Archive for Sunday, December 15, 2002

New Jersey starts process of scrapping poet laureate

December 15, 2002

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— State lawmakers took a first step Thursday toward abolishing the position of New Jersey poet laureate.

The action follows protests over a poem by current poet laureate Amiri Baraka that implies Israel had advance knowledge of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

Critics have called the work anti-Semitic and demanded Baraka's removal. Baraka has said repeatedly that he is not anti-Semitic and should be allowed to criticize a foreign state. He and his defenders have characterized the campaign to remove him as a threat to artistic expression.

Baraka declined Gov. James E. McGreevey's call for his resignation, and current law does not allow the poet laureate to be fired.

On Thursday, the Senate State Government Committee voted unanimously to amend a bill that would have allowed for Baraka's removal from the position. Now, the bill calls for elimination of the position itself.

"This allows the Legislature to start from scratch with the position," said Shai Goldstein, executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the Anti-Defamation League. Referring to Baraka's poem, "Somebody Blew Up America," he said, "This was bigotry, not poetry."

Sen. Garry Furnari, the co-chairman of the Senate committee, said the comments made in Baraka's poem were inappropriate for a person holding a state position. Furnari said the poet laureate position has failed in its goal of promoting poetry.

"He has created a great deal of discourse, but I'm not sure he created any interest in poetry," said Furnari.

Baraka did not attend Thursday's committee hearing.

The lines singled out by critics read: "Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed/Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers to stay home that day?/Why did Sharon stay away?"

The bill now goes to the full Senate for a vote.

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