Poets Against the War

POETS AGAINST THE WAR. In January of this year, Sam Hamill, the founding editor of Copper Canyon Press, sent out an open letter to a few friends asking them to respond to what he considered "moral bankruptcy" in the wake of the Bush administration's "Shock and Awe" military tactics against Iraq.

Word spread from mailbox to mailbox. Soon, a movement of writer activists, like the one organized to speak out against the war in Vietnam, was constituted.

Hamill was reacting to Laura Bush's invitation for poets to come to the White House in mid-February for a Poetry and the American Voice symposium. Hamill refused and instead launched a Web site, Poets Against the War, for writers to lend their words as buffers against the escalating war drums. Nearly 13,000 poets have since submitted their writing.

Martha Ostheimer heeded Hamill's call and posted her poem, Pressing the Deal for Pretty. A long-time Tucson writer and instructor of technical communications at UA's Electrical and Computer Engineering department, Ostheimer recalls how the poem quietly emerged.

"The world was getting so surreal," she says. "Here I was working on my novel--two years into revisions. It's beautiful outside and then a plane would screech overhead. I had to write poetry. Where fiction seemed so conscious, poetry felt unconscious."

The poem is filled with struggle, she says. "The beautiful and the ominous are in a belligerent twist. Debutantes even appeared. It seemed so odd to me that women are still being presented into society like this as if nothing's happened."

Ostheimer decided she had to do more than just submit this poem to Hamill's Web site. She called a dozen local poets and planned a reading. Women's Voices Against War grew out of a collaboration between Kore Press, where Ostheimer is a board member, and Biblio Bookstore--an obvious mix of feminist and literary communities. There was a range of responses to being invited to the reading.

"Some people immediately embraced the idea," Ostheimer recalls. "Others were supportive but wondered how political their work needed to be. One woman turned me down because, while she didn't think war was a good thing to do, she felt the subject was too easy a bandwagon to jump on."

Maggie Golston is one of the poets Ostheimer contacted. Owner of Biblio, a new bookstore filled with shelves of poetry, independently published fiction and prose, as well as new and used books, Golston wonders about the responsibility of the poet.

"It's incredibly reductive to say that poets have a role in times like these. Poetry is a natural gesture, but the poem doesn't have to be about war. It can touch on related ideas."

She adds, "Anyone whose work engages culture has to engage in war culture, even if they're not writing directly to the theme of war."

Like anyone thinking about an impending war, Golston and Ostheimer reach back to their own reactions to U.S. militarism.

"As an American woman born in the early '70s, I don't remember Vietnam," explains Golston. "The Gulf War was my first one. I feel very untouched by war, but I am Jewish, so my whole family's been steeped in it."

Ostheimer, however, does remember the Vietnam body counts on TV when she was a young teen.

"I do remember the Vietnam War and because of those memories, I've been acutely aware of the effects of militarism--during the first Gulf War and this impending one. This one's scarier to me."

Golston adds, "We have to realize that it's not just the ... war that's scary. We're in an economic recession. Every day here on Congress Street, I see hungry, desperate people. That's more scary to me."

For those who use words as their art, silence isn't an option as a reaction to war. Martha Ostheimer is clear about what writers can do.

"Poets have a responsibility to witness and respond to events. And you can't just turn back to the domestic beauty. We're not living in a pretty world. We live in color-coded days."

Women's Voices Against War starts at 7 p.m. on Friday, March 28, at Biblio, located at 222 E. Congress St. Joining Maggie Golston and Martha Ostheimer at the reading are Barbara Cully, Anne Dernier, Debra Gregerman, Annie Guthrie, Lona Mousa and Frances Sjoberg. It's free and open to the public.

For details on Poets Against the War, visit www.poetsagainstthewar.org. Call Kore Press at 882-7542 for more information on the reading.

--Joan Schuman