Poetry’s ability to bring people together is emphasized through the works of Claribel Alegría, Robert Hass, and Carolyn Forché. Although these three poets come from vastly different experiences, they share an ability to transport audiences and instill hope. In this episode, filmed at the Biennial Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, Bill Moyers talks with the artists about the meaning and process behind their work.
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BILL MOYERS: They are here to celebrate life. They have come to celebrate language. Poet readings are flourishing across America in many different places, in wondrous variety.
Nowhere is the renaissance of poetry more vivid than in the historic village of Waterloo, New Jersey. Every two years thousands of people gather to hear some of the world’s best poets at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival.
In this hour, we’ll meet Robert Hass and Carolyn Forche. We will also hear from the acclaimed central American poets Claribel Allegria.
Claribel Allegria, Carolyn Forche, and Robert Hass, this is THE LANGUAGE OF LIFE.
CAROLYN FORCHE: My grandmother, Anna, was born in the 19th century in Czechoslovakia. She was a woman with who was — she was built something like one of those old-fashioned white Philco refrigerators and she wore babushkas and little wire-rimmed glasses and she invented much of her English. She was very old and had — I remember thinking her legs were like an elephant’s legs. They went right down into her shoes. And she was very big and she made up English words all the time. She would do things like she called a colander a “macaroni-stop-water-go-ahead”. And she called — she called me “piscata”, which means chatterbox. Nobody every knew why, but she said, “Piscata, go get me the macaroni-stop-water-go-head and that’s how I became a poet probably. This is for her. It’s a poem of love and longing and missing for her.
CAROLYN FORCHE: THE MORNING BAKING. “Grandma, come back. I forgot how much lard for these rolls. Think you can put yourself in the ground like plain potatoes and grow in Ohio? I am damned sick of getting fat like you. Think you can lie through your Slovak, tell filthy stories about the blood sausage, pish-pish nights at the virgin in Detroit? I blame your raising me up for my Slav tongue. You beat me up out back, taught me to dance. I’ll tell you I don’t remember any kind of bread. Your wavy loaves of flesh stink through my sleep, the stars on your silk robes, but I’m glad I’ll look when I’m old, like a gypsy dusha hauling milk.”
BILL MOYERS: Was she still alive when you wrote that?
CAROLYN FORCHE: She had died four years earlier and I think that these were the first poems I wrote that came out of the depths of my feeling, were the poems I wrote for her. My feelings about her were very ambivalent, richly ambivalent because I loved her dearly and she was ragingly powerful and frightening at the same time and foreign and from the old country. And so I think she shaped my soul in a lot of ways when I was younger. And I think when I first understood what poetry was and what is could be, I went back in my heart to her for my first poems.
BILL MOYERS: What poetry was and could be? What is poetry?
CAROLYN FORCHE: I think that poetry is the voice of the soul, whispering the voice of the soul, celebrating, singing even. Reading poetry and writing poetry enables us to sustain our capacity for contemplation, the extend that capacity. We’re living in a time, I think, where the velocity of human experience has so accelerated that perhaps our capacity to sustain contemplation is being eroded. I teach my students “You must — in order to make a poem, place yourself in contemplative expectation before a blank piece of paper. Put your hand on the paper and your hand will write your way to the poem.” I tell them, “You can’t think your way to good poems and then write the good poem, think the bad poem, write the good poem. You have to just keep writing and keep writing until the poem emerges from your soul.”
BILL MOYERS: What happens, as in my case, the hand doesn’t get the message?
BILL MOYERS: It’s not just passive. That’s a point.
CAROLYN FORCHE: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Writing poetry is not just passive.
CAROLYN FORCHE: No. For me, I hear poetry in people’s speech. Walking down the street, I hear it floating past me from something someone’s saying. It’s just something that I notice in life that I …
BILL MOYERS: So, in a way, you hear the language before you actually see it, before you write it down?
CAROLYN FORCHE: I think there are poets who — who actually hear rhythms before they have words for them, and then the words kind of fall into the poem. I’m — I have more visual imagination and I see the poem and I somehow translate it.
BILL MOYERS: Read POEM FOR MAYA.
CAROLYN FORCHE: POEM FOR MAYA. “Dipping our bread in oil tins, we talked of morning, peeling open our rooms to a moment of almonds, olives and wind when we did not yet know what we were. The days in Majorca were alive. Footprints down goat paths from the beds we had left. At night the stars locked to darkness. At that time we were learning to dance, take our clothes and our fingers and open ourselves to their hands. The veranera was with us. For a month, the almond trees bloomed, their droppings the delicate silks we removed when each time a touch took us closer to the window where we whispered ‘yes’ there, on the intricate balconies of breath overlooking the rest of our lives.”
BILL MOYERS: What is veranera?
CAROLYN FORCHE: Veranera, it’s a blue morning glory, very vivid, and it — in Majorca, where I was living with Claribel Allegria and her daughter, Maya, for the summer. There was a stone wall covered with it. And Maya and I were young and idealistic and very romantic and we were just coming of age. And we had a lot of adventures together that summer. And it was the summer that I was translating Claribel Allegria’s book, FLOWERS FROM THE VOLCANO.
BILL MOYERS: So Maya is Claribel’s daughter?
CAROLYN FORCHE: Yes, Claribel’s daughter.
CAROLYN FORCHE: It’s an honor for me to introduce Claribel Allegria. She was born in Nicaragua and grew up in El Salvador. She now lives again in her beloved Nicaragua, I think of her like a second mother. I met her when I was very young, 20 years ago.
CAROLYN FORCHE: Maya was my friend in San Diego, where I was working as a teacher. And Maya said to me all the time, “My mother’s a poet. My mother’s a poet. You should meet my mother and read her poems.” Well, I thought, well everybody — everybody’s mother is a poet. So I ignored this. And finally one day she brought out all the books and she said, “What languages do you read?” And I said, “But your mother is a poet!” And she said, “That’s what I’ve been telling you.”
CAROLYN FORCHE: She’s a poet, has been a poet all her life and I believe that she has agreed to read in Spanish as well as in English, and I give you Claribel Allegria. (Applause.)
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: Hello. I am very happy to see you here. Thank you for coming. I’ll read this in English and in Spanish. (Reads first in Spanish.)
BILL MOYERS (TRANSLATES):“I, poet by trade, condemned so many times to be a crow, would never change places with the Venus de Milo.
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: (speaking in Spanish)…
BILL MOYERS (TRANSLATES): “… while she reigns in the Louvre and dies of boredom and collects dust …
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: (speaking in Spanish)…
BILL MOYERS (TRANSLATES): “… I discover the sun each morning …
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: (speaking in Spanish)…
BILL MOYERS (TRANSLATES): “… and amid valleys, volcanos and debris of war …
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: (speaking in Spanish)…
BILL MOYERS (TRANSLATES): “… I catch sight of the promised land.”
BILL MOYERS: Poet by trade?
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean by the phrase “condemned to be a crow”?
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: You know why. Because I feel sometimes that I am a crow, that I have pitiless eyes, that I am looking at things in a thing a crow probably would look, you know, with pitiless eyes. And then when — when I describe something in my fellow men, in myself, I look at myself with pitiless eyes and then, I feel like I am a crow.
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: “I, poet by trade, condemned so many times to be a crow, would never change places with the Venus of Milo. When she reigns in the Louvre and dies of boredom and collects dust, I discover the sun each morning and amid valleys, volcanoes, and debris of war, I catch sight of the promised land.”
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: I wrote that poem when in El Salvador, there was war, you know? And it was terrible. And destruction and death everywhere. But I always thought it was something, something there behind …
BILL MOYERS: That’s the oldest vision of all, is it not?
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: Exactly. Exactly.
BILL MOYERS: The promised land?
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: The promised land.
BILL MOYERS: The Garden of Eden?
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: The Garden of Eden. Exactly. And I think it’s there. I am not that pessimistic. Sometimes I am afraid to become cynic because of so many things are happening in the world, but I hope not.
BILL MOYERS: You find joy in writing poetry, don’t you?
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: Yes, I do sometimes. Sometimes I don’t, because it depends. You know, poems come to me in different ways. Sometimes they — I dream — a poet — a line of poetry is given to me in the dream, you know, and I write that, because it’s amazing. And so sometimes it’s a great joy to write a poem and it sort of comes. But other times I do suffer and sometimes a poem dies in my hand. And that’s terrible, you know, when I dies a premature death, it doesn’t come. Other times before I write the poem, I hear a music. It’s amazing …
BILL MOYERS: You hear the music?
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: … the music haunting me.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean “music”? I think of poems as words.
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: I know. I know. But words can be musical, too. But I hear like, “What could I say?” It’s not like a symphony, but I hear some music haunting me and then I have to fill that music with words.
BILL MOYERS: Do you hear that music …
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: In my head, yes.
BILL MOYERS: … in Spanish or English?
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: In both. It’s not –it’s just music like if you would hear, for instance, a concert of Beethoven or something like this. I hear music.
BILL MOYERS: But when you start thinking about that music …
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: Yes?
BILL MOYERS: … are you thinking in Spanish or English?
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: Spanish. Spanish.
BILL MOYERS: Spanish. And then someone translates?
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: Always. That’s right, always.
BILL MOYERS: There’s one, a hundred-and-seven, THE MIRROR. It’s only four lines, but it’s a very, very haunting poem.
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: All right. THE MIRROR. “The mirror rejoices reflecting the purple petals of the orchid.”
BILL MOYERS: Would you read that again?
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: “The mirror rejoices reflecting the purple petals of the orchid.”
BILL MOYERS: The mirror shows up again and again in your poems.
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: You know, I’ll tell you what happened to me when I was sort of an adolescent, you know. I wanted to become an actress and I would go to my room and I could look at myself in the mirror and I wanted to become a tragic artist in the theatre. And I started reciting things, you know, like this and looking at myself in the mirror all the time! And then one time I realized that I had a crooked face, that my left side is very different from my right side. With my left side I can fly. With my right side, I don’t know, I was very much down to earth. And then I — the mirrors haunted me and I would go, you know, and look at my face and see how was the side that wanted to fly and — and if that side would pull the other side up.
BILL MOYERS: We owe your great poetry, your great art, to an asymmetrical face.
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: Right.
BILL MOYERS: Tell me about this poem, DESIRE. We you read that one?
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: Oh, yes. Yes. What page is it?
BILL MOYERS: It’s on page 34.
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: Thirty-four, yes.
BILL MOYERS: You begin that with a quote from Pizarnik “And someone entered death with his eyes open …”. How does a quote like that become the inspiration of a whole poem?
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: You know? To me it happens a lot when I write poetry. I always keep what I call my seed book. It’s a simple …
BILL MOYERS: Seed book?
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: Seed book, I call it. It’s a simple notebook. And when I read something that really touches me or when I hear something, I put all these things in my seed book. And this quote was one of them. And, you know, sometimes I go over my seed book and all of a sudden that’s — it clicks.
BILL MOYERS: You put the quote in there …
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: That’s right.
BILL MOYERS: … and let it …
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: That’s right.
BILL MOYERS: … germinate, so to speak? The seed germinates, right?
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: Germination of my seed. That’s right. That was a seed that germinated.
BILL MOYERS: And this little poem arises from it?
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Would you read that in English for me?
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: Very good.
BILL MOYERS: DESIRE
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: Fine. DESIRE “And someone entered death with his eyes open.–Alejandra Pizarnik. I want to enter death with my eyes open. My ears open, without masks, without fears. Knowing and not knowing. Serenely facing other voices, other airs, other paths. Forgetting my memories, detaching myself, being reborn intact.”
ROBERT HASS: Two little poems about relationships. First one is called, THE LOVER’S UNDRESSING. “They put on rising and they rise. They put on falling and they fall. They are a long grass on the hillside that shudders in the wind. They sleep days, kitchens, cut flowers, shed petals, smell of lemon, smell of toast or soap. ‘Are you upset about something?’ one says. ‘No,’ the other says. ‘Are you sure?’ the one says. ‘Yes,’ the other says, ‘I’m sure.'”
ROBERT HASS: This one is called FORTY-SOMETHING. “She says to him, musing, ‘If you ever leave me and marry a younger woman and have another baby, I’ll put a knife in your heart.’ They are in bed, so she climbs onto his chest and looks directly down into his eyes, ‘You understand? Your heart.’ “
ROBERT HASS: I just put together a little book of translations of haiku that I’ve been doing over the years. I’ll read you a few poems by one of my favorite poets. His name is Kobiashi Isa and he’s a haiku poet from the early 19th century, who wrote probably 10,000 haiku in his life, some of them — about a thousand of them are about insects and small creatures.
For example, this poem. “Don’t worry, spiders. I keep house casually. Goes out, comes back, the love life of my cat. Climb Mount Fu–” — this is R.H. Blythe’s translation. “Climb Mount Fuji, oh, snail, but slowly, slowly. Napped half the day. No one punished me. Mosquito at my ear. Does it think I’m deaf? “
ROBERT HASS: This is a — a little poem of BASHA. It’s about the cuckoo. “Even in Kyoto, hearing the cuckoos cry, I long for Kyoto.”
BILL MOYERS: Mmm-hmm.
ROBERT HASS: (Silent.)
BILL MOYERS: I need help, I need help.
ROBERT HASS: Even in the middle of what we want, we want, we want it. We want the ideal form of it. I think of coming to New York for the first time when I was a kid. New York, you know, with all of those images of the romance of the city. You could say that about here, you know. Even in New York, sunlight on the brownstones, I long for New York. It’s that. It’s that.
ROBERT HASS: In old Japan, New Year’s Day was everybody’s birthday. It was the first day of spring. It was a day of putting on new clothes and many poets wrote poems each year on that day. This is one of Isa’s. “New Year’s Day everything is in blossom. I feel about average.” Another spring poem. “The snow is melting and the village is flooded with children.” This one has the title, A QUIET LIFE. “Under my house an inchworm measuring the joists” …
BILL MOYERS: I think of these Japanese poets like gifted stenographers walking around with calligrapher pens in their inner pocket, pulling them out and making quick, broad strokes of what they see.
ROBERT HASS: Yeah. When I was a young writer reading around in poetry — the ideal of this poetry, you know, to be a able to look in such a way that you could live at the center of your own life seemed to desirable to me, you know, such a great thing to be able to do that. Reading through these poets, it felt like they were alert at every moment of their life. I discovered, of course, that that wasn’t true. They were like everybody else, though gifted artists, you know.
BILL MOYERS: You have some favorites in here?
ROBERT HASS: In here? Oh, yeah. This is the — this is a famously cute one of Isa’s. “Climb Mount Fuji, oh, snail, but slowly, slowly.” Isa was the sort of Japanese farmer poet. I think in his lifetime, for example, he wrote over a thousand poems about bugs and insects. He has a poem that goes, “That snail, one long horn, one short. What’s on his mind?” “Even for you, fleas, the nights must be long. They must be lonely.” Another goes, “Don’t hit that fly. Look it’s wringing its hands, it’s wringing its feet.” This kind of poetry, just see the image as if it was the whole of reality, was a discipline that left him with no, ahm, protection. For so many years he wrote these poems in which there wasn’t room to have ideas about why things suffer or you just — you’re just saying…
ROBERT HASS: CRICKET CHIRPING IN A SCARECROW’S BELLY. That’s a fall poem and scarecrows are always associated with our human barrenness in that time of year. CRICKET CHIRPING IN A SCARECROW’S BELLY. “Under the evening moon that snail, striped to the waist. Even with insects, some can sing, some can’t.”
ROBERT HASS: One of the things I love about his work is that it’s this completely undefended looking at both — a joy, pain, suffering. And this one is called HELL. “Bright autumn moon, pond snails crying in the saucepan.”
BILL MOYERS: I don’t get that one.
ROBERT HASS: It’s very much a poem about the full moon, full round moon of the harvest season, and I think he’s just hearing the little mulling sound, like a cry of pain, of the air escaping from these pond snails that are being sautéed in a round pan. So you have the round pan, the round moon. We’re all being sautéed in the sauté dish of living. And he hears the — the — the word that I translated “carrying,” I didn’t really know. I had a neighbor who, as a boy, loved haikus. So I went and asked him, “How would you translate this word?” And he said, “Well, ‘crying’ it not bad.” But then I would see him every day as I was brooding over these poems coming out of his house and he would say, “What about ‘whimpering’?” And I’d say, “Oh, that’s too long.” And then he would say, “Well, the air is escaping. What about ‘hissing’, pond snails hissing in the saucepan?” And then “mewling” was a word — and then I realized that I was trying to find a word for little half-cry, half-song of pain at the middle of the universe, at the middle of living? And it sort of gave me creep how “Bright autumn moon, pond snails crying in the saucepan” just tries to catch this moment as if it were all the beauty and pain in the world in one little image.
ROBERT HASS: I’m not crazy about the idea of doing assignments, but what I can do is show you some little forms that I love. It’s not a formula, a recipe for writing a poem, you know, you do it mechanically and write junk, but it’s some day when you don’t quite know where to start, it’s a form of sketching and a form of play and it will help you to — to just check in with your own imagination. Let’s start with two lines, with the idea of two lines, something like a haiku. Somebody give me an image, look around and give me an image of praise. A microphone is hanging over my head. Okay. Write it down. “A microphone is hanging over my head.” Don’t make a story. See what else floats up in you that feels like that. Want to read yours?
STUDENT: “A microphone is hanging over my head. There is much work to do before morning.”
STUDENT: “A microphone is hanging over my head. What should I do?”
STUDENT: “A microphone is hanging over my head and I see my mother’s eye, open and green.”
STUDENT: “A microphone is hanging over my head. I have a quiz tomorrow on Egypt.”
ROBERT HASS: (Listening in silence.)
STUDENT: “A microphone is hanging over my head and I step up to the plate.”
STUDENT: “A microphone is hanging over my head. I feign interest in my teacher’s caustic words.”
ROBERT HASS: It’s so interesting, you know, the sense of where you are in life and the kinds of worries floating up as a sort of dramatic chorus of worry. “And now the goddess of worry appears on this page and the Greek chorus came out.”
BILL MOYERS: I heard you working with kids and playing that game with poetry as play.
ROBERT HASS: Poetry as play …
BILL MOYERS: I love that.
ROBERT HASS: The thing about it, Bill, that’s so interesting is there’s nothing like it in the Western literary tradition exactly of people getting together and improvising endlessly on a theme as a form of play.
ROBERT HASS: One of the things that can happen in a sort of interesting way as a social thing is, if everybody starts with the same premise, to hear a chorus of different responses is interesting. So let’s each read your second line quickly in rhythm as if it were a six-line poem.
STUDENT: There is much work to do before morning.
STUDENT: “And I see my mother’s eye, open and green.”
STUDENT: “What should I do?”
STUDENT: “I have a quiz tomorrow on Egypt.”
STUDENT: “I step up to the plate.”
STUDENT: “I feign interest in my teacher’s caustic words.”
ROBERT HASS: The haiku form actually developed from what was really a medieval game of starting a poem, adding another part, adding another part so that it was being endlessly transformed and they would have these drinking parties at which people did this. It was a form of socializing. It connects in a deep way to the Japanese and Buddhist sense of endless transitoriness, endless transformation. Usually, there was be a master poet, Basho, and he’s — we’re both haiku masters. They would lead these sessions. And the things that it’s most like in our tradition really is the ’20s jazz bands. It’s skilled improvisation with a master. If you think about Louis Armstrong, that’s — odd as it is, that’s the nearest thing to the circumstance that the haiku came out of.
ROBERT HASS: Do you want to try one? Try one. Three lines. Direct description, no interpretation, right now.
STUDENT: “A voice rings out past yellow tents and grey trees.”
ROBERT HASS: Again.
STUDENT: “A voice rings out past yellow tents and grey trees.”
ROBERT HASS: Try it the other way around, first line last.
STUDENT: “Past yellow tents and grey trees, a voice rings out.”
ROBERT HASS: Does that work better?
ROBERT HASS: I think because the — you’ll — there’s a pay-off to the description.
STUDENT: Oh, okay. “Reading Dickinson’s words, I imagined that she speaks my mind. If only it were that poetic.”
ROBERT HASS: If I were a haiku teacher back in the — I would say, “First two lines are written with original mind. Last line is written with self-criticizing mind.” Read it with just the first two lines.
STUDENT: “Reading Dickinson’s words, I imagined that she speaks my mind.”
ROBERT HASS: Don’t judge your feeling.
ROBERT HASS: The mystery is there. The interest of this form partly is letting the ego go somewhere else. Read the first two again.
STUDENT: “Reading Dickinson’s words, I imagine that she speaks my mind.”
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: This one is called CARMEN BOMBA. “Carmen Bomba, we called him that. He was in Santana. He was a small child. Santana is my hometown in El Salvador and he was one of these men that carry heavy things, you know, all day long carrying heavy things in the marketplaces? And then he got so tired, I imagine, and at the end of the day he always get drunk, you know? And then he would go to the houses where the windows were open and start reciting his poems. That was so beautiful. You know, he was a man of about 45-50 years old that all he did was that, to have heavy, heavy bundles and then, you know, he had to get a little drunk in order to let his poetry that he had inside him go. So this is a little vignette in my book. CARMEN BOMBA. “Louisa” is myself, see. I put “Louisa” as my name.
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: “Louisa always felt refreshed when she remembered Carmen Bomba, the porter and human beast of burden in the Santana marketplace. Each afternoon when he finished work, he’d get a bit drunk to arouse his courage and he paused before each open window in the neighborhood to recite the verses he had composed that day.”
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: The people in Central America, but especially in Nicaragua, practically everybody is a poet. There is a saying that said, “Look,” a man said to the other, “here I have some poems I am going to read to you.” “Great,” the other said, “but if you read to me, I read to you.”
ROBERT HASS: There’s a line I love in a poem by John Keats that I read in high school and noticed ’cause I thought it was sexy. He says, “She looked at me as she did love — as if she loved me — and made sweet moan.” Say the line, “And made sweet moan.” Again.
ALL TOGETHER: “And made sweet moan.”
ROBERT HASS: Now just say the vowels sounds. Ah-a-e-o. We have to breathe with the breath of his feeling when we say his line. It’s a physical thing. You can interpret the poem ’til the end of the world, but John Keats got inside you.
BILL MOYERS: I heard you say that art occurs when you put the structure of breathing in other people’s body.
ROBERT HASS: Well, I was just thinking about the fact that when one says somebody else’s poem aloud, one speaks in their breath. If I say, “Tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day ’til the last syllable of recorded time and all our yesterdays of lighted fools to dust,” everything that’s happening in my physiology. Shakespeare quite literally put there. I mean probably he’s writing in silence. It’s a very mysterious process. Probably he’s writing in silence, but he’s hearing all of these vocalizations, hearing these rhythms, and then when you take them in, you take in the physiology of the phrases, you know? “I lean and loaf at my ease,” Whitman says, “observing a spear of summer grass.” You have to let all that carbon monoxide up out of your lungs to say that line. So that what I was saying to the students to get them to love and care about the rhythms and sounds of the language that they were making was, you know, “You’re going to be putting that inside other people, so you want to take some responsibility for it.”
ROBERT HASS: So that’s the thing about your poems. Love the language of your poems. When you make them, it’s gonna be in other people’s bodies, you know? Poetry is the safest of safe sex. It what gets you into another person’s body with all of your emotions. Not just our need, but with all of the range of emotion.
BILL MOYERS: Let’s look at some of the other poems. HOUSE is one of my favorites because of the language and also there’s this intriguing question. You know, you begin so happy with your coffee and the classic music and the bacon. I can even smell the bacon and then all of a sudden there’s a change. Read it.
ROBERT HASS: “Quick in the April hedge were juncos and kinglets. I was at the window just now. The bacon sizzled under hand. The coffee steamed fragrantly and fountains of the water music issued from another room. Living in a house, we live in the body of our lives. Last night the odd after-dinner light of early spring and now the sunlight warming or shadowing the morning rooms. I am conscious of being myself the inhabitant of certain premises, coffee and bacon and Handel and upstairs asleep, my wife. Very suddenly old dusks break over me. The thick shag, the heads of fig trees near the house and not wanting to go in and swallows looping on the darkened hill and all that terror in the house and barely, only barely, a softball falling toward me like a moon.”
BILL MOYERS: There’s such a gentle stream running through this poem.
ROBERT HASS: Yeah. No. That’s right. I mean and this is the kind of poem, of course, in which you start doing one thing and then you get a real information and it’s the kind I understand the least. So …
BILL MOYERS: You didn’t have it written before you wrote it?
ROBERT HASS: Oh, no. I started, in this case, with seeing the kinglets and juncos and the hedge, having that phrase come into my mind. You follow the music for a while and then another voice comes in and says, “Tell the truth.”
BILL MOYERS: Just at the moment you’re most enjoying your maturity, your wife upstairs asleep, the sound of music, the smell of the bacon, something from the past comes up from that basement and …
ROBERT HASS: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: … knocks on the door and says, “Wait a minute, Robert. You’re not — you’re not forgetting us, are you?”
ROBERT HASS: Yeah. It seemed to me in some ways when I was first raising a family, such an accomplishment to have, a life with happiness in it, with ordinary forms of happiness in it. And I think whatever was frightening and disordered in my own childhood, which made me so happy in this life — wells up as its underside in this — in this poem. I think now I didn’t want to unpack those materials with the phrase “and all that terror in the house” is …
BILL MOYERS: Terror. Yeah. What is that?
ROBERT HASS: I think it was just my parents’ difficulties, the troubles that they had that made my house sometimes a scary place to be in. And that correspondingly made it seem like magic to me to get up in the morning and have, ah, you know, the warm bodies of these happy little kids come in to breakfast and music showering from another room.
BILL MOYERS: How about SONG?
ROBERT HASS: SONG. This is another of these poems that the 18th century used to call “domestic felicity”. “Afternoon cooking in the fall sun, who is more naked than the man yelling, ‘Hey, I’m home’ to an empty house, thinking, because the bay is clear, the hills in yellow heat, and scrub oak red in gullies, that great crowds of family should tumble from the rooms to throw their body on the papa body. I am loved. Cat sleeps in the window gleam, dust moats. On the oak table filets of sole stewing in the juice of tangerines. Slices of green pepper on a bone white dish.”
BILL MOYERS: “Slices of green pepper on a bone white dish?” That’s a very strong image.
ROBERT HASS: Yeah. The last past for me is like haiku writing, just a series of rapid notations of this given world, quite beautiful.
BILL MOYERS: How do you get from the disappointment in the first part, the man comes home to an empty house, to the serenity and peace of the last part of that poem.
ROBERT HASS: I’ll say what my kids would say, “I don’t know.”
BILL MOYERS: There is an emptiness here. All life is letting go. You come home, they’re gone.
ROBERT HASS: That’s interesting. That that emptiness is in it, that there’s the twinge of emptiness in it I see as soon as you say it.
BILL MOYERS: It confronted me with a certain terror of coming home. You know, you may breathe it into me, but I make of it what my own experience and fears will.
ROBERT HASS: Yeah. I mean I think it’s true, the old song of the poet’s, “Go, little book. You know, you don’t belong to me anymore.” I often — I think somebody said all interesting works of art come very close to saying the opposite of what they say. You know, if we make a poem of celebration, for it to be real, it has to include a lot of darkness.
MAN: It will be as it was. Once again these times we return. For now, nothing but the messages of death and destruction upon our land.
BILL MOYERS: I suppose no poem of yours appears in more anthologies than, THE COLONEL. How did you come to write that?
CAROLYN FORCHE: I was El Salvador. It was 1978. Ah, very few Americans who didn’t work for the embassy were there and there were a few Peace Corps people, but it was an unusual occurrence for an American to come into the country. I was being taken around and educated about conditions in Salvador by members of Claribel Allegria’s family and my presence in the country came to attention of the military and they were intrigued and wondered, I think — now I believe today that they wondered if I wasn’t working for the U.S. government, too. And what — it became very clear to me, however, as I was having these meetings, the military officers, they there were very upset about the human rights policy of President Carter. And on this occasion I was taken to dinner at a very high-ranking officer’s house and I don’t think he realized that I was just a 27 year-old American poet and that what I said I was, was true. I really was just a poet.
CAROLYN FORCHE: People have interpreted many things about this poem, but when I wrote it I was just trying to capture details so that I would remember. I didn’t even think it was a poem. I thought it was a piece of a memoir and it got mixed up with my poetry book. And when a scholar read the book, a manuscript — in manuscript, he said, “This is the best one. This is the best poem.” And I said, “Oh, no. That’s a mistake. That’s not a poem.” And — and so it took me years to accept it as a poem even and not just a — as a block of memory.
BILL MOYERS: Would you read it?
CAROLYN FORCHE: THE COLONEL. “What you have heard is true. I was in his house. His wife carried a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails. His son went out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over the house. On the television there was a cop show. It was in English. Broken bottles were imbedded in the walls around the house to scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his hands to lace. On the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores. We had dinner, rack of lamb, good wine. A gold bell was on the table for calling the maid. The maid brought green mangos, salt, a type of bread. I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a brief commercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot said, ‘Hello’ on the terrace. The colonel told it to ‘shut up’ and pushed himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes, ‘Say nothing.’ The colonel returned with a sack he used to bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water glass. It came alive there. ‘I am tired of fooling around,’ he said. ‘As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go BLEEP themselves.’ He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last of his wine in the air. ‘Something for your poetry, no?’ he said. Some of ears on the floor caught the scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.”
BILL MOYERS: You said at one of the workshops that in your country they plant coffee and angels.
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: Angels, right.
BILL MOYERS: Why angels?
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: Children die so much, you know? Every five minutes a child dies in El Salvador before he’s two years old. He’s an angel. And so — and we go and bury them. And so we “plant angels.”
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: “Besides coffee, they plant angels in my country. A chorus of children and women with the small white coffin moved politely aside as the harvest passes by. The riverside women, naked to the waist, watch crossing. The truck drivers, they change jocular obscenities for insults. In Panchimalco, waiting for the ox cart to pass by, a peasant with hands bound behind him by the thumbs and his escort of soldiers blinks at the airplane. The truck stops in marketplace. The virginal coffee dances in the mill house. They strip her, rape her, lay her out on the patio to those in the sun. The darkest sheds glimmer. The golden coffee sparkles with malaria, blood, illiteracy, tuberculosis, misery. A truck roars out of the whorehouse. It bellows uphill drowning out the lesson. A for alcoholism. B for battalions. C for corruption. D for dictatorship. E for exploitation. F for the feudal power of 14 families. And et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. My et cetera country, my wounded country, my child, my dears, my obsession.”
BILL MOYERS: Did you ever know if your poetry reached the campesino, the peasant?
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: You know, somebody told me that in the guerillas, you know, in the Wasapa area they have clandestine radios and they would read my poems sometimes. And one time a man came to me and he said, “You know what?” — I didn’t know him. He came to Nicaragua — he said, “You know what? Some of the campesinos now ask to read some of the poem, and DOCUMENTARY was one that they liked.
BILL MOYERS: You read it?
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: “A truck roars out of the whorehouse and bellows uphill, drowning out the lesson. A for alcoholism. B for battalions. C for corruption. D for dictatorship. E for exploitation. F for the feudal power of 14 families. And et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. My et cetera country, my wounded country, my child, my dears, my obsession.”
BILL MOYERS: You know, the tragedy is that this powerful poetry didn’t stop the war in El Salvador.
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: Right.
BILL MOYERS: The killing was indifferent to the word.
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: The killing was indifferent.
BILL MOYERS: So why write this kind of poetry if power is deaf to it?
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: Well, because when I wrote this poem, I had — I had great hopes and I thought “Something is going to happen.” And I thought, “Well, maybe — maybe that my government, maybe the United States government, maybe the people of the oligarchy, maybe these people will see a little bit of it.” I mean that’s the way of fighting for my country.
BILL MOYERS: This is what is perplexing about your — your — your poem. I mean your very name “Allegria” …
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: Allegria.
BILL MOYERS: … means joy, doesn’t it?
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: That’s right.
BILL MOYERS: Happiness?
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: That’s right.
BILL MOYERS: And you have such joy in your poetry and yet you deal with these painful, horrible stories of war and death and torture.
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: That’s right.
BILL MOYERS: How do you reconcile the art and the reality?
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: The art and the reality is very difficult sometimes to reconcile, but also I don’t think that the poet have to be in an ivory tower just thinking beautiful thoughts, you know, when there are so much horrible in — ‘mid you, you know, outside you. And then I think you have to go and look at that and feel it and suffer with the others and make that suffering useful.
BILL MOYERS: But you capture that horror without surrendering to it …
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: That’s right.
BILL MOYERS: … even in your poems.
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: With hopes. We hope. Always with hope, huh?
BILL MOYERS: Well, let’s finish with your poem, SUMMING UP. How did you come to write this?
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: Because I wanted, you know to really — in a verse, to really write the poem which would sum up all my life.
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: SUMMING UP. “In the sixty-eight years I have lived, there are few electrical instants: the happiness of my feet escaping bottles, six hours in Machu Picchu, the ten minutes necessary to lose my virginity, the buzzing of the telephone while awaiting the death of my mother, the hoarse voice announcing the death of Monsignor Romero, fifteen minutes in Delft, the first wail of my daughter, I don’t know how many years dreaming of my people’s liberation, certain immortal deaths, the eyes of that starving child, your eyes bathing me with love, one forget-me-not afternoon, and in this solitary hour the urge to mold myself into a verse, a shout, a fleck of foam.”
BILL MOYERS: The “urge to mold myself into a verse, a shout, a fleck of foam?”
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: Sometimes I just would like to disappear and float in the air.
BILL MOYERS: Like a fleck of foam?
CLARIBEL ALLEGRIA: That’s right. “And in this solitary hour the urge to mold myself into a verse, a shout, a fleck of foam.” Thank you. Thank you very much.
BILL MOYERS: What about a final one, STORY ABOUT A BODY?
ROBERT HASS: STORY ABOUT A BODY “The young composer, working that summer at an artist colony, had watch her for a week. She was Japanese, a painter, almost sixty, and he thought he was in love with her. He loved her work and her work was like the way she moved her body, used her hands, looked at him directly when she made amused and considered answers to his questions. One night walking back from a concert, they came to her door and she turned to him and said, ‘I think you would like to have me. I would like that, too, but I must tell you that I’ve had a double mastectomy.’ And when he didn’t understand, ‘I’ve lost both my breasts.’ The radiance that he’d carried around in his belly and chest cavity like music withered very quickly and he made himself look at her when he said, ‘I’m sorry. I don’t think I could.’ He walked back to his own cabin through the pines and in the morning he found a small blue bowl on the porch outside his door. It looked to be full of rose petals, but he found when he picked it up that the rose petals were on top. There rest of the bowl, she must have swept them from the corners of her studio, was full of dead bees.”
This transcript was entered on June 22, 2015.