Sharon Olds

Renowned poet Sharon Olds has released to the public this letter, addressed to Laura Bush:

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

10 Responses

  1. laura bush and sharon
    laura bush and sharon olds

    Thanks Allez. A couple of thoughts I had:

    First, in a strange way, one must admire Laura Bush for continuing to invite poets to dinners or festivals even though this isn’t the first such invitation that boomerang’d right back at her. It’s that famous Bush tenacity, I guess.

    Second, just thought I’d mention that Sharon Olds also made a notable (if slightly underwhelming) appearance on Def Poetry Jam earlier this summer. It’s good to see a few poets leading busy lives.

  2. I like Olds even better
    I like Olds even better now

    Sex Without Love was always my most favorite poem and this letter is even better. My only question is: how can Rove spin this into a victory?

  3. More Power To HerIt’s
    More Power To Her

    It’s refreshing to see someone speak the truth without having some kind of spin on it!

    I’m sick to my stomach of politics and politicians. How long are we going to put up with these idiots wasting our hard earned money and sticking it in their pockets and then turning around and messing this country up with their heavy handed foreign policies?

    God, enough already! Let’s start another revolution.

  4. Controlled AngerI have
    Controlled Anger

    I have disliked the Bush Administration from its inception, but lately with the continuing morrass in Iraq, the Katrina mess and the oil crisis (coupled with the infamous five week “vacation”) I am filled with rage outright. I certainly admire Olds for tenaciously adhering to her principles both with control and grace. I probably couldn’t have been as big of a person.

  5. Pair of phrasesTo paraphrase
    Pair of phrases

    To paraphrase the Daniel Day-Lewis character, “that is a great woman.” Maybe Laura should come out of safe mode, walk the streets in Africa, hold dinners for the millions who don’t get to eat much. I don’t think those people can fully appreciate our literacy while suffering the guilt of the empty tummies of their little kids. On the other hand, “people forget about rebellion when their stomachs are full,” to paraphrase Lenin.

  6. Bush!I’m sure Laura Bush’s

    I’m sure Laura Bush’s assistant forwarded this around to every low level employee in the white house before throwing it away. 5 minutes of laughs, and then back to business… The business of how to keep Bush on vacation for the rest of his term. That way we can pass the problem off on his brother.

    Quite a letter, but I think she could have helped more had she shown up for breakfast and then broken this alarming dissent out in front of the dogs and the eggs pontchartrain (in honor of New Orleans). Is that rude?

  7. The EntitledI’m confused
    The Entitled

    I’m confused about the second line, in which Mrs. Bush is referred to as a “Lady.”

    Is that irony?

  8. Bold OldsI rather like this
    Bold Olds

    I rather like this rant. The hypocrisy of holding a dinner for to further inflate the egos of people who are already gifted, already blessed really irks me. Especially when the celebration falls right in the face of the first victim of any government cuts: education.

    Te truth is: teachers are paid ridiculous salaries for a thankless job. The level of service that they manage to provide is miraculous given the government’s budget. Why not throw a party for all of those teachers that have inspired and led children to pursue literary achievements?

    Give a fraction of that Kinnebunkport vacation money to the troops in Iraq who have to beg for supplies from their loved ones. Give a portion to the Katrina victims who had to wait for the government’s response, having lost all that they hold dear.

    Give a smidge to struggling public schools that are already overcrowded and limited in their funding.

  9. Sharon Olds is my heroI love
    Sharon Olds is my hero

    I love this letter. What an amazing woman and how beautifully she made her point!

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