Footage with commentary by Paul Mysliwiec, a US soldier; Todd Swift, a poet; and Craig White, a journalist. George W. Bush announces the invasion.
Todd Swift is a Canadian poet, writer and cultural activist, and editor of 100 Poets Against the War, published in Britain, Spring of 2003. He is the Poetry Editor of Nth Position. Author of 3 collections of his own poetry, editor of 5 anthologies, and numerous e-books, Todd was also an editorial coordinator for poetsagainstthewar.org in 2003.
Men and women are small
when bullets are put inside them,
they lie down like stones.
All the bodies leaning on the ground.
Like children throwing glass at rain,
this could almost be strange new fun.
Even when you are dead, gentlemen,
no one will forget what you have done.
It Started with an Email to 100 Poets
This conversation was excerpted from Todd Swift’s interview for the film Voices in Wartime.
What was happening to you during the fall of 2002 and the winter of 2003?
In the fall of 2002 and then at the beginning of the new year in 2003 the juggernaut of war was building. I was living in Paris and working with Val Stevenson at www.nthposition.com and it was clear to me at that time that protest had to take on a new form.
What was happening at that time is that people were sending emails to each other, beginning to complain about Blair or Bush and their plans for war. Also people were sending out a lot of petitions, you know those long, annoying emails that most people delete. Certainly I was, to be honest, getting so many of them that I wasn’t forwarding them all on, I was deleting some of them.
And it just seemed to me that there was something more that poets could do using the Internet, and it came together for me in a sense that I had just completed a global anthology of poetry the year before. Short Fuse from Rattapallax in New York was really the first 21st century anthology of poetry from every English-speaking country in the world, and so I had this database of poets and I suddenly felt that it was time to contact them and see what they had to say.
At the end of January 2003, just before the Hans Blix report came out, I decided to email a hundred poets. Some of them were in Ireland, some were in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, America, England, and Scotland; really all around the world, India as well. And I asked them to send me poems with their feelings about what was happening, really anti-war essentially, and within about a day I’d received the hundred, and that was amazing in of itself.
But within three or four days I’d received about 700, and by the end of the week over a thousand. And we were quite astonished by this,— you know poets usually take a long time to reply to things — so we felt that we’d struck gold; that we were on to something.
We quickly compiled the best of the poems, and we had quite a selection to choose from, which we put on our website by the following Monday. So from the time that we announced it on January 20th to January 27th, we’d produced an e-book, an anthology of poems that was instantly available around the world.
And were you surprised by the response?
I was very surprised. To be honest, a few days after we had begun our activity, Sam Hamill, who had written an email around the same time — totally unbeknownst to me, as I was in Paris and wasn’t really hooked into the same kind of world or circuit that Sam Hamill was involved with. And suddenly I saw his email, and that he was collecting poems to send to the White House. And what surprised me was that within three or four days, certainly after January 27th, the media picked up on the Hamill story — the Poets Against the War story in America — and our Nthposition chapbook.
And by the 29th, not only were more poems coming in but people had begun to download the e-book tens of thousands of times, so that within the first week it had been printed over 50,000 times and swapped and shared many more times. But more incredibly, the media was collating the two stories; they were talking about Poets Against the War in America and the Nthposition activity, and it was snowballing as quite an exciting media event.
To give you an idea of the media event it was, by the Wednesday — that is three days after the e-book had been released — and you have to understand, poetry books don’t usually get much attention, and that is the context in which this is extraordinary. You know a poetry book will be mentioned if it wins a major award, or if it’s written by someone who is about to die or who has just died, or who has a serious drinking problem and lots of interesting mistresses.
But for the most part, poetry doesn’t really get that kind of attention, but I was getting phone calls from Reuters, from The Guardian, we were covered in the L.A. Times, and CNN was covering it. I got a phone call from a guy in Toronto saying, “You know that thing that runs at the bottom of the TV screen during the news? Well it just mentioned you.” He was having breakfast and he said, “It just said Todd Swift’s poetry anthology has now been downloaded 100,000 times.”
So it was unbelievable, I was getting phone calls from people who only spoke Chinese and then an interpreter was calling; and we were interviewed by Russian media. So it was very thrilling, and I’m not going to deny that it was thrilling. But what was best about it, was that the message was getting across, and so the more that people heard about it in the media, the more poems that we received as well. So it really became an extraordinary whirlwind, within the first, fourteen days.
Was this happening in other countries as well?
Poetry protest started — in terms of the idea of using it and working with the Internet — in America and almost simultaneously it started with Nthposition in France and the UK.
The whole Internet poetry, poetry peace protest, grass-roots explosion which happened in January and March 2003 — I should include February in there but I always think it was January when it started and March when the war began — but those three or four months. That whole grass-roots poetry explosion really began simultaneously in America with the Poets Against the War movement with Sam Hamill and with Nthposition in Europe, and it quickly spread globally.
So within days there were people in Africa who were having poetry readings, who were sending in poems and also downloading the poems, and people in Japan were aware of this, and people in Russia. At the beginning it was more driven by the English language, I mean the Internet is international and uses many languages but, there’s still a strong element of English as being a driving force for the Internet.
And there is more of a history of poetry protest in British and American poetic history, so it tied into that and it tied into the anti-Vietnam movement of course — which was also called Poets Against the War — their literary movement involving Robert Lowell and Ginsberg, and Adrienne Rich.
But within a few weeks we were dealing with people in Germany, for example, and people in South America who were producing their own versions. By that time it was a global story and it was a global experience.
Where were the poems coming from that you were getting?
Most of the poems were from English-speaking countries, certainly at first, and then we began to get some poems from Africa — not in English — China, Japan, Russia, and Spanish-speaking countries. After a few weeks Val and I were swamped by the number of poems we were getting and at this point the Poets Against the War web site was up in America, and we were delighted to see that they were presenting poems with the same kind of a spirit as we had hoped to achieve.
With one difference, and I should just mention this, is that the Nthposition idea was always to take well-written poems by professional poets and assemble them quickly in booklets that could then be downloaded so that people could read them at events. And the idea was to cut out the middle-man, where normally when something is produced you have to wait months for a book to be produced and then you know you have to sell it.
So this was a free object you could actually print up and then assemble, and it was kind of fun the way we actually had the directions on how to assemble it — because you have to fold it over in the proper way — that kind of thing. But ours was based on quality, we weren’t actually celebrating the idea that everyone in the world is a poet, and what we were seeing in America, what was happening was very different; it was essentially a much more grass-roots movement.
Our grass-roots were connected to the idea of, “These are great poems, spread them, share them with your friends.” Their movement was, “Everyone can write a poem.” So after the first few weeks we saw that was happening.
You were saying that you had gotten poems, mainly at first, from the English language, but does that include India? Other parts of the world?
At Nthposition we received a lot of poems from some extraordinary poets like Ranjit Hoskote, who’s one of the leading poets of his generation in India. We were very pleased, we didn’t know how he’d heard about it, but this is what was happening; it was just everyone was hearing about it. But we received poems from Ireland and South Africa, I mean mostly English-speaking countries in the first few weeks, and then as the German poems came in, and the Spanish poems, and some Chinese poems, that was the point when Val and I said, “Right, well maybe we should encourage people to send their poems on to Sam Hamill.”
Because we could see that the Poets Against the War movement in America was assembling a database of tens of thousands of poems, and that they weren’t actually editing them. If you sent in a poem it was put up on the site and then they would have volunteer editors — as I discovered later — that would take out the ones that were potentially offensive.
But otherwise anything you wanted to say was there, so we thought well, “At this point we can’t deal with the volume that we’re getting.” So we encouraged people to send to Poets Against the War, and in that way we always felt that the two of us were working in tandem and were part of the same movement; because we were a conduit for poems to get to them. And they also mentioned Nthposition on their site, and people that wanted actual little poetry books quite quickly, would come to us and download them. So it was a nice symbiotic relationship building up.
Protest Poetry on the Internet
This conversation was excerpted from Todd Swift’s interview for the film Voices in Wartime.
Do you think that the idea of poetry as protest was sort of in the air at this point?
What was in the air at that time was an incredible frustration. It was the frustration that drove me originally. I was sitting one day in a caf in Paris, reading The Guardian newspaper and it just struck me — as I think it’s struck a lot of people and it’s continued to amaze people — that Tony Blair and George Bush weren’t listening.
Because there’s never been — as far as I can tell — in the history of a democracy, a war that was so unpopular with the people; that was so unnecessary and was so clearly driven by needs that were not the needs being described. And what frustrated me, was that we were sending out artists and intellectuals, and anyone really, we’re sending out these desperate messages to each other, “What can we do?” But no one had grabbed onto the idea of, “How shall we protest?”
And you know this wasn’t a Dentists Against the War experience, this wasn’t Zoologists Against the War or surgeons, or policemen; this was a Poets Against the War movement. It was originally generated by people that write poetry, that get excited about poetry, that just happened to communicate on the Internet, and it spread. And because the media picked up on it and made it a story, and I think that what happened at that time is the media was very interested in anything that had to do with the build up to the war.
In some ways I feel that the Poets Against the War movement encouraged the other movements that then sprang up. Of course by the time you had this wonderful march in London for example, and in other cities where millions of people were marching; at that point it became truly everyone’s war to protest against. But for the first month or two, the people out there in the lead were the poets. The ones that almost made it safe for everyone to realize, “Hey wait a minute, this is something that we can do.”
And you know the thing about poets is they’re always the first to broach a subject, or to dare to say something, they break taboos — that’s what they do in society. And they don’t have as much to lose; you know we didn’t see a lot of filmmakers against the war at first, or a lot of rock stars against the war. Why? Because they have more to lose, in a few cases where people did speak out, they were censored or there were problems. People in the media were losing their jobs, they were threatened.
Poets don’t make a lot of money, and they’re not often in positions of authority, so it’s more difficult to intimidate them. So I think that they were in an ideal position around the world to speak out, as Ezra Pound has said, “Poets are the antennae of society, of civilization.” And that’s what happened in this case.
What is the role of poets? To criticize, and to look at society, and to give it an unjaundiced look?
The role of poets — there’s a lot of roles for poets — and one of the things that can never be forgotten is that poetry is an art form. I’m going to set that aside in a moment, but I want to get that on record. Because a lot of people have criticized me, and other people like Sam Hamill, almost as if we’re selling false goods or shoddy goods; as if we’re trying to put across poetry that isn’t real poetry.
Poetry is an art form, it’s like ballet or painting, I mean it can be done well or it can be done badly. That being said, what poetry is — and we all know this, I mean we’ve all seen a poem — poetry is playing with language. And it’s always a balance between new ways of using language and what language refers to, which is the world.
So actually, it was an ideal moment for poets to speak out because this was a war of rhetoric. Before the war began what was happening was that we had spin doctors, particularly in England that were — and this has of course become extremely controversial with the Lord Hutton report, and the BBC, and the weapons of mass destruction, and did they exist or didn’t they — but there were all these reports, and there were all these claims being made by Blair and Bush.
It was a time of rhetoric, because they were of course trying to build this up, as Churchill did during the war, beautifully. But we had these war leaders who were using rhetoric to build up this kind of war fever. Poets were ideally placed to puncture that web of language, because they use language in a way that is more honest, more direct, more concise. They cut through the jargon, and they express what people feel, and they show how language can be used in a different way, perhaps in a more honest way.
And I think that’s the role of poets, and that’s why poets became so invaluable to this effort. I mean obviously, I wouldn’t encourage everyone to protest, but when you’re dealing with language and exposing its flaws anyway, you’re in a good position to criticize when language is lying to us.
But don’t you think that the strength of a poet — whether it’s Shakespeare, or Shelley, or Alan Ginsberg — that a lot of the strength of poets and poetry, is its absolute honesty?
Poetry is either absolutely honest or absolutely dishonest, and I’m not sure which it is, because it works on so many different levels. On the one level, no poet who’s ever written a poem to his mistress or to a woman he claims to love is telling the whole story. Half of what the poem’s about is how — and this is especially the case with Shakespeare — half of the poem is about how great I am, and how famous I am, and I’m going to live forever.
Because you know, the use of language is wonderful; so there’s always a duplicity with poetry. Poets are vain like most artists, they’re very creative and they’re living in a world where they’re threatened because they’re not commercially viable for the most part, they’re not really successful in the eyes of the world in the way that most people judge success these days. But that being said, poets do take risks and they have been driven — historically — by conscience and by wishing to speak out and there is a wonderful tradition of political poetry.
I don’t accept the idea that a poem has to be either aesthetic and beautiful or political, I think they can be all, and I think that we’ve seen throughout history poets that have — from Shakespeare to Milton, who’s poetry was quite political, to Dylan Thomas writing poems during the Blitz — that they are extraordinary; very, very moving. They work supremely well as poems but they also send a strong message.
Is the Internet really suited to poetry? Do you think it is a medium that poetry’s been waiting for?
I think poems and the Internet are an ideal match because you have a form, you have a poem, which is text, which is words; and it’s easy to send out on the Internet. And the Internet can reach, as we know, instantaneously tens of thousands or maybe millions of people, the Internet’s an incredible delivery system for poetry, for text.
And what it is that you have with a poem that you don’t have with just a normal email? You have a message that’s been crafted in a delightful way that intrigues people so that they want to share it with their friends.
So what we were discovering at that moment was that if people wrote poems that were clever, or witty, or satirical about Bush or Blair, or had a strong emotional message about why war was best avoided, these poems could not only be sent out but then re-circulated. Because people like them and wanted to share them with their friends. It was just a moment when poems were in vogue and the Internet was perfectly suited to deliver them quickly.
Does the length of poems also lend itself to the Internet? Most poems are a page or two.
The idea of short poems, the lyric poem, in relation to reaching people is a fascinating issue. And it was first introduced by Edgar Allen Poe, who in some ways is the first modernist poet, and he would have loved the Internet.
Poe believed that poems should be orgasmically short. He thought that long poems, like Paradise Lost, weren’t even really poems. They were a series of short poems, strung together with prose that was quite boring. He thought that what everyone really liked about poetry was the excitement that you got in the first thirty seconds or minute. A little bit like a hit of nicotine or as Poe himself was suggesting in kind of a reverie, but what he was really hinting at was a post-orgasmic experience.
And the Internet’s good for that. The Internet was, and certainly email is good for sending short messages. And I think we’ve all had the experience, if anyone gets an email message that’s more than a page long, I think we mostly chuck it, it’s gone; make it snappy, make it quick. So it really tied in well with the new technology, but it’s an old idea that the shorter a poem is the more lyric power it possesses.
Do you think it’s a good thing for poetry that this medium is available? As opposed to 1,000 copies of a book.
I think that the way new media has impacted not just poetry, but literature in the last few years is—there’s no other way of saying it—is a paradigm shift, and a lot of publishers and writers haven’t accepted that yet. I mean I, myself, I’m not writing hyper-poetry. That’s a different thing, that’s almost a new form in and of itself.
But even the idea of distributing poetry or any kind of book, electronically by the Internet, is only now just beginning to find its full role and impact. And what it’s going to do, and what actually happened with the 100 Poets Against the War e-books — which had never happened before and which is historical, and has to be remembered — is that e-books had been around for several years.
Stephen King had put one out, had tried to sell it. No one went to them, they were like floating there in cyberspace, and you’d put out an e-book with your poems or the memoirs of your grandmother’s trip to Africa. It would be wonderful, it would be there in cyberspace, but your mother and three friends would go and get it; no one else would.
No one had found a way to connect the audience that was there with the idea of the e-book. And by suddenly distributing the e-book link in an email and by having it available — not on just one website — but saying hey, “Put this on as many web sites as you want, download it, it’s free.” Suddenly it all exploded, because a lot of things came together at once: ubiquity, not having to pay for it, and a reason to read it.
So when people get very excited about the Internet, and literature or poetry at this time, we can never forget that it’s because people were angry at the war that was looming. It wasn’t because literature suddenly became more special, or the poets were suddenly better, or that everyone in the world was using the Internet and was suddenly more enlightened. It was just that there was a zeitgeist moment, a moment that isn’t there now, a moment that came together when people around the world felt something very wrong was happening. And they found one way to protest it that was quite effortless and fun.
But the Internet will learn from this and will move on; but that moment is gone. There’ll be other iterations or other forms of it, but it’s a process — if I can just say one thing – that mainstream publishers didn’t learn from. They continue to produce books, and people continue to buy them, and the system is still chugging along. But eventually people will realize, “Wait a minute, it happened once. Books were free, books were eminently available.” And they’ll return to that; maybe when it’s easier to produce, to download books in an attractive format.
Art Form, Popular Medium, or Both?
This conversation was excerpted from Todd Swift’s interview for the film Voices in Wartime.
One of the things that you’ve mentioned and I think you feel a bit uncomfortable with it also —is the idea of poetry as a sort of popular medium. But isn’t anti-war poetry a bit like pamphleteering in a way? Do you think this should have the same form of criticism that academic poetry does?
Some critics were saying that the poetry that was being written wasn’t real poetry and in some cases they were right. There were a lot of people writing things and some of it was doggerel. Just like there will always be poems, we write them on Valentine’s Day, that aren’t very good but maybe they’re sincere. So that’s not a fair criticism.
As the Poet Laureate of America, Billy Collins, said last year or two years ago, “Ninety-three percent of everything is crap.” So why criticize poetry, when 93% of that is crap? I mean, it’s just a given. Excellence is always rare. But really it’s unfair to say, “Hey wait a minute, a lot of this political stuff, it’s not very good.” Because people are going to write poems about their dogs, or falling in love, or when someone dies; these are legitimate reasons to write.
And some of the poems are going to be very moving and some of them are not going to be. In general the question, has good poetry ever been written that’s political? Well obviously, yes. In fact I can’t think of many major poems that aren’t political. The very first great poem by Homer, which is the one that frames all of our civilization’s relationship to poetry, is political. Both The Odyssey, and The Iliad, these are political poems. They’re about war; they’re about society, the divine comedy.
The great medieval poetic masterpiece is a profoundly political poem, I mean Dante puts Popes in hell, in certain circles of hell, there’s nothing that could have been more political an act than that and he got in trouble for it. Milton’s poem Paradise Lost was a thinly veiled allegory on the Civil War and issues in Britain at the time.
There has never been a major poet who hasn’t written a major poem that had an explicit or maybe even a hidden reference to politics. We are political animals and poets are social beings. We’re very excited about politics. Ezra Pound’s bizarre sprawling masterpiece The Cantos; it’s riddled with politics. So I don’t really accept the idea that once you set out to write anything political it’s necessarily less well-written, or less enjoyable, or less crafted, or less classical. That’s just not true.
If you start in World War I, you get these great poets. Get to World War II, and it’s still highly educated poets but much more identifying themselves not as officers with a responsibility to the enlisted men but as enlisted men or as parts of a machine. And then you get to Vietnam and it is working class guys, who are writing very powerful poetry Talk to us a little bit about this sort of sequence in terms of poetry and war?
At the beginning of the 20th century the idea of the war poet was not an anti-war poet. The war poet was someone who was in the war, probably an officer who had been educated at Cambridge or Oxford, and certainly in England this was the tradition. And with the great First World War poems, their strength comes from the fact that it’s a collision between two worlds, an extraordinarily barbaric modern world — and we’re all familiar now with the brutality of the trench warfare and the use of technology really in a whole different way — with these very refined sensibilities.
These were not 20th century poets, up until the moment that they experienced these bombardments and this horrific mass-slaughter. So what you get there is the first flowering of modernism in poetry. So what makes the First World War in relation to war poetry special is the poetry is particularly good.
Now there aren’t really very many famous Second World War poets and certainly we don’t have anthologies of Second World War poetry in the same way that we do First World War poetry. Yes they’re there, but everyone lumps them in with the First World War poets and keeps going back to them. The reason is that by the Second World War poets knew that war was terrible.
All of the old Napoleonic illusions of you meet on a battlefield and, “Isn’t this, aren’t we dressed wonderfully? And isn’t the weather fine? And can’t you wait to just get back after the end of the day into the tent and have some sherry and talk about it, and compare little wounds from sabers or whatever?” That was gone. Everyone knew it was horrific; it was a nightmare. So there wasn’t the same — and modernism had already flowered with Elliot at that point —you didn’t have an incredible transition in language taking place.
Nor did you have an incredible transition in sensibility, it was kind of the status quo, “Okay, more slaughter. We’re going to use more modernistic techniques. Where do we go from there?” But by Vietnam, what was interesting is that post-modernism had been introduced because the beat tradition in America is essentially post-modernist. It’s suddenly, it’s guys who aren’t afraid to say, “I take drugs. I have sex, often with people that aren’t women.”
And also they’re exploring different religions and different cultures, Buddhism, Eastern traditions in general. All that comes together and it’s a different kind of war again and you have different kinds of people facing that war, so that the anti-war poetry in Vietnam — and the poetry written about Vietnam — is interesting again. And I think what’s also happened now, and what happened in 2003 and 2004, is that once again we had a shift both in technology and in sensibility of language.
Changes in War and Changes in Poetry
This conversation was excerpted from Todd Swift’s interview for the film Voices in Wartime.
We were talking about changes in poetry and war from World War I to World War II to Vietnam, and you mentioned that there was something new that was happening. What was that?
When poetry and war become interesting together is when you have a shift in sensibility. When war changes or when the language the poets use change; and in World War I, that happened. Because the battlefield techniques were different, the equipment was different, the technology was different, and so was the poetry. Because these were 19th century people who were suddenly faced with a whole different way of fighting.
So it was an interesting collision of experiences, and we got great writing from that and very powerful writing. The Second World War was less interesting because people were familiar with the brutality of war at this point and total war, and we still had a kind of modernist sensibility. By the Vietnam time, with the beat poets and also Robert Lowell and confessionalism, you had a different sensibility. You had subjectivity, an introduction to people much more honest about their own sexuality, their willingness to take drugs and experiment in general — that was the 60’s —coming up against a different kind of war in Vietnam, a kind of police action.
And again at the beginning of the 21st century, what really made this whole collision of poetry, war, and protest — I think once again innovative and interesting like it was in the First World War — is that poets are writing differently again. They’re much more innovative, they’re being much more experimental.
No one had really used the Internet technology in the same way to distribute the poems and I think everyone was amazed by how they were reaching everyone else, which created a kind of coffeehouse atmosphere but on a global level. You could write a poem and then share it with someone you know in India, or someone in India could suddenly be sharing a poem with someone in Indiana; it was extraordinary.
People were excited by that, so they were challenged to write new and better poems, and try out new things. But also the war was different, and in the sense that we weren’t; you know it as famously a war with embedded media, and more and more so-called “smart technology”. And this is what the poets were writing about, a lot of them were writing about the language of war, about the involvement of the media, about the camera eye being their eye.
A lot of the poets of course weren’t in Iraq during the lead up to the war, but they felt that they were there. They felt uniquely that they were almost in the boardrooms where Bush and Blair were meeting, but they also felt that they were on the battlefield because of the way the war was being packaged for them. And so it allowed the poets to kind of unpack that packaging and re-explain it and re-explore it.
How did the poets feel that they were actually there on the battlefield?
The poets that were writing pre-war about the war, they mostly weren’t actually in the war but they felt that they were. And what I think was unique about this moment is the way that the media had packaged the build-up to the war and the war itself. It was as if they were in the boardrooms or the secret meetings between Bush and Blair. And then when the war happened, with the embedded media, the way it was presented, the poets felt that they were able to unpack the package they were being given by the media and then re-present in a new way in the poems.
There was this willingness to really play with the ideas of the language that the Pentagon was using, the language that the media was using to describe the events that were taking place, and to re-describe the images. One of the things that I think is incredible about this moment, is that a lot of people thought we had already discovered that war was hell.
And of course over the 20th century — anti-war poets, even the war poets of the First World War — they’re writing poetry to shock us, to tell us, “War is terrible. Look at the rats, look at the exploded people, look at the stinking muck in the trenches.” But this had been forgotten by the time of the 21st century, and what the poets had to do again — but without being there — was re-describe those images.
Almost to reeducate the public, to say, “Wait a minute, you’re being told this is going to be a painless war. You’re being told that no one’s going to get hurt. But the bombs are still going to explode and innocent people are still going to get maimed.” So a lot of the poems are about what happens to children and what happens to innocent people. A lot of the poems are about collateral damage and reminding us that it still happens.
A lot of the poetry was talking about people that the press could not see, the Iraqis, the civilians, the people that they are not embedded with. Are the poets speaking for people who don’t have a voice?
A lot of the poems in the build-up to the war and then when the war started, were writing about the people that weren’t being described in the mainstream media; the people that were being killed. And most of the people that were being killed were innocent civilians that just happened to be Iraqi because it was Iraq that was being attacked.
So a lot of the poems that we received, were just describing that terrible loss of innocence; the brutality of war, and the injustice of it. And I think what was driving the anger of the poets was that the war was not being described to us as a necessary evil, it was being described to us almost as a necessary delight. No one actually came out in the British or the American government and said, “This is going to be terrible, and we’re very sorry, but we have to do it.” They said, “We have to do it.” And then they forgot to mention the terrible nature of it.
And the poets were describing that — and certain journalists with a conscience like Robert Fisk and people like that —, and there were many of them — but certainly the embedded journalists were, for the most part, selling a story or providing us a line that was being spun by the Pentagon.
Tell us about the time when this was happening, was this a big moment in your life? Is this something that you’re going to remember, and what was it like? Was it twenty-four hours a day?
From January 20th to about the end of March my life was transformed, and there were times when my wife would come home from work — because she continued to do her work — and we would go out for dinner to a caf and talk about what had happened during the day, and then we would come back and it would continue. And there were several things happening at once.
One was this extraordinary — to be honest — Andy Warhol “famous for fifteen” minutes kind of thing. Because my wife has always been kind of lovingly dubious about the idea of poetry editor and poet; I mean she married me and she loves me but it’s like, “Okay.” But by the time that the L.A. Times called to interview me she had to concede, “Well hey wait a minute, this poetry thing.” So that was just on a personal level and it was very exciting.
It’s gratifying to see that something that you love — which I do, I love poetry and I love poets — it was gratifying to see the poetry and poets, and poems were making an impact on the world; that was one thing. The other thing that was very moving for me is that we had a message that I felt was absolutely right. We were doing the right thing and it was an important message, and it was getting across.
And one thing that American poets — and just American people in general — might be surprised to realize, but there was a moment — and maybe it’s utopian — but there was a moment when we felt in Europe that Blair might be, could maybe be turned. We knew he had a so-called “religious conscience”, we knew that the Pope was against the war and was speaking to him about it; we knew that many people within his own cabinet were opposed to the war and several of them resigned.
There was a knife-edge moment when perhaps Blair’s conscience, you know the conscience of the king which Shakespeare mentions, could maybe be caught and turned. So whereas in America, you were preaching to the Bush regime, and it was more of a satiric act in some ways, because it’s unthinkable that George Bush —and I don’t want to, I don’t personally admire the man or his behavior, or his government — but more to the point he’s not intellectually curious; that’s a fact. He’s not the kind of person that would pick up a poetry book, read it, and then be deeply moved and change his mind. I mean that’s just not real politic.
But people — it’s changed now — but people actually thought,I think, “Wait a minute, Tony Blair he really is our guy isn’t he? I mean he really is a Labour Prime Minister, he’s mostly opposed to war, he must be. He has a conscience. He’s a good guy, he’s going to hear us.”
Of course we now know that wasn’t the case, and I think feelings about him have hardened, and people don’t trust him in the same way. But there was a moment when it felt like maybe poets and the millions of people marching in the street might have an impact. So it was a very heady time in that way as well, not only personally, but seeing friends, and colleagues, and comrades around the world coming together and actually making a difference.
And I should just say of course there were poetry readings that I was helping to organize in Los Angeles, New York, Washington D.C., Toronto, Montreal; and Berlin as well. So every day I was on the phone or on email with people all over the world, so that was very busy and alarming to my wife who kept seeing the phone bills mounting. But it was a wonderful time and I’ll never forget it.
I hope I’ll do other things again that I’m equally proud of, but I can’t imagine that I’ll ever achieve that kind of zeitgeist moment where something that I believe in connects so directly; I hope so. But even if not, it’s something that I was very proud to be a part of, and I’ll never forget it as long as I live.
Talk to us a little bit about how the books have taken off?
The fun thing about the books, 100 Poets Against the War,— this is actually 100 Poets Against the War Redux —a week after we put out the first one we had so many new poems that we felt we would put out a second book — but this is what people could download and then print up themselves if they wanted to. And on the back of course we encourage people to do that.
And this is a wonderful thing, — a poet in Germany signed it. He printed it up and he sent it to me and he said, you know it says, “Best Wishes from Berlin.” I got several of these but I think this is the first I’d gotten, and it was really very moving to receive that — and of course they were printing them up and reading from them.
But what is most interesting is that a week after Poets Against the War had come out in this kind of form, Chris Emory who is a publisher, saw it and said we need to turn it into a book. And this is the book that was produced, this was actually launched — it was published a little bit before —it was launched in London on March 5th. And it’s considered the fastest book ever produced in the English-speaking world.
How long did it take?
The 100 Poets Against the War book, the contract was signed on a Tuesday, on Friday the manuscript was edited and it was printed, and it was out on Monday; so it was less than a week. I had to get permissions from the poets, you see they had sent me the poems, but we didn’t need, we didn’t take copyright.
But suddenly with a real book you need to ask permission in a whole different way. I didn’t have biographies for the poets, some of them I didn’t even know who they were. I had to suddenly track that down, write up biographies about them, proofread the poems in a whole different way. Because typos weren’t that important at first, you know if you’re sending it out in a chat-book form —you try your best, but you’re under the gun.
No, what I find amazing is, as a poet I know that it normally takes a year or two years — or a lifetime — to convince someone to publish your poetry. And this will never happen again, it certainly hasn’t happened to me, to be able to have someone come to you and say, “Right let’s do this book and we’ll get it out in four or five days.”
So that was wonderful and you know, Salt Books in Cambridge are to be congratulated for being visionary in that way. They were the first publisher in the world to get a poetry book out, onto the bookshelves and into libraries, and to have the idea that this is something that needs to be kept and recorded. Not only on the Internet or in little chat books but in a fully published form.
This conversation was excerpted from Todd Swift’s interview for the film Voices in Wartime.
So what happens now, after all this?
A lot of people have asked me, “Okay you did all this, you helped work with thousands of poets around the world. All these poems were written, people felt very strongly about it, and the war happened anyway.” And you’d be surprised how often this question comes up, but the question is, “So why did you do it? And how do you feel now? And wasn’t it a waste of time, like why bother?”
It’s an amazingly kind of defeatist position and I think a lot of people — particularly that were in favor of the war — like to bring that up, “So what did you do?” But I think that what happened is that we presented for history a record of bearing witness, and of standing up to authority.
And we proved that at a critical time in Western Civilization’s history there are still millions of people with a conscience, who don’t think that wars need to be fought unless they’re absolutely necessary. And so I’m very proud of being a part of that, I think it’s a record that isn’t going to go away, that these are poems that exist now that can be used at other times for other purposes.
I think an extraordinary example of this is that Winston Churchill used to read poetry during the Blitz, to of course, build up morale, and one of the poems that he read is by Claude McKay. And it’s a poem written by an African-American man dealing with lynching and slavery, but in a very rhetorical, beautiful way. Churchill probably didn’t even realize who Claude McKay was or the context in which it was written.
So this social justice poem written 50 or 60 years before Churchill discovered it suddenly had a whole new meaning and purpose, and was used to inspire the British people. That’s the power of poetry, is that it cuts across time and space, it always exists. And it can reverberate or resonate in different ways for different people, at different moments in time.
We’ve created those poems, they’re still out there, and they’re available again next time people want to go to war. We can remember what we did this time, people can go back and read those poems again, and be inspired to do more. Maybe next time we’ll succeed, and maybe next time we’ll stop the war.
Don’t you think it did have an effect on a certain level?
The poems did have an effect, and one of the effects is that the politicians were warned. It wasn’t just the poems, it was also the anti-war journalists, but in general the anti-war movement — and what we said and we laid down — can now be used as a basis of critique for these leaders who are still in power.
And as things have gone wrong in Iraq, and as what we predicted has happened, as we said in poems, “Innocent people will die, you won’t find the weapons, you’ve been lying to us rhetorically for your own purposes. It’s all about oil or geopolitics, isn’t it?” All of these things that at the time seemed to be maybe the words of cranks or marginal figures, well it’s all been proved.
Everything that we said actually is the case, and because there is this record and there’s this volume of work out there, it makes it more difficult for the re-election purposes of these war governments; whether it be in London or in Washington. And I think to be honest, that this is — well I don’t know what the outcome of these elections will be — but it does challenge these people historically and even in the moment. Because they didn’t get away with it scott-free, people saw them and saw what they were doing, and said, “We see you, we know what you’re doing. History will not forget this.”
Are you getting a poetic reaction to the occupation?
Nth Position published an e-book opposed to the occupation and generally to American imperialism. We called it Times New Roman and it came out a few months after we had done our original anti-war books. It was very interesting to see, because there was still interest but it was about a third —if not less — of the original.
And it’s been interesting to see month after month, as we continue to publish on the Internet, there is always interest. But it’s not the huge global groundswell, it’s not everybody, it’s the people that would have been interested anyway. And there is, you know that’s why I say it’s a moment, because it’s not there anymore; it’s gone. I mean there is not the same excitement, there’s not the same enthusiasm.
So, it was a moment, but will there be another moment like that?
What happened was that poetry was there, first at a time when people around the world were very, very angry. And people felt that they could make a difference. People realize that the war happened, and they realized that their democratically elected leaders weren’t going to listen to them, and the cynicism has set in.
So the time isn’t right for more of these kind of grand, global gestures, because people realize that they can’t sway their leaders in the way that they’d hoped they would. They actually believed that the leaders ultimately had a conscience and we now see that they don’t in quite the same way that we thought. I’m not saying these are bad people. I’m not saying Bush and Blair don’t believe that they did the right thing, but we don’t necessarily feel that we can convince them and change what they did.
But there will be a time in the future when, I’m sure the moment is right again, when there’s a sense that the art form and the particular conflict — or the social injustice — is such that we can make a difference. I don’t know when it’ll be and I guess that makes it exciting and worth looking forward to.
What about the influence of hip-hop and the spoken word? Do you think that has had an effect on poetry generally and also this particular type of poetry? And rock-and-roll lyrics for that matter.
One of the things that I was very much involved with —spoken-word poetry in the 90’s and I predicted wrongly that it was going to be the new thing. Because a lot of people were saying, you know there is Def Jam poetry and there are a lot of shows on Broadway and it’s not unsuccessful. But people were saying, “Oh it’s going to be the next stand-up comedy, it’s going to be huge.”
There is still no Seinfeld-like figure that came out of spoken-word. There’s no internationally-known beloved figure; there’s no Michael Jackson. It’s not pop music and it’s not comedy, it’s a different form. And one of the things that struck me when we were doing the protests, the poetry peace protests in 2003, is how unimportant spoken-word was in relation to the mass demonstrations.
Only in the sense that so many of the poems were once again being inscribed — that is electronically written down and transmitted —and even though a lot of readings took place and demonstrations, it wasn’t necessarily the flashy — and I love that kind of work — but it wasn’t just the flashy, urban, kind of Eminem figure who is making a mark.
But at some times it was the child reading the poem, or the rather uncharismatic —you could say cruelly —the uncharismatic grandmother who had never read a poem before in public. But the way that she would get up awkwardly at the podium and clear her throat and the way she was dressed, the authenticity of this kind of person speaking out that almost made irrelevant the idea of the flash, and the kind of marketing that we had thought was necessary to bring poetry to a wider public.
And in fact everyone thought that the way to bring poetry to the wider public was not through it’s message, it wasn’t, it was through, in a rather McLuhan-esque way it was through the medium — let’s get it onto MTV, let’s make it sexy, let’s package it. But the irony was that when poetry finally reached everyone, it reached them for what poetry was originally meant to be, for its beauty and for its truth.
Because of its ability to be truthful and to be beautiful, the truth and beauty that Keats talks about. And what’s surprising to me is that we kind of expected someone like an Eminem figure to step up and be the spokesperson — the poetic spokesperson — at this time and instead it was the average person who had a different kind of authenticity. It was little children speaking out, reading their poems; or a grandmother coming up to the podium, being maybe a little nervous or shy.
But the authenticity of that figure — of her speaking out — was much more powerful or potent than what we would have expected. The rap gods, the rock stars, who anyway weren’t really there and not to criticize anyone in particular, but I find it surprising that we’re so often told just how shocking, and how taboo-breaking, and ground-breaking a lot of these celebrity musicians and literary figures are—and it was interesting to see who were the people that really broke new ground.
And more often than not, they were just folks. And I think that’s one of the reasons why Poets Against the War — in America — was so powerful also, because people felt that they were doing it themselves. It wasn’t something they were being sold.
Tell me about the feelings about being on the streets and how did the poetry work into that, and what were the demonstrations like?
I didn’t go to a lot of the demonstrations in Paris to be honest. I went to a few of the key ones, but I was so busy editing poems that I kind of felt that it was better to be working on the actual material. I was constantly in contact with poets and I tried to answer every e-mail I got. I later discovered that the Poets Against the War people in America had convinced 30 or 40, or more, volunteers to work with them.
But for some reason that never crossed Val and my minds. We just thought, “Well who else would help us?” We did it ourselves pretty much for several months, totally unpaid all the time. But that’s what other people were doing, and maybe that’s just because I’m a little shy or something, I didn’t really get to all of them myself, but other people were.
I was organizing events tied in with launches virtually; you know, communicating with people in different countries. But they would sometimes bring the book and wave it at the marches. At a certain point Poets Against the War became a rallying cry that people were referring to in marches. I remember Val calling me up — Val Stevenson at Nth Position —very excitedly and saying, “I just saw someone with a banner saying Poets Against the War.”
And we were so happy to see that the role of poetry and that people who maybe weren’t even poets themselves or didn’t even like poetry, were part of it. But at a certain point, once the march happened, I think it was February 15th, that extraordinary day when millions of people marched around the world I felt at that point that we were part of something so much bigger now and I was very proud to have been a little part of it.
But I could see already that poetry was no longer vital because everyone now was concerned, and they could raise their voices without need of a mediating art form.
Do you think that poetry actually helped break down people’s isolation? Gave them a role?
I think that before the poems were circulating and going back and forth around the world, there were a lot of people that probably felt a little isolated, particularly in America. I remember hearing from some poets — in fact they were British poets that were teaching at American universities — saying, “I feel like I’m going insane. Everyone around me,” maybe this was more in the South, but they’re saying “Everyone around me is pro-Bush and they can’t wait for the war to start, I’m getting afraid.”
That was happening and there were people in every community — whether they, and also Americans and Canadians, and when people began they sent e-mails to Nth Position. They would often say, “Here’s a poem and I hope you don’t think I’m crazy, but you know everyone around me, my neighbors are like pod people you know? But this is what I think.”
And the people would then say — after the poem had appeared — some of them would actually say, “Thank you.” It became a great release. And then more and more people felt that they were saying what they really felt. But you know after September 11th, we shouldn’t forget, it’s a taboo to question a war leader. Which is what George Bush portrayed himself as being and it’s not something that people do, and even Canadians were quite respectful of the American president, even though he’s not their president.
I remember my mother was against the war, but she was describing speaking to her neighbors and saying, “You know everyone…No you’re not going to question the president, I mean he has to defend his country.” So it was a very brave thing to do, especially at the beginning to actually say, “Wait a minute. We don’t need to attack these people. Why are we doing this?”
These are the kind of questions that could disturb a community. So yeah, it was a real way for people to—It wasn’t Poets Anonymous though, they were putting the names out— you know put themselves out on a limb by expressing this.