First Lady Laura Bush
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC, 20500

Dear Mrs. Bush,

I would have accepted your invitation to the White House to read from my work. Although I have none of the credentials of Professor Olds, I am an alumnus of Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts and a prize-winning Malaysian poet and writer in ‘voluntary exile’ in Evergreen, Colorado. I belong to the Evergreen Poets Group and have written OP-Ed articles for The Denver Post. My poems have been published in the New Internationalist magazine, May 2002 edition, “Islam: Resistance and Reform”, in the essay section, titled “Loving My Land, Dying Inside”.

Professor Olds thought of “the clean linens at your table, the shining knives and the flames of the candles, and she could not stomach it.” That’s the modern American poet in her talking. The American in her feels shame and anguish for what she describes as “the current regime of blood, wounds and fire”; the Malaysian exile in me feels shame for her poor etiquette and anguish for the lost opportunity. As my Malaysian-Hindu mother would have said in the Tamil language, she fails to wash her bottom because she is angry at the well/kinar oda kovicihiitu, kundi kaluvatha marthri.

The Professor is not to be faulted. There is a world of difference between us. Sharon Olds has American citizenship, American education, American freedom, her poetry, and her ‘rights’ all squared away. Professor Olds is also probably not very hungry for anything in particular. I am. The crumbs that fall off your table, at what Professor Olds and The Nation describes as a ‘banquet of shame’ is for me, the banquet of opportunity. I would argue that there is a place for the poet at a banquet of shame, just as there was a place for both Judas and Jesus at the Last Supper. Good and evil, war and peace, poverty and wealth, sounds and silence, prayer and profanity will forever be the tools of the poet’s trade.

Professor Olds and I have our differences, just as you and she might, just as the Malaysian Prime Minister and I might. Your gracious invitation extended to Professor Olds, Sam Hamill and Jules Feiffer; just the opportunity to attend a banquet despite these differences is what distinguishes America for me. The possibility of dialogue – imagine, I want to say to these American poets and intellectuals if Mahatma Gandhi had refused to meet with the British officials because they had clean linens, sharp knives, flaming candles and wore suits?

The old adage that love and hate are first cousins is not untrue. Professor Olds, in her haste to make a political statement and express her hatred for the current administration fails to realize that real change was wrought by a man in loin cloth who looked past the clean linens, the sharp knives and the flaming candles, into the hearts and minds of his ‘oppressors.’ Gandhi loved his ‘oppressors’ enough to engage them with the respect and honor due to all human beings. I regret that Professor Olds and Sam Hamill who will surely express overt admiration for Mahatma Gandhi are unable or unwilling to emulate his spirit. Poetry, if it is to be more than a monologue of American ideas on sex, politics and religion, must become rather more bloody, as it has, already and as it ever has been throughout history. Out of this blood, then, birth. As the poet Langston Hughes wrote:

The past has been a mint of blood and sorrow
That must not be true of tomorrow.

The response of these three American intellectuals and artists causes me grief and anguish. I would have accepted your invitation to the White House in the spirit of the African American, Langston Hughes poem, Dinner Guest: Me. Hughes listened to the darkness of USA and the soft murmur, “I am so ashamed to be white’ and responded not with “I am so ashamed to be black” or “I am so ashamed to be American” or “I hate….” but with His forgiving and giving presence and silence. The words, the poem, the changes came later. The still small voice of conscience spoke first and was heard without anger, bitterness, or blame. Americans on both sides must begin to listen. As the psalmist cries out in the darkness of these times, let the nations know they are but men.

Professor Olds could not face the idea of breaking bread with you. She expresses her feeling and her belief about the war in Iraq. I would like to remind the poet Professor Olds that America is not the sole player in this historical and political drama that is being played out on the global stage. For the lack of a better expression, I wish Americans like Professor Olds would step out of their knickers long enough to see what is going on in a silenced world, and listen to our cries for our souls, voices and a social conscience, for freedom of expression, religion and assembly.

In a recent OP-Ed for The New York Times, “Sunni Muslim silence and suicide”, Thomas L. Friedman, the American journalist and thinker, I most admire, has come around to acknowledging that the Bush administration finally has the right rationale for the war in Iraq. He says the war is about Islam. He says it takes a village. Yes, it will take a village to resolve this war. And no, it is not only an American problem. There are more people with the Bush Administration and Prime Minister Tony Blair than there are against. Unfortunately, those of us from Islamic homelands, like myself, gamble life, nationality and citizenship to open our mouths to squeak our thanks to the US, the US military and the Texan-American who some of you are ashamed of.

I ask Professor Olds to read once again Dinner Guest: Me. I ask that we read this poem now and not wait till April, National Poetry Month. This quintessentially American poem showcases the qualities a poet must have to impact society with social change regardless of nationality/citizenship. These qualities are humility, passion, perseverance, and patience. One word, “Wait” in the Langston Hughes poem, a refrain also used by Martin Luther King in his “Letter From A Birmingham Jail” is to me as poetic as the shortest scripture, ‘Jesus wept.’ If we wait, and we listen, we will hear our own aspirations beating in the hearts of others.

I would accept an invitation from the White House. Similarly, I would accept an invitation from my own government and the Malaysian Prime Minister to read my work. Unfortunately, such an invitation will not be extended to me until a Cold Day In Hell/pada satu hari sejuk di neraka as they would say in the National Language. Islamic countries just do not brook the freedoms, or the civil rights of individuals, minorities, women, and children. Still, I ‘wait’.

America has given Professor Olds the opportunity to be heard and published widely. Neither her poetry nor her career will be ruined for having declined your invitation. No fatwa will be issued nor will her passport be impounded. Like Michael Moore and other privileged Americans, she is free to paint herself in excellent light and America as well…a place of shame. It is quite the contrary; for one such as myself, a dinner guest in my own country.

Langston Hughes wrote of how he was once The Negro Problem, how he was wined and dined by people murmuring gently in the democratic night, “I am so ashamed of being white”. I know enough to understand that Professor Olds is not ashamed of being American but when she describes the Bush administration as a regime of blood, wounds and fire, and speaks of her shame and anguish, she fails to engage with the true politics of modern poetry outside of the comfortable cocoon of her America. Olds’ America is one in which she can freely express a range of emotions/thoughts and ideas – from a fascination with The Pope’s Penis to what Satan Says. The American poet, Olds, is free to change her religion and her ideas of it, like her clothes; that is sheer poetry to the likes of me.

Yes, I would accept the invitation to the White House to read my work, to listen and learn and to express both my admiration for and criticism of this country. That would be my privilege. Yes, it would be for me like going to London to see the Queen and no, I don’t think I would frighten the mouse under the chair or move the elephant in the global living room. That would take a lion, the village, and more than a fistful of poems.


Anushka Anastasia Solomon.

cc Professor of Creative Writing Sharon Old, PhD
The Nation

Author Bio: Anushka Anastasia Solomon is a Colorado Poet, originally from Malaysia.
Her Op-Ed columns for The Denver Post and other published writing can be viewed at