Tuesday, June 05, 2007
Long Island Rejects Poet Nominee Over Words About War in Iraq
By BRUCE LAMBERT
Published: June 5, 2007
GARDEN CITY, N.Y., June 4 — The news release announcing the designation of Maxwell Corydon Wheat Jr. as Nassau County’s first poet laureate had already been drafted. But it was not to be.
After a lifetime devoted mostly to poetry and nature, Mr. Wheat on Monday found himself the focus — and the legislative casualty — of a passionate debate over United States soldiers in Iraq.
Mr. Wheat, a Freeport resident who declined to give his age, had seemed to be a shoo-in. The County Legislature had appointed a six-member advisory panel of experts, which unanimously nominated him after reviewing 14 candidates.
The panel enthusiastically cited Mr. Wheat’s accolades after decades of writing, teaching and promoting poetry, including the Long Island School of Poetry Award from the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association, and an award from the New York State Outdoor Education Association. He is also a naturalist who leads local tours, and many of his poems are about the flora and fauna of Long Island.
But then there was his volume, titled “Iraq and Other Killing Fields: Poetry for Peace” (Sheraton Enterprises, 2004), which lamented the horrors of the current and past wars. His poem “Torture” features the subtitles “Saddam Hussein Regime” and “George W. Bush Administration.” Several poems were prefaced by President Bush’s pre-invasion claim that Iraq had “some of the most lethal weapons ever devised.”
Balance black-hooded prisoner,
draped in make-shift poncho, on narrow box
wire his out-stretched hands
warn him he will be electrocuted if he falls
The issue reached a critical point on Monday at a hearing before the County Legislature’s Government Services Committee, a body not previously known as a literary or foreign policy forum.
Members of the Republican minority quickly voiced outrage at the selection of Mr. Wheat, accusing him of attacking American soldiers, a charge he denied.
“He does not represent me, he does not represent veterans,” said Legislator Dennis Dunne, a former marine. “I won’t put up with it. My son left just yesterday for Iraq.”
Paula Camacho, chairwoman of the panel that nominated Mr. Wheat, noted that he was also a former marine, but that did not mollify the critics. She was one of more than a dozen poetry fans at the hearing, who all spoke on Mr. Wheat’s behalf.
Another Republican legislator, Norma Gonsalves, said she was not being political and was not taking a position on the war, “but we want to support our troops.” She said the Legislature wanted a poet to celebrate Long Island’s beauty.
Ms. Camacho said that 90 percent of Mr. Wheat’s poems are about nature and that while he opposes the war, he also supports the troops. “What happened to freedom of speech?” she asked.
Mr. Dunne replied, “He can say whatever he wants, but not to represent me.”
A Democratic legislator, David Denenberg, said that what had started as “a feel-good law to have a poet laureate” had lapsed into “arguments, bickering and divisiveness.”
When Mr. Wheat himself rose to speak, he quoted from his prepared acceptance speech, saying he had intended “to make Nassau County an open classroom for poetry” to explore “the meaning you feel, the meaning you find in the poem.” Inadvertently, he suggested, that had already been accomplished, since “there has been a very serious discussion of poetry” at the hearing.
In the end, the committee voted 6 to 1 against the designation. It is unclear what, if anything, the selection panel would do next, or whether the county would continue its search for a poet laureate.
The only legislator to cast a supporting vote, Wayne Wink, a Democrat, said that although he did not agree with everything Mr. Wheat had written, he had been nominated fair and square.
After all the turmoil, “I apologize to poets everywhere,” Mr. Wink said. “I’m beginning to appreciate why poets are not celebrated till after their deaths.”
(Thanks to Kathi Wolfe and Kathy Engel who both brought this to my attention.)