Before there was Split This Rock, Sam Hamill brought us Poets Against the War. On Thursday March, 22nd, Sarah Browning, MartínEspada, and Marilyn Nelson came together at the 2012 festival for a tribute to the man himself -- poet, activist, fearless leader, influential editor. A model for the poet as public citizen.
|Sam Hamill honoring June Jordan at the 2012 festival kick-off|
Poetry saved Sam Hamill. Poetry saved him from a life of violence, self-destruction and incarceration.This first poem is dedicated to him.
For Sam Hamill
Let the blasphemy be spoken: poetry can save us,
not the way a fisherman pulls the drowning swimmer
into his boat, not the way Jesus, between screams,
promised life everlasting to the thief crucified beside him
on the hill, but salvation nevertheless.
Somewhere a convict sobs into a book of poems
from the prison library, and I know why
his hands are careful not to break the brittle pages.
Allow me to introduce Sam Hamill.
Sam was born in 1942 or 1943 to unknown parents. Adopted and raised in Utah, he was beaten and abused, a runaway, a petty thief, in trouble with the law, in and out of jail.
In the moving poem, “Plain Dumb Luck,” he writes of being “huddled in a cell in Fredonia, Arizona/ rolling cigarettes from a Bull Durham pouch/ locked up for the crime of being fourteen and homeless.” A sheriff tells him to “Go home, son,” but “Home was the road/ for a kid whose other home was hell./ I’d rather steal than taste that belt again./ I stole.”
And yet, by poem’s end, forty years later, the poet concludes that he is “the luckiest son-of-a-bitch alive.” It was his “dumb luck” to discover poetry. From the practice of poetry everything else would flow.
At City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, there was more “dumb luck:” a serendipitous encounter with poet, translator and critic Kenneth Rexroth, who would become Sam’s first mentor. As Sam recalls:
I was fifteen years old, and I was smoking a lot of heroin and trying to be cool, man, and I really loved poetry. And Kenneth convinced me that destroying myself was not really the best possible solution, and that I needed to look at the world's literature, and not just my own life, in order to be hip, if you will. So he had a huge influence on what became of me thereafter.
What became of Sam Hamill?
In the words of Hayden Carruth, “No one—I mean no one—has done the momentous work of presenting poetry better than Sam Hamill. His editing and publishing, his criticism and translations, his own very strong and beautiful poems have been making a difference in American culture for many years. What a wealth of accomplishment!”
Sam has published over 40 books. His collections of poetry include Destination Zero, Gratitude, Dumb Luck, Measured by Stone, and Almost Paradise. His essay collections include A Poet's Work and Avocations. He taught himself classical Chinese and Japanese, and is the leading translator of poetry from these ancient languages. His translations include Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Writings of Basho, Crossing the Yellow River, The Poetry of Zen, and the Tao Te Ching.
He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, and the Mellon Fund. In 1973, he co-founded the legendary Copper Canyon Press, serving as editor there for more than thirty years, publishing Rexroth, Carruth, McGrath, the posthumous works of Neruda.
When Sam began his Zen practice and declared himself a conscientious objector, he took a “bodhisattva vow” to become a peacemaker. (Sam is a tough pacifist. I used to tell him that he put the “fist” in “pacifist.”)
Small wonder, then, that Sam felt (and I quote) “overcome by nausea” when he was invited to participate in a White House symposium called, “Poetry and the American Voice,” hosted by First Lady Laura Bush. The symposium, set for February 2003, was cancelled when word got out of Sam’s plan to gather anti-war poems for presentation to the First Lady.
Never tell Sam: Don’t say that. He fought back by founding Poets Against the War. PAW collected, posted and archived more than 20,000 poems and statements against war. As Sam puts it, “Never before in recorded history have so many poets spoken in a single chorus.” He also edited the anthology Poets Against the War, published by The Nation Books.
In the foreword to that extraordinary anthology, Sam Hamill writes:
Can (thousands of) poems inhibit this or any administration planning a war? It is only one step among many. But it is an important step, as each is. We join physicians against the war, teachers against the war, farmers against the war, and others. Poets Against the War helped bring about hundreds of poetry readings and discussions around the world while compiling a document of historic proportion. And when our critics on the right suggest that poetry might somehow divorce itself from politics, we say, ‘Read the Greeks, read the classical Chinese; tell it to Dante, Chaucer, Milton or Longfellow. Tell it to Whitman, Dickinson or Hughes. Tell it to García Lorca, to Joseph Brodsky or to the Chinese poets living in exile in our country…A government is a government of words, and when those words are used to mislead, to instill fear or to invite silence, it is the duty of every poet to speak fearlessly and clearly.
Albert Camus wrote: “henceforth, the only honorable course will be to stake everything on a formidable gamble: that words are more powerful than munitions.” Sam Hamill has become the living embodiment of this principle. He and PAW defined a culture of conscience in this country. When future generations want to know the truth of these times, they will not turn to Colin Powell’s testimony at the United Nations. They will turn to the words of Sam Hamill. They will read Poets Against the War.
Sam is a true visionary. He sees through ancient eyes, “fearlessly and clearly.” His translation of the poem, “Song of the War Wagons” by Tu Fu, written in China more than 1200 years ago, speaks to us of war today:
We’ve shed a sea of blood.
Still the emperor wants more.
East of the mountains, a thousand villages,
ten thousand villages, turn to bitter weeds…
Our boys lie under the weeds.
Being right is necessary but not sufficient. In 2003, when he founded PAW, Sam was right about the “sea of blood” and the “emperor” who wanted more; but he also had the integrity to take action, regardless of consequences. Ultimately, Sam Hamill is the kind of visionary who rolls up his sleeves and gets to work. This is from his poem, “Ars Poetica:”
We go down to the sea and set sail
For a world beyond war,
we will never find it.
We are not heroes.
We sail The Justice and The Mercy
because these boats need rowing.