The Muse (1999)
All poetry is political. All politics are personal.
Writers have been allowed to say what we want for 200 years, and politicians are still wholly unafraid of us.
Do poets and writers have a responsibility to write about politics? to document the times in which they live?
Can a poem not make a political statement? If I write a lyric about hummingbirds in my back yard, doesn't the poem still have a political context -- even if the context is the lack of political content?
And what about history? Doesn't there need to be a written record -- to avoid that whole repeating mistakes cycle? And who's going to be the recorder and the keeper of the flame of that record? The mainstream media?
The times we live in need witnessing. We can say that George Bush is: The. Worst. President. Ever. But I also want people 20, 60, 100 years from now to see for themselves why Bush deserved that title. Can you imagine the Fox News Archives (will that be our library at Alexandria?) conveying such an idea to future generations?
Or, instead, will our writers assume that mantle? Vonnegut may be right. The Rovians can easily catapult the propaganda to drown out any pitiful scribblings. But what does Wilfred Owen have to say to our troops in Iraq. Why was Garcia Lorca killed? Why did Laura Bush cancel a White House poetry event?
And why does she now want to host another?
And how should our poets respond to her invitation? Can poets (writers, bloggers, artists) cast aside their politics in order to promote their work? Or is Kumin correct? The work is the politics and vice versa. A blind eye will not lighten a heavy heart -- even if acceptance means publicity and exposure.
In Carolyn Forche's prose poem "The Colonel", a South American military leader ties to taunt and shock the poet. He pours a sack of human ears on the table, then says: "Something for your poetry, no?"
Yes. Yes it is. It most definitely is. And by witnessing this incident and writing about it, Forche made sure millions of other people will now know what happened. The Colonel (and countless others like him) do not want the truth to be heard, even to the point of severing ears, but, if honestly recorded, the truth will be perceived...and remembered.
So. Codpiece in Chief. Mission Accomplished. No WMDs. Got wood? The internets. Watch this drive. You're doing a heckuva job. Bin Laden Determined to Strike Inside the United States. Bring it on. My Pet Goat. Downing Street Documents. "Quaint" Geneva Convention. Halliburton. Patriot Act. Valerie Plame. Florida 2000. Jeff Gannon. Swift Boating. Gas prices. Enron. Iraq. New Orleans.
Something for my poetry, YES.
And, now, the First Lady has invited the poets back for a National Book Festival to be held, ironically, this Saturday -- the same day as long planned anti-war demonstrations. The Nation printed poet Sharon Olds' reply to Mrs. Bush's invitation. The letter is worth reading in its entirety:
For reasons spelled out below, the poet Sharon Olds has declined to attend the National Book Festival in Washington, which, coincidentally or not, takes place September 24, the day of an antiwar mobilization in the capital. Olds, winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award and professor of creative writing at New York University, was invited along with a number of other writers by First Lady Laura Bush to read from their works. Three years ago artist Jules Feiffer declined to attend the festival's White House breakfast as a protest against the Iraq War ("Mr. Feiffer Regrets," November 11, 2002). We suggest that invitees to this year's event consider following their example.
The White House
Dear Mrs. Bush,
I am writing to let you know why I am not able to accept your kind invitation to give a presentation at the National Book Festival on September 24, or to attend your dinner at the Library of Congress or the breakfast at the White House.
In one way, it's a very appealing invitation. The idea of speaking at a festival attended by 85,000 people is inspiring! The possibility of finding new readers is exciting for a poet in personal terms, and in terms of the desire that poetry serve its constituents -- all of us who need the pleasure, and the inner and outer news, it delivers.
And the concept of a community of readers and writers has long been dear to my heart. As a professor of creative writing in the graduate school of a major university, I have had the chance to be a part of some magnificent outreach writing workshops in which our students have become teachers. Over the years, they have taught in a variety of settings: a women's prison, several New York City public high schools, an oncology ward for children. Our initial program, at a 900-bed state hospital for the severely physically challenged, has been running now for twenty years, creating along the way lasting friendships between young MFA candidates and their students -- long-term residents at the hospital who, in their humor, courage and wisdom, become our teachers.
When you have witnessed someone nonspeaking and almost nonmoving spell out, with a toe, on a big plastic alphabet chart, letter by letter, his new poem, you have experienced, close up, the passion and essentialness of writing. When you have held up a small cardboard alphabet card for a writer who is completely nonspeaking and nonmoving (except for the eyes), and pointed first to the A, then the B, then C, then D, until you get to the first letter of the first word of the first line of the poem she has been composing in her head all week, and she lifts her eyes when that letter is touched to say yes, you feel with a fresh immediacy the human drive for creation, self-expression, accuracy, honesty and wit -- and the importance of writing, which celebrates the value of each person's unique story and song.
So the prospect of a festival of books seemed wonderful to me. I thought of the opportunity to talk about how to start up an outreach program. I thought of the chance to sell some books, sign some books and meet some of the citizens of Washington, DC. I thought that I could try to find a way, even as your guest, with respect, to speak about my deep feeling that we should not have invaded Iraq, and to declare my belief that the wish to invade another culture and another country -- with the resultant loss of life and limb for our brave soldiers, and for the noncombatants in their home terrain -- did not come out of our democracy but was instead a decision made "at the top" and forced on the people by distorted language, and by untruths. I hoped to express the fear that we have begun to live in the shadows of tyranny and religious chauvinism -- the opposites of the liberty, tolerance and diversity our nation aspires to.
I tried to see my way clear to attend the festival in order to bear witness -- as an American who loves her country and its principles and its writing -- against this undeclared and devastating war.
But I could not face the idea of breaking bread with you. I knew that if I sat down to eat with you, it would feel to me as if I were condoning what I see to be the wild, highhanded actions of the Bush Administration.
What kept coming to the fore of my mind was that I would be taking food from the hand of the First Lady who represents the Administration that unleashed this war and that wills its continuation, even to the extent of permitting "extraordinary rendition": flying people to other countries where they will be tortured for us.
So many Americans who had felt pride in our country now feel anguish and shame, for the current regime of blood, wounds and fire. I thought of the clean linens at your table, the shining knives and the flames of the candles, and I could not stomach it.
Something for your poetry? Yeah. I'm all ears.