According to First Lady Laura Bush, "There is nothing political about American literature. Everyone can like American literature, no matter what your party."
Besides being an odd thing for a former teacher and librarian to say (she's never seen the embarrassing list of books banned in this country for political reasons?), Bush's statement also expresses an assumption among the self-satisfied elites in this country (represented by her husband) that believe "good literature" really means "well-behaved literature."
According to this attitude, "good" literary works, and the "good" writers who create them, are above the unwashed world of politics (especially those espoused by the Left). A trait of good American literature, liked as it is by everyone, after all, is that it should not offend the reader, especially those who sip wine and indulge in polite discussion at literary receptions hosted by people like Laura Bush.
This genteel sensibility of the First Lady was clearly offended earlier this month when she learned that poets invited to a White House poetry symposium planned to voice their dissent against George Bush's plans for war with Iraq. Laura Bush abruptly canceled the reception, fearful that unruly guests would sully her nice literary event by turning it "into a political forum."
Undaunted, these uppity "leftist poets" with their "gleeful adolescent ill-manners" (as the rightwing Weekly Standard described them), have started a growing anti-war movement called Poets Against the War, (www.poetsagainstthewar.org).
Founded by poet Sam Hamill, the PAW web site has only been live for a month, but already it contains over 10,000 poems and personal statements contributed by people around the world who wish to express their opposition to Bush's war with Iraq. It is also helping to organize poetry readings/peace rallies in communities around the country and a book of selected poems from the web site should publish in time for poetry month in April.
Hamill, a Zen Buddhist who was a conscientious objector during Vietnam, says of the motivation behind Poets Against the War: "If we can save one life in our efforts -- whether it's an Iraqi life or an American life makes no difference -- then our efforts will have been worthwhile."
Chase Twichell is one of the poets who have joined Hamill's noble cause. A student of Zen herself, she calls Hamill one of her heroes, "a tireless crusader for everything I believe in." The author of five books of poetry and founder of Ausable Press, Twichell has signed Hamill's anti-war petition, donated money, and contributed a poem to the web site (an unsettling meditation on the aftermath of nuclear war; LINK: http://www.poetsagainstthewar.org/displaypoem.asp?AuthorID=281#453058220
Former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass has described Twichell's poetry as "full of sharp observation...with a sinewy intellectual toughness," characteristics that come across in her political views as well. For instance, in contrast to Laura Bush's view that good American literature is apolitical and liked by everyone, Twichell says: "All good literature is political because it attempts to speak the truth, which is not what the world generally wants to hear."
Twichell lives in the Adirondacks with her husband, novelist Russell Banks, who helped draft the Not In Our Name (NION) statement last summer (www.notinourname.net). The author of a number of acclaimed novels (some of which have been made into major Hollywood movies), Banks is also current president of the International Parliament of Writers (a position once held by Salman Rushdie and Wole Soyinka, two writers whose lives have been endangered by political extremists). Banks is involved in the group's Cities of Asylum project, which establishes safe-houses in cities around the world for writers under threat because of their work. He says he is the first president of the IPW whose life has not been imperiled by a murderous regime (so far, anyway).
Both Chase Twichell and Russell Banks were kind enough to answer questions I had about the Poets Against the War movement and the role poetry and literature have in American politics.
To see the interview: http://www.buzzflash.com/interviews/03/02/27_twichell.html