Creative differences

Times Staff Writer

At first -- before the drumbeat of war -- the idea had appeared to be the kind that would draw no unfriendly fire at home. A month or so after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. State Department commissioned poets, novelists and nonfiction writers to contribute original essays on the topic of the American experience to be compiled into a free, stapled pamphlet to be distributed abroad.

The 15 writers who signed on, and received $2,499 paychecks for their work ($2,500 would have required soliciting bids), include four Pulitzer Prize winners, Arab American poet Naomi Shihab Nye, U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins and former poet laureate Robert Pinsky -- none of whom could have foreseen that their participation would be misconstrued as part of some secretive, pro-war White House campaign.

Now a few of the contributors are distancing themselves from the "Writers on America" pamphlet, which is being distributed around the world, coincidentally, officials say, as more than 120,000 troops have been ordered to the Persian Gulf.

Because the 61-page anthology was intended for distribution to U.S. embassies only, it falls under a 1948 law aimed at keeping out propaganda here. (Though, because the law has no specific ban on distribution through the Internet, the essays are available via a State Department Web site, usinfo.state.gov/products/pubs/writers).

A handful of the writers say they don't want their inclusion in the anthology to imply support for either the Bush administration or a potential war against Iraq. While several contributors, including Nye and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Richard Ford, have agreed to take government-sponsored tours abroad to promote the anthology, at least two -- poet Robert Creeley and novelist Julia Alvarez -- say they have declined to participate for political reasons.

Monday, Creeley sent an e-mail to more than 200 friends, explaining his decision to contribute an essay in the first place. "To have a cluster of various writers from various situations, of background and ethnicity tell how growing up in this country had, in whatever ways, shaped their work. Had it mattered, being 'American,' and, if so, just how? To me that was a fascinating question."

In an earlier interview, Creeley said that so many friends questioned his involvement that he and Pinsky kicked around the idea of issuing a statement to emphasize their antiwar, anti-Bush stances.

"It amazes me that anyone could interpret this volume as supporting the policies of the Bush administration, which I oppose and mistrust," Pinsky said in an e-mail. "The climactic sentence of my essay concerns the political exploitation of national grief, the sentimentalization that could turn it into a 'murderous weapon.' "

The pamphlet was never intended to be part of a war campaign, said "Writers on America" executive editor George Clack of the State Department's International Information Programs. But the media have focused on the fact that the pamphlet isn't available in the U.S. under the Smith-Mundt Act. The act bans domestic distribution of official U.S. information on Americans and the country's policies that is meant for audiences abroad. The writers were told that the pamphlet was for overseas distribution only, Clack said.

"The press has chosen to zero in on what, for me, is a fairly minor part of it: Smith-Mundt restrictions," Clack said. "I think the U.S. press controversy has played up Smith-Mundt to make it seem as if there is something strange or illicit going on here, but there isn't."

The media's spin on the anthology has tended toward the suspicious. "Essays on Being American Banned in the U.S.," said the headline in the Observer in Britain. "American Words for Everyone but Americans," proclaimed a headline in Texas' Austin American-Statesman newspaper.

The perception persists that the contributors are doing the Bush administration's bidding, said Creeley, who is well known as a counterculture poet. "I am so opposed to the conduct of this present administration, vis-a-vis the Middle East, that to put myself in a position that would seem to ally me with its interests is really dumb, just plain dumb," said Creeley, a professor of poetry and humanities at the State University of New York, Buffalo.

He had agreed to participate at the request of a friend, novelist Mark Jacobs, who, at the time, was working for the State Department. Creeley said he did not know the anthology would be banned in the U.S. In hindsight, he acknowledged he should have asked more questions, but, he said, "I did not feel like I was fooled. I didn't feel anyone tried to run a number on me. I was writing a [piece] for an old friend."

"On the other hand," Creeley added, "I like [the pamphlet] ... I enjoy my company in the actual publication. I respect the editorial care and acumen that put it together."

Other contributors, including fiction and screenplay writer Robert Olen Butler, said they are happy to travel on behalf of the anthology, though no date or country has been specified yet. Butler, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book "A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain," pointed out that "I'm one of the people in the [anthology] who says we've not lived up to our ideals" as a country.

Butler, who has traveled for the State Department before, added, "Whenever I go abroad and speak, never for a moment, in Vietnam or Spain or anywhere else, has there been a word, a whisper or even an arched eyebrow to suggest what I should say or how I should approach what I spoke of." In the same vein, no officials made any suggestions or editing decisions that would imply that the writers had anything but complete control over their work, he said.

If anything, the pamphlet would be a bully pulpit for writers to air their grievances, said Butler, a professor and the Michael Shaara Chair in Creative Writing at Florida State University. "You understand the State Department stuck its neck out. God help the State Department if they said, 'Gee, this doesn't work for us.' That writer would certainly take it to the [press]."

Arab American poet Elmaz Abinader, who teaches at Mills College in Oakland, said she, perhaps, would agree to travel for the government. "I get a little nervous about somebody else telling stories about Arab Americans other than Arab Americans. I want to make sure we get represented." But she probably would not travel to Arab countries because of the recent string of arrests and harassment of Arab Americans in the U.S., she said.

"I don't want to paint a false picture that Americans can travel freely and express themselves freely when they actually cannot. I can't allow myself to be associated with that kind of behavior," she said.

The anthology includes essays by Alvarez on the prejudice she faced in America after she and her family fled the Dominican Republic in 1960, and by Pinsky on his hometown of Long Branch, N.J. Other contributors include essayist Sven Birkerts, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Herbert Donald, Native American writer Linda Hogan, novelist Charles Johnson and novelist Bharati Mukherjee. All of the essays, except the one by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon, are original.

The $50,000 anthology project is part of a larger State Department campaign to fight anti-Americanism abroad after the Sept. 11 attacks. A related campaign headed by former top advertising executive Charlotte Beers is targeted at Muslims and includes pamphlets such as "Muslim Life in America."

There's nothing inherently nefarious about the fact that the writers are being published and getting paid by the government, said Larry Siems, director of Freedom to Write and international programs for New York-based PEN America Center, the U.S. arm of a literary arts group that defends free expression around the world.

"Look at the list of people who the State Department is sending around," he said. "They are critics of contemporary American culture. The greatest thing for the world to see is that we're a self-critical country, which is one of the most glaring [misconceptions] people have about Americans. They don't believe we're self-critical, self-reflective, self-knowing and have our own questions about American culture."

The essays don't read like propaganda, said Kathleen Fitzpatrick, assistant professor or English and Media Studies at Pomona College in Claremont.

"My initial thought is obviously they're being used for a propagandistic purpose, but there are ways that, like all really good writing, [the essays] threaten to exceed the purposes for which they're ostensibly being put. The writers might be addressing the question of American-ness that the State Department posed to them, but, ultimately, they're able to present ambiguities in their treatment so it's not all rosy. Some of the essays are quite complex in addressing the difficulties of being an American."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
66°