Sam Hamill’s Last Reading + Elegy

Dean of NW poets, Sam Hamill died on Saturday, April 14, 2018, at 6:04pm at his home in Anacortes, Washington. I last saw Sam on Thursday and Friday, April 5 & 6. We shared saké one last time and when he was about to read poems from his upcoming book, After Morning Rain, to Judith Roche, his daughter Eron and I, I grabbed my trusty IC Recorder and captured the moment with Sam’s approval. I believe it was the last time he read his poems out loud.

Sam and Eron talk about his Parents

Sam reads poems from After Morning Rain.

The book launch for After Morning Rain is May 15, 2018, in Anacortes, with longtime Sam collaborator Christopher Yohmei Blasdel, the shakuhachi flute master.

Here is my first elegy for Sam, written the day after he died, written after Li Po, from Sam’s translation:

Washington Post obituary.

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Sam Hamill Official Obituary [May 9, 1943 – April 14, 2018]

(Photo by Ian Boyden)

When the first poetry books from Copper Canyon Press went on sale in 1972, they were revelatory showing that the humble technology of the book could be, and indeed should be, an artifact of craftsmanship itself. Copper Canyon elevated the publishing of poetry books to an art of intrinsic beauty as exemplars of the printer’s craft. One of the driving forces behind this new guild craftsmanship was poet, editor, publisher, translator and fine printer Sam Hamill who died at his home in Anacortes, WA on April 14, 2018. Mr. Hamill was 74.

Arguably no one did more for the art of poetry in all its manifestations in the latter half of the 20th century and early 21st than Mr. Hamill. Born to a carnival fry cook at the end of WWII, Hamill was put up for adoption at the age of three by a father who felt the carnival life was no place for a child. Hamill grew up in Utah, the adopted son of educated poultry farmers who had a deep love of literature and history. As such, the young orphan was steeped in the language and poetry of Shelley, Wordsworth, Keats, and Frost by the time he reached puberty. As Hamill has said in interviews, his adopted father would lull him to sleep night after night reading the canonical poems of the English language. These would stay with him for the rest of his life.

Growing up in a home where poetry was spoken out loud, Hamill in later years insisted poetry should always begin in the ear as a spoken form imbued with the rhythm of the heart. He distrusted poems that clearly came into being on the soulless medium of a computer screen with spellcheck. The many recordings of his spoken poetry on CD and tape attest to this resonant craftsmanship that began in his tympanum as a child. Hamill has been praised by his peers for having one of the finest reading voices for poetry in the English language.

In 1973, Hamill garnered a $500 award for editorial excellence for his work on the student paper at University of California Santa Barbara. Poet Kenneth Rexroth, who taught there, had taken Hamill under his wing after the younger poet ran away from home in his late teens to find his place in the poetic renaissance of the Beats on the West Coast. With prize money in hand, Hamill became the Founding Editor of Copper Canyon Press. Tree Swenson (subsequently director of the Academy of American Poets and Hugo House) and poet, translator, author and friend, William O’Daly were co-founders.

Jim Harrison has said: “Hamill has reached the category of a National Treasure though I’d doubt he’d like the idea.” This doubtless pertains because Hamill was by his own admission forever the outsider in the high-status world of Pulitzer Prizes and academic accolades. He never sought employment in academia, instead taught in prisons. He held fast to the belief that poetry was a sacred craft irrespective of the newest trends lauded by East coast taste setters. Copper Canyon in its heyday, from the early 1970s through to the latter 1990s, published some of the finest poets in any language, including David Lee, Olga Broumas, William Stafford, Jaan Kaplinski and Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda, in crafted books that were singularly beautiful. Its catalog was always eclectic, unique, revelatory. It is perhaps as publisher and editor at Copper Canyon Press that Hamill made his enduring mark. Hamill has been credited with single-handedly resurrecting the careers of such masters as Hayden Carruth, Thomas McGrath, and latterly Kenneth Rexroth in the seminal work in one volume, The Collected Poems of Kenneth Rexroth (2003), which Hamill meticulously co-edited. Poets across the spectrum remain indebted to Hamill for how assiduously he championed them in their formative years. He was also a renowned letterpress printer and it infused every aspect of his work.

Hamill published four books of literary prose, seventeen books of poetry, alongside many well-regarded translations and innumerable broadsides. His early collected works, Destination Zero 1970-1995, garnered sincere praise from such luminaries as W.S. Merwin, Donald Hall and Denise Levertov. Indeed, he has been acclaimed worldwide for the lyricism of his poems, perhaps nowhere with more enthusiasm than in Latin America. His poems unfold in the direct language of the spoken word, with a clear eye to the natural world. Stripped of artifice or academic embellishment, these poems have been acknowledged as some of the finest by a minor poet in the American literary canon. He was also an able and respected translator from many languages, and his translations of the great Asian poets such as Du Fu, Li Po, and Wang Wei, and latterly haiku masters such as Basho and Issa, have never been superseded. As for Hamill’s translation of the Tao Te Ching, it is said that the: “extraordinary strength is that it has captured the poetry of Lao Tzu’s original without sacrificing the resonance of the text’s many meanings and possible interpretations.”

After an invitation to the White House in the winter of 2003 by then First Lady Laura Bush, Hamill publicly renounced the invitation and founded the organization Poets Against War (PAW), which sought to use poetry to oppose the Iraq War. Within a year, many thousands of poets had published anti-war poems on the PAW website, and a bestseller of selected poems was put out by The Nation Press under the same name. It inspired a worldwide movement of films and festivals dedicated to the poetry of pacifism. While this act of literary rebellion put Hamill squarely in the national zeitgeist, in later years he was to lament that PAW seemed to overshadow his lifelong vow to the art of poetry, to his own work as a fine poet, translator, publisher and printer. Overlooked were his twelve years as editor at the American Poetry Review or that he had served thirty years with the Port Townsend Writer’s Conference in Washington, including 10 years as their Director. In the wake of his nationally covered protest, the east coast establishment seemingly ignored all this modest poet had done for poetry spanning a fifty-five year career. To the end of his productive life, Hamill remained a fiercely independent and outspoken poet.

Hamill’s quiet generosity transformed the lives of many individuals. He never hesitated to help those in need, whether it was a gift of knowledge, time or means.
Hamill received many honors and awards, including NEA, Guggenheim, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, The Lila Wallace – Reader’s Digest Fund, and Woodrow Wilson Foundation fellowships, The Stanley Lindberg Lifetime Achievement Editor’s Award from the Rainier Writing Workshop – Pacific Lutheran University, Lifetime Achievement Award in Poetry from the Washington Poets Association, two Washington State Governor’s Writers Day Awards, the First Amendment Award from PEN USA, a US Japan Friendship Commission Fellowship, and was awarded the Decoración de la Universidad de Carabobo in Venezuela. Hamill is predeceased by his wife of many years, the painter and artist Gray Foster.

Hamill is survived by his daughter, Eron Hamill and her husband Roger Mah of Richmond, BC and by his partner, Juniper White. As Hamill wrote in his introductory poem of Destination Zero: “It is enough, perhaps/ to say – We live here/ And let it go at that.” In the case of this wise poet, a poignant truth.

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Sam @ 70

When I started getting more interested in poetry, early 90s (which does not seem like such a long time ago) I’d heard rumors about this curmudgeon in the Seattle poetry community. He was gruff, but had done a ton of work in editing, writing essays and writing plain-speaking poems. He founded one of the most important poetry presses in North America and I would learn his translation of Basho’s Narrow Road to the Interior might very well be the standard English translation.

Sam Hamill

Sam Hamill

When Denise Levertov died in 1997, I attended a memorial reading at the old Elliott Bay Books in Pioneer Square and this man spoke eloquently and from the heart about his late friend. It was late 2001 when I began corresponding with him. I’d wanted to do a residency at Centrum in Port Townsend to work on A Time Before Slaughter. The application asked how I was going to use the resources at Fort Worden and I wrote that I’d be talking to Sam Hamill about the notion of an epic poem including history. (This was before I would see that the serial poem was a more accurate description of what I was doing with Slaughter.) So, before I sent the application in, I sent an email to Sam. I got the gruffness right away, but it was more like a very direct communication style, somewhat out of place here in the mild Northwest, but he did not discourage me. Told him I was writing a poem after Paterson,  The Maximus Poems and Loba. Let’s just say he did not encourage the Loba part of that equation.

And I was awarded the residency and in March 2002 I went out to the Olympic Peninsula and got a good deal of momentum on my Slaughter project and it was not long after that encounter that I got out my old golf clubs and resumed my practice, taking occasional trips to Port Townsend and later Anacortes, to golf with this grumpy, old poet. But, he did not seem that old to me and his grumpiness was overblown and refreshing. Grumpy in the Northwest might mean direct, or zero tolerance for bullshit.

So, I’d drive out to Port Townsend, we’d get in a golf cart due to his aging knees, and we’d in his words: “whack a golf ball.” While other folks on the course would be talking about their stocks or the weather, I’d be asking Sam questions about Kenneth Rexroth, or Basho. And Sam had a short game that was really quite good. While I struggled (& continue to do so) with chipping and putting, Sam was pretty deadly with the blade. Often there would be sushi after and Sam was not afraid to pick up the tab for these expensive dinners. Ever. & there would be sake. Lots of it. Very good sake. Otokoyama and Mu, to name two.

w/ Sam Hamill, Leavenworth, May 2011

w/ Sam Hamill, Leavenworth, May 2011

& there would be stories. How he pulled one over on his late wife Gray Foster about Ferreterías in Argentina. Sam got Gray all excited when he told Gray that ferrets were the national pet of Argentina, like dogs or cats are in the U.S. Gray was getting VERY excited, but as they came up to the store, she saw that there were no ferrets and that ferreterías were actually hardware stores.

One story was about a poetry reading he gave in New York to a predominantly African-American audience. He was introduced by Etheridge Knight and I commemorated the occasion (the telling of the story) in 17 syllables: 7.13.05 — Sam Hamill’s a white boy but: He’s got an angry nigger in his heart. In fact, you can see a lot of Sam in the sentences after 2005.

1.18.06 – At the Otter Café Sam says: Don’t try the sausage, it’s a little furry.

5.21.06 – Sam talks about the Medellin Zen lesson: Si, mañana.

7.28.06 – Sam says his painting is not a guy on fire jumping off a cliff.

7.29.06 – You cant get a hangover from sake Sam tells me, green, on the couch.

7.30.06 – Our mantra learned outside Port Townsend at Kagean is Thank You Sam.

8.09.06 – Sam on Japanese women: I don’t think I want to sleep w/ your ancestors.

8.10.06 – Sam’s golf swing spectrum, from puke bucket to approximately perfect.

9.12.06 – Old crane fly, please die somewhere else so Sam can make this birdie putt.

11.03.06 – Sam gets a gift a scrotum cactus – he’ll have to “scratch it once in a while.”

6.13.08 – Sam takes his Thursday pills on Friday – washes ‘em down w/ tequila.

9.3.08 – What I thought was Sam’s zen golf concentration was his hearing aid turned off.

9.8.08 – Sam’s eyes when he tells of throwing Iowa students poems away.

10.8.08 – Sam says most so-called “poets” want socializing & reinforcement.

11.22.08 – Sam says: Too bad I warn’t born rich instead of so fucking charming.

11.29.08 – The wah-wah pedal of Sam’s heart tappin’ to the sound of J.J. Cale.

Just a few examples.

& there is the time he told me about a book of his poems made by a painter friend and he showed me Ian Boyden’s Habitations. A book of Sam’s poetry of which every page is an original painting with Sam’s words laser-etched onto the paper. I wept when I saw it.



I could go on and on about Sam’s generosity, his writing, his commitment to justice (Poets Against War, most notably), his impact on my poetry, my essays and my life, but I want to end with what I think might be Sam’s legacy as a human. There are so few people who actually live the life of a poet. Sam read those ancient Chinese poets, Tu Fu, Li Po and others, and actually applied their wisdom to his life. He used them as mentors, built his own house in the woods outside Port Townsend (Kagean, Shadow Hermitage), developed a Zen practice and became a student of human behavior. One time I was struggling with people who called themselves poets, but seemed to create events for their selves, rather than the community. Like curating a reading series and making themselves featured readers at it. I always thought there ought to be a line if you’re curating, but not everyone agreed and if I’d ever bring it up, I’d end up losing a friend or going through some kind of conflict. Sam made it clear what was happening in these cases:

It’s not the process, it’s the LIFE of poetry. All this clamoring to be public is not only a nuisance, but a squandering of money and good will.

These are not budding Buddhas. They are Oni—little poetry demons that trivialize the life of poetry, which is a path, not a destination. In the great not-knowing, there is only the learning, the path, the Way. The little Oni keep dancing and trying to become Big Devils, undermining principles and true practices.

Sam turns 70 today and there will be tequila and his good friends, the ones who would not sell him out for a book deal. The ones who love his stories and don’t mind hearing them 3 or 14 times. The ones who know a pure poet when they see one and realize these critters are endangered, so we ought to lift our glass to them every now and then and let them know we appreciate them, value their presence in our lives and give thanks for having known them, as their presence in our lives has improved them, has made us better people and better poets and was just plan fun.

Happy Birthday Sam. Life would not be the same without you, hermano.

(Posted originally May 13, 2013.)

From his daughter Eron and Juniper White today:

Sam passed away peacefully at home last night, April 14th, 2018. Juniper, Tara, and I were with him. We told him how much we loved him and read poetry to him throughout the day. Sam always said that he wanted to die at home. He always lived on his own terms, and we are very grateful he was able to die the same way.

Eron and Juniper

…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.

excerpt from Black Marsh Eclogue, Habitations

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