April 16, 2018
“This suffering world is mine”: Sam Hamill, poet, translator, and publisher, has died
by Ian Dreiblatt
Sad news from the northwest, where the beloved Sam Hamill—poet, translator, and co-founding editor of Copper Canyon Press, has died at his home in Washington. He would have turned seventy-five in a few weeks.
A post on Hamill’s fiery and much-followed Facebook page read simply:
Raised on a farm in Utah, Hamill was known for his salty pacificism, his devotion to Zen Buddhist teachings, and his tireless spirit. He was known, too, for his vivid, insistent poetry, which bears the influences of Kenneth Rexroth, the Beats, and Hamill’s own deep reading in a world-embracing variety of traditions. His collected poems, Habitation, was released by the Lost Horse Press in 2014. Hamill’s poetry was worldly, songful, and toothily political. “You can’t write about character and the human condition and be apolitical,” he once said. “That’s not the kind of world we’ve ever lived in.”
While a student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Hamill won a $500 prize for producing the best student literary magazine in the country, and used that money, teaming up with Tree Swenson and Bill O’Daly, to found Copper Canyon Press, an all-poetry publisher whose breadth, international outlook, and concern for justice seem to match Hamill’s own, putting out work by a stunning line-up of poets that includes Pablo Neruda, Rabindranath Tagore, Lucille Clifton, W.S. Merwin, Lucia Perillo, Camille Rankine, Ocean Vuong, and Frank Stanford.
Hamill will also be remembered long and gratefully for the stance he took in 2003, when Laura Bush invited him to appear at a White House poetry symposium. Hamill had been vocal in his opposition to the war the Bushes and Bushies were hell-bent on starting in Iraq. In a January 2003 New York Times report, Elisabeth Bumiller writes that Hamill said he’d been “overcome by a kind of nausea” on receiving the invitation. He declined, tanking the event (score!), and vowed instead to found Poets Against the War, an organization that would fortify the anti-war movement with the resources of poetry. It gathered steam with Poems Not Fit for the White House, a reading Hamill helped organize at Lincoln Center in February 2003. In time, as American militarism continued to gain ground and conflict brewed with Copper Canyon’s board, he left the press in 2004 to focus exclusively on activist work.
In more recent years, Hamill’s health had been in decline. He posted often on Facebook, a mix of personal updates about latest medical developments, sad sweet memories of a life energetically and lovingly lived, and continuing reflections on and readings in world poetry, interspersed with an indefatigable stream of updates on anti-racist struggle in the US, appalled sadness at Donald Trump’s electoral victory, concern for the Palestinian cause, shock at the degradation of public political speech, contempt for the “Repugnicons,” and so forth.
Take a little time today to remember Sam Hamill. You can watch a great video of him giving a reading a few years ago, or read one of his lyrical and erudite anti-war poems or this stunning interview.
Sam Hamill will be very long remembered and very badly missed. In his poem “The Orchid Flower,” he addresses, well, an orchid flower — one he calls “purely erotic,” “even to a white- / haired craggy poet”:
Erotic because there’s death
at the heart of birth,
drama in those old sunrise
prisms in wet cedar boughs,
in washing evening dishes
or teasing my wife,
who grows, yes, more beautiful
because one of us will die.
An earlier version of this post misstated Sam Hamill’s age—he was seventy-four, not seventy-five—and mistakenly attributed the publication of Habitation, which is published by Lost Horse Press, and distributed by the University of Washington Press. We apologize for the mistakes, and extend our thanks to internet hero Paul Nelson for pointing them out.
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.