An Interview with Sam Hamill
by Carmel Mawle
CM: First, I have to ask, there was a time when you became involved in politics, wasn’t there? Can you tell us about that?
SH: I ran for California state assembly in 1968, while I was a student at L.A. Valley College. It was mostly an antiwar campaign. I ran on the Peace & Freedom Party ticket, but broke with the party when they nominated Eldridge Cleaver for president. I supported Gene McCarthy. I did voter registration drives and visited the Chamber of Commerce et cetera. I also did my first public poetry readings with Veterans Against the War and in conjunction with Robert Bly’s Poets Against the War in Vietnam... inspiration 35 years later to found Poets Against the War in Iraq.
CM: Despite U.S. surveillance run amuck, Special Operations forces in 134 countries, more than 2400 dead from President Obama’s drone campaign, our material support for, or direct involvement in, the bombing of civilian populations, child refugees of our drug wars at our border, and the global environmental crisis, politicians today seem more polarized than ever. Many U.S. voters feel impotent to affect change. It seems we are left with the choice of voting for “the lesser of two evils,” voting for a candidate who won’t be invited to the debates, writing in the name of a political prisoner, or boycotting elections all together. Do you have any words of wisdom for those of us navigating this fractured political reality?
SH: I’ve said for years that the problem is not the candidates, but the system itself. As long as candidates are owned and operated by corporate barons, their first allegiance will not be to justice, to democracy, but to their handlers. A politician can’t get elected without money to advertise, and it takes a million donors to make up for a single multimillion dollar contribution from the Koch brothers. The same people who control the candidates own the very media that are supposed to examine them for the voting public. The “liberal media” in this country has never been liberal and never less liberal than it is today. So if corporate thugs control both media and candidates, it’s little wonder that anyone with revolutionary ideas is excluded, automatically, from the (fake) election “debates.” When I founded Poets Against the War, the “liberal New York Times” trotted out a former Richard Nixon speech writer to post an ad hominem personal attack on me. The Wall Street Journal did exactly the same, albeit with a different Nixon speech writer. No diversity of opinion allowed.
Every election cycle we're told that voting for the lesser evil is far more important than voting our conscience, that, for instance, voting for Obama and his murderous drones and his claim to have the right to imprison and torture and execute people, including American citizens, "saves us" from the monstrous evils of his opponent. In other words, our conscience has no power in the face of corporate capitalist enterprise and those who profit from arms and wars. If voting one's conscience is a "wasted vote," then how can one pretend to live by such a conscience at all? The system is a highly orchestrated obliteration of human conscience, of human empathy and compassion. And those who profit from mass murder and human suffering are never, ever, called to account for their deeds. Most often, they are held up as "patriots" —like the war criminals Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Kissinger, et alia. If we do not vigorously oppose murder, then we are its accomplices, no matter how we hide our eyes and turn away from our slaughters.
CM: You were just fourteen when you ran away from abusive parents and were on your own for the first time, experiencing a new freedom of movement and thought. Do you think your ability to empathize with the oppressed played a roll here? Could you highlight for us that first moment where poetry caught your attention?
SH: My foster parents were college educated English majors. The Depression turned my father from writing/teaching to farming. My mother was a grade school teacher. I think of them as perfectly Dickensian—they were the best of parents, they were the worst of parents. Adopted at 3, at 4 I had begun to read. And my father recited the Romantics and Robert Service, Sandburg, etc. Even as a small child I loved the rhythms and sounds of poetry.
My rebellion was born with late 40s, early 50s social phenomenon, the anti-hero, the birth of rock’n’roll, jazz, and Delta Blues. I played piano and trumpet. McCarthyism and The Bomb ruled Utah culture along with the Mormon Church. My parents were “non-believers.” Worse, they were Democrats who admired Adlai Stevenson. All of this led me to reading poetry—Robert Service to Dylan Thomas—just as the Beat Scene unfolded with Kerouac and Rexroth and Ferlinghetti landing in my lap like a bomb.
Many of my heroes in the early 50s were black singers/musicians—Miles, Coltrane, Monk, Delta and Piedmont blues people, early rock soul singers. The Mormons said they all carried “the mark of Cain” and could never go to heaven. The murder of Emmett Till in 1955 sparked a revolution in my mind. I watched the white establishment sic dogs on freedom marchers. I was an outsider in every way in lily white Holladay, Utah. The civil rights struggle, the rebelliousness of rock’n’roll, my appetite for John Steinbeck and other engaged writers—all of this fed my sense of revolt.
CM: The term “Mark of Cain” originated in Genesis with the story of Cain’s murder of his brother. The spilt blood rendered the ground infertile, and Cain was made a fugitive. Interpretations of the mark itself varied from an actual Hebrew letter placed upon his brow, to a physical disability, or to those later Christianic interpretations of dark skin, once used as justification of the Jim Crow laws of that era. Since then there has been some progress; we have an African-American president and there are no longer “white” and “colored” water fountains at drug stores. Do you believe civilization has moved beyond the elitist notions of the cursed “other”? Do you see parallels in the world events of today in Gaza, Ferguson, or elsewhere?
SH: “Civilization” thrives on otherness, on demonizing anything foreign. Just consider the American racist terminology of the past century—from Redskins to Rag Heads. Every new group of immigrants faces racist and religious bigotry. Every country our corporate masters wish to exploit becomes another Banana Republic as we foist one terrorist after another into seats of power serving Standard Oil or Chiquita Banana or Monsanto. The very “military-industrial complex” Eisenhower warned us about back in the days when the richest 1% paid 90% in taxes while we busily overthrew governments all over Latin America. The Abrahamic religions have provided firepower mythology in a god that sanctions murder and promises eternal life. Politicians thrive on creating an “other” for us to fear and hate, whether it’s commies under the bed or dark-skinned people in our lily white urban zones. If we look at our system of “justice,” we see the odds of prison for black or brown men vs. white men, the odds of being shot down in the street, and the odds of a college education. Jim Crow is alive and well at every level of this culture.
Sometimes I like to read
the poets of the borderlands,
some in English, some to wrestle
slowly from their native tongue,
my scant Spanish failing at each turn,
the gists and piths of poetry.
There are images, there are tones,
that cross the rivers
of time and space and cultural bounds
to touch the heart of one
who struggles in the journey.
Poetry is made from flesh and bone.
What is a nation, what is our song,
and what is a man, a woman, but
a tear and a smile, un abrazo fuerte
por favor, tender and temporal,
wine in the cup, a song in the ear,
when the struggle itself is everything.
It is what we know and what
we have to work with—bare hands,
dreams that restore
big hungry hearts and minds
made whole by what we share:
mi pan, mi agua, mi canto amor.
CM: Historically, we’ve seen language used to demonize the other in every act of institutionalized aggression, ultimately shaping the public’s perception and acquiescence. Orwell termed it “doublespeak,” and foresaw the use of technology to conduct this war of misinformation, but he didn’t anticipate today’s personal technology. The major media is telling us one story (with shocking audacity), but the people on the ground are capturing the truth with their phone cameras and uploading it to the world. The curtain has been pulled back and we can suddenly see the deception for what it is.
There’s a question in here about the power of language and voice and perspective within poetry, about the power of words to open our eyes, or close them. Do you believe the poet has a unique responsibility in this war of language?
SH: As Charles Olson made clear, the poet belongs to the polis, he or she is a part of the citizenry, and that comes with responsibilities... Confucius reminds us that “all wisdom is rooted in learning to call things by their right names,” and he called for “the rectification of language.” Camus says, “We can be murderers or the accomplices of murderers or we must resist with our whole being... Since this terrible dividing line does actually exist, it would be a benefit if it be clearly drawn.” The feminist movement of the 70s and 80s was forged by poets: Margaret Atwood, Adrienne Rich, Robin Morgan, et alia. I’ve always felt kinship with the oppressed—women, minority races, the impoverished of the world— and felt a need to be their representative of some kind. Trotsky said, “In order to change the world we must learn to see it through the eyes of women.” My years of work with domestic violence programs and in prisons taught me to see a different America than what most white males perceive. At one time it was true that “a woman is battered senseless every 12 seconds in America.” Peace-making is work; poetry is work. To me it has meant being “a monk in the temple made of words”— the Chinese character for poetry being “words” joined to “temple.” The only meaningful revolution, in my view, is saying “no” to violence, “no” to tyranny, “no” to corporate capitalism that exploits the people and the planet.
Half broken on that smoky night,
hunched over sake in a serviceman’s dive
somewhere in Naha, Okinawa,
nearly fifty years ago,
I read of the Saigon Buddhist monks
who stopped the traffic on a downtown thoroughfare
so their master, Thich Quang Dúc, could take up
the lotus posture in the middle of the street.
And they baptized him there with gas
and kerosene, and he struck a match
and burst into flame.
That was June, nineteen-sixty-three,
and I was twenty, a U.S. Marine.
The master did not move, did not squirm,
he did not scream
in pain as his body was consumed.
Neither child nor yet a man,
I wondered to my Okinawan friend,
what can it possibly mean
to make such a sacrifice, to give one’s life
with such horror, but with dignity and conviction.
How can any man endure such pain
and never cry and never blink.
And my friend said simply, “Thich Quang Dúc
had achieved true peace.”
And I knew that night true peace
for me would never come.
Not for me, Nirvana. This suffering world
is mine, mine to suffer in its grief.
Half a century later, I think
of Bô Tát Thich Quang Dúc,
revered as a bodhisattva now—his lifetime
building temples, teaching peace,
and of his death and the statement that it made.
Like Shelley’s, his heart refused to burn,
even when they burned his ashes once again
in the crematorium—his generous heart
turned magically to stone.
What is true peace, I cannot know.
A hundred wars have come and gone
as I’ve grown old. I bear their burdens in my bones.
Mine’s the heart that burns
today, mine the thirst, the hunger in the soul.
Old master, old teacher,
what is it that I’ve learned?
“Border Song” and “True Peace” can be found in Sam Hamill’s new poetry collection, Habitation, published by Lost Horse Press. To purchase a copy, go to:
Sam Hamill, revolutionary poet and scholar, is the author of more than forty books, including fifteen volumes of original poetry, four collections of literary essays, and notable translations of ancient Chinese, Japanese, Greek and Latin classics. He is the founder of Copper Canyon Press, where he served as editor for thirty-two years. He directed the Port Townsend Writers Conference for nine years, taught in schools, prisons, and worked extensively with women and children who have been victims of abuse. As a former marine and conscientious objector, Hamill is an outspoken advocate for peace, and the founder of Poets Against the War. When poet Martín Espada was asked to comment on the release of Hamill’s latest, a 624 page poetry collection, Habitation, he said the following:
“When future generations want to know the truth of these times, they will turn to the words of Sam Hamill. This poet is a visionary—the kind of visionary who rolls up his sleeves and gets to
work. In his, ‘Ars Poetica,’ he writes: ‘We go down to the sea and set sail/ for a world beyond war,
/ knowing we will never find it./ We are not heroes./ We sail The Justice and The Mercy/ because
these boats need rowing.’ In these poems of justice and mercy, with great clarity of thought and
language, Sam Hamill defines a culture of conscience.”
Sam Hamill serves on the Advisory Panel of Writing for Peace, an organization I founded to connect young writers from all over the world with literary activists who inspire, educate, and empower them to find their own voices. Last spring I spent three days with him in Hamilton, New York, where he read his poetry in an event sponsored by the New York Council of the Arts, Poets and Writers, and Writing for Peace. I was deeply moved not only by his poetry, but his humility, generosity, and sense of humor. As is evident in his poetry and activism, Hamill is a man who intensely feels the suffering of others, who does not hesitate to speak on behalf of those without a voice, but who has also found a balance between love and loss, pain and joy. When KNOT Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, Kristen Scott, invited me to interview Hamill, I was grateful for a chance to ask some of the questions I’d been mulling over since our earlier visit.
Sam Hamill was adopted from foster care at the age of three and grew up on a farm in Utah. Early experiences with violence, theft, jail time, and boot camp were offset by Hamill’s growing interest in poetry, particularly Beat poetry. During a judge-ordained enlistment in the Marine Corps, Hamill encountered Albert Camus’s essays on pacifism and discovered Zen literature as well. He committed to the Zen practice that continues to inform his work. He attended Los Angeles Valley College and the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he studied with Kenneth Rexroth.
As a UCSB student, Hamill won a $500 award for producing the best university literary magazine in the country. With that money he left UCSB and, with Bill O’Daly and Tree Swenson, co-founded the all-poetry Copper Canyon Press in Denver, Colorado. Copper Canyon later joined with the nonprofit arts organization Centrum in Port Townsend, Washington. Hamill was editor-printer for the press from 1972 until 2004.
Hamill is the author of more than a dozen collections of poetry, including Destination Zero: Poems 1970–1995 (1995), Almost Paradise: New and Selected Poems and Translations (2005), and Measured by Stone (2007). Influenced by Ezra Pound,William Carlos Williams, Kenneth Rexroth, Denise Levertov, and Hayden Carruth, Hamill “presents a model of honest, consistent, undisguised political engagement: he articulates not only a vision of peace with justice, not only his relish for work to achieve that vision, but his sense of the role that poetry can play,” as Publishers Weekly noted in its review of Measured by Stone. Hamill has also published several collections of essays and numerous translations, including Crossing the Yellow River: 300 Poems from the Chinese (2000). Hamill’s own poetry has been translated into more than a dozen languages.
When First Lady Laura Bush invited Hamill to a 2003 White House symposium on poetry, he declined in protest of the impending war in Iraq, and instead launched the website poetsagainstthewar.org, an online anthology that has collected over 20,000 poems of protest and spawned an international movement. Hamill edited a collection of poems from the website, Poets Against the War (2003). Responding to critics who doubted the place of politics in poetry, Hamill noted in a 2006 interview, “You can’t write about character and the human condition and be apolitical—that’s not the kind of world we’ve ever lived in.”Hamill has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, and the Mellon Fund, and has won the Stanley Lindberg Lifetime Achievement Award for Editing and the Washington Poets Association Lifetime Achievement Award.
His lates collection, Habitation : Collected Poems may be purched at the following link:
Bio from Poets.org
Carmel Reid Mawle is the founder of Writing for Peace, and serves as president of the Board of Directors. Carmel lives in Colorado, where she and her family enjoy hiking in the Rocky Mountain National Park. She is a member of the Denver Lighthouse Writers Workshop, where she is focusing on completing her first novel.
Mawle has an English Literature Degree from the University of Washington, and a varied career that includes piano instruction, as well as operating a martial arts school, teaching women’s self-defense, child safety awareness, and traditional Hayashi-Ha Shito Ryu Karate. She served as executive director of a youth orchestra, and as president of a chamber music organization.
Her work has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly Review, Contemporary World Literature, SPACES Literary Magazine, Rocky Mountain Scribe Anthology, and is forthcoming in KNOT Literary Magazine.