Lord of the gadflies

“I’ve been a pain in the ass for a long time,” declares poet Sam Hamill, “and it’s not going to change.”

First Lady Laura Bush no doubt wishes she’d known more about that aspect of Hamill’s personality back in January — before she included him on the guest list for her polite little tete-a-tete, Poetry and the American Voice.

But, paying more attention to Hamill’s poetic credentials than to his personal convictions, Mrs. Bush apparently neglected to see the connection between the two — and the inherent danger Hamill presented to her parlor poetry reading.

Hamill’s an impressive guy. Somehow (he credits poetry), he morphed from abused foster kid to heroine-smoking teen to enlisted Marine with a Zen Buddhist bent before going on, at age 30, to found Copper Canyon Press — one of the only imprints in the United States to publish nothing but poetry.

In addition to shepherding some 300 volumes of other people’s verse into print, Hamill has translated more than two-dozen collections of work from ancient Greek, Estonian, Japanese and Chinese. Oh, and he’s penned 13 books of his own poetry, much of it pointedly political.

“My poetry has always contained a political element because it’s a daily part of my reality,” Hamill explains simply.

Take “Yellow Ribbons, Madness, Victory,” a poem he wrote after the first Gulf War, and that now appears in his collection Destination Zero (White Pine Press, 1995):

“While the nation welcomes home its heroes,/ two hundred thousand corpses burn/ and rot in the desert under billowing clouds/ of oil smoke and mountains of rubble./ A pale moon at vernal equinox./ Wet snow falls on blossoming daffodils.”

The First Lady apparently missed that one. And so she made the mistake of inviting the famously anti-war Hamill to the White House at the very time her husband was boasting of his plans to “shock and awe” Iraq in an unprecedented display of American military might.

Hamill’s response — a summons to about 50 of his colleagues to submit protest verse for Mrs. Bush’s event — gave rise to Poets Against the War, the largest and most swiftly convened show of literary opposition to any war in history. Within four days of issuing his request, Hamill had received more than 1,500 poems from all over the country.

Shocked — perhaps even awed — by this reaction, Mrs. Bush canceled American Voice.

The poems kept pouring in, though — so many that Hamill and his colleagues set up a Web site to collect them all. By the time www.poetsagainstthewar.org stopped accepting poems on March 1, it had received more than 13,000 submissions (selected poems from the Web site are being bound into an anthology by Nation Books).

The war, of course, happened anyway.

Regardless, Hamill continues to believe in the validity — in fact, the necessity — of poetry as an avenue of protest. The media, he argues, isn’t providing the full story.

“Ninety-six percent of the American media is controlled by four or five conglomerates,” he points out. “Does anybody expect the mass media to speak on behalf of anybody except basically those conglomerates?”

Poets, he believes, must offer another view of war.

“When we let [the media] get away with tidying up the war and making it into a nice little television event, it’s our duty to go out there and find the bodies,” he asserts. “And it’s our duty to speak for those bodies — and I mean bodies on both sides.

“As Jefferson pointed out, ‘a government is a government of words.’ And when we let [a government] get away with their outrageous metaphors and their insulting misnomers, it’s our duty as poets to return to calling things by their right name, which Confucius says is the root of all wisdom.”

Hamill says that similar ancient-Chinese sagacity has guided him for much of his life, beginning with his first encounter with the poet Han Shan, or Cold Mountain, who, Hamill asserts, “emerges as the real hero” of Jack Kerouac’s novel, Dharma Bums. Han Shan was a hit among the other Beats, too.

“Gary Snyder published a group of his poems in the late ’50s or early ’60s,” Hamill notes. “Then Burton Watson translated 100 of his poems in the mid ’60s, I believe; and about 15 years ago, Copper Canyon Press published Han Shan’s complete poems.

“So there’s a thread that’s run through my life since I was 15 years old — the poetry of Cold Mountain and the sort of Zen wilderness, Chinese/Japanese tradition,” Hamill continues. “It taught me how to live my life, actually, and gave me courage during my impoverished years, and gave me whatever it was that sustained me through the years of studying and working before I was able to publish very much. So poetry is really sort of my path to enlightenment, if you will.”

Sam Hamill turns 60 this month; the press he founded turns 30. “There’s always a lot of reflection on those kinds of double-whammies,” he says. “But I’ve been so busy with Poets Against the War since January, frankly, that I haven’t had time to give it a thought.”

Other people have.

Local filmmaker/poet Lisa Morphew convinced her friend Sam to celebrate his birthday here in Asheville, along with Copper Canyon poets John Balaban, Gregory Orr and Rebecca Sieferle. At press time, an army of the newly published Poets Against the War anthologies was also en route to Asheville.

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