Santa Monica CA USA
Co-founder of Los Angeles Poetry Festival, co-editor of CQ (California Quarterly), author of three published collections of poetry, winner of several major awards including National Writers Union's 2002 poetry competition.
On Poets Against the War
This conversation was excerpted from Sherman Pearl's interview for the film Voices in Wartime: The Movie.
Back in 2003, how did you feel about the United States preparing for a war in Iraq?
Over a year ago, when the cry for war was heating up, I felt that the reasons for war had not been established. The inspections for weapons of mass destruction should have been allowed more time.
I also thought that the war fever was really the ideological plan of the Bush administration and not something that was demanded by the actual situation in Iraq.
Did you feel that you could change what was going to happen?
There was a very active anti-war movement, and I was very much a part of it. I joined the marches and the demonstrations as a plea for the administration not to act precipitously and not to get us engaged in an unnecessary war.
So I became an activist in that movement. My poetry was also written as a response to what I felt was growing into an irrational war.
How did you hear about the Poets Against the War movement?
Poets Against the War was started by Sam Hamill as a protest against a poetry symposium being organized by Laura Bush at the White House. She imagined the symposium to be a rather polite discussion of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson who, in their own right, were revolutionaries for their time.
But they were historic figures, and she thought that the conversation could be restricted to these figures. She made it clear that there was to be no discussion of current events, such as the build-up to war.
Sam Hamill led the protest and caused the cancellation of the conference. He also started a website called Poets Against the War, and asked American poets to contribute poems about the war. The protest that Sam Hamill led was well-publicized, and the website subsequently was also publicized.
I can’t remember exactly how I heard about it, but I got on the website and submitted three poems, including "The Poem in Time of War," which appeared in the anthology. It was a great honor to be included with many of the greatest American poets.
Did you write a poem specifically for the website or did you submit an earlier poem?
The poem was written about three months before it was submitted to Poets Against the War. It came to me after watching an old movie in which a newsboy was shouting about some crime, saying, "extra, extra." That resonated with me and stayed with me. Something in me was able to translate that "extra, extra" into the newsboy shouting about war. And the poem arose from there.
Did you write from a political position or from your experiences or emotions?
It was not written from a political position. I think good poetry is not a polemic -- not something that you’ve decided in advance will be a political stance. The poem comes from inside and grows into a feeling that eventually is expressed as a response to the outer world. But it certainly comes initially from the inner world.
Often you don’t know what the source of the poem is. The newsboy in the movie shouting "extra, extra" triggered something in me that eventually became the poem. It was not meant as a political statement about this particular war.
It was a feeling about what war does to us as a society and as individuals, and how it evokes these feelings of dismay and horror. It was not a didactic statement about shoulds and shouldn’ts.
Could you tell us a little bit about the historical allusions in the poem? You mention William Carlos Williams, Siegfried Sassoon, and W.H. Auden.
Well, the poem tries to reach into history and uses expressions from well-known poets who experienced war in more direct and different ways than I experienced this war.
Sassoon and other poets of World War I were writing from the trenches, but their experience in the trenches translates well into our own times.
My poem carries echoes of some great poets of the past who’ve experienced war: Siegfried Sassoon, W.H. Auden's famous poem "September 1, 1939," which was a call to love prior to the outbreak of World War II, William Carlos Williams’ famous statement that poems carry the news, "yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there" [from "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" – ed.] -- it’s that kind of impulse that motivated my poem.
It's an attempt to bring those statements, that philosophy, those feelings into contemporary times and find that they relate to the war in Iraq as well as to all prior wars. I think the response to war is everlasting and applies to every era in which wars have been fought.
What do you think is the role of the poet in wartime?
I think the poet is a revolutionary, regardless of his or her political positions, by the nature of the art itself. The poet in seeking truth and inner truth is not subject to the dictates of the state if he or she is writing with integrity. Once you are removed from the political winds and once you are in the business of truth seeking, you become a bit of a subversive.
Does the poet stand outside of society or have a special view of society?
Well, I don’t think the poet has any unique position regarding society. The difference between what the poet does and what most of us do, vis-a-vis politics and the problems of any particular time, is to write, not from the head, not from a perspective that dictates what the poem is going to be about, but from the heart, from the emotions, and from one's personal experiences. That means you don’t know where the poem is going. If it’s an outcry against injustice, so be it.
But the poem does not incorporate what the state has mandated as the acceptable point of view. In that regard, I think the poet is a subversive. To the extent that the poet's works get read and get into the public mind, the poet is freeing other people to listen to another aesthetic and not just to the propaganda that all states provide.
So, I think that just by being a bit freer than many other people, the poet influences others to seek truth.
Were you involved in readings or other activities on the day of the cancelled symposium?
I don’t remember being particularly involved in readings on the day of the symposium. But partly as a result of the symposium and Sam Hamill’s rebellion against it, I did become involved with Poets Against the War and organized some anti-war poetry readings in Los Angeles.
To that extent, I was out in the public using poetry as a means of protest. That was the outer me, the political me, acting. And the poet in me is not necessarily the political poet. The poetry doesn’t always come from political sources. But you do what you can. If you are a poet or an artist of any kind, you use that art to fortify and demonstrate your beliefs.
When the war began, did you feel that the Poets Against the War effort had been wasted?
Well, I was horrified but not surprised when the shooting war started. I felt that the Poets Against the War movement was generating a lot of anti-war sentiment, at least within the perimeters of poetry audiences. In fact, the poetry programs against the war that I was involved with drew large audiences -- not necessarily poetry fans or aficionados, but rather large, non-poetic audiences.
As the war went on and as the anti-war movement developed, the Poets Against the War movement gained steam, and there were more anti-war poetry events. I was involved in some of them. So I think that poetry did put on its political face during this war, just as it had in Vietnam.
There were lots of poetry events, art exhibits, plays, and other forms of art that were adjuncts, necessary adjuncts, to the overall anti-war movement.
Are you a pacifist, or do you think that war is sometimes justified?
I’m not a pacifist -- I do think that war is sometimes justified. I think that World War II was necessary, in spite of the injustices and horrors that took place within that war. I am an Army veteran, although I didn’t experience war myself. I think that it’s necessary to have a strong defense in this country and to oppose tyranny.
That doesn’t mean that I support intervention or pre-emptive war, but I see the necessity of having a strong position in the world, as long as we ourselves maintain our democracy. We have to be careful about what kind of democracy we’re spreading to other countries. We have to safeguard our liberties and our democratic system before we can so blithely export it to other countries and assume that our system is, by definition, superior to theirs.
Why were you against the Iraqi war?
My protest against this war does not reflect a pacifist position or objection to all wars in all circumstances. I saw the Iraqi war as an unnecessary war. As vile as Saddam Hussein might have been, there was a need for time to find the weapons of mass destruction. There was a need to involve the United Nations and to make the movement against Saddam one of real international, moral force.
I don’t think we went into the war with the moral position that the Bush Administration assumed we had. Therefore, I was against the war as being an unnecessary war -- as a war that was faulty in its conception and in its planning. I think those protests have been borne out. We are now in a very difficult moral, military, and international position.
What do you think of the U.S. occupation of Iraq?
I agree with those who think that the occupation should be turned over to the United Nations. I think that there must be a real international effort to rebuild Iraq and to compensate for all the damage that has been done to that country, both by Saddam and by the war. My position is that we ought to get out as soon as we possibly can and leave the rebuilding of the country in truly international hands.
The Poem in Time of War
should wake the city shouting EXTRA! EXTRA!
then whisper the story behind the story
like a conspirator. It should be short, stirring
as the president's call to arms;
soft enough for a flag at half-mast;
strong enough to stiffen the bereaved;
spacious enough to serve as a body bag.
The poem should carry the news that men
die miserably for lack of. It is
a brief on behalf of the living, a paper megaphone
for the voices of the dead. It must be
the world's last will and testament, a listing
of what will be left. It steals from forebears:
Sassoon's doomed diary and Auden's call to love.
The poem would be a prescription for healing
but who could read such a scrawl?...or a bandage
over the wounds, except that blood
tends to obliterate words.
Maybe all the war poems could be sewn together
into a vast thick quilt we'd pull around
our shoulders; might warm us on nights like this.