Saturday, February 27, 2010

Sharon Olds Poet Declines White House Invitation

Sharon Olds Poet Declines White House Invitation

Here is an open letter from the poet
Sharon Olds to Laura Bush declining the invitation to read and speak at
the National Book Critics Circle Award in Washington, DC. Sharon Olds
is one of most widely read and critically acclaimed poets living in
America today. Read to the end of the letter to experience her
restrained, chilling eloquence.

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

When you have witnessed someone
non-speaking and almost non-moving 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 non-speaking and non-moving
(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