The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Poets rally against war

Washington, Feb. 11: Although it is still nowhere on the scale of the Vietnam era, antiwar protests within the US are getting to a point where it is interfering with White House schedules.

First Lady Laura Bush cancelled a symposium on American poetry, which was to have taken place at the White House tomorrow, since almost the entire fraternity of poets invited for the event wanted to protest against war preparations against Iraq.

A redfaced Noelia Rodriguez, spokeswoman for Laura Bush, said about the decision to call off the symposium: “While Mrs Bush respects the right of all Americans to express their opinions, she, too, has opinions and believes it would be inappropriate to turn a literary event into a political forum.”

Laura Bush, a former librarian, has made education and literature her constituencies as first lady and has organised several events at the White House to honour American authors.

Tomorrow’s symposium on poetry was to have discussed the works of Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman. The symposium had the title “Poetry and the American Voice”.

Sam Hamill, founder of Copper Canyon Press, explained how poets decided to voice their protest right inside the White House. “When I picked up my mail and saw the invitation to the symposium marked The White House, I felt no joy. Rather I was overcome by a kind of nausea...Nor has Bush ruled out the use of nuclear weapons (in Iraq). I believe the only legitimate response to such a morally bankrupt and unconscionable idea is to reconstitute a Poets Against the War movement like the one organised to speak out against the war in Vietnam.”

Sure enough, Hamill wrote to others who had been invited, suggesting that a protest against the impending assault on Iraq be made at the event. The response was unexpected and big.

A website,, was hastily set up. It has todate received 5,300 poems or personal statements from all over the world against the war preparations.

It was decided that the day of the symposium would be observed by poets in the US as “American National Day of Poetry Against the War”.

Marilyn Nelson, Connecticut’s poet laureate, said: “I 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 photoops, my scarf would make a statement.”

When the White House heard about these plans, officials were livid. They advised the first lady to call off the symposium.

Unfortunately for the Bush administration, that will not be end of the controversy. Poets opposed to war has now become a movement on its own and has had the effect of politicising American poets.

The sitting US poet laureate, Billy Collins, said in an email to the Associated Press: “I have tried to keep the West (president’s official) Wing and the East (first lady’s) 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.”

Three predecessors of Collins have also stated their opposition to another Gulf war.

Rita Dove, who was poet laureate from 199395, said in a statement that “this White House does not wish to open its doors to an ‘American voice’ that does not echo the administration’s misguided policies”.

Stanley Kunits, who held that position in 200001, said: “I think there was a general feeling that the current administration is not really a friend of the poetic community and that its programme of attacking Iraq is contrary to the humanitarian position that is at the centre of the poetic impulse.”

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