On February 16, a crowd of approximately 650 people gathered at the First Congregational Church in Manchester, Vermont, to attend a poetry reading held to "honor the right to protest and dissent." The event, which was organized by Northshire Bookstore of Manchester Center, not only attracted a massive turnout and an impressive array of poetry talent, but also media from around the country. (C-SPAN2's BookTV will broadcast a tape of the event on Saturday, February 22, at 4:30 p.m., and again on Sunday, February 23, at 12:00 p.m. EST.)
Said Northshire owner Ed Morrow, "I was a little surprised [by the turnout] and elated. It all coalesced very quickly in terms of poets and audience."
The impetus for the protest occurred when Morrow read in the New York Times that First Lady Laura Bush had cancelled a February 12 literary symposium on poets Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Langston Hughes. The first lady decided not to hold the event after poet Sam Hamill declined to attend the event and e-mailed fellow poets, urging them to speak up against war and to write protest poems, as reported by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The White House responded that it would be inappropriate to turn a literary event into a political forum. Hamill joined many other renowned poets on Monday, February 18, at New York's Lincoln Center for the event "Poems Not Fit for the White House" to raise money for antiwar efforts.
"I said to my wife [Barbara], 'Why don't we do something,'" Morrow told BTW. "It was more than an antiwar protest, but an honoring of the right to protest and dissent." For that reason, the event was entitled, "A Poetry Reading in Honor of the Right to Protest as a Patriotic and Historical Tradition."
From the time that Mrs. Bush cancelled, Morrow said that he, his wife, and Northshire marketing director Zachary Marcus had about 10 days to organize the event. "[Marcus] started to call around to Vermont poets that had been invited to the [White House] symposium and then [invited] other Vermont poets," Morrow said.
Morrow sent press releases to local newspapers and radio programs, and said he started to get calls about the event prior to articles even being published in the media. The event attracted reporters from the Los Angeles Times, the British Broadcasting System, 60 Minutes II, and C-SPAN. Moreover, it soon became apparent there would be a larger-than-expected turnout. "Word went out instantaneously," Morrow said. "We received calls from all over the country."
Subsequently, Northshire decided to hold the event in a large venue, the First Congregational Church -- but even the church turned out to be too small, so Morrow asked C-SPAN if they could rig up a television feed from the church to a large-screen television in the vestry. About 250 people watched the close-circuit feed, he noted.
Poets who appeared at the event included Julia Alvarez, David Budbill, Greg Delanty, Jody Gladding, Donald Hall, Jamaica Kincaid, former Vermont Poet Laureate Galway Kinnell, present Vermont Poet Laureate Grace Paley, Jay Parini, and National Book Award winner and SUNY Binghamton professor Ruth Stone.
At the event, poets recited poems of Whitman, Hughes, and Dickinson, as well as antiwar poems, some of which were new. Morrow said that all the poems recited at the event would be published in April by George Braziller.
Morrow believes that poetry is a perfect vehicle to protest the U.S. government, which, he said, is looking to use force, rather than words, to settle its disputes. "Poetry is a form of art that is distilled and refined, and it can touch the soul in a way that other art forms cannot," he explained. --David Grogan