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Gary Younge
First lady postpones poetry talk over protest fear

The symposium on the poetry of Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman was to be held by the first lady, Laura Bush, on February 12.

But as the prospect grew that it would draw protests from poets Mrs Bush was forced to put it off to an unspecified date.

Sam Hamill, a poet and founder of the highly regarded Copper Canyon Press, declined the invitation and emailed friends asking for anti-war poems or statements. He encouraged those who planned to attend to bring along anti-war poems.

Mr Hamill said he had received more than 1,500 contributions, including ones from poets Adrienne Rich and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

"While Mrs Bush respects the right of all Americans to express their opinions, she, too, has opinions and believes it would be inappropriate to turn a literary event into a political forum," Noelia Rodriguez, Mrs Bush's spokeswoman, said.

"The idea that you could have an non-political event celebrating the work of Walt Whitman, a gay poet writing about what America could be during the civil war is absurd," said Todd Swift, the Paris-based editor of the ebook 100 Poets Against the War, which was released on Monday. "The voice of a poet can echo across history at different points in time."

Marilyn Nelson, Connecticut's poet laureate, said that she had accepted the White House invitation and had planned to wear a silk scarf with peace signs that she commissioned.

"I had decided to go because I felt my presence would promote peace," she said. "I had commissioned a fabric artist for a silk scarf with peace signs painted on it. I thought just by going there and shaking Mrs Bush's hand and being available for the photo ops, my scarf would make a statement."

Another state poet laureate, New Jersey's Amiri Baraka, was also involved in a recent political controversy.

Baraka, formerly known as LeRoi Jones, wrote a poem about September 11 which implied that Israelis had prior knowledge the attacks would take place and did not go to work. The governor of New Jersey is under increasing pressure to fire him.

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