Veronica Golos Interviews Sam Hamill (Part I)

Sam Hamill, Writing for Peace AdviserCommemorating Ten Years of Poetic Resistance, PAW Post No. 26

During the month of February, Writing for Peace  commemorates the Tenth Anniversary of Poets Against the War with Daily PAW Posts from a host of contributors.

*Parental Guidance Warning –The poets featured during our February Daily PAW Posts write of war and its effect on the human heart. Writing for Peace has not censored these poems, and we encourage parents to review the content before sharing them with children.

To purchase a copy of POETS AGAINST THE WAR from Powell’s independent bookstore, click here.

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  In this special interview, Veronica Golos talks with Sam Hamill about the role of poetry, living reality, and love.

(Part One of Two)


Veronica Golos:

Well, I feel as though I do know you — one of the many benefits of Face Book.  We share many of the same views on a whole host of topics, including, I believe, the role of poetry.  The role of poetry especially for “American’ writers.

I thought we might begin with a quote from Camus, one you used in an article.

Camus reminds us that if art ‘adapts itself to what the majority of our society wants, art will be a meaningless recreation. If it blindly rejects that society, if the artist makes up his (sic) mind to take refuge in his dreams, art will express nothing but a negation. In this way we shall have the production of entertainers or of formal grammarians, and in both cases this leads to an art cut off from living reality.

Did or does PAW prove that in fact there is an “American” art NOT cut off from living reality?  For my own recent poetry book, Vocabulary of Silence, I read a great deal of translated Arab poetry, and certainly so much of their poetry is part and parcel of their living reality. An awareness of the world and a response to it.

May we start here, and I’ll pick up questions from your reply?
Sam Hamill:

Living reality is learning the names of children bombed from drones, remembering the heroes who exposed this country’s war crimes, war crimes that continue day by day. 

26,000 poets writing almost exclusively in American idiom suggests that the poetry of engagement is alive in this country. What is the general political reality? That our poetry would make no difference in the political arena except as agitation. We were a “liberal minority” in a country that has loved and profited from war from Day One.

Nevertheless, many of the nightmares predicted in the poetry became reality on the ground. I was granted five minutes of fame, not for organizing against the war, but for embarrassing the White House. Our major media asked questions worthy of a bright third grade student —”Is it poetry if it doesn’t rhyme?” “Do you think a poem can stop a war?” “If your poetry doesn’t change anything, why write it at all?” I was subjected to ad hominem attacks in the op/ed pages of the NY Times and the Wall St Journal, in both instances by former Nixon speech writers, telling me that I was a nobody. The fact remains: Poets Against War was an effective call to resistance. And while we couldn’t stop the attack, we helped turn the tide of American opinion against the slaughter. But the slaughter continues in new incarnations. Living reality is learning the names of children bombed from drones, remembering the heroes who exposed this country’s war crimes, war crimes that continue day by day.
 Veronica Golos:

I’ve been reading some of the really excellent interviews (there are so many) with you.  In all of them, you offer an affirmation of poetry, an affirmation that poetry matters.  Of course, as an author of over 40 books and translations, teaching in prisons, continuing the PAW, and your keen awareness of the present state of the world, you have viewed both poetry and the world for a long time.

In your interview with Paul E. Nelson, you are quoted: “In order to transcend a materialist culture we have to have spiritual values.  We have to have a spiritual economy, an economy of the soul. Poetry is part of that commerce.  It lives outside the mainstream economy.”

Could you elaborate on this?  Especially in light of these continued and ever expanding US wars, of which you speak so eloquently and forcefully?

Could you give us examples of how your Zen practice, and the righteous anger you express, combine in your poetry?
Sam Hamill:

The poem is ultimately a gift, a bestowal. It’s an investment in human character. 

Poetry begins with the gift of inspiration—drawing in the breath of one’s Muse to become pregnant with meaning; that “meaning” is transformed into the energy of poetry through insight and craft in order to become the poem. The poem is then given away on the breath of the poet. This transference and transformation of energy and insight then becomes inspiration for the next listener who also passes it along. The poem is ultimately a gift, a bestowal. It’s an investment in human character.

I have lived my life in accord with what the Chinese call san chiao, the “three systems of thought” that include the sometimes seemingly conflicting teachings of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. Lao Tzu tells us that “no name names the name” of the Tao, that words have limits and understanding Tao lies beyond words. Master K’ung teaches us that “all wisdom is rooted in learning to call things by their right names.” Buddhism teaches us to practice compassion and right mindfulness in a world in which “being is agonizing,” and that we already have within us our own awakening. I take these fundamental teachings not as religion, but as applied practical existential philosophy. Lao Tzu says, “You find yourself by serving others.” My primary service has been to poetry, to the life of poetry— as poet, as editor, as translator. Buddhists say, “There are ten thousand paths to the Buddha.” Poetry is one of those paths.

We live in a house that is burning down around us. Corporate capitalism has no spiritual values. We call our country and ourselves “exceptional,” and divorce ourselves from the suffering we inflict all around us. Our leadership needs a “they” to create fear, some “other” that is threatening us even as we manufacture the threats as we did with Iraq. But there is no “they.” There is only a “we,” as in human being, and our violence turns back on us constantly. When a house is burning down, you can’t sit idly by and claim to be working on your own spiritual advancement. You must act to put out the fire and try to save lives. The Bodhisattva “perceives the cries of the world,” and refuses to enter nirvana until all sentient beings become enlightened. His or her actions begin in compassion for those who suffer the most, but extend ultimately even to those who are murderers and the accomplices of murderers. I think of the courage of Albert Camus who pleaded against the death penalty even for war criminals. Every day we see our language corrupted by our political class, we read of drones bombing children while our president tearfully addresses the slaughter of children by a mad man. Lies and hypocrisy and greed rule our public air waves and our political process. Camus tells us that the line between murderers (and their accomplices) can be clearly drawn by those who refuse to become accomplices and says, “we must resist with our whole being.”

The poem is the dance of heart and intellect among the ten thousand things. Like any other kind of writing, it can be trivialized and corrupted. But the true poem arises naturally and is less “about” the poet than about human character and shared experience. Many of us, I believe, are deeply inspired by those who have been silenced. When silence is complicitous, we must speak out and speak clearly.


Veronica Golos, Writing for Peace AdvisorAbout Writing for Peace Adviser, Veronica Golos

Golos is the author of Vocabulary of Silence (Red Hen Press, 2011), winner of the 2011 New Mexico Book Award, as well as A Bell Buried Deep, co winner of the Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize (Story Line Press). She was Poet in Residence at Sacred Heart Academy in Greenwich, CT in 2005, at the Nassau Museum of Art, and Yaxche School in Taos,New Mexico. She has lectured on Teaching Poetry to Children at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College and Colorado State College. Golos’ work has been widely published and anthologized nationally and internationally, including Meridians, Drunken Boat, Orbus (London), and Liqueur44 (Paris). She has performed at the Nuyorican Café, LincolnCenter, and Cornelia Street Café in NYC, and many venues in the Southwest. A lifelong activist for social justice, humanitarian and peace causes, Golos uses her poetry not only to interpret and question but “to challenge and act.”

Learn more about Veronica Golos here.

Sam Hamill, Writing for Peace Advisor

About Writing for Peace Adviser, Sam Hamill

Sam Hamill is the author of more than forty books, including fifteen volumes of original poetry (most recently Measured by Stone and Almost Paradise: New & Selected Poems & Translations); four collections of literary essays, including A Poet’s Work and Avocations: On Poetry & Poets; and some of the most distinguished translations of ancient Chinese and Japanese classics of the last half-century. He co-founded, and for thirty-two years was editor at, Copper Canyon Press. He taught in prisons for fourteen years and has worked extensively with battered women and children. An outspoken political pacifist, in 2003, declining an invitation to the White House, he founded Poets Against War, compiling the largest single-theme poetry anthology in history, 30,000 poems by 26,000 poets. He has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the Mellon Fund, and the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission; other honors include the Stanley Lindberg Lifetime Achievement Award for Editing, the Washington Poets’ Association Lifetime Achievement in Poetry Award, two Washington Governor’s Arts Awards, a Western States Book Award, a PEN-Oakland Anti-censorship Award, a PEN Center/USA First Amendment Award, the Charity Randall Award from The Poetry Forum, and the Condecoración de la Universidad de Carabobo in Valencia, Venezuela. His work has been translated into a dozen languages. He lives in Anacortes, Washington.

February Writing for Peace News:

All during the month of February, Writing for Peace is commemorating the Tenth Anniversary of Poets Against the War with a Daily PAW Post. If you are interested in arranging a reading this month in honor of Poets Against the War, please contact us with the details at, and we will be happy to share your information on our site.

2013 Young Writers Contest

Contest Deadline is March 1st! The Writing for Peace Young Writers Contest is in full swing, with entries coming in from all over the globe.  The contest is open to writers of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, for ages 13 to 19. Spread the word to young writers everywhere! You’ll find contest guidelines here.

DoveTales,  An International Journal of the Arts

The first issue of DoveTales will be released this month, featuring poets, writers, artists and photographers from all over the world.  We are also looking forward to seeing the winners of our 2012 Young Writers Contest in print. Watch our posts for news of the journal’s release. The new submission guidelines will go up on March 1st. Thank you for your support!



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