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.
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.
& 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
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