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Why Poetry Matters: Sam Hamill Interview

Why Poetry Matters: An Interview with Sam Hamill

(Recorded August 31, 2005)

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.

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
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.

PN – Never 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