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An Interview With Sam Hamill

Love, True Peace and Political Poetry

by DOUGLAS VALENTINE

Sam Hamill is the honored guest in this, the fifth installment in the Political Poetry series at CounterPunch.

Poems are personal, and while poets may acknowledge compelling facts, they tend to seek the meaning of things.   A love poem might tell about one person’s love for another in a particular time and place, but it also tells of love in a deeply meaningful way.  For Kenneth Rexroth, who helped inspire the poets of the post-war San Francisco Renaissance, erotic love was a sacramental act “that could connect one with a transcendent, universal awareness.”[i]

Language poets such as John Ashbery are, in an often ironic manner, reflecting on how people communicate with one another, and how a person speaks privately with his or her alienated self.  The Language Poets are expressing our modern, often prosaic and disjointed thought processes in a highly refined method.   The deeper meaning is in the play of words.

In the ecological poetry of Gary Snyder and Robert Hass, the imagery, rhythm, sounds and graceful choice and placement of words connects the reader to nature and our collective consciousness.   Its deeper meaning is spiritual. In some cultures, and perhaps for the Transcendentalists in America, the relationship between oneself and nature is a religious experience, worthy of the most meaningful poetry.

Political poetry tells of the individual in society, while retaining the qualities of all the other forms.  It is deeply personal and concerned with the higher love of humanity and the natural world, as well as the corruption of power upon our minds, hearts, words and environment.  It celebrates the individual’s ability to transcend the limitations of the self and to merge, through the power and beauty of words, with other people and cultures.   Although political poems often describe the inhumanity people are capable of, and the abject suffering people endure, its object is not to oppress for personal gain, but to liberate for the sake of a meaningful, common good.

We see these qualities exemplified in Sam Hamill’s poetry.

Sam Hamill has spent his life practicing Zen Buddhism, searching for true peace, and writing political poems, among others.  He seamlessly combines the elements that have shaped his world view in his poem “True Peace.”  The poem begins with these six stanzas:

Half broken on that smoky night,

hunched over sake in a serviceman’s dive

somewhere in Naha, Okinawa,

nearly fifty years ago,

 

I read of the Saigon Buddhist monks

who stopped the traffic on a downtown thoroughfare

so their master, Thich Quang Dúc, could take up

the lotus posture in the middle of the street.

And they baptized him there with gas

and kerosene, and he struck a match

and burst into flame.

 

That was June, nineteen-sixty-three,

and I was twenty,  a U.S. Marine.

 

The master did not move, did not squirm,

he did not scream

in pain as his body was consumed.

 

Neither child nor yet a man,

I wondered to my Okinawan friend,

what can it possibly mean

to make such a sacrifice, to give one’s life

with such horror, but with dignity and conviction.

How can any man endure such pain

and never cry and never blink.

 

And my friend said simply, “Thich Quang Dúc

had achieved true peace.”

In the first six stanzas of this eloquent and graceful poem, which perfectly fuses the personal and the political, the poet recalls his horror and wonder at Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation.  He is “hunched over” and “half-broken” by the event, his world nearly shattered.  Perhaps like many Americans, he thought of monks, like poets, as being “above” politics.   And yet Quang Duc’s martyrdom was a political action designed to call the world’s attention to the persecution of the Buddhists in Vietnam (where they represented 90% of the population) by a wealthy, brutal Catholic minority government and community backed by the United States though the covert manipulations of the CIA.

Hamill asks an Okinawan friend how the master could sit there and not bat an eye or flinch as the flames consumed him.  The friend says the master had found “true peace.”

Hamill’s response is expressed in the central seventh stanza:

 

And I knew that night true peace

for me would never come.

Not for me, Nirvana. This suffering world

is mine, mine to suffer in its grief.

 

A quick glimpse into Hamill’s life may help explain these deeply personal words of sadness and of a lifetime’s longing, unfulfilled.

Hamill had an unhappy childhood.  Stuck with a foster family in Utah, he fled to the streets of San Francisco in the mid-1950s and embarked on a life of drugs and petty crime.  Like many rebels, he had an interest in poetry – in understanding and expressing his rebellious nature. Fortunately, he met and fell under the influence of Kenneth Rexroth.  Rexroth nurtured Hamill’s burgeoning interests in Zen Buddhism and world literature.

As a way of furthering his interests in Zen and literature (and as a way of avoiding prison time), Hamill enlisted in the Marine Corps.   While stationed in Okinawa, he read Camus’ essay, “Neither Victims nor Executioners,” and Camus’ book The Rebel.   Hamill experienced a political awakening that set him on a path to distinction as a poet, essayist, printer, editor and translator.   He is the recipient of numerous fellowships and co-founder of Copper Canyon Press.

In the final four stanzas of “True Peace,” Hamill summarizes his constant search for understanding:

 

Half a century later, I think

of Bô Tát Thich Quang Dúc,

revered as a bodhisattva now— his lifetime

building temples, teaching peace,

and of his death and the statement that it made.

 

Like Shelley’s, his heart refused to burn,

even when they burned his ashes once again

in the crematorium— his generous heart

turned magically to stone.

 

What is true peace, I cannot know.

A hundred wars have come and gone

as I’ve grown old. I bear their burdens in my bones.

Mine’s the heart that burns

today, mine the thirst, the hunger in the soul.

 

Old master, old teacher,

what is it that I’ve learned?

 

There is infinite love in this poem.  Love for people whose hearts refuse to burn.  People like Percy Bysshe Shelley, expelled from college, his inheritance forfeited, because he stuck to his principles and denied the existence of a universal, patriarchal god.   Hamill expresses love for Thich Quang Dúc, martyr for a cause greater than himself – “the statement he made.”

And yet, despite a lifetime of pursuing knowledge and understanding, Hamill confesses: “Mine’s the heart that burns/ today, mine the thirst, the hunger in the soul.”

“What,” he asks the master Thich Quang Dúc, “what is it that I have learned?”

I recently spoke with Sam Hamill about political poetry and the quest for true peace.

DV      Why is this last stanza so powerful?

SH      That closing stanza puts the listener (reader) in the position of meditating on the question. That very meditation is the “answer.” Dogen Kigen says, in effect, “Don’t put your faith in words. Words vanish without a trace. And yet the teaching is revealed.” Lao Tzu said the answer cannot be found in words, and 1000 years later, Su Tung-p’o asks, “Then why did it take the Old Master 5000 words to say it?”

DV      You say: “And I knew that night true peace/ for me would never come,” and that “This suffering world/ is mine, mine to suffer in its grief.”  It seems to me that these lines get at some essential truth about poets and poetry and politics.   Would you care to speak about that?

SH      My foster father recited a lot of Shelley to me when I was small.  I grew up loving poetry.  But I doubt I had Shelley in mind when I was in Okinawa.  Shelley comes in the remembrance that is the heart of this poem.  “True peace’ comes through transcending Samsara, the cycle of birth-and-death.  It comes from within each of us and is a made thing, a social construction.   I learned long ago that Samsara and Nirvana are metaphors to an existentialist like me.  But very useful metaphors.  I am here; here is when I begin.  Each day, each breath…  It’s impossible to be fully “transcendental” when the house is burning down with people inside.  So it is with war, whether conventional bloody war or corporate capitalist war against planet earth.

DV      In January 2003, you founded “Poets Against War” online, and edited an anthology with the same name, “Poets Against the War” (Nation Books, 2003).  There was quite an outpouring of political poems. And yet many people, even some poets, think of poetry as being above or separate from politics.   Is there a line between the two?   A way of balancing between political poetry and Zen?

SH      Only in America could someone suggest that poetry be apolitical.  There is no such tradition anywhere in the world.  Zen was born in Vietnam, when most of Vietnam was under Chinese rule. “Engaged Zen Buddhism” is the only kind that interests me as a practitioner.  The politics of the person becomes the politics of the family; family politics become community politics; community politics become state politics.  That’s elementary Confucius, “The Great Learning” that has been essential to all my work.  There’s no “balance between” Zen and poetry.   They are not two things.  They are two aspects of one’s practice, each informing the other, two threads in a fabric of many threads.

DV      You taught for over a decade in prisons, and worked for many years with battered women and children.  How did those experiences shape your world view and poetry?  (Please cite a few lines from a poem that illustrates your comments.)  

SH      More like two decades.  I was a battered child, so grew up with machismo values and was abusive toward those I loved: “family values” every battered child learns.  An outsider, a lonely adopted child, a non-believer in Mormon Utah, alienation is my true home.  But through the imagination, one can indeed transform family and cultural values and begin to inhabit a better world, a world of compassion and meaningful engagement with fellow revolutionaries.

Think of the revolutionary transformations of Malcolm X, who began reading seriously while in prison.  They could not lock up that heart’s mind.  He eventually transcended even his own innermost (and understandable) rage and came to embody nonviolence.

Think of how many men have struck their wives or children, but never for a moment considered themselves “batterers.’   But they are.  If you want to change a violent world, true change begins within.  You are the driver of the vehicle of the mind.  You can make it a train wreck or a luxury liner.  But you have to begin by “calling things (and emotions) by their proper names,” as Confucius says, “because all wisdom is rooted in calling things by their right names.”

Poets are namers.   See my poems “Naming the Beast” or “To Adrienne Rich” in Almost Paradise.  Both address how I evolved from batterer to…advocate for battered women and children. http://www.amazon.com/Almost-Paradise-Selected-Poems-Translations/dp/1590301846

DV      Your poetry often champions those who suffer for peace and justice.   “On the Death of James Oscco Annamaría” tells of the December 2005 torture and murder of poet and social activist James Oscco Annamaria in Peru.   You are concerned in the poem with the silence surrounding his murder, and in stanzas four through eight, you address the meanings that are hidden in that complicit silence:

 

No one could say

who dumped him in the trash

like a message in a bottle.

 

No one could say

who it was

or why.

 

But someone knows

whose hand is on the throttle

and whose is on the gun.

 

What did the young poet say

that he should have to die?

Were the authors of this tragedy

a death squad?

 

Trained by the CIA?

No one can say.

 

In the tenth stanza you speak of “the tear in his eye/ when he spoke of the death of Lorca, / the timbre of his voice/ when he spoke of The People.”  And then, provocatively, in the last stanza you say:

 

Surely, the young poet knew

that poetry is love,

and in this world,

love is a dangerous thing.

 

Poetry that speaks of “one love” can be considered subversive by cynical authorities who profit from division and war, and in some situations, poetry that dares to love government-designated enemies is considered treachery….as in the case of James Oscco Annamaria, punishable by death.  

What is love?  Why do you say that poetry is love?  Isn’t love just another thread in the fabric?   Or is love something more, something that holds the universe together, perhaps?

SH      Zen and poetry have fairly narrow definitions.  Love is a huge abstract ideal that covers everything from spiritual practice to ecology, medicine to philosophy, and as small as that love which is a personal attachment to another, or sexual love.  “Love thy enemy as thyself,” Jesus says.   That’s what motivated M. L. King – At root, Buddhism is the practice of compassion, an expression of love for all sentient beings in a world of “dukkha,” suffering or agonizing.   What made James Annamaría dangerous to the powerful was his love for “the people,” because that kind of love topples hierarchy, it equalizes all of us.  It’s the love for which Jesus sacrificed.

Rexroth said erotic love is the highest form of contemplation.  I would add that like the Tao, the more you talk about it, the more you talk around it.  Love is the intensification of compassion.   In a poem for my late wife, “The Orchid Flower”,  I say that she grows more beautiful each day “because one of us will die.”  Our own temporality makes love all the more powerful, more tender, because we know it only in our act of passing through.  Hayden Carruth says poetry is “a gift, a bestowal,” and is the “very act of love.”  Capitalist/materialist culture wants to quantify and merchandise it, and thus cheapen its power.  But actual love is far beyond the horizon of the all-American search for immediate self-gratification.  It can’t be bought, can’t be rented.  It is our highest calling.  If only we listen.

DV      Political poetry uses beautifully constructed phrases that to heighten the contradictions between “true” reality (humanism) and “man-made” reality (propaganda).  In your poem “Eyes Wide Open,” for example, the picture of a young girl in a magazine sparks meaningful memories and poetic thoughts:

 

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.

 

The idea of her beauty existing “within” a beauty that “bears calamity silently,” and the way you say it so effortlessly, is enough to bring tears to the eyes – even to those who feel they may have run out of them.  

In this poem, which takes place in part on Okinawa, you tell how you “carried the weapon” and “choked on Marine pride” until your eyes opened.  At the end of the poem, you ask the reader to listen to the girl’s voice and look at the world, like she does, with eyes wide open.   But that isn’t an easy thing to do.  The more aware we are, the greater our suffering for humanity.  Awareness is the thorn in the rose of compassion. 

And if love is poetry, and dangerous, then suffering is guaranteed for a revolutionary poet or monk, or even an innocent girl if she finds herself in the way of an American president who believes he and his Cult of Death are “exceptional” and have a right to kill for “peace” and “justice” on an industrial scale.

President Obama recently gave a speech at the United Nations in which he said that America was exceptional “In part because we have shown a willingness, through the sacrifice of blood and treasure, to stand up not only for our own narrow self-interest, but for the interests of all.” 

Is there something truly “exceptional” about America and Americans – or even American poetry?

SH      Let me be blunt.  Obama’s speech is bullshit.  This Capitalist government invaded Latin America more than 100 times during the last century, in order to create “Banana Republics.”  We overthrew the democratically elected governments of Iran and Chile and others.  We practiced three hundred years of genocide against Native American nations.  We did everything we could to prevent democracy in Vietnam and left them with a thoroughly poisoned watershed, a poisoned gene pool that guarantees generations of victims of cancer.  Now we bomb civilians from drones and spy on our citizenry and keep torture centers like Guantanamo and secret prisons where people are held without formal charges for years on end.  We have 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners.  The income gap between rich and poor is criminal, and we’re the only “advanced’ nation in the world without universal health care.  Rule by force is tyranny, and we are all its casualties, and war is our biggest racket.  Read the great Marine Corps Gen. Smedley Butler’s book, War is a Racket.

DV       It seems that cutting through government propaganda and cultural indoctrination is every bit as difficult as writing beautiful poetry – at least for those of us who do not possess the gift.  Do you have any tips for how to cut through the BS – especially given that most of us are not in control of the naming of things reported in the corporate media and advertised by its sidekicks on Madison Avenue?

SH      The solution is to read widely and deeply beyond the capitalist media establishment.  They lied us into invading Iraq, and made billions in profits for Cheney and Halliburton and a few others.  Mass murder is their business.  Meanwhile, they are obliterating our Constitution.  Read the great writers of other nations.  If every high school student in the USA read Eduardo Galeano, we’d have a revolution in a minute.  Read Mahmoud Darwish and feel what it might be like to be a Palestinian and wander the earth in exile.  Read James Baldwin or Adrienne Rich or Martin Espada and feel what it means to be an outsider in this country.  Poetry returns us to what it means to be human.

DV      Last question.  Please talk about your craft, and how you conjure the simple yet beautiful phrases that characterize your poetry.  

SH      Poetry begins with the art of deep listening – to others as well as to one’s own inner voices.  The great George Seferis wrote: “I want nothing more than to speak simply, to be granted that grace./  Because we’ve loaded even our song with so much music that it’s slowly sinking,/ and we’ve decorated our art so much that it’s features have been eaten away by gold/ and it’s time to say our few words because tomorrow our soul sets sail.”

To speak simply and clearly and truthfully is revolutionary in the best sense of it.  How shall we overcome the beast of Capitalism/materialism?  We will name it.  How to overcome the horrors of domestic violence?  We will name it and bear witness.   The greatest joy lies in finding solidarity among those true (nonviolent) revolutionaries who see (and make) a better world.

DV      Thank you, Sam Hamill, for your insights and generosity.

Sam Hamill is the author of fourteen volumes of poetry including “Almost Paradise: Selected Poems & Translations” (Shambhala, 2005), “Dumb Luck” (2002), “Gratitude” (1998) and “Measured by Stone” (2005). He has also published three collections of essays, including “A Poet’s Work” (1998), and two dozen volumes translated from ancient Greek, Latin, Estonian, Japanese, and Chinese, most recently, “Tao Te Ching” (2005), “The Essential Chuang Tzu” and “The Poetry of Zen” (with J.P. Seaton), and “Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese.”

He is editor of “The Gift of Tongues: Twenty-five Years of Poetry from Copper Canyon Press,” “The Erotic Spirit,” “The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth” (with Bradford Morrow), “Selected Poems of Thomas McGrath” and “Selected Poems of Hayden Carruth.”   His work has been translated into more than a dozen languages. – See more at: http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/733#sthash.9ujXEo82.dpuf

One of Sam Hamill’s poems will appear in the forthcoming anthology, With Our Eyes Wide Open: Poems of the New American Century (West End Press, March 2014).  

For information about pre-ordering the anthology, contact John Crawford at jcrawfor@unm.edu

For information about Douglas Valentine and his Political Poetry series, visit his website http://www.members.authorsguild.net/valentine/disc.htm   or email him at dougvalentine77@gmail.com

 

Notes.

[i] wikipedia