Forum called off after poets plan to protest
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Published January 31, 2003
The White House has called off a poetry symposium to have been hosted by first lady Laura Bush after one poet sought to use the event to protest military action against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
The event, scheduled for Feb. 12, was to celebrate the works of Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes and Emily Dickinson. But one poet who declined the White House's invitation sent an e-mail to other invitees and poets asking them to "make February 12 a day of Poetry Against the War."
"We will compile an anthology of protest to be presented to the White House on that afternoon," read the e-mail from Sam Hamill, a poet and editor of the Copper Canyon Press in Port Townsend, Wash.
One of the poets who had accepted the first lady's invitation to the "White House Symposium on Poetry and the American Voice" forwarded the message to the first lady's office, which promptly postponed the event.
"It came to the attention of the first lady's office that some invited guests want to turn what is intended to be a literary event into a political forum," Mrs. Bush's office said in a statement.
"While Mrs. Bush understands the right of all Americans to express their political views, this event was designed to celebrate poetry."
The first lady's office said the poetry event will be rescheduled, but it did not provide a date or say whether the guest list would be revised.
Mr. Hamill — a Zen Buddhist who ran for the California State Assembly in 1968 on an anti-war, socialist ticket and once worked on the Eugene McCarthy presidential campaign — said he was a bit surprised when he received an invitation to the first lady's event.
"I think it tells you a lot about White House intelligence, doesn't it?" said Mr. Hamill, noting that he has been in and out of liberal social activism all his life and "never for things the Republican Party would likely approve of."
"How they got me is beyond me."
The poet said the White House advance team should have known about his background and predicted that "somebody's going to get fired over this."
Mrs. Bush, a former librarian who has made teaching and early-childhood development her signature issues, has held three White House symposiums to salute America's authors. The gatherings in the East Wing are usually lively affairs with discussions of literature and its effect on society.
The symposium on Hughes, Dickinson and Whitman — often called America's greatest Civil War poet — drew little attention until Mr. Hamill sent his e-mail soliciting anti-war poems or statements.
The e-mail to "friends and fellow poets" — sent Sunday afternoon — was titled "An Open Letter from Sam Hamill."
"When I picked up my mail and saw the letter marked 'The White House,' I felt no joy. Rather I was overcome by a kind of nausea as I read the card enclosed: Laura Bush requests the pleasure of your company," said the e-mail.
"Only the day before I had read a lengthy report on George Bush's proposed 'Shock and Awe' attack on Iraq, calling for saturation bombing that would be like the firebombing of Dresden or Tokyo, killing countless innocent civilians."
Mr. Hamill said the Iraq crisis can be resolved by letting the United Nations complete its inspections and said President Bush has yet to convince the world that war is the "only possible alternative."
He said he hoped to reconstitute an anti-war movement like the one organized to oppose the Vietnam War. He asked "every poet to speak up for the conscience of our country and lend his or her name to our petition against this war" and to pass along the e-mail to "any poets you know."
Mr. Hamill said he had expected to get a few dozen responses. He has gotten more than 2,000 so far, including contributions from famed beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti; W.S. Merwin, Pulitzer Prize winner and the former chancellor of the Academy of American Poets; Hayden Carruth, winner of the National Book Award; and Yusef Komunyakaa, who wrote poetry while serving in the Army in Vietnam and won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1994.
Yesterday, he posted some of the submissions on a Web site (www.poetsagainstthewar.org). All responses will be posted by Feb. 3, he said.
Mr. Hamill said the responses have "honored a long and rich tradition of thoughtful and moral opposition by poets and other artists to senseless and murderous policies, including those of our own government."
In one submission, poet Marilyn Hacker wrote:
"No hope from youthful pacifists, elderly
anarchists; no solutions from diplomats.
Men maddened with revealed religion
murder their neighbors with righteous fervor,
while, claiming they're 'defending democracy,'
our homespun junta exports the war machine.
They, too, have daily prayer-meetings,
photo-op-perfect for tame reporters."
In his own poem — "State of the Union, 2003" — Mr. Hamill wrote:
"I have no god, but have seen the children praying
for it to stop. They pray to different gods.
The news is all old news again, repeated
like a bad habit, cheap tobacco, the social lie."
Marilyn Nelson, Connecticut's poet laureate, said she had accepted her invitation to the poetry symposium and criticized the White House for trying to silence the voice of American artists.
"I had decided to go because I felt my presence would promote peace," she said.
"I had commissioned a fabric artist for a silk scarf with peace signs painted on it. I thought just by going there and shaking Mrs. Bush's hand and being available for the photo ops, my scarf would make a statement," she said.
White House invitations have inspired anti-war protests before. In 1965, poet Robert Lowell refused to attend a White House arts festival, citing opposition to the Vietnam War. In 1968, at a White House luncheon hosted by Lady Bird Johnson, guest and singer Eartha Kitt publicly voiced her opposition to the same war.
At a 1972 White House dinner, a member of the Ray Conniff Singers, Carole Feraci, held up a banner reading, "Stop the Killing."