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Sherman Alexie, Peacenik

Spokane Indian poet and filmmaker Sherman Alexie was front and center at a Seattle antiwar demonstration on Saturday.
 
 
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On Saturday, the latest and largest antiwar rallies protesting the Folly of Dubya took place across the United States and around the world.

In Seattle, at one of the hundreds of such rallies, at the protest podium -- for the first time in his life -- stood...

Sherman Alexie?

Alexie's latest projects have been films: writing "Smoke Signals," and then writing, directing, and producing "The Business of Fancydancing." He also continues to churn out poetry, short stories, and novels. He has taken the unlikeliest of paths: a poet from the Spokane Indian reservation, via the isolated ag-college town of Pullman, Washington, and on to novels, screenplays, movies, fame, and more poetry. Throughout, his work has always had a strong undercurrent of political themes. But it also had humor, sadness, love, triumph, anger, despair, courage, and dozens of other attributes that make for great art -- attributes notably missing from most anti-war rallies.

So, Sherman: Why? Why something as decidedly, well, clichéd as an anti-war rally? And why now?

"I think we're near, we're close to, living under a dictatorship," Alexie said, in a phone conversation several days before the demonstration. "I'm afraid that if we don't stand up to policies now, whatever they may be...." His voice trails off. "This is not just about war."

One of the factors inspiring Alexie -- but only one -- was the fiasco that ensued when Sam Hamill, a Port Townsend, Wash. poet and founder of the highly respected Copper Canyon Press, was invited to a Feb. 12 White House symposium hosted by First Lady Laura Bush that was to honor the works of Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, and Walt Whitman. Hamill decided that his only ethical choice was to carry a message of opposition to war from himself and fellow poets. He e-mailed some 50 colleagues asking support.

The e-mail exploded across the Internet, and thousands weighed in. At that point, rather than receive Hamill's mountain of e-mails and letters, the First Lady cancelled the symposium, declaring that it "would be inappropriate to turn what is intended to be a literary event into a political forum."

Sherman snorts.

"I'm certainly not going to listen to the warmongering of a President, Vice President, and Secretary of Defense who didn't serve in the military, who did everything they could to not go into war. If they didn't want to go to war [themselves], I'm not sure why others should."

"I'd also feel a lot better if any one of them would stand up and admit they funded and trained Saddam Hussein, if someone would stand up and apologize. Someone should stand up and say: `We trained him.'"

"The man [Bush] has not read enough books to have a developed moral sense. It's the un- and under-educated who speak in moral absolutes. The fewer books you read, the easier it is to become fundamental. I'm not going to listen to a President who only reads one book pass judgment on other people who read one book.

"In some ways my antiwar stand here is also a stand on anti-illiteracy. Someone should get G.W. into a reading program, get him to join a book club. Have him read Hamlet, King Lear."

For Alexie, Laura Bush's cancellation comment "...once again demonstrated their vast illiteracy."

"As an artist you live in conflict and contradiction, you make your art out of conflict and contradiction. The average person who's worked a graveyard shift in 7-11 has more intellectual imagination than G.W."

None of that, of course, means that a 7-11 worker, or a poet or film director, knows squat about Iraq. And, so, I ask the loaded question -- loaded for me, anyway. Before I ever even tried to write a political essay or column, I spent 15 years writing songs, poetry, stories, and fronting an assortment of bands (none of it nearly as good as what Alexie does in his sleep.) I also worked graveyard at a 7-11 for four years. This is a touchy subject for me, too.

What gives Sherman Alexie, or any artist or celebrity, the authority to stand up in public, at a podium, and talk to thousands of people about international politics? Why, just because he's an artist, should anyone listen or care what he thinks?

"I've always been very political in my art, but to speak out publicly on a specific stance, I haven't done that. We have responsibility to our art, first and foremost. I've always been reluctant to speak out before. The thing is, the whole history of artists is political.

"Before (Hamill's protest), I was going to get arrested. One of the things I was planning was I was just going to stand downtown and start talking, and see what happens. And now, I probably won't get arrested. I was going to do a little one-person protest. Maybe get myself beat up, get on the news.

"But the place to do that would be Spokane, not Seattle....I'm tired of leftist liberal rhetoric as well. Saddam Hussein is a sociopathic monster. But we haven't even begun to discuss what to do about it. And we haven't talked about instituting international policies that would prevent men like that from coming to power. And that would require having international policies based on morals and ethics, and not economics.

"Wouldn't it be great if we could send Toni Morrison, Amy Tan, Jon Updike, Nathan Lane, grab 20 artists and send them to Iraq?"

Laura Bush, inadvertently, sparked a new organization -- Poets Against the War. And Sherman Alexie is one.

"The poetry cancellation -- if they somehow think that they can silence us, or ignore us, or think we're irrelevant, we're certainly going to prove them wrong."