to Gómez, but can’t provide an exact description. He warns her to “guard your credibility. This is something that cannot be recovered once lost … Next time pay closer attention.” Decades later, Forché heeds his warning. She describes her final weeks in El Salvador with crisp rigor and as much remove as she can muster.

Forché left El Salvador days before Monseñor Romero was assassinated, an event that tipped conflict into full-scale war. Instead of returning, she traveled the United States, speaking about The Country Between Us and trying to raise public consciousness of American support for the Salvadoran junta. She wasn’t the only writer to do so; both Joan Didion and Deborah Eisenberg wrote about the Salvadoran civil war, but neither Didion’s Salvador (1983) nor the Central American stories Eisenberg published throughout the 1990s have the emotional heft of “The Colonel” or “Return,” in which a first-person speaker tells a friend, Josephine, how helpless she feels now that she’s returned to the United States. The poem ends with Josephine’s reply: “It is / not your right to feel powerless. Better / people than you were powerless. / You have not returned to your country, / but to a life you never left.”

Forché’s time in El Salvador changed her life completely. She married a war photographer, worked as a human-rights advocate in apartheid South Africa, and covered Lebanon’s civil war for NPR. Forché has confronted historical and present crises in each of her five poetry collections, writing not only about her experiences in Lebanon and El Salvador, but also about the Holocaust, the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and most recently, the refugee crisis in the Aegean. She has devoted herself equally to poetry and to witness. In “Return,” she wrote of straining “even to remember / things impossible to forget.” In What You Have Heard Is True, she does the same. She remembers as much as possible, and the resulting memoir, once read, is difficult to forget.