Wednesday, September 21, 2005

No Place for a Poet at a Banquet of Shame

Published on Monday, September 20, 2005 by The Nation (October 10, 2005

No Place for a Poet at a Banquet of Shame

by Sharon Olds

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 Editors

Laura Bush
First Lady
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

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.


Sharon Olds

(special thanks to my friend, poet Ellen Bass, for sending this to me.)


larkohio said...

Good on her.

Karen Zipdrive said...

It would be very hard to turn down an invitation to showcase one's work at the White House, regardless of who is in office.
I admire this woman for having the courage of her convictions.
She may never be able to say she's dined at the White House or met the first lady, but she can rest assured that her selflessness will serve her well as a creative, conscious soul.

Holly in Cincinnati said...

Hi Karen!

My best friend lives in Houston and will likely be heading to San Antonio in the morning with her partner and numerous cats.

dusty said...

God how beautifully written and it hits then between the eyes with all their bullshit..kinda like telling someone to go to hell and they look forward to the trip.

The Educated Eclectic said...

This is wonderful - once again, the artists and comedians have more balls to stand up to this administration than our elected democratic peoples' servants.


Karen Zipdrive said...

Yep, God Bless the artists and free thinkers.
And Holly, rest assured that Bush actually gives a damn about Houston because his parents have a mansion there- so he'll pay attention this time and pour money in for every conceivable contingency. said...

no doubt it'd leave a typical neocon scratching his/her head in confusion...

no doubt it'd give the right fodder for criticism, as it always has when someone of the artistic elite decides to speak their mind...

why is it that celebrities, writers, artists poets, etc...are criticized for speaking their minds whenever they feel the need to? are they not in essence just like the rest of us? they indeed have minds and surely opinions. unfortunately for them, being in the camera or public eye, their opinions and views are a bit more public than the rest of us.

unfortunately for them because of this, they leave themselves open for criticism from the right...

we put them in these roles, these positions, and then somehow expect them to give up any sort of affiliation or opinion or viewpoint. I think the very idea of this is a violation of their rights as a citizen...fame and notoriety doesn't automatically equal the nullification of one's right to speak out against something they don't believe in.

Karen Zipdrive said...

Not to worry, dog-neato, artists' careers often are boosted by righteous indignation from the touchy right-wing.
The right has always been more NRA than NEA. One more reason to lean left.

When a civilization dies, historians and archeologists study their art and culture, not their guns and bombs. said...

true...but i have to laugh at the duality or the dichotomy in the right's talking heads who thump their chests and shout about these 'insolent DARE they express their opinions...'

wait a minute there, rush (or o'reilly, or ms. coulter, or...), aren't You using your position as a 'celebrity' to further your own idealistic opinions...granted, those opinions are implanted rather than independently formed...

funny, if there is an actor (or artist, or poet, or musician, or novelist) who is in favor of this war or the administration...i han't heard them...and if they do exist, i'm sure they'd be lauded by the right for expressing their opinion...

Dono said...

I think it would have been funny if Ms Olds had included a copy of Lysistrata with her letter.

Heck, maybe I'll do it. Not that I'd expect Laura to read it, or understand it, or make any sort of connection with it whatsoever.

Karen Zipdrive said...

The Bush-right has several celebrity supporters:
Most country singers
Tom Selleck
Don King
Charlton Heston
Kelsey Grammer
Dixie Carter
Britney Spears
Mickey Rooney
Ron Silver
Jessica Simpson
Tony Danza
Pat Boone
James Woods
Hillary Duff
Ted Nugent
Pat Sajak
Toby Keith
Connie Stevens
Shannon Dougherty

Dono said...

Thankfully, according to the poll numbers, the hypnotic stranglehold Tony Danza has on his followers is beginning to diminish.

Karen Zipdrive said...

Yes but the supernova stardom of Mickey Rooney shall live forever.

Dono said...

True. He's just so gosh-darn charismatic!

Karen Zipdrive said...

Somehow I don't think Aristophanes made the cut at the Midland/Odessa Public Liberry.

Karen Zipdrive said...

If I were president and Ted Nugent supported me, I'd pay him not to.

Dono said...

I heard it came down to Aristophanes and Sophocles, and the liberrian said "They're both furriners, throw 'em both out."

Karen Zipdrive said...

But they do stock, "My Pet Goat."

Kate said...

Lol, Dono. Perhaps instead you should just send a copy of the cheap-ass, B-grade, Greek-made video of Lysistrata.

It's got subtitles.

In English.