A short report from the Not in Our Name Statement of Conscience on
POEMS NOT FIT FOR THE WHITE HOUSE
Over 2000 people braved blizzard winds, 2 feet of snow, and rumors of cancellation to attend POEMS NOT FIT FOR THE WHITE HOUSE at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall on Monday, February 17. Transportation was virtually shut down except for the subways during the 4th-worst storm in New York City’s history, but nearly two dozen of the country’s greatest poets made it to the stage and gave us a truly historic New York City evening.
Poets who read that night: Ammiel Alcalay, Lee Ann Brown, Steve Colman, Martin Espada, Suheir Hammad, Sam Hamill, Marie Howe, Galway Kinnell, Stanley Kunitz, Ann Lauterbach, Tracie Morris, Mos Def, Sharon Olds, Willie Perdomo, Sapphire, Rose Styron, Anne Waldman, and Saul Williams. Also on stage were Arthur Miller who came to stand with the poets and addressed the crowd on the obfuscation of words by the warmakers, and Odetta who led us in song and left us all singing. Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn were the masters of ceremony; Andre read a piece by W.S. Merwin, and Wallace read a poem by Jean Prevert that poet Mark Strand had intended to read but his plane could not land. A few other poets were stranded by the weather: Robert Creeley’s poem was read by actor Eli Wallach; actress Kathleen Chalfant read a poem by C.K. Williams, actress Ellen McLaughlin read poems selected by Robert Pinsky and Jorie Graham who, with Peter Sacks, could not get transportation into the city.
There were poet laureates and Pulitzer-prize-winners, hip hop artists and slam champions, a sound poet and a performance poet, beloved actors and playwrights. The evening was conceived of and produced by the Not In Our Name Statement of Conscience, and many of the poets were signers of the statement.
"Five generations of poets were represented on that stage," said Sam Hamill, the poet who originally sent out the call for anti-war poems after receiving an invitation from Laura Bush to a symposium on Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson at the White House. Hamill decided not to go, and asked friends for anti-war poems to send in his stead. His instantly-created website, www.poetsagainstthewar.com has received nearly 10,000 poems in 2 weeks. As Sam put it: "It is the largest assemblage of poets speaking in one voice in recorded history." He received a standing ovation at Avery Fisher, as did the 97-year-old Stanley Kunitz, former US poet laureate, whose poem, originally written in the darkest days of World War 2, was a stirring call to everyone in the room to take back our humanity and stop this war which threatens the whole planet.
The event was reported beforehand and afterwards on CNN (at one point appearing in the crawl under Bush emerging from Air Force One), NPR, the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, the New York Post, Village Voice, and in publications around the world including Australia, France, Germany, the UK and we’re not yet sure where else. A professional sound recording will soon be available for non-commercial radio broadcast.
The audience was part of the evening in a way that doesn’t often, if ever, happen. As one poet put it, there was an unforgettable flow from the stage to the people and back again, waves of applause, recognizing meaning, recognizing and honoring each other. We all became wiser and braver that night.
On the back of the programme was a poem that W.S. Merwin wrote for our evening:
All night waking to the sound
of light rain falling softly
through the leaves in the quiet
valley below the window
and to Paula lying here
asleep beside me and to
the murmur beside the bed
of the dogs’ snoring like small
waves coming ashore I
am amazed at the fortune
of this moment in the whole
of the dark this unspoken
favor while it is with us
this breathing peace and then I
think of the frauds in office
at this instant devising
their massacres in my name
what part of me could they have
come from were they made of my
loathing itself and dredged from
the bitter depths of my shame