This came this morning in an email from Ireland (small world!), and I knew at once where it belonged, so here it is.
No Place for a Poet at a Banquet of Shame
by SHARON OLDS
[from the October 10, 2005 issue of The Nation. The poet Sharon Olds has
declined to attend the National Book Festival in Washington. Olds and
someother writers were invited by First Lady Laura Bush to read from their
works.] Olds's letter:
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
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.
UPDATE: sorry about the formatting, I tried transferring it to a couple of different programs to get word-wrap working, no can do. But, in fact, I think it looks kind of pretty this way, so I'll just let it alone as it is.