May 12, 2007

An Open Letter to First Lady Laura Bush

Award Winning Poet, Sharon Olds, Declines White House Invitation in Protest of the War in Iraq

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, 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. Following the letter is a biography of Ms. Olds.

Laura Bush First Lady, The White House

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 teachers.

When you have witnessed someone nonspeaking and almost
nonmoving 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 nonspeaking and nonmoving (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 it.


Sharon Olds


Born in San Francisco on November 19, 1942, Sharon Olds earned a B.A. at Stanford University and a Ph.D. at Columbia University.

Her first collection of poems, Satan Says (1980), received the inaugural San Francisco Poetry Center Award. Olds's following collection, The Dead & the Living (1983), received the Lamont Poetry Selection in 1983 and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Her other collections include Strike Sparks: Selected Poems (2004, Knopf), The Unswept Room (2002), Blood, Tin, Straw (1999), The Gold Cell (1997), The Wellspring (1995), and The Father (1992), which was shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

About Olds's poetry, one reviewer for the New York Times said, "Her work has a robust sensuality, a delight in the physical that is almost Whitmanesque. She has made the minutiae of a woman's everyday life as valid a subject for poetry as the grand abstract themes that have preoccupied other poets."

Olds's numerous honors include a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship. Her poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Ploughshares, and has been anthologized in more than a hundred collections.

Olds held the position of New York State Poet from 1998 to 2000. She currently teaches poetry workshops at New York University's Graduate Creative Writing Program as well as a workshop at Goldwater Hospital on Roosevelt Island in New York. She was elected an Academy Chancellor in 2006. She lives in New York City.

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