FIRST LADY LAURA BUSH CENSORS UNCLE SAM (AND 1900 OTHER AMERICAN POETS)
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Story Updated March 3: 15,000 Poems To Congress: At noon on March 5th on Capitol Hill, three of America’s preeminent living poets (representing an extraordinary cross section of distinguished poets) presented approximately 15,000 anti-war poems to members of Congress. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) hosted the event with other members of the Progressive Caucus including Caucus Co-Chair Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA). The poems were presented by Pulitzer prize winner and Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets W.S. Merwin, Pulitzer prize winner Jorie Graham, author and poet Terry Tempest Williams and founding editor of Copper Canyon Press Sam Hamill.
Back in Chicago, a second Poets Against the War reading was held on Wednesday, March 5, 2003, 7-10 pm at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple at the corner of Lake and Kenilworth in downtown Oak Park. This one was co-sponsored by PoetryPoetry.com and the Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation. Charlie Rossiter was be the host of the evening. An audio recording of the reading was made to be posted on PoetryPoetry.com.
Report from the February 12 reading: As Sam Hamill's anthology of 5,000 anti-war poems was once again turned away at the gates of the White House on Wednesday, February 12 commenced as Poets Against The War Day in America. While much of the country fearfully duct taped plastic over their windows and hid in their homes expecting the consequences of George Bush's personal crusade to knock on their door, thousands of brave American heros refused to be silenced and ignored wintery weather to attend over 160 poetry readings across the United States. ChicagoPoetry.com (in conjunction with MOST and PoetryPoetry.com) participated by sponsoring an all star poetry reading, featuring over 25 talented poets from across the State of Illinois (photo by Maggie Rubin); the reading was broadcast live on the internet and the entire reading was recorded for the feature on PoetryPoetry.com.
We were not alone in our refusal to be silenced. The United States incumbent Poet Laureate, Billy Collins, has joined the Poetry Against the War (PAW) Movement started by Sam Hamill, and has publicly declared his opposition to war, saying he finds it increasingly difficult to keep politics out of his official job as literary advocate. Collins does not have a history of political activism, but he nevertheless defended a group of anti-war poets who last week were censored when first lady Laura Bush cancelled a symposium for fear that peace poetry would be recited in the White House. "If political protest is urgent, I don't think it needs to wait for an appropriate scene and setting and should be as disruptive as it wants to be," Collins said to The Associated Press. "I have tried to keep the West Wing and the East Wing of the White House as separate as possible because I support what Mrs. Bush has done for the causes of literacy and reading. But as this country is being pushed into a violent confrontation, I find it increasingly difficult to maintain that separation." A spokeswoman for the Library of Congress, which appointed Collins poet laureate, said that "Mr. Collins is free to express his own opinions on any subject." Other poets are joining the PAW project as well. South Dakota's poet laureate, David Allen Evans, said "I'm not speaking as a representative of the state, I'm speaking as a poet and private individual. I know it's an ambivalent situation and I hesitated to contribute to the (PAW) project, but I felt that I needed to say I wanted peace instead of war." New Jersey poet laureate Amiri Baraka said he plans to send a statement to Hamill, possibly a poem about impeaching President Bush. "I see it as part of my job. The main task right now is stopping the war," said Baraka.
It all started when Pushcart Prize winning poet Sam Hamill (the author of 13 volumes of verse and a self-described conscientious objector) was scheduled to attend a symposium titled "Poetry and the American Voice" at the White House, by special invitation from the First Lady, Laura Bush. Oops. Having recently been personally "nauseated" by George Bush's proposed "Shock and Awe" attack on Iraq, Hamill decided to use this once in a lifetime opportunity to reconstitute a Poets Against the War Movement, much like the one organized to speak out against the war in Vietnam. So he sent an open letter by e-mail to a few poets, asking them to speak up for the conscience of America and to make February 12 (the scheduled date for the symposium) a day of Poetry Against the War instead. He suggested the poets send him some anti-war poetry, and in return he promised to compile an anthology of their work, which he intended to have delivered to Laura Bush on the afternoon of February 12. But the e-mail quickly turned into a chain letter which spread across the world like wildfire. In four days, Sam Hamill received over 1900 submissions, including work by Hayden Carruth, Yusef Komunyakaa, Philip Levine, Grace Paley, Adrienne Rich, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and W.S. Merwin (who wrote "an incredible indictment of Bush"). Despite joyful, tearful, 18-hour days 60-year-old Hamill has been putting in, attempting to organize the submissions, it seems the White House has another plan for his anthology: Laura Bush's garbage can.
Catching wind of what was going on, First Lady Laura Bush attempted to silence these 1900 poets by indefinitely "postponing" The White House Symposium (which would have celebrated the notably political poets Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman), her official reason being because "some invited guests wanted to turn what is intended to be a literary event into a political forum." Mrs. Bush was obviously unaware that Walt Whitman once described the White House as "bought, sold...and filled with prostitutes" and throughout Langston Hughes' life he was visciously harassed by the FBI and by Joseph McCarthy. Hamill's defense to Laura Bush's reasoning is that "People have felt silenced, and we are providing a platform for poets to speak together." Former Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz responded to the events leading up to the cancellation by saying, "I think there was a general feeling that the current administration is not really a friend of the poetic community and that its program of attacking Iraq is contrary to the humanitarian position that is at the centre of the poetic impulse." Pulitzer Prize-winner Philip Levine, citing White House "lying" and "Orwellian euphemisms," said the event was cancelled before he could even turn down his invitation.
Hamill (a Zen Buddhist who ran for the California State Assembly in 1968 on an anti-war, socialist ticket) reminds the poetry community of the irony of the situation: "We closed the Bush poetry symposium on Whitman by 'politicizing literature.'" He goes on to say, in the newspaper The Globe And Mail: "These people wouldn't let Walt Whitman within a mile of the White House -- the good gay gray poet! I don't believe anybody there has ever read Whitman." In the Australian newspaper the Sydney Morning Herald (which called poetry the "first casualty of the war"), Todd Swift, the editor of the e-book 100 Poets Against the War, said: "The idea that you could have a non-political event celebrating the work of Walt Whitman...is absurd." In the St. Petersburg Times Chicago Poet Li-Young Lee said "It's impossible for poetry not to be political... The way I understand poetry, all poems are antiwar poems. I can be talking about potato chips or flowers, anything, but the underlying order of a poem, regardless of its subject, proposes universal harmony." Lee, who recently was featured at Chicago's St. Gregory Church, goes on to say, "What's so strange is that Laura Bush doesn't want these poets to use the forum for politics, but her negating them is itself a political act."
Most poets have expressed disappointment in Laura Bush's fear of peace poetry. For example, Connecticut's poet laureate, Marilyn Nelson, criticized the White House for trying to silence the voice of American artists. Nelson said she was looking forward to going to the White House, and she even commissioned a silk scarf with peace signs on it to wear to the affair. And former Poet Laureate Rita Dove, who declined her invitation to the White House, released a statement which read: "The abrupt cancellation of the symposium by the White House confirms my suspicion that the Bush administration is not interested in poetry when it refuses to remain in the ivory tower, and that this White House does not wish to open its doors to an 'American Voice' that does not echo the administration's misguided policies." Other poets have more radical views. At the Reuters website, Lawrence Ferlinghetti said the idea of inviting a group of poets to the White House as the administration prepares for war was naive in the first place. "The poet by definition is the bearer of freedom and love, and," Ferlinghetti points out, "by definition he has to be an enemy of the state and everything the state does, and one of its primary activities, which is war."
In the Seattle Times, Kevin Price, assistant professor of political science at the University of Washington, said of the incident, "Mini-showdowns over things like the poetry conference are a manifestation of the larger divisions in the political system."
More about "Uncle Sam" Hamill: Sam Hamill is the Founding Editor of Copper Canyon Press, a nonprofit publisher of poetry founded in 1972, which has published such poets as Pablo Neruda and Carolyn Kizer. Hamill is also the author of two dozen volumes translated from ancient Greek, Latin, Estonian, Japanese, and Chinese. Hamill taught in prisons for fourteen years, in artist-in-residency programs for twenty years, and has worked extensively with battered women and children. He has been the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Lila Wallace-Readers Digest Fund, the U.S.-Japan Friendship Commission, and two Washington Governor's Arts Awards. Click here to watch videos of Hamill reading his translations.
--Story ByC. J. Laity
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