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Sam Hamill

 10-02-2013

Poems - Bio - Mini-Review - Review - Interviews

Sam Hamill 

The Orchid Flower

Just as I wonder
whether it's going to die,
the orchid blossoms

and I can't explain why it
moves my heart, why such pleasure

comes from one small bud
on a long spindly stem, one
blood red gold flower

opening at mid-summer,
tiny, perfect in its hour.

Even to a white-
haired craggy poet, it's
purely erotic,

pistil and stamen, pollen,
dew of the world, a spoonful

of earth, and water.
Erotic because there's death
at the heart of birth,

drama in those old sunrise
prisms in wet cedar boughs,

deepest mystery
in washing evening dishes
or teasing my wife,

who grows, yes, more beautiful
because one of us will die.

 

A Woodsplitter's Meditation

I.
Early October mist pours through the trees
surrounding Kage-an, bringing autumn
chills that send me out to the woodpile with
my new splitting maul. I test it simply,
popping dry alder I cut two years ago.

Two stellar jays come to see, yammering
loudly from the low boughs of a cedar tree
grown tall from a nurse log. I split hemlock,
spruce and fir I bucked last winter. Each pops
open like a book, pages glued with sap.

I have read this book, and so have the jays.
It is written in ordinary days
and deeds addressing all temporal desire.
I laugh too, then go in and light the fire.

II.
I began this poem a month ago,
then put it in a drawer. Since then I've been
to California and seen Hood Canal
canopied with orange and yellow maple.
Autumn chill turned to early winter cold.

My bones grow stiffer as I grow older,
but I do as well as I am able.
I heard my friend's husband died suddenly,
leaving me, bad habits and all, mourning,
and, being his elder, feeling guilty.

Time is beauty, I think sometimes. I love
these last brown leaves as I love growing old,
sowing last month's plantings, tending this day's
business at the woodpile, facing the snow.

III.
I have no wisdom to ease her mourning.
I have no wisdom at all. I carry
the wood I split and build fires in the night,
and huddle in my skin. What do I know?
Leaves fall, trees grow. The snow is magical.

Time is beauty. Time together, time apart.
The woodsplitter's meditation contains
no answers, only questions, and seeks the heart
of what time makes us: rings and scars, bruisings
and vows and destinies never imagined.

What can I know of anyone's loss? I
invest in the certainty of my death,
no time to squander and no need to rush,
but when she asks, "Where shall I turn?" I'm hushed.

IV.
Shall I say Li Ch'ing-chao mourned beautifully?
That Yuan Chen's great elegies are great
because he speaks so simply? I'm silent
because my ignorance overwhelms me-
I bow to what I cannot understand.

The Upaya teaches "skillful means," the
Kannon long life sutra means compassion,
the loud cracks of my splitting maul recite
a hundred temple bells, a hundred sutras.
For whom? For what, without a little heat?

I will tell her I have not learned to grieve
as a widow grieves, and what will it mean?
The wood crib full, the fire lit, I sit
alone in dying light and slowly breathe.

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Poems - Bio - Mini-Review - Review - Interviews

Sam Hamill is the author of fourteen volumes of poetry including Almost Paradise: Selected Poems & Translations (Shambhala, 2005), Dumb Luck (2002), Gratitude (1998), and Destination Zero: Poems 1970-1995 (1995). He has also published three collections of essays, including A Poet's Work (1998), and two dozen volumes translated from ancient Greek, Latin, Estonian, Japanese, and Chinese, most recently, Tao Te Ching (2005), The Essential Chuang Tzu and The Poetry of Zen (with J.P. Seaton), Narrow Road to the Interior & Other Writings of Basho, and Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese.

He is editor of The Gift of Tongues: Twenty-five Years of Poetry from Copper Canyon Press, The Erotic Spirit, Selected Poems of Thomas McGrath, The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth (with Bradford Morrow), and Selected Poems of Hayden Carruth.

Hamill has taught in prisons for fourteen years, in artist-in-residency programs for twenty years, and has worked extensively with battered woman and children. He has been the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the U.S.-Japan Friendship Commission, two Washington Governor's Arts Awards, the Stanley Lindberg Lifetime Achievement Award for Editing, and the Washington Poets Association Lifetime Achievement Award for poetry. He co-founded Copper Canyon Press with Tree Swenson and was Editor there from 1972 through 2004. In January 2003, he founded Poets Against War, editing an anthology with the same name, Poets Against the War (Nation Books, 2003). His work has been translated into more than a dozen languages.

Sam Hamill is the author of fourteen volumes of poetry including Almost Paradise: Selected Poems & Translations (Shambhala, 2005), Dumb Luck (2002), Gratitude (1998), and Destination Zero: Poems 1970-1995 (1995). He has also published three collections of essays, including A Poet’s Work (1998), and two dozen volumes translated from ancient Greek, Latin, Estonian, Japanese, and Chinese, most recently, Tao Te Ching (2005), The Essential Chuang Tzu and The Poetry of Zen (with J.P. Seaton), Narrow Road to the Interior & Other Writings of Basho, and Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese.

He is editor of The Gift of Tongues: Twenty-five Years of Poetry from Copper Canyon Press, The Erotic Spirit, Selected Poems of Thomas McGrath, The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth (with Bradford Morrow), and Selected Poems of Hayden Carruth.

Hamill has taught in prisons for fourteen years, in artist-in-residency programs for twenty years, and has worked extensively with battered woman and children. He has been the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the U.S.-Japan Friendship Commission, two Washington Governor’s Arts Awards, the Stanley Lindberg Lifetime Achievement Award for Editing, and the Washington Poets Association Lifetime Achievement Award for poetry. He co-founded Copper Canyon Press with Tree Swenson and was Editor there from 1972 through 2004. In January 2003, he founded Poets Against War, editing an anthology with the same name, Poets Against the War (Nation Books, 2003). His work has been translated into more than a dozen languages.

- See more at: http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/733#sthash.dyjM1BDE.dpuf

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Poems - Bio - Mini-Review - Review - Interviews

A "Mini-Review" of Sam Hamill's Featured Poems by Contributing-Editor Aaron Bauer

The poems we are featuring this week by Sam Hamill are evidence of the poet's high level of craft, his obsession with form, and his brutal sense of humor, death hanging in these lines and forms like a tempest about to unleash.

"The Orchid Flower" is written in tanka, a five-line poem of the following syllable count: 5-7-5-7-7. In each tanka, a pivot usually occurs around the third line of the poem that changes the perspective on the image being observed.


Hamill chose to insert a stanza break at these pivot points, which serves to draw even more attention to them. In the last full tanka of "The Orchid Flower," Hamill writes:

     deepest mystery
     in washing evening dishes
     or teasing my wife,

     who grows, yes, more beautiful
     because one of us will die.

In the top stanza, we are met by a seemingly contradictory idea of "deep mystery" hidden within such quotidian activities. There is a joviality in living the moment and interacting with others. However, in the following stanza, we see a bigger picture- what makes these moments valuable is their temporary nature.

The humor of the line "teasing my wife" is as sensual as it is jarring. If I had been thinking about my wife dying, my first instinct most likely would not have been to tease her. However, this is the perfect example of what Hamill states earlier in the poem: "Erotic because there's death / at the heart of birth." To disavow death in this poem would be disingenuous and render the moment less meaningful.

As Hamill chooses to write in forms and in ways that are highly influenced by poetry of the East, his infrequent but present deployment of rhyme becomes an interesting feature; Japanese and Chinese poets tend to view rhyme as a fault whereas Western poets have traditionally strived for it.

While there are internal rhymes throughout "The Orchid Flower" that aren't very ear-catching, one end rhyme in the third and fourth stanza grabs the reader's attention:

                              one
     blood red gold flower

     opening at mid-summer,
     tiny, perfect in its hour.

This bold "flower" / "hour" rhyme is a departure from the non-rhymed aesthetic associated with the tanka, and reveals something about Hamill's sense of tonality: if a rhyme will enhance the poem, then it shouldn't be sidestepped simply for the sake of avoiding it. The rhyme here underscores the interconnected nature that beauty and temporality share in this poem, as if this rhyme were working to place a big "equals" sign between beauty and death. Form is a means, not a goal.

Rhyme in "A Woodsplitter's Meditation" takes on a level of complexity that drives the poem to its inevitable end. I've heard the tanka described as the Eastern equivalent of a sonnet. With these two poems, we can see the skill with which Hamill bridges the poetic aesthetics of Eastern and Western poetry.

Each section of "A Woodsplitter's Meditation" is a sonnet with one key element of a sonnet missing-a rhyme scheme. This, however, is not to say rhyme is entirely absent. As the dissonance of repeated and overlapping melodies occasionally resolve in and out of consonance in the minimalist compositions of Philip Glass, rhymes-strong rhymes-appear in the third stanzas of each of the poem's four sections. This is most apparent in the third stanza of the first section:

     I have read this book, and so have the jays.
     It is written in ordinary days
     and deeds addressing all temporal desire.
     I laugh too, then go in and light the fire.

After two completely unrhymed stanzas, two, predominately end-stopped couplet rhymes hit the reader over the head harder than a two-by-four. But surprise is not the only effect these rhymes have; they show the reader that this is a poet who is in control of his craft. The rhyme here assures the reader that Hamill is more than aware of the sonnet tradition and is capable of masterfully writing within it but is choosing to show restraint.

The other ending stanzas of each section do not have the same rhyme scheme but-again-utilize a shifting, revolving pattern. "A Woodsplitter's Meditation" ends with a nod towards the rhymed tradition of sonnets, but only just:

     I will tell her I have not learned to grieve
     as a widow grieves, and what will it mean?
     The wood crib full, the fire lit, I sit
     alone in dying light and slowly breathe.

The "grieve" / "breathe" end rhyme could not be further apart in this stanza, but the sense of satisfaction that arrives when we land on the final syllable appeases our ears as readers accustomed to and comforted by rhyme.

There are no accidents in Hamill's poetry. He is able to wield form the way a sushi chef handles his knives. If you've enjoyed these poems, be sure to check out Almost Paradise, which offers some selections of Hamill's poetry and essays as well as some translations.

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Poems - Bio - Mini-Review - Review - Interviews

Almost Paradise: New and Selected Poems and Translations  by Sam Hamill reveiwed by Christopher Luna, first published by Rain Taxi 

Sam Hamill's Almost Paradise: New and Selected Poems and Translations is an inspiring collection that boldly insists poetry matters. Hamill possesses the tender voice of a compassionate soul, and the vivid imagery that he presents reveals a refreshing generosity of spirit. Here is a poet who believes that “a few words can change a life,” and who endeavors to prove this belief by tracking the enormous effect that it has had on both his understanding of human nature and his development as a poet.

The book begins with a selection of Hamill's translations, most notably of poets of Chinese and Japanese antiquity. Hamill renders these ancient texts in a contemporary American English that allows them to be accessible without sacrificing the wisdom of their sentiments. Many of the poems address the life of a writer; Lu Chi's “The Masterpiece,” for example, describes the constant struggle of the poet who seeks to create a lasting impression of this life:

     Wanting every word to sing,
               every writer worries:
     nothing is ever perfected;
               no poet can afford to become complacent.

     We hear a jade bell's laughter
               and think it laughs at us.

     For a poet, there is terror in the dust.

A selection from Issa's The Spring of My Life captures a parent's love as well as the profound loss that is felt when a child dies.

     It is often said that the greatest pleasures result in the greatest misery. But why is it that my little child, who's had no chance to savor even half the world's pleasures—who should be green as new needles on the eternal pine—why should she be found on her deathbed, puffy with blisters raised by the despicable god of smallpox? How can I, her father, stand by and watch her fade away each day like a perfect flower suddenly ravaged by rain and mud?

     Two or three days later, her blisters dried to scabs and fell off like dirt softened by melting snow. Encouraged, we made a tiny boat of straw and poured hot saké over it with a prayer and sent it floating downriver in hopes of placating the god of the pox. But our hope and efforts were useless and she grew weaker day by day. Finally, at midsummer, as the morning glory flowers were closing, her eyes closed forever.

     Her mother clutched her cold body and wailed. I knew her heartbreak but also knew that tears were useless, that water under the bridge never returns, that scattered flowers are gone forever. And yet nothing I could do would cut the bonds of human love.

“A Lover's Quarrel,” the second of Hamill's own poems included in the collection, establishes two themes that recur throughout his work: a deep reverence for nature coupled with an acute awareness of human suffering. For example, “New Math” examines the etymology of “husband” and “wife,” then compares the union of two people to the cycle of growth and harvest:

      We become the sum
      of all we can give away.
      The garden and the
      gardeners, the soil and sun,
      love and labor: all make one.

In “The Orchid Flower” Hamill ruminates upon the eponymous blossom, which remains “purely erotic” even “to a white- / haired craggy poet”; the poem ends with a moving scene in which the poet teases his wife, “who grows, yes, more beautiful / because one of us will die.” Hamill also demonstrates an ability to engage the poetry and mythology of the past, as in “Hellenic Triptych”:

      it would be good to give one's life for the beautiful
      if the beautiful would last. But the world
      casts us out and it is impossible to touch anything
      except one another. So we reach out when we can

      for the outstretched hand of another,
      knowing that when it is withdrawn...

Recently, Hamill has received attention for founding Poets Against the War and editing the volume of poems that resulted from his call for writers to post their anti-war poetry online. His own work addresses such issues quite effectively, exemplifying his belief that poetry has a role to play in stemming the tide of political violence. The lengthy poem “Blue Monody” is an epic meditation on warfare and the struggle for justice in which he successfully utilizes images of loneliness, his sense of poetic lineage, and his life in Port Townsend, Washington to declare that "we are not alone," despite the overwhelming endlessness of global conflict:

      It is one thing to stand against murder,
      and another to do without supper.
      We stammer and cuss and blame one another.
      The heavens continue to burn.

“The New York Poem” ponders how a poet might respond to a tragedy like 9/11, and asks whether our words have any effect at all. Not surprisingly, Hamill turned “to poetry, not prose” in an effort to understand the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center:

      The last trace of blind rage fades

      and a mute sadness settles in,
      like dust, for the long, long haul. But if
      I do not get up and sing,
      if I do not get up and dance again,
      the savages will win.

      I'll kiss the sword that kills me if I must.

Many of the best poems in Almost Paradise celebrate the people in Hamill's life, including poets such as Gary Snyder, W.S. Merwin, Kenneth Rexroth, Olga Broumas, Adrienne Rich, and Denise Levertov. It soon becomes evident that one important aspect of Hamill's practice is expressing his gratitude for friends and teachers. In “To Adrienne Rich,” he thanks the poet for showing him “the deep sickness of men / of my grim generation.” Another poem dedicated to Hayden Carruth thanks Carruth for “doing / the real work of poetry” that showed Hamill how to open his heart. Here as elsewhere he rails against the commodification of art and implores his fellow writers to give their work away:

      Fuck money. Fuck fame.
      There are three worlds. In this one,
      gratitude flows like honey.

      The suffering world
      brings about its own demise.
      This world is neither
      fair nor wise, but paradise
      reveals itself in every line.

      What finally, is love?
      Willingness to face the end
      without blinking? The
      gift made--and given freely.
      I bow to the poem, my friend.

Hamill returns again to the usefulness of poetry and reiterates how essential it is that it is not financially lucrative in the long poem that serves as the book's summation and crescendo, “Pisan Canto.” Part manifesto and part conversation with Ezra Pound, the poem chronicles Hamill's trip to Italy in search of some insight into Pound's genius and his madness. But there is also a journey of the mind, as Hamill invokes poets living and dead, and leaps from Spokane to Dante's Hell to New York to China to Iraq in his search for answers. Ultimately Hamill comes to accept a truth that we all must come to terms with, the realization that "The journey itself is home" and

      the poem is a mystery, no matter
               how well crafted:
      is a made thing
               that embodies nature.
      And like Zen,
               the more we discuss it,
      the further away...

Of course, acknowledging this paradox does not discourage the poet's desire to know. Almost Paradise is a book that will hold meaning for those who have made poetry their life, and who persist in their stubborn faith in its transformative powers.

               To believe in poetry
      is to believe the heart can be opened,
               and in the commerce of the heart,
      thrift is ruin.

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Poems - Bio - Mini-Review - Review - Interviews

An Interview with Sam Hamill by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: I love how far "The Orchid Flower" ranges from its original subject matter of the orchid flower to eroticism to washing dishes with one's wife to, finally, that rather "Stevensian" notion of life made all the more beautiful by the guarantee of death. Do you mind talking to us about how this poem came to be? Did it open with this line of observation of the orchid and go from there or did it work more backward, with thoughts on the nature of beauty?

Sam Hamill: The poem is exactly as it came to me, including the classical Japanese syllabic lines of 5-7-5-7-7. I came into the house from a long day's work and my wife said, "Look! It's not dead! It's blooming." This tiny orchid we'd had for two years or so, I think. The poem owes much more to Zen than to Stevens.

AMK: Do your poems tend to start or end in one way and begin and conclude, after revision, in a completely different way or do you find a structure/voice/artifice fairly early and stick to it?

SH: I compose by ear, by listening, memorizing, editing by ear again before I ever go to paper. By the time the poem gets written out, unless it's quite long, it's composed. Whether the line is syllabic or (more usual) organic, there is a field of comprehension, a field of composition... a cosmology in the poem. What is "given" to the poet is a kind of energy which is then transformed in order to be given away-the poem as economy of the gift. Workshop poetry often seems contrived to me, the result of revision after revision, polishing wit and image and metaphor, the poem as object rather than as revelation.

AMK: Speaking of structure, this poem utilizes an invented structure that looks like a haiku followed by a couplet. Why alternate between these two... stanza structures? Why not simply use haikus or couplets from beginning to end?

SH: The measure is 5-7-5 (hokku, the opening of a renga) followed by a 7-7 couplet, as in renga. But the base measure of 5-7-5-7-7 is classical waka, short poem in Japanese. I've translated so much waka that the rhythms are as much in my bones as the iambic pentameter I grew up with.

AMK: What is it about eastern culture that fascinates you so? Its influence is apparent in your work.

SH: San chiao-Three Systems of thought: Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism- simply put: this has been the center of my practice as poet, as translator, as human being, for half a century. I sit zazen, I study the classics. It's not a fascination; it's my daily practice, the road I walk. There are aspects of "eastern culture" that are horrendous, just like our own. But in the literary tradition, especially Zen and Taoist, I find a fertile meeting ground.

AMK: You've been at this poetry thing for some time, not only as a poet but also as a publisher (you co-founded Copper Canyon Press in 1972) and activist (you recently started Poets Against War movement). How do you feel that operating in realms other than purely writing poetry has impacted your work?

SH: Meaningful poetry is drawn from life's blood and sweat and tears and laughter. I taught in prisons. I worked with battered women and children and with batterers. I taught Poets in the Schools. I set type by hand and stood feeding a printing press hour after hour. I built my house near Port Townsend with my own hands and mind. I studied Chinese and Japanese by kerosene lamp when I had no electricity. I chose to live this way-in the margins of capitalist culture, in the shadow of the American war industry, in order to serve poetry and advocate for radical-revolutionary- cultural changes like civil rights and peace, to practice peace while advocating true revolution.

AMK: How do you think poetry can impact our countries military actions across the world? Why don't you just write poetry and let the rest of the rest of the world take care of itself?

SH: It's one small world and we are one humanity. The "world taking care of itself" is the USA invading Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan and Yemen and maybe Syria and Iran and running torture centers like Guantánamo and overthrowing democracies and installing dictators like Pinochet and Marcos and initiating "Dirty Wars" etc. Global warming recognizes no national boundaries, neither do dead oceans. I feel a responsibility to report honestly from planet Earth.

AMK: Much of your work is in straight free verse but a good portion of it is also in some sort of invented form, like the alternating haiku and couplets in "The Orchid Flower." Talk to us about your use of sonnet sections in "A Woodsplitter's Meditation." Sometimes the end rhyme is clear; other times end rhyme is a little harder to discern if detect at all; other times the scheme switches from sonnet to sonnet such as the AABB structure in the first section and the AABA scheme of the second and fourth sections.

SH: Variations improvised on a line, as in jazz. I don't sit down and write into a fixed form. I follow rhythms and sounds, but the poems reveals its "form" in the act of setting my breath and listening closely.

AMK: Why sonnets in the first place? Why sonnets broken up into two quintets and a quatrain?

SH: They are not sonnets. They may resemble sonnets, but they are a living contemporary measure, improvisations. My reading in poetry (and poetics) gave me certain measures, but I constantly improvise.

AMK: Why use sections when you have the sonnet form already there to indicate a break of some sort?

SH: Because the poem has separate movements and "sections" offer a larger pause.

AMK: Most of the lines in these sonnets are ten syllables each. Some, however fall a syllable short or are a syllable too long. Given that you can clearly manipulate language in order to fulfill the expectations of the form, I wonder why, sometimes, you choose not to.

SH: "Fulfilling the expectations of form" is what makes for so much boring formalism. Basho said, "Learn all the rules. The forget them." My lines are mostly lightly end-stopped, unlike conventional meter. As Creeley and Levertov both made clear in essays, "form and content" are not two things. It's likely a stately line because of the subject matter, which begins with grieving. Line breaks tell us when to breath. This poem came to me section-by-section. One meditation leads to a first movement; another to a second movement...

AMK: Your poems often have a shadow of a narrative (in "the Orchid Flower" we have the speaker worrying over an orchid; in "A Woodsplitter's Meditation" we have the man splitting wood and building fires), but it seems that language and structure are what carry the day, those elements that draw you to poetry rather than, perhaps, fiction. What do you value most in a poem? How do you bring these values to the page and is this action conscious or un/subconscious?


SH: George Seferis wrote:   

     I want nothing more than to speak simply, to be granted that grace.
     Because we've loaded even our song with so much music that it's slowly sinking
     and we've decorated our art so much that its features have been eaten away by gold
     and it's time to say our few words because tomorrow our soul sets sail.

I want to be true to my Muse. I track the dance of heart/mind (one character in Chinese) as the poem reveals itself to me. Years of scholarship, years of practice, inform the subconscious as well as the conscious mind. If the poem approaches song, sing it; if it is intimate, speak it in a whisper. Dance. Dance well... with the one what brung ya.

 

Why Poetry Matters: An Interview with Sam Hamill by Paul E. Nelson, first published at paulenelson.com

 

Sam Hamill is perhaps America’s most outspoken anti-war poet-activist. He quotes the ancient Greek poet, Sappho, saying that warmongering is childish behavior:

I mean, what is the difference between two six year olds getting in a fight over their marbles, and the behavior of George W. Bush? “This guy tried to kill my Daddy,” Dubya said, and the next thing we know, he’s telling us that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction and Iraq is building nuclear weapons and a whole pack of lies because he’s angry at this guy. And he’s going to make the whole country pay for what he thinks about this guy.

The guy in this case is Saddam Hussein. The editor of Copper Canyon Press for over 30 years, author of over 40 books of poetry and translations, Hamill says poetry can be the antidote for what ails our culture: “In order to transcend a materialist culture we have to have spiritual values. We have to have a spiritual economy, an economy of the soul. Poetry is part of that commerce. It lives outside the mainstream economy.”

Sam Hamill is described by his peers as a writer of true amplitude, of outrage and forgiveness, of directness and intelligence, of tenderness and generosity. On moral and political grounds, early in 2003, he famously (or infamously) declined Laura Bush’s invitation to participate in a White House poetry symposium. Instead, before the American invasion of Iraq, he organized a fresh incarnation of Poets Against the War, inspired by the Vietnam Era peace group. The result was an anthology of over 13,000 poems by 11,000 poets delivered to Congress on March 5, 2003. Since then Poets Against the War, now renamed Poets Against War, has become the nexus of a growing worldwide network of poets who stand together against war and injustice. I caught up with Hamill November 17, 2005, in a studio in Port Townsend, Washington, and talked with him about Poets Against War.

PN – Let me tell you something about Poets Against War. As far as the American public is concerned, it’s sort of a no-brainer. Of course poets are going to be against war. That’s a little bit like Cowboys Against Prostate Exams. (Laughter) Does it matter really that poets are against war, or is that what people expect in this country?

SH – Well, I don’t know, frankly, what people expect in this country, but in most of the rest of the world poetry is much more culturally important than it is in the United States. I think a lot of our poets have been trivialized and marginalized culturally. But it’s not simply because poets are against war that Poets Against War matters. You must remember that we all have readers, and we all have friends and those friends have friends. And poetry changes lives one life at a time.

PN – When you say poets’ lives have been trivialized and marginalized, give us an example of what you mean.

SH – Well, I was recently in Medellín, at a huge poetry festival there in Colombia, and the opening reading drew about eight thousand people. All the major readings do between five and eight thousand people. The only thing I can compare that to is when I first founded Poets Against The War, and Not In Our Name hosted us for a reading at the Lincoln Center in New York City during “the storm of the century,” and three thousand people turned out, and for two and a half or three hours, they applauded and stomped and screamed, and loved every minute of it. So, we have an audience out there. And there’s more poetry being read today in the United States now than ever before. But you’d be hard-pressed to know that by reading most of the current media. Newspapers no longer regularly review books of poetry, and it’s very rarely discussed on radio or television. So poetry is sort of an invisible or marginal culture in the United States, but it’s alive and very, very well, thank you.

PN – In other countries they take poets and poetry a little more seriously. Mexico’s a good example for one, very close to us. Octavio Paz was an ambassador for many years. And Mexico and other countries make poets and artists ambassadors to other countries. In this country it’s a little different.

SH – Sure, Pablo Neruda was an ambassador. I think probably the leadership in this country finds poetry more embarrassing than not.

PN – Let’s talk about what this whole effort is about, now, Poets Against War. Let’s hear a little about the reaction, about what kind of reaction you expected. You got the letter to appear at this evening of poetry to have been hosted by U.S. First Lady Laura Bush and you just knew that you couldn’t go there. You couldn’t even go there and say these three poets (Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman), were people who’d be very opposed to your administration. Did you not go because it would have been rude, or because it was unconscionable to play a part of an event that this administration organized?

SH – I find this administration to be completely morally bankrupt. These are nasty, dishonest people who think nothing of slaughtering innocent people for their own profit. People make money in wars. Halliburton is becoming a very wealthy corporation as a consequence of the annihilation of the people of Iraq and the demolition of that country. In every war, corporations have profited from it. I couldn’t possibly go to this White House and make nice to these people. These are not nice people. These are not people of good hearts. These are power mongers. And these are empire-builders. But their empire is made of sand.

PN – The Board of Directors of Copper Canyon Press at the time, (2001) some of them at least, suggested that you attend the event. Was there any thought to going and saying, “Here is something about what Walt Whitman said regarding war?”

SH – Well, among other things he referred to the White House as Our National Cesspool. The CIA and the FBI followed Langston around for twenty-five years. No, I couldn’t go and say: “You people don’t understand Walt Whitman.” My response was just to simply contact thirty-five or forty friends and say, send me one of your poems against the war. I want to compile a small anthology which I will SEND to the White House. I was actually trying to be a little polite about this. I didn’t think there was a whole lot to be gained by going to the White House and being rude to these nasty people. I thought I could make a statement and that would probably be the end of it. I had no idea, for instance, that there were ten or twelve thousand poets in the United States of America, most of whom felt silenced, censored by this administration and by the corporate media that controls information in this country. And suddenly I was thrust onto a public stage. I’ve mostly spent my life as a private man. And I was thrust onto this public stage to represent all these people who stood with me in my objections to this morally bankrupt administration. I took that responsibility very seriously. And it didn’t take me very long to discover that poets in other countries also felt deeply moved by what I had done. And Poets Against War groups sprung up in Greece and France, in Germany, all over the world. Now these are poets beginning to talk to one another. And among other things, we’ve discovered that because internationally the mass media is controlled by major corporations, the same lies get repeated over and over again. But when poets communicate with poets, the quality of the information changes and the perspective changes. And in themselves, it’s a solitary voice speaking, but speaking on behalf of something that’s really deep and profound.

PN – There are two things that immediately come to mind that I want to ask you about. Regarding America, first of all, it’s a lot easier to be a poet against war in THIS country than in other countries around the world and we have it very good here as citizens and as poets in one respect. In other countries the price to pay for even ASSOCIATING with a person like you is not only their death, but the death or injury of their family. So that’s one thing I’d like you to comment on.

SH – There are Palestinian and Iraqi poets and Lebanese poets who have risked their lives to stand beside me and speak on behalf of peace and non-violence.

PN – The other thing is that someone who has a different political view might say you are anti-American, that you don’t love this country, why don’t you move?

SH – Excuse me, but has this patriot we’re talking about read our Constitution? There’s a reason why the first amendment is the 1st Amendment. It was the first amendment because it was the most important. And whether or not somebody who is a war-monger thinks that I’m unpatriotic, because I’m a peace-monger, doesn’t concern me one iota, frankly.

PN – When did dissent become unpatriotic in this country?

SH – In some respects it’s always been dealt with that way. That’s the way the right wing always deals with people who are independent-minded, or left-wing minded, or what-have-you. They demonize you. It’s a perfectly normal, routine, political tactic. They did the same thing in ancient Rome. But, there’s over twenty-two thousand poems now, (in the anthology) and there are Poets Against War groups being founded in virtually every country in South and Central America, in many Middle Eastern countries, in Japan, basically around the world. We’re building, slowly but surely, an international network of poets.

PN – Before we go any further, it might be a good idea to have you read a poem.

SH – Well, since we’re talking about poets and war and politics, I will read a political poem. In my journey around the country these last three years, I’ve often been asked: Why can’t you people just leave the politics out of it? As though there were such a thing as poetry without social consequence. You can’t have social consequence without politics and poetry does in fact have social consequence and it always has. At least since Sappho, at least since 600 BCE for those who don’t know her. This is a poem inspired by an exhibition put together by the American Friends Service Committee. A religious group.

Sam Hamill is the author of fourteen volumes of poetry including Almost Paradise: Selected Poems & Translations (Shambhala, 2005), Dumb Luck (2002), Gratitude (1998), and Destination Zero: Poems 1970-1995 (1995). He has also published three collections of essays, including A Poet’s Work (1998), and two dozen volumes translated from ancient Greek, Latin, Estonian, Japanese, and Chinese, most recently, Tao Te Ching (2005), The Essential Chuang Tzu and The Poetry of Zen (with J.P. Seaton), Narrow Road to the Interior & Other Writings of Basho, and Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese.

He is editor of The Gift of Tongues: Twenty-five Years of Poetry from Copper Canyon Press, The Erotic Spirit, Selected Poems of Thomas McGrath, The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth (with Bradford Morrow), and Selected Poems of Hayden Carruth.

Hamill has taught in prisons for fourteen years, in artist-in-residency programs for twenty years, and has worked extensively with battered woman and children. He has been the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the U.S.-Japan Friendship Commission, two Washington Governor’s Arts Awards, the Stanley Lindberg Lifetime Achievement Award for Editing, and the Washington Poets Association Lifetime Achievement Award for poetry. He co-founded Copper Canyon Press with Tree Swenson and was Editor there from 1972 through 2004. In January 2003, he founded Poets Against War, editing an anthology with the same name, Poets Against the War (Nation Books, 2003). His work has been translated into more than a dozen languages.

- See more at: http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/733#sthash.dyjM1BDE.dpuf

      Eyes Wide Open                                          

      The little olive-skinned girl
      peered up at me
      from the photograph
      with her eyes wide open,

      deep brown beautiful eyes
      that bore silent witness
      to a grief as old as the ages.
      She was young,
      and very beautiful, as only
      the young can be,
      but within such beauty
      as bears calamity silently:
      because it has run out of tears.

      I closed the magazine and went
      outside to the wood pile
      and split a couple of logs, thinking,
      “Her fire is likely
      an open fire tonight,
      bright flames licking
      and waving

      like rising pennants in the breeze.”

      When I was a boy,
      I heard about the bloodshed
      in Korea, about the Red Army
      perched at our threshold,
      and the bombs
      that would annihilate our world
      forever.
      I got under my desk with the rest of the foolish world.

      In Okinawa, I wore the uniform
      and carried the weapon
      until my eyes began to open,
      until I choked
      on Marine Corps pride,
      until I came to realize
      just how willfully I had been blind.
      How much grief is a life?
      And what can be done unless
      we stand among the missing, among the murdered,
      the orphaned,
      our own armed children, and bear witness

      with our eyes wide open?
      When I was a child, frightened of the night
      and crying in my bed,
      my father told me a poem or sang,

      “Empty saddles in the o-l-d corral,
      where do they r-i-d-e tonight.”
      Homer thought the dead arrived
      into a field of asphodels.
      “Musashino,” near Tokyo, means
      “Musashi’s Plain,”
      the warrior’s way washed in blood.

      The war-songs are sung
      to the same old marching measures—
      oh, how we love to honor the dead.
      A world without war? Who but a child or a fool
      could imagine such a thing?

      Corporate leaders go to school
      on Sun Tzu’s Art of War.
      “We all deplore it,” the President says,
      issuing bombing orders,
      “but God is on our side.”

      Which blood is Christian,
      which Muslim, Jew or Hindu?

      The beautiful girl with the beautiful sad eyes
      watches, but
      has not spoken. What can she
      possibly say?
      She carries the burden of finding
      another way.

      In her eyes, the ruins, the fear,
      the shoes that can’t be filled, hands
      that will never stroke her hair.

      But listen. And you will hear her small, soft, plaintive voice
      —it’s already there within you—

      a heartbeat, a whisper,
      a promise broken—
      if only you listen
      with your eyes wide open.

PN – Copper Canyon Press, for its entire existence, I’m guessing, or near its entire existence, was located at Fort Worden in Port Townsend, Washington, which was formerly a fort. You know, to me, in my mind, this is a model for the America of the future. The America as Whitman saw it. In that the resources go from militarism to creation and to the arts.

SH – Art and Culture. It’s a wonderful thing to do. We should do that with some of these military bases that we’re closing. And we should close a few more.

PN – There are a few that are going to be closed. There’s a “Memory’s Vault” here with some of your poems. And the fort (Worden) is at a strategic location where the Strait of Juan de Fuca meets Hood Canal. And so the threats in those days, the early days of the fort…

SH – The Spanish American War. The geniuses believed the Spanish Armada was going to come in and close down our shipping lanes. So they built this huge fort, three hundred and eighty acres, and the largest guns here weighed a hundred tons. They were HUGE! And a lot of these old concrete bunkers are still here. Kids go up there and play in them. It’s really a remarkable place to come and visit. And a very strange place for a pacifist to spend 31 years.

PNNever a shot fired in anger isn’t that a line from one of the poems?

SH – That’s right.

PN – Talk about that.

SH – Well, the Spanish Armada never came. Nothing’s ever happened here. This has been the most peaceful fort you can possibly imagine. And in the 1950’s they basically closed it as a fort and for about ten years it was a school for wayward boys. And then in 1973, Joe Wheeler created an organization called Centrum, a non-profit corporation for the arts, and got state legislative money and permission to center it here at Fort Worden. And Tree Swenson and I brought Copper Canyon here from Colorado to become the first Artist in Residence with Centrum.

PN – Let’s go back to Sappho, who you were talking about earlier. There’s a great essay of yours in the Virginia Quarterly Review. The issue is dedicated to Walt Whitman, but you talk about political poetry and that Sappho evicted men from her community in part because she believed war-mongering is childish behavior

SH – That’s absolutely right.

PN – You agree with her?

SH – It is childish behavior. I mean, what is the difference between two six year olds getting in a fight over their marbles, and the behavior of George W. Bush? This guy tried to kill my Daddy he said and the next thing we know, he’s telling us that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction and Iraq is building nuclear weapons and a whole pack of lies because he’s angry at this guy and he’s going to make the whole country pay for what he thinks about this guy. And what he did is he totally destroyed the country. There’s no infrastructure left in Iraq. There’s no economy left in Iraq. He’s basically obliterated a nation out of a childish temper tantrum, AND uses fear to gain power. Before 9/11, George Bush was the laughing stock of the world. Now he’s the most feared man in the world and he’s the largest propagator of terrorism in the world. All of these wars that are going on in places like Colombia and Equador, this is all part of this whole war machine. This country’s lived on a war economy since its inception. We have never gotten off the war economy. Think how rich and how beautiful this country would be if we stopped making war the first business and started making education our business.

PN – Well, infrastructure is another thing you mentioned, but we were looking at the TV with pictures of New Orleans completely underwater. And you mentioned something like seventy-five percent of the bridges in this country don’t meet code. And the ones in New Orleans failed not only because of the hurricane (Katrina) but because of their weakened condition due to our lack of investment in the infrastructure of this country. Are we bankrupting this country due to militarism?

SH –Well, I don’t know that we’re technically, financially bankrupting ourselves, but we’re certainly on the verge of it. These “conservatives” have created the largest deficit ever known to suffering humanity. We are the only industrialized nation in the world without national health care.

PN – Your response has been to dedicate your life to poetry, to deepen that dedication. To take a vow, a bodhisattva vow regarding poetry in your life.

SH – I believe that we can learn from poetry what we cannot learn from prose. I believe that every art form is an important form. I don’t believe poetry is more important than prose. But I believe that it is AS important as prose. And what poets have to say about war should be compared to what military geniuses say about war. But my bodhisattva vow, my vow to follow the way of poetry, and to devote my life to the betterment of poetry, I made that because I am a practicing Zen Buddhist and poetry is my path to enlightenment… and it can be your path too.

PN – I’d like you to elaborate on poetry as wisdom teaching.

SH – Poetry is the most compressed, considered and comprehensive use of language. It marries language to music. What is not said in a poem is often just as important as what IS said. And when we invest the energy and the listening, we can’t read poetry silently, you must listen to the language, you must let the rhythms enter your body. Poetry aspires to the condition of music, but also aspires to the conditions of philosophy. Poetry is a very large house and there are many kinds of poetry. There is something in there, beneath all of that, that lies at the very common core of human experience. And to follow those threads, to follow the thinking of poets over the centuries, one sees again and again, the poet speaking on behalf of suffering humanity. The poet trying to lift people out of their dolor; lift people out of their indifference. Poetry is a very valuable tool and it has been my honor and my privilege to devote my life to this cause.

PN – Once you get a taste of poetry as consciousness-deepening activity, it’s hard to go back, isn’t it? Poetry chooses you, doesn’t it?

SH – Well, certainly poetry chose me. I was an orphan kid. I was a very self-destructive adolescent. But poetry taught me how to be a man. It taught me that my life had worth. It taught me that there were things that I could do that made me feel good about myself and made me feel good about other people.

PN – These ancient Chinese poets, many of whom you’ve translated, you consider them models for your life. Talk a bit about that.

SH – Poets like Li Po and Tu Fu, Po Chu-i and Wang Wei, what they valued, I value. Their practice is my practice. They lived under a system called san chiao— Three Systems: Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. Lao Tzu, who lived at about 400 B.C.E., at a time of great conflict in China, a time of almost perpetual civil war— he observed that every war has two losers. Has any of that changed? We may not be suffering as the Iraqis are suffering, but we suffer in our souls for our behavior.

Confucius believed that “All wisdom is rooted in calling things by their right names.” That would, presumably, include murder, and war is mass murder. Period.

Buddhism teaches us that in this “world of suffering,” it is possible to transcend our suffering, to realize, to personally embody, peace.

These practices, these applied practical philosophies, have shaped my life and practice.

PN – I was in Boston and stayed at the hostel there and met a young Japanese lady. And she said: “Why are you so interested in Japanese culture?” I had miso soup, I had some nori on me. I said Itadakimasu before the meal. “Why do you know so much about this?” A French man I met at the hostel said: “Ah, he had a Japanese girlfriend!” and that’s true, but as we were heading to a Jazz club, an American Jazz club to see a Japanese pianist, she asked me the question: “What interests you in Japanese culture?” I told her, “Well in Japanese culture you have the tradition of satori and here we don’t have that. Here in America we have…” and as we were passing a store I saw a sign for chili dogs. “See— you have satori, we have chili dogs.” What is it about America, especially now as the culture is dumbed down by TV and advertisements, we don’t have an appreciation for wisdom. In India the mendicant will sit on the sidewalk with a begging bowl and people will fill that bowl because they know, in a sense, this person, by meditating all day, is not loafing, is not being unproductive, but is cleaning up the psychic airwaves. So these cultures have an appreciation for wisdom. We don’t have that here.

SH – There was a great Jewish thinker who said: “I am the least of them.” If we do not place ourselves among the least of us, we will never rise above anything. In order to transcend a materialist culture, we have to develop spiritual values. We have to have a spiritual economy, an economy of the soul. Poetry is part of that commerce. It lives outside the mainstream economy. Nobody has become a millionaire by becoming a great poet. If you make money from poetry, you do it more as an entertainer or personality than you do as an actual poet. But in the economy of the soul, thrift is ruinous.

For more information about Poets Against War, click www.poetsagainstwar.net.

Click here to read an interview with Hamill at The Progressive

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