Some things from Carolyn Forché, this week at the Hudson Valley Writers Center.
There are the epigraphs to her new memoir, that she reads to us first. This from Baldwin:
For the strangest people in the world are those people recognized, beneath one’s senses, by one’s soul — the people utterly indispensable for one’s journey.
And this from Lorca:
Nobody knows you. No. But I sing to you.
There is the moment in the prison. Of course I mean the moment in the dark room. But also the moment right before it—a flash of light and light-heartedness, almost.
He locked eyes with me, then asked if I saw the dark open doorway nearby. I did. [...] “No one is paying attention to you now. Just walk into that room and try to see what you can. Don’t stay long. And control your face when you come out—I’ll be right here. If anyone sees you and asks what you are doing, just make an absent-minded North American-lady face.” And he imitated such a face by looking at me blankly with his mouth slightly open. I had never seen anyone do that before and I didn’t realize that this is what we looked like, to others. “And just say that you got lost.”
Funnily enough, that is right around where Forché herself, here and now in the reading, loses her place. (“Look at the world,” he’d say. “And not at the mirror.”) She pauses a long, long time. All two-hundred of us sit at our computers, phones, and tablets, watching through Zoom as worlds pass like shadows of clouds across this woman’s face. Shadows of things at once utterly mysterious and absolutely familiar.
After the long, long time, at last and as if from a long way away, she says softly—her voice catching a little—yeah...
I’m sorry. I got lost here.
There are lines from the two poems she reads, published last year In the Lateness of the World. This from “The Museum of Stones”:
stone of the mind within us
carried from one silence to another
And this from “What Comes”:
to speak is not yet to have spoken.
you have yourself within you
you have her, and there is nothing
that cannot be seen
open then to the coming of what comes
There is the way she describes the difference between writing poetry and writing prose. With poetry, she says. You’re writing it in splashes of time. There is the way she gestures with her hands, at those splashes.
(And yet. When you write a poem, you interrogate every word.)
There is the moment, perhaps tangentially, when someone asks her about the state (or maybe it was the role, or the importance—something like that...) of education in the US, and she pulls no punches:
We have gutted education in this country and education is the answer to all of it. I don’t know how we’re going to turn that around, but charter schools are certainly not an answer.
There is the answer she gives to the question of how you protect your heart while also being present as a writer:
Protect your heart? You can’t protect your heart! (She laughs and looks up for a second—at the ceiling, the sky, maybe life above her...) This is the thing of being human...
She tries again:
The best way to protect your heart is to try to think about other people, you know? And then you don’t close in on yourself and strangle your heart too much... I think that’s the best. But I don’t think there’s any protection that I can imagine having, without cutting oneself off from life.
I think of a rare self-help book I deigned to read this year, saying exactly the thing that no self-help book ever says:
Countless self-help books, blogs, and seminars promise relief from suffering, when pain and suffering are as much a part of life as happiness and joy. The only way to avoid being mistreated in this world is to fold up in a dark corner and stay mute.
If you go outside, or let others in, you’ll get hurt many times. Ditto if you’ve grown up in a family rather than being raised by wolves.
There was another writer in this talk too, and it is maybe a little terrible of me that I say nothing about her. But until last night I had never heard of Lori Soderlind. While Forché I have carried shards of, for a long, long time. (And they are very much shards—glittering and beautiful and sometimes far too sharp, like those broken bottles embedded in the walls around the house of in “The Colonel”... Even now in my mind’s eye, they are scooping the kneecaps from a man’s legs...)
Still. There is at least one moment with that other writer—with Lori Soderlind:
It is really so hard to know things that you can’t tell.
She was speaking in the context of a specific question someone had asked of both writers—how they decide what not to write—what part of the truth, as they put it, to hold back in silence. But I hear it another way too. A way that gets me thinking of Lorde and her thoughts on a certain kind of thinking—a kind of think-feeling—that happens in a space inside you that is far, far beneath (or maybe beyond...) the merely verbal:
[Thinking] was a very mysterious process for me. And it was one I had come to suspect because I had seen so many errors committed in its name, and I had come not to respect it. On the other hand, I was also afraid of it because there were inescapable conclusions or convictions I had come to about my own life, my own feelings, that defied thought. And I wasn’t going to let them go. I wasn’t going to give them up. They were too precious to me. They were life to me. But I couldn’t analyze or understand them because they didn’t make the kind of sense I had been taught to expect through understanding. There were things I knew and couldn’t say. [...] All I had was the sense that I had to hold on to these feelings and that I had to air them in some way.
It gets me thinking too, of Rilke:
Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered...
And of course—maybe always of course—of Heather McHugh.
Finally, there is this, from Forché’s own advice to the student poets in the audience:
The thing that helped me was to read everything I could get my hands on, and read the poetry aloud, read other people’s poetry aloud to myself—not only from the present but from the past—and put the music in my mind. And then... And then. [...] Don’t worry about your subject matter. Language will carry you. Don’t worry about what you’re writing about.
I hear that and I say to myself girl, do you hear that?” Don’t worry about your subject matter. Language will carry you.
I think of Woolf, writing to Sackville-West:
As for the mot juste, you are quite wrong. Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words. But on the other hand here am I sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can’t dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it: But no doubt I shall think differently next year.
And so of course, I think then of Le Guin, writing from Woolf:
Beneath memory and experience, beneath imagination and invention—beneath words, as she says—there are rhythms to which memory and imagination and words all move. The writer’s job is to go down deep enough to feel that rhythm, find it, move to it, be moved by it, and let it move memory and imagination to find words.
But finally, I think again of Lorde:
When I wrote something that finally had it, I would say it aloud and it would come alive, become real. It would start repeating itself and I’d know, that’s struck, that’s true. Like a bell. Something struck true. And there the words would be.
[Santo Spirito, Firenze]
[mercoledì 10 febbraio 2021 ore 13:02:13] [¶]