Epistolary Poetry by Sam Hamill

I have been getting caught up on some of Sam Hamill’s work since his death back in April. Last night reading from his 1981 book of “casual essays” or “over-the-shoulder” glances he titled At Home in the World, I came across an essay entitled “Epistolary Poetry.” The subtitle is “The Poem as Letter; The Letter as Poem.” Preparing for a couple hundred signups in five hours for the 12th August POetry POstcard Fest (& Sam would HATE that I capitalize the”o’s”) I felt it right to read that essay immediately.

And it starts with some classic Sam Hamill snark. (He would hate that description, but it’s accurate.)

      Several years ago in Missoula, at the customary after-the-reading bash, I was approached by a young grad school poet.
     “I didn’t realize you were a former student of Richard Hugo’s.” he said.
     “I’m not.”
     “But you write letter poems,” he declared,” and that’s an invention of Dick’s.”
With all the specializing and pigeon-holing done by scholars, it has always astonished me that no one (to my knowledge) has written on epistolary poetry as a genre. The poem as letter has been with us for nearly as long as we have had written poetry. In the Western tradition, the honor of inventing the genre is generally bestowed to Quintus Horatius Flaccus, a Latin poet who preceded Hugo by two thousand years…

HA! Sam goes on to discuss epistles by Wordsworth, Li Po, Tu Fu, Shelley, William Carlos Williams’ “Asphodel”, George Seferis, Octavio Paz, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Yvor Winters, Elizabeth Bishop, Galway Kinnell, William Stafford, Robert Hass, Thomas McGrath, Kenneth Rexroth and Denise Levertov. He cites two of her poems from the book of hers that was current at the time, and that he also reviewed in this book, Life in the Forest. One of those poems was


The sunshine is wild here!
It laps our feet!
Wavelets of sunshine!
Spiky wavelets!
The sunshine snaps at our toes!
Thick handfuls of sunshine freeze
our fingers like ice,
like burning ice cream!
The towers of the city across
the gulf of sunshine are wavering!

Sam did not like punctuation marks either, but did consider Levertov a “great teacher.” He also concluded in his review that Life in the Forest features “poems of mature affection and engagement written by a mature poet at the height of her power.”

That turned out to be prophetic, as Levertov’s later work was not as potent as the Organic Form she honed between letters to and from Robert Duncan, but still better than most of all other poems being written by her contemporaries.

Sam continues to teach from beyond the veil, as I suspected he would. Casual essays? Perhaps, but worth a look. And as postcard season starts again, some good fuel for summer. Thank you Sam.

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Vince Balestri, Brian Kent, Eric Pollard (Sept 1997)

IPiPP/SPLAB Archives

I finished cataloging the IPiPP/SPLAB archives today, Saturday, June 23, 2018, at 5:36pm, thanks to a 4Culture grant and I am digitizing as much as I can before the audio is transferred to its new home. (Details on that coming before long.)

On September 28, 1997, a program called Northwestern Exposure aired on all of our affiliates. The first of two interviews was with Eric Pollard, part-owner of Tenzing Momo, the Tibetan Buddhist herbal apothecary in Pike Place Market. (Jeff Gould had been a previous guest.) Tenzing Momo began to support the program giving it some of its most memorable lines, in underwriting credits. (Sponsor announcements.) As I recall, they went something like this:

This program is made possible in part by Tenzing Momo, an herbal apothecary in Seattle’s historic Pike Place Market with herbs, herbal teas and tinctures. If shopping at Tenzing Momo were easy, anyone could do it!


This program is made possible in part by Tenzing Momo, an herbal apothecary in Seattle’s historic Pike Place Market with herbs, herbal teas and tinctures. At Tenzing Momo, we overcharge every third customer    and pass the savings on to you!

Eric knew that people were listening because they would come into the store asking if they were the third customer! He died a few years after the program aired and we dedicated the 2002 archive edition of the program to his memory.

In the second interview, Vince Balestri talks about his play Kerouac: The Essence of Jack, a Jazz Play. It ran for several years at the Velvet Elvis Theater in Seattle’s Pioneer Square and I read poetry during the play a couple of times and brought poet Victor Hernandez to do that as well. Brian Kent is flat out one of the best sax players who ever lived in Seattle. I have very fond memories of this show, these guests and, of course, Tenzing Momo and those memorable tag lines. Enjoy!

Click here to listen to NWX 212 – Part 1 Eric Pollard – 22:05.

Click here to listen to NWX 212 – Part 2 Vince Ballestri & Brian Kent (& Closing Credits) – 27:37.

Click here to listen to NWX 212 – Show intro 4:42.

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Ed Sanders 2000 Interview

From the Archives:

Interview 1 – 22:07
Interview 2 – 23:08
Show Opening – 4:10

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