Starting Poets Against the War
Sam Hamill is the former founding editor of Copper Canyon Press and the founder of Poets Against the War. In the interview below, he talks about being invited to The White House and the founding of Poets Against the War.
Take me back to what you were doing just before you had the idea of going public with a day of poetry against the war on Capitol Hill. What was your life like?
I was in the midst of preparing an event in San Francisco to honor the life of Kenneth Rexroth. I was in the print room preparing a broadside on damp cotton rag paper. I took a break and ran to the post office to pick up my mail. There was a large square envelope with "The White House" written in gold letters in the upper left-hand corner. I knew what it was [an invitation to the Laura Bush symposium on American Poetry], because there was no other way I would get anything like that from the White House.
I felt queasy, because anything I did would have a ripple effect, and what ever I do also reflects on Copper Canyon Press and on my board and on my co-workers. I opened it, and I read it, and I stewed. I called Hayden Carruth, one of my old friends, and I called W.S. Merwin, another old friend, and stewed on it all day long. That evening my wife and I talked about it and went to bed. I woke up at 4 o'clock on Saturday morning, and knew what it was I wanted to do. I notified the board of Copper Canyon Press and told them what I wanted to do and sent them the letter I was planning to send to the White House.
I asked if they had any objections. My board of directors stood squarely behind me. I sent the letter off to about three dozen friends–the poems began coming in and the word began going out.
Why do you think you were invited to the White House? Was it naive, was it manipulative?
It was both naive and manipulative. I think they thought we could actually go to the White House and they could do their little presentation to honor Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes and Emily Dickinson without any political fallout. It was a stupid, and naive, virtually illiterate way of thinking. Anyone who has read Whitman or Langston Hughes knows that they were men who were outspoken in their devotion to our constitution, in their devotion to die in democracy and human dignity. All those things have enormous political implications. They are political poets. And Emily Dickinson was a divine political poet in a subtle way.
No one read Whitman until the 1940s and the 1950s when the beat movement really resurrected him from the ashes of literature. In Whitman's time, his poetry was laughed at often as not being poetry. After all, it's not in regular meter and it doesn't rhyme. But he is the grandfather of American poetry. Langston Hughes is a terribly important Black poet of the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and 60s. He wrote almost exclusively about the importance of being a black poet and from a black poet's perspective, and not being consumed by the power culture.
I feel sorry for Mrs. Bush. But then again I don't feel sorry for Mrs. Bush. She married George Bush. She supports the policies of this administration. I wish her well in her endeavors to encourage literacy. But to encourage the kind of literacy that would separate politics from poetry–I don't support it. It's a foolish idea. And that reveals the lack of understanding of the very nature of poetry.
Did you ever seriously consider going to the White House?
No, of course not. I don't consider this to be a legitimate administration, frankly. I'm frightened of this imperial presidency. I fundamentally agree with W.S. Merwin's now famous statement on Poets Against the War that "this man should be limited in his power." I'm frightened of the way this administration plays to fear. I'm frightened by what they're doing to our constitution. And I'm frightened by what they want to do with the Supreme Court in taking away a woman's right to choose. I'm frightened by their educational plans, which involved the president's personal commitment to his personal religion. There's no way I would go to this White House.
The decision I made in response to this invitation was about how best to respond, how best to say "no." Should I simply write a polite letter and decline? Or should I speak from my conscience? As a practicing Zen Buddhist, I really felt I had to make my position known. And I had to state it pretty clearly. I decided indirectly on the advice of both Hayden and Merwin that I would invite my fellow poets to stand beside me, as many as wished to. I thought we would have a few good poems, because all of the major poets of the United States oppose this administration in various ways.
But within about 36 hours we had 1,500 entries. The e-mail site basically collapsed from the load, and a bunch of very nice people whom I had never met–who are all sort of web geniuses–came to our rescue. That's how we set up the Poets Against the War web site, which was the second step in this journey.
How did the Poets Against the War web site get off the ground?
Who could predict that there would be 7,500 entries of poetry in two weeks? It was certainly beyond anything that I had ever imagined. My wife, Gray, and our friend Nancy volunteered to act as secretaries to type up the poems. They thought that we might receive as many as a thousand poems, because I knew there were a lot of poets out there who felt very strongly about the war. But 7,000 poems? I could not have imagined such an outpouring. And some of the most wonderful parts of it have been the letters that have come along with the poems. People felt silenced a little bit about others lining up behind this administration, marching in line, the right wing shouting people down and using bullying tactics as they have for so many years, and the Democratic Party caving in to these people.
The Project Alchemy folks from Seattle, whom I have never actually met but they have been wonderfully generous with their time and money, and we’ve cooperated on building the web site, and formatting the poems, and bringing some organization to this enormous groundswell that I hadn’t frankly anticipated. My life has been spent learning how to deal with the kindness of strangers. I've lived in poverty most of my life, and every once in awhile I have had a fellowship, where people have come to our board of directors and they've brought ideas, and energy, and commitment to the value and role of poetry that I feel so strongly about.
I like to talk about living by my begging bowl, but that upsets my fundraisers sometimes, because in America we don't like that idea. But as a Buddhist, all of my great teachers live by the begging bowl. And my begging bowl is basically for poetry. So I was very surprised but not shocked when these people came forward and volunteered. All that I have ever done has depended on volunteer help from people that I didn't know.
How has your life changed since you received this wave of attention? For example, how do you feel when you read something in the Wall Street Journal that attacks you personally?
Well it changed everything. I didn't get a good night's sleep for number of weeks after we took a public stand on March 5 of 2003. I was not designed for celebrity. I don't want to be Allen Ginsberg when I grow up. But on the other hand, it is really gratifying to have the support of so many poets, so many people outside of the literary community. The press people I have dealt with have by and large been fair in their treatment of what we're doing. There have been a few people who have attacked me personally, which is what can be expected. It is such a radical change in my life that I am still kind of baffled by it.
That fellow–whose name I have forgotten–and the Wall Street Journal write such ridiculous trash and such ad hominem attacks on me personally, this is exactly the kind of opponent that I would like to have. By doing what this writer is doing, he is really serving our best interests because he shows how arrogant and mean spirited he is. It is a lack of any attempt to understand who we are and what we represent really presents our message more strongly than we could. It's about what I would expect from the Wall Street Journal.
Do you feel somewhat removed from this groundswell, even though you're in the middle of it?
Let me say that from day to day, with or without this moment of celebrity, is my Zen practice, which begins every morning at 4:30 a.m. with zazen, a Japanese term from the Chinese tso ch'an, which means simply deep sitting. In the Zen tradition we don't spend much time on sutra recitation and other things. We really focus our practice on our daily sitting habits. It comes from the great Zen master Hui Neng, who advocated silent, solitary, self illumination. It's simply brings one down to earth when one's mind is carrying one away. It's a very practical thing for me.
Zen actually has very little to do with religion. I'm not a religious man but I've been working at my Zen practice for years. And I also went to school on the ancient Japanese and Chinese poets because they're my teachers, my brothers and my sisters. My conversation with Tu Fu has been going on now for twenty years and he has been dead now since the eighth century. He speaks to me sometimes very clearly, a poet who was exiled for his political opinions and for the poetry that he wrote. The Chinese have a tradition of exiling their poets. This administration would like to exile its poets and they did in effect exile us by closing the doors to the White House when they knew that poets were going to protest their policies against Iraq.
In one of your interviews, you talk about social lies. Could you explain what you mean by that?
Our social lies in this country began with our lack of understanding of our own history. The 19th century in America was a century of genocide. What we did to the Native American nations who lived here is unspeakable. It was in fact the model for Hitler's concentration camps. We destroyed nearly 200 languages in North America in the 18th century.
So it begins with a government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich that now rules the country with an imperial air, and rules those who are voiceless, who have no money. Our political system is based entirely on who can create the most money, which means dancing with the rich. That's why I believe the Democrats caved in to this regime, because they were afraid of being divorced from the money. Whereas, the people who die in these ridiculous wars are invariably the poor.
I must believe that the reason we have had such an outpouring of poets against the war is in some part a product of the fear that this administration has put in people's hearts. Why am I the first to speak out so publicly? Surely I am not, and yet providing others the opportunity to speak with me, there is this enormous outpouring of outrage over administration policies. Today we are under orange alert, and we have Donald Rumsfeld, a man who lied to Congress and has more than amply demonstrated his contempt for the Constitution of the United States, who is acting as an international bully, and telling people constantly that we must be afraid of him.
All of this begins with fear. Fear is the great enemy, maybe more than greed. This administration has used every opportunity to put fear in people's hearts, and I think the only thing we can do in response is to refuse to accept that fear and to stand and be happy, to be joyous. After 9/11, I wrote a poem about the attack on the World Trade Center, and I have a moment of realization in the making of the poem–that it was my duty as a poet to stand up again and sing and dance. And I end the poem by saying 'I will kiss the sword that kills me if I must.'
I will not let these people take the joy out of my heart, and I will not let these people make compassion a bad idea.—even having compassion for them and their ignorance.
Why are poets taking on this issue? What about people who say "leave the politics to the pros"?
We are the pros. I am a poet and I am a poet doing a poet's work. If you go and you read the Greek anthologies, poems that were written five-, six-hundred BCE, you will find very political poems. If you read the history of poetry in general, you will understand that it is virtually impossible, as poet Phil Levine observed on NPR (National Public Radio), it is virtually impossible to write a poem that does not have political implications. People who say leave the politics out of poetry are people who know nothing about poetry.
Poets are involved because I invited poets to speak from their conscience. Poets tend to be humanists and they tend to see things from angles that other people don't pause long enough to look at. I think that one of the major functions of poems in particular is to develop sensibility, and I think that means sensitivity to those who are oppressed, to those who have no voice.
One of the most important things I have done in my life as a poet is the twenty years I spent working with battered women and children, and the years I spent teaching in American prisons. Not because it puts me in a position to speak for children or on the racist role of law that treats people so differently in our judicial system, but rather because it has made me understand who has the power and who sees and knows what and how it gets handled.
There is a statement of Albert Camus' that for all who believe in their machines and in their righteousness and how they behave, silence is the beginning of death. And in the case of this particular administration, silence is very literally death.
There were people who wanted to enter poems anonymously at Poets Against the War. And we said absolutely not. This is a place where we all stand together. It means we all wear name tags. We are all identifiable people. When they come for us we want them to know who we are and what we stand for.
Some of it is very unreal. But at rock bottom it is really very simple. I stand in very much a kind of extreme position because I am Buddhist and a pacifist. There is a broad spectrum of people who believe this president's policies are insane, and who don't share my pacifist positions. Nevertheless, it begins with a personal commitment. The life of a person who doesn't have a personal commitment to certain morals and ethics–that really isn't a life worth living.
When I was a teacher at the McNeil Island Correctional Center, I had a friend named Alex. Alex was an enormous African-American man who spent about twenty years in the weight room—enormous chest. Enormous biceps. One of the sweetest guys you'd ever want to meet. He never really wrote poetry, but he read voraciously. He was my poetry enforcer. He used to tell people when they started to read their "pity poor me" poem, "Sam doesn't want me to hear any 'pity poor me' poems. The only poem we want in here is the poem you write tonight when tomorrow is your day."
I think more poets should take that to heart. It's easy to speak out when one has a stage. It's difficult to speak out because one has a certain clarity in one's heart.
How do we move away from social lies? What can bring people back to the truth?
I think the first thing we have to do is reclaim our constitution, and reclaim our democracy. And the first step toward that is taking the money out of politics. As long as American politics are governed by the rich, the government will be a government of the rich for the rich. That's intolerable.
The rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer. Last week this administration wanted to make adjustments in the Head Start program that would basically cut the program. That's one of the most valuable programs that this government supports and the cheapest. And if we don't take care of the people who are not doing a good job of taking care of themselves, there will be no one to take care of us when that time comes.
Where would you like to be three months from now [asked at the start of the war –ed.]?
I would like to be back to my solitary life. If the war's over, I will be busy mourning the deaths on both sides. Because it is not better to die if you're an American than to die because you are an Iraqi. Americans will die because they have signed on to defend their country. Iraqis who died will be mostly civilians, and mostly innocent, and mostly nonmilitary in my estimation. Because the military is spread among the civilian population throughout the country. There's no way you can drop bombs only on military people and the civilian casualties are going to be astronomical.
War is the problem, not the solution. And to make a solution possible, it begins with a personal commitment to nonviolence. Without that commitment to nonviolence, we vote again and again and again for the annihilation of innocent people. It's as simple as that.
Discussion Questions: Starting Poets Against the War
- In your opinion, how is poetry a political act?
- Hamill indicates that poetry may be easy to write when we are confused by an issue. However, once we have clarity, it is more difficult. How does this apply to your own writing?
- Hamill in his interview talks of social lies. How would you define social lies?
- Albert Camus speaks of “silence as the beginning of death.” How does this reflect how many people choose to relate to current history.
- How would you define compassion? Hamill implies that he “will not let these people make compassion a bad idea.” What does this mean to you as it relates to the administration, war and taking care of the poor in this country?