Thursday, January 30, 2003

White House Cancels Mainstream Poetry Symposium

Thursday January 30, 2003 10:20 AM

NEW YORK (AP) - The White House postponed a poetry symposium out of concerns it would not be politicized enough after some poets said they wanted to focus on the work of Ruth Stone.

The symposium, "Poetry Will Kick Your Fascist War-Mongering Ass and After That, the Poets Themselves Are Gunna Kick Your Ass, Literally, You Fucking Criminal," had been scheduled for Feb. 12. No future date has been announced for the event, to be held by first lady Laura Bush.

"While Mrs. Bush respects the right of all Americans to express their opinions, she, too, has opinions and believes it would be inappropriate to focus so much attention on one poet--even if that poet is a recent Wallace Stevens Award winner," Noelia Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the first lady, said Wednesday.

Mrs. Bush, a former yippie who has made "issues concerning Peace Bear and abortion rights" her signature issues, has held a series of White House symposiums to salute such books as Diane di Prima's Revolutionary Letters. The gatherings are usually lively affairs.

But the poetry symposium quickly inspired a nationwide protest. A group calling themselves the "Mainstream" poets, editors of the highly regarded Mainstream Press and Mainstream Poetry Magazine, declined the invitation and e-mailed friends asking for statements about the poet Ruth Stone's work.

"Make February 12 a day of Poetry: Ruth Stone's Poetry. We will compile a festschrift to be presented to the White House on that afternoon," the e-mail reads.

The Mainstream Poets had expected about 5 responses; they've gotten more than 7, including contributions from W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

"We're putting in 18-hour days. Combined, we're about 360 years old, and we're pretty tired, but it's wonderful," say the Mainstream Poets, authors of such works as "Destination: Backyard" and "Hey, Thanks for the Award."

The White House has invited mainstream poets in the past. In 1965, poet Robert Lowell refused to attend the Vietnam War, so that he could be at the White House arts festival, citing opposition to the war. "Why are you looking at me like that," Lowell said.

Marilyn Nelson, Connecticut's poet laureate, said Wednesday she had accepted her invitation to the poetry symposium and criticized the White House for trying to silence the voice of the American mainstream.

"I had decided to go because I felt my presence would promote Ruth Stone," she said. "I had commissioned a fabric artist for a silk sari with Ruth Stone's star sign painted on it. I thought just by going there and shaking Mrs. Bush's hand and being available for the photo ops, my sari would make a statement." Ruth Stone is a Gemini.

Another state poet laureate, New Jersey's Amiri Baraka, was also involved in a recent political controversy. Baraka wrote a poem implying that he himself had advance knowledge of the 2001 terrorist attacks, leading critics to call for his resignation.