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Seeking Poetic Justice

A pacifist author who apparently ran afoul of the White House leads an online antiwar movement rooted in language and imagery.

March 03, 2003|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

PORT TOWNSEND, Wash. — The poet needs another cigarette. He'd worked himself down to eight smokes a day, on pace to quit before his 60th birthday, but now he's back up to a pack and not sleeping very much besides.

Sam Hamill -- author of 13 volumes of poetry, pacifist ex-Marine, Buddhist, craggy white-haired introvert -- once had a life he liked. It was lived in private. Then First Lady Laura Bush, in mid-January, invited him to take part in a White House symposium called "Poetry and the American Voice."

Hamill, so opposed to war with Iraq that he trembles with anger when discussing it, says the invitation created in him "a kind of nausea." He ran to the store and bought a carton of Parliaments, then got online and invited a few friends to submit antiwar poems to a new Web site he set up,

The collection of poems was to be Hamill's response to the first lady's invitation. But when word got out about the poems, the White House canceled the event. That's when one part of the story ended, and another began: The uprising of poets took on its own life.

Within days, there were 2,000 poems on the site. By the start of February, there were 9,000, and by last week, more than 13,000 and counting. The contributors, some of the most highly esteemed poets in the land, got organized and held antiwar readings coast to coast.

In short, Hamill sent an e-mail and started a movement. He says he had no idea he'd be tapping into such a deep and fiercely coursing vein, and that he'd be reviving the literary debate on whether poets and poetry still have relevance in 21st century America.

The culmination of the e-mail campaign, Hamill says, will take place Wednesday, when he and a group of fellow poets are to present the anthology to select members of Congress. The presentation will be followed by another wave of poetry readings across the country, and then, down the road, the anthology will be culled for a book.

"That will be the end," says Hamill, his voice coarsened by fatigue and smoke. "It will be the period at the end of the paragraph, and then I want to be done with it.

"I want to go back to my life."


The life to which he'd like to return is spent mostly in seclusion in a room full of books, abiding by some private vow to the poetic word.

He's arranged his home as a bulwark against interruption. His house, built one plank at a time with his own hands, is a two-level cedar cabin, which he shares with his wife, poet and artist Gray Foster. A few dozen feet down a wooded path sits a smaller cabin, his writing hut, where he spends most of his days. Inside the hut is a picture of a daughter, his only child, now a 38-year-old nurse in Vancouver, Canada.

Both house and hut hide in a grove of towering cedars and Douglas firs in a forest just outside this mossy port town at the northeast edge of the Olympic Peninsula. A life farther removed from the rat race would be hard to find.

Some mornings he spends at his other office, four miles down the road at Copper Canyon Press, which operates inside what used to be a blacksmith barn. It's nonprofit, and one of the oldest and most respected of the small poetry presses.

Hamill co-founded the press three decades ago and essentially ran it without pay for nearly 20 years. Nobody gets rich in the business of poetry. Nearly all poets need day jobs. For Hamill, it was teaching poetry to convicts.

For 14 years, in Alaska and Washington prisons, he taught the refinements of the poetic word to thieves, rapists, gang members and murderers. He knew them well, because, as he put it, "I used to be one of them."

His story in brief: battered as a child, homeless at 14, in and out of jail by 15 (for vagrancy and car theft), a street thug and heroin addict for the rest of his teen years. Then he joined the Marines. In the military, a doctor surgically removed some of the most visible of his blue jailhouse tattoos, namely the ones on his knuckles. One tattoo, "MOM," still peeks out from under his shirt cuff.

While stationed in Okinawa, Japan, Hamill became first a Buddhist and then a pacifist, neither of which made the Marines very happy. He squeaked through with an honorable discharge and a changed outlook.

His passion for Japanese and Chinese cultures profoundly affected him, his poems reflecting the spare and precise manner of Asian poetry. His topics alternate between the mystical and the mundane, the political and the self-deprecating.

From his last book, "Dumb Luck" (Boa Editions, 2002), he writes:

Now that I've squandered

Almost a lifetime going

To school on those old

Dead poets who rabble-roused

Or retreated into a

Kind of solitude

Few can understand....

How astonishing it is,

How embarrassing, to wake up some days and feel --

Well -- almost respectable.


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