A prolific 57-year-old poet who started at the age of 9, Carolyn Forche also loves translating the work of others into English.
"Translating is a labor of love," Forche said by phone from her home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where she teaches creative writing at Skidmore College.
Forche has always been very interested in languages and finds both poetry and its translation to be a compelling experience. "The translation of poetry led me to every other good thing in my life. You almost become that poet while you are translating. To work, the poem in Spanish must also be a good poem in English."
She also learned a great deal about the culture of Latin America.
Forche recognized that Americans are what she calls a monolingual country. "We wouldn't be able to read the Bible or Dante or many other important works unless they were translated."
She knows from her work with other translators that it must be a collaborative work, and that translators should be given credit for their work.
Forche said that when she went to college at Michigan State University, there were no creative-writing majors. "I changed my major five times. And finally, in graduate school at Bowling Green State University, I took a Master of Fine Arts degree. A thesis I wrote later won the Yale Series of Younger Poets contest, and Stanley Kunitz launched me as a poet."
Forche is still concerned that a poet needs the right connection to be published. She was only 26 when her first book, "Gathering the Tribes" (1976), was published. She says she got lucky.
The two "founding poets" — Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman — probably influenced her the most as a young poet. "One was reclusive and the other was the bard of a new America. He was writing a nation into being. No American poet has surpassed either of them."
Forche's second book, "The Country Between Us" (1982), caused her to become known as a political poet, because "it had seven poems written about my experiences in El Salvador. To be political, to me, is to go to a lot of meetings, and I had never done that, and I still don't. I don't lobby.
"If anyone is called a political poet in America, it is usually an insult. I wasn't writing for or against a cause, but the poems didn't make the government of El Salvador look very good."
After that, she was invited to be on several panel discussions about poetry and politics. She said she was taken aback, and the "Against Forgetting: 20th Century Poetry of Witness" (1993) anthology, which she edited, was her response. She followed that with "The Angel of History" (1994).
Neither was political.
Although she says that "all poets are not good in the classroom," Forche loves teaching. "I need the human contact. I don't thrive on long periods of isolation. Teaching also helps me to explore things that later go into my written work."
So she and her husband live in Washington, D.C., seven miles from the White House. She commutes to New York; he teaches in Baltimore. But they are together on weekends and during the summers.
"You never know with certainty whether you have written a good poem," said Forche. "I know the feeling of exhilaration when it comes to me. Yet, after time has passed, you still don't know if it's any good."
Forche changes her mind about a poem overnight, and she does multiple revisions. "Artists are always dissatisfied, always looking ahead, always reaching for something."
When reading her poetry to audiences, which she will do in Salt Lake City next weekend, her "greatest fear is that the audience will be bored. I don't overdramatize when I read, but I do it interpretively.
"I enjoy giving readings and consider it an art. Some poets can perform, while others are better on the page. For me, it's an experience in theater. I feel it when the audience is engaged."
Her most recent work is "Blue Hour" (2004), and Forche will read several new — as yet unpublished — poems when she comes to Utah.
If you go
What: Utah Poetry Festival
Where: The Airport Hilton Hotel, 5151 Wiley Post Way
When: Friday, 7 p.m.
Also: Friday and Saturday workshops for members of the Poetry Society