“Find Yourself by Serving Others:” Interview with Sam Hamill

The Orchid Flower
by Sam Hamill

Just as I wonder
whether it’s going to die,
the orchid blossoms

and I can’t explain why it
moves my heart, why such pleasure

comes from one small bud
on a long spindly stem, one
blood red gold flower

opening at mid-summer,
tiny, perfect in its hour.

Even to a white-
haired craggy poet, it’s
purely erotic,

pistil and stamen, pollen,
dew of the world, a spoonful

of earth, and water.
Erotic because there’s death
at the heart of birth,

drama in those old sunrise
prisms in wet cedar boughs,

deepest mystery
in washing evening dishes
or teasing my wife,

who grows, yes, more beautiful
because one of us will die.



Sam Hamill
Sam Hamill

Salvatore Ala: For the longest time, American poetry had movements like the Black Mountain school, the New York school, the Deep Image Poets, the San Francisco Renaissance… It all seemed very exciting. There were discernible differences in styles and philosophy, and brilliant poets who practiced those styles… As one of America’s most distinguished poets, what are your thoughts on the contemporary scene? Have we lost the meaning of poetry?

Sam Hamill: We still have a variety of styles and “schools” of poetry— the Language Poets, the Neo-formalists, the NY School… [Kenneth] Rexroth and the Beat and Black Mountain poets broke the stronghold of  “New Critics” and their reactionary poetics.With the growth of MFA and writing conferences, “free verse” (a term I dislike) has become the norm. It lacks the integrity and philosophical foundations of “organic poetry” as defined by Olson, Levertov, Duncan et alia. There’s an awful lot of poetry published by poets who have done little to prepare themselves except sign on for workshops. I trace my “literary ancestry” all the way back through ancient Greek and Chinese poetics. That grounding-work has been very important to me. It has shaped my life. Learning a little about several languages and poetics from other cultures is both enriching and humbling. We still have a lot of very good poetry being published, but we’re also swamped by the sheer volume of decently well-written mediocrity—thousands of volumes of poetry published every year. Quantity is always a problem—the ancient Chinese poet would write about 10,000 in a lifetime. Imagine… Makes me positively reticent.

Salvatore Ala: I love these lines in your poem “Eyes Wide Open:”

The beautiful girl with the beautiful sad eyes
watches, but
has not spoken. What can she
possibly say?
She carries the burden of finding
another way.

The poem creates tremendous sympathy and assimilation. The burden is on us. Was this moment as much a revelation for you the writer as it was for us as readers?

Sam Hamill: Every poem should be an act of discovery and revelation to its author. If you don’t surprise yourself, how can you expect others to be surprised by your poem? “Craft” alone won’t do it. A lot of poetry these days is merely an exercise in wit. What is paramount to me is the opening of one’s heart in the act of revelation that comes via “inspiration.”

The poem “Eyes Wide Open” was inspired by an American Friends Service Committee flyer for an exhibition they put on in protest to the invasion of Iraq: just a photo of a girl. The exhibition itself was simply a large room filled with old worn empty combat boots. Very powerful. It all made me search my own heart and discover, remember a moment or two of my own awakening. Yes, it surprised me in many ways.

State of the Union, 2003
by Sam Hamill

I have not been to Jerusalem,
but Shirley talks about the bombs.
I have no god, but have seen the children praying
for it to stop. They pray to different gods.
The news is all old news again, repeated
like a bad habit, cheap tobacco, the social lie.

The children have seen so much death
that death means nothing to them now.
They wait in line for bread.
They wait in line for water.
Their eyes are black moons reflecting emptiness.
We’ve seen them a thousand times.

Soon the President will speak.
He will have something to say about bombs
and freedom and our way of life.
I will turn the tv off. I always do.
Because I can’t bear to look
at the monuments in his eyes.


Salvatore Ala: You’ve written about a kind of poetry that reveals the self or what you call “immediate concerns with living…” I found this to be very much true in your poetry. Even when other things are happening in a poem, there’s an authenticity which feels centered and substantial. How can a young poet cultivate such a voice and avoid pitfalls?

Sam Hamill: Pitfalls cannot be avoided. They are necessary. Essential. Failure is a great teacher. For a young poet, I offer this advice: As Lao Tzu said, “You find yourself by serving others.” Part of my service to poetry was to learn not only the poetry of others, but to learn it in their voices.

I’m well known for reciting [Galway] Kinnell’s “The Bear” in his voice, reciting [Robert] Creeley in his edge-of-nervous-breakdown voice that is paramount to “getting” his poetry. I “do” Pound, Eliot, Rexroth, Dick Hugo, Phil Levine, a poor but serviceable Levertov, Plath, Marilyn Hacker, Marilyn Nelson, Rukeyser, Langston Hughes, Merwin, Gary Snyder, Whalen, Etheridge Knight, Roethke… I came to them as a jazz student comes to the riffs and gestures of great elder musicians. I learn their techniques to inform my own. I learned my poetics by ear. If students would listen to their own poems rather than merely reading them, they’d learn more more quickly.


Salvatore Ala: Kenneth Rexroth wrote that “translation saves you from your contemporaries.” Has this proven true for you? Were you able to avoid certain influences by immersing your imagination in the poets of the past?

Preview design with Ian Boyden for limited
edition of Edible Earth, Suzhou, China, 2012.

Sam Hamill: I’ve never tried to “avoid influences.” I’m a sponge. I’ve tried (and mostly failed at) all sorts of stuff. But being in the company of Tu Fu and Li Po and Basho and Issa… I’ve spent great quantities of time in solitude, engaged in conversations with dead masters. My Chinese, for instance, is very limited. But my patience is very long. A month of pouring over a 4- or 8-line poem in ancient Chinese, lots of nose-in-dictionary and research. Yeah, it saved me from many a contemporary fad-of-the-moment. But so did hand-setting cold type, learning to print, learning the history of the book, some history of languages. I am a translation from the original. People love to talk about what’s “lost in translation” while often forgetting what’s gained. Who reads Homer in the “original” is actually no one because we don’t know what Homer actually sang because it wasn’t written until later. I went through an 1891 high school inter-lingual Homer to learn a bit of ancient Greek. Then the Greek Anthology. Good company.

Salvatore Ala: Camus said “What is a rebel? A man who says no.” Could this be your motto?

Sam Hamill: I love Camus. Huge influence on me as he was to Hayden Carruth. Yes, I began saying “no” in important ways while serving in the Marine Corps. Thanks to Camus (and Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi and Zen) I said, “No killing.” I consider my position not merely as a rebel, but as an outright dedicated revolutionary. To quote Gary Snyder, “As a poet, I hold the most archaic values on earth.” That would include the human family, the soil itself, and the ecology of the imagination. What could be more revolutionary in this country than rejecting corporate capitalism and embracing compassionate behavior not only toward suffering humanity, but toward the planet itself, and endorsing universal individual responsibility?

Salvatore Ala: I want to offer my heartfelt condolences for the loss of your wife, Gray Foster. I’ve read that Gray was a painter and also very dedicated to her work with battered women and victims of violence. I am wondering how she influenced you over the years. How did she understand the practice of art?

Sam Hamill: Gray was a single mother with three kids when I met her in 1978. She was trying to open a shelter for battered women, and did, and that work was powerfully important to both of us. When we got together in 1990, she came to Port Townsend where I lived and went to work for Habitat for Humanity. “The practice of art” is very abstract philosophy when one is struggling to feed kids and provide a safe place for women and children. She built the Port Townsend Habitat Program into a major force in the community. She didn’t have the privilege of going to her studio every day to paint. She painted for pleasure when she had time. Her primary devotion was to humanity, to being of service to those in need.

Gray and I divided our time between the Pacific Northwest and Buenos Aires for seven years. She learned enough Spanish to help me deal with things (I’m too deaf to understand Spanish—and often English.) And then our health problems stopped us from moving to Argentina.


For Sam Hamill

Where you go now you take beauty with you,
the lover you needed who needed you.
Her love was the breath of your only world.
May your heart breathe new life into your land.

(In memory of Gray Foster, 7 August, 2011)

~Floyce Alexander


Salvatore Ala: After such a distinguished publishing career can we soon expect your collected poems?

Sam Hamill: My Collected Poems will be published early next year by Autumn House Press. Alas, paperbound only. It’ll be a doorstopper. But I’m very happy to be with Autumn House. Michael Simms works outside the mainstream and does great work and that makes me a happy camper.

Salvatore Ala: You have known many great poets and writers personally. Have you considered publishing your correspondence?

Sam Hamill: My correspondence is very erratic. For many many years I worked 14-16 hours a day between vast editorial and printing work at Copper Canyon Press, writing critical prose, writing poetry, and a ton of studying and translation— all while spending time teaching in prisons and schools, working on behalf of Domestic Violence programs, and participating in, and eventually directing, the Port Townsend Writers Conference for 30 years… Tom McGrath once complimented me and my lack of letter-writing by saying I was “generous in spirit and thrifty with words.”

Salvatore Ala: I remember that after reading Eileen Simpson’s “Poets in Their Youth,” I was amazed at the closeness of that Lowell-Berryman-Schwartz generation. Were you and your own peers as close? Were there rivalries?

Sam Hamill: Alas, no. I felt very close to Tom McGrath—his editor, his “younger brother,” his Literary Executor; very close to Kenneth Rexroth, Hayden Carruth and to Denise Levertov. I had many “peer” friends, but few true compañeros in the revolution. I’ve always been an outsider. I entered college in my mid-twenties, a man who had become profoundly anti-war while in the Corps, a divorced father of a young daughter, and a socialist activist. I’d been through being orphaned, adopted, being a battered child, being turned on to reading since age four, growing up on a horse in Mormon Utah, a street kid junkie in San Francisco in the late 50’s who’d been “saved” by City Lights Bookstore and Kenneth Rexroth. I was “peerless” in not-necessarily-complimentary ways. And I knew I had a long way to go. I was always an outsider.

Black Marsh Eclogue
by Sam Hamill

Although it is midsummer, the great blue heron
holds darkest winter in his hunched shoulders,
those blue-turning-gray clouds
rising over him like a storm from the Pacific.

He stands in the black marsh
more monument than bird, a wizened prophet
returned from a vanished mythology.
He watches the hearts of things

and does not move or speak. But when
at last he flies, his great wings
cover the darkening sky, and slowly,
as though praying, he lifts, almost motionless,

as he pushes the world away.

Salvatore Ala: Hayden Carruth said that “artists now bear a greater burden than ever before.” Would you agree?

Sam Hamill: You can’t really know the burdens of others. Compassion lessens our burden. I’ve listen to hundreds of battered women describe their lives. It’s the same story, but each is unique. I can listen, I can hear, but I cannot know their terror. I weep with helplessness. But I learn to speak on their behalf. I’ve talked with hundreds of men who suffer PTSD. I haven’t lived and cannot live those lives. How much of their suffering fills me? They are my brothers.

I think the burden we bear as artists is often a burden of privilege. We’ve “made it” to a place wherein we can search for art or discuss the meaning of being or search our own souls for the sweet sad music our angels make. Understanding how lucky we are to have the opportunity to make art of our speech, for whom shall we speak? The song of the self soon grows stale, while the songs of engagement bind us and poultice our wounds and open our hearts to the world. Chuang Tzu lived in a harsh cruel world and yet had the courage to dream he was a butterfly.

Further Notes:

Sam Hamill was adopted from foster care at the age of three and grew up on a farm in Utah. Early experiences with violence, theft, jail time, and boot camp were offset by Hamill’s growing interest in poetry, particularly Beat poetry. During a judge-ordained enlistment in the Marine Corps, Hamill encountered Albert Camus’s essays on pacifism and discovered Zen literature as well. He committed to the Zen practice that continues to inform his work. He attended Los Angeles Valley College and the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he studied with Kenneth Rexroth.

As a UCSB student, Hamill won a $500 award for producing the best university literary magazine in the country. With that money he left UCSB and, with Bill O’Daly and Tree Swenson, co-founded the all-poetry Copper Canyon Press in Denver, Colorado. Copper Canyon later joined with the nonprofit arts organization Centrum in Port Townsend, Washington. Hamill was editor-printer for the press from 1972 until 2004.

Hamill is the author of more than a dozen collections of poetry, including Destination Zero: Poems 1970-1995 (1995), Almost Paradise: New and Selected Poems and Translations (2005), and Measured by Stone (2007). Influenced by Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Kenneth Rexroth, Denise Levertov, and Hayden Carruth, Hamill “presents a model of honest, consistent, undisguised political engagement: he articulates not only a vision of peace with justice, not only his relish for work to achieve that vision, but his sense of the role that poetry can play,” as Publishers Weekly noted in its review of Measured by Stone . Hamill has also published several collections of essays and numerous translations, including Crossing the Yellow River : Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese (New American Translations: 13) (2000). Hamill’s own poetry has been translated into more than a dozen languages.

When First Lady Laura Bush invited Hamill to a 2003 White House symposium on poetry, he declined in protest of the impending war in Iraq, and instead launched the website Poets Against the War, an online anthology that has collected over 20,000 poems of protest and spawned an international movement. Hamill edited a collection of poems from the website, Poets Against the War (2003). Responding to critics who doubted the place of politics in poetry, Hamill noted in a 2006 interview, “You can’t write about character and the human condition and be apolitical—that’s not the kind of world we’ve ever lived in.”

Hamill has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, and the Mellon Fund, and has won the Stanley Lindberg Lifetime Achievement Award for Editing and the Washington Poets Association Lifetime Achievement Award.

Salvatore Ala has published three collections of poetry: Clay of the Maker (Mosaic Press), Straight Razor and Other Poems (Biblioasis), and Lost Luggage (Biblioasis). His poems have appeared in journals and anthologies. He has also published six broadsides of his poetry.

Read Salvatore’s other interviews:

Joseph Fasano
Joseph Fasano

“All I Want Is to Be Opened” Interview with Joseph Fasano

“A poem might end up looking terribly mysterious—I hope it does—but if it’s resisted baring itself, it’s failed. Fragmentation and ellipticism may be aesthetic strategies, but resistance isn’t. All I want is to be opened.”
~Joseph Fasano

Samuel Peralta

Samuel Peralta: the Physics of Poetry

“A poet looks at the world a little differently from others, and so does a scientist. I am very fortunate to be both. I find beauty in the cosmological consequences of dark matter, as much as I do in the written and spoken word. I appreciate the beauty in Heisenberg’s principle as much as Matisse’s economy of line. I’m probably one of the few poets in the world who literally dreams about tensor equations.”

~Samuel Peralta, physicist and award-winning author of Sonata Vampirica

Combustus Managing Editor | + posts

My dream: to create a unique vehicle for artists and visionaries from all genres and all over the globe to inspire and learn from one another.

Leave a Comment