A brief conversation with Sam Hamill


Sam Hamill is the author of more than forty books, including fifteen volumes of original poetry (most recently Measured by Stone and Almost Paradise: New & Selected Poems & Translations); four collections of literary essays, including A Poet’s Work and Avocations: On Poetry & Poets; and some of the most distinguished translations of ancient Chinese and Japanese classics of the last half-century. He co-founded, and for thirty-two years was editor at, Copper Canyon Press. He taught in prisons for fourteen years and has worked extensively with battered women and children. An outspoken political pacifist, in 2003, declining an invitation to the White House, he founded Poets Against War, compiling the largest single-theme poetry anthology in history, 30,000 poems by 26,000 poets. He has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the Mellon Fund, and the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission; other honors include the Stanley Lindberg Lifetime Achievement Award for Editing, the Washington Poets’ Association Lifetime Achievement in Poetry Award, two Washington Governor’s Arts Awards, a Western States Book Award, a PEN-Oakland Anti-censorship Award, a PEN Center/USA First Amendment Award, the Charity Randall Award from The Poetry Forum, and the Condecoración de la Universidad de Carabobo in Valencia, Venezuela. His work has been translated into a dozen languages. He lives in Anacortes, Washington. 

C. Derick. Varn:   Looking at the landscape of translation at the moment, are there any new translations of Japanese and Chinese poetry that you find particularly interesting at the moment?

Sam Hamill: No, alas. But I’m not really current, either. I’ve been reading mostly Denise Levertov ( her Collected Poems) and some Robert Bringhurst, and Michael Hannon’s Selected Poems.

Looking at the contemporary poetic landscape, do you think the influence of writers like Rexroth have declined or advanced in the last five years or so?

The poetry landscape has been flattened by a tsunami of mediocrity—something like 5000 titles per year in this country. Much of it a product of workshopping, a kind of group-think. And this country has an attention span about the size of a pimple on a gnat’s ass. Everyone gets forgotten in a week. I have yet to see a single substantive review of Levertov’s Collected Poems. For those of us who labor long in the fields of poesie, the “reward” is simply working in the fields. Rexroth will remain a vast resource for those who seek it— 54 books, and every one a jewel of some kind.

When has the country not had an “attention span the size of a pimple on a gnat’s ass”?

Point is, I don’t think the idea of classics appeals to today’s literati as it did to previous generations. My practice was, in part, inspired and informed by Rexroth’s. These days I see a lot of workshops that function as poetry support groups. My support group as a young wannabe was the basement of City Lights Bookstore where the poetry was shelved. One spark from there was my growing interest in Chinese and Japanese culture and poetry, Zen, Tao, and Master K’ung. Deepening and exploring one’s literary/philosophical roots is, in my view, essential to a poet. So, wanting to “read the masters,” we explore a lot to discover who those masters are. In this “long view” of the practice of poetry, the poem is not so much a product, but a bearing witness of the mind’s “dance among the ten thousand things,” as an old Chinese sage might put it.

But there’s still interest in Rexroth, and in the newly published Robert Duncan HD Book, Levertov’s Collected Poems and a fine biography of her, and of course the hefty Levertov/Duncan letters. So my wing of Amurkin poetry is holding up ok, despite the poetry tsunami.

Do you think this comes from studying contemporary writing as opposed to a longer tradition?  Or is it a cultural pathology of modern life?

Probably a combination of the two. I think the workshop indulges in the all-Amurkin need for immediate self-gratification. I think often of Tu Fu writing his ten thousand poems in virtual anonymity. Only a handful of friends ever saw his work. He endured poverty so terrible that one of his sons starved to death. And our “literary community” wants to argue over “the poetry of witness”? I think the numberless contests and awards has a down side that few seriously address. As Pound said a hundred years ago, “There are many more people interested in being poets than people interested in poetry.” I meet “poets” all the time who have read little more than a handful of contemporaries. But they take workshops and send off work instanter! And the workshop promotes what is publishable, meaning mainstream and (oh, this word) “accessible.”

 Why do you use “Amurkin” as if it is a meaningful statement as these tendencies can be seen all-over the world?   When I was in Korea and Japan, there was more people reading Twilight in translation than Zhu Xi.  Yes, there is Ko Un there too, but that was not what one saw in the book stores in Seoul.   

Oh, just for the sound of it and the “murk,” I guess. Feeble humor.  A response to American nationalism, false pride, etc

Fair enough, about a year ago, you and I had a brief exchange online where I complained about how Pound, Rexroth, and your had imitators who’d done poor job, they’d misunderstood the cultural context of a lot of poetry.  Do you think that people misread Asian culture through Pound and Rexroth for reasons that are not the fault of either author?

Well, probably. We all carry a lot of cultural baggage when we go culture-visiting. And then what we bring back can itself be misread. Most of Pound came via Legge. A lot of Rexroth’s Chinese came via the French. And poetry is always (almost always) a sub-culture within its larger culture. Ryokan may be “revered” in Japan, but he’s known almost exclusively through a few poems in children’s anthologies. And almost no one reads the Kokinshu or Shinkokinshu. Same, I’m sure, with the T’ang poets in China. I asked several grad students in Suzhou last year about Han Shan. They knew him as a character, but not the poetry. They knew OF Tu Fu and etc, but not the poetry itself. Pop culture dominates the world. The monoculture. “Asian Culture” is not a monoculture; it’s diverse, but with certain classical foundations like Taoism, Confucianism & Buddhism. But even those terms mean differently depending on cultural understanding and teaching.

Do you think people also miss the grounding of European classics in these authors?

Sure. One of the problems artists of all stripes face today is a lack of depth in our audience. Too much FB, too much TV, too much pop culture… A growing general shallowness.

Do you have any new books coming out in the next year? 

I have an as yet untitled major Selected Poems coming from Lost Horse Press in September. It will be about 400pp of poems and include everything I care much about except my 100pp myth-poeic Triada.

What do you think of your legacy at Copper Canyon Press?

I have no “legacy” at Copper Canyon Press. I was forced to “retire” at age 61, replaced by arts bureaucrats.

Anything you would like to say in closing?

I would close by saying that I turned to poetry at a young and very troubled time in my life, and I’ve never regretted that path I chose. Poetry is a mansion with many rooms. My way is not THE way of poetry, but A way. Lao Tzu says, “You find yourself by serving others.” By serving poetry, I have served others and found within myself a sense of fulfillment I could not  have otherwise known. And yet the mystery of it, the Great Unknowing (as Levertov called it), calls me on.

(Originally posted here)


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s