by Shadab Zeest Hashmi
When you listen as keenly for humanity’s pulse as Sam Hamill does, you “fall into the place where everything is music”— in Rumi’s words. This is the music where all cultures meet, where the spirit finds its truest articulation: a place impossible even to imagine in our present global reality defined by the fractures of an ever-deepening mistrust between people. Through his poetry, translation, teaching, editing and publishing, Sam confronts the weaponry of power-hungry systems. He describes his practice as “serving in the temple of poetry”— the only place, perhaps, where all human languages have an equal chance to grow and blossom because they all have an equal claim on poetry and on ennobling humanity. I recently spoke with Sam Hamill via email:
Shadab: On the eleventh anniversary of “poets against war,” arguably the most impressive anti-war movement since Vietnam, what are your thoughts as the founder and the leading voice of the movement?
Sam: Little has changed. We have fewer civil rights, and we’ve spread the death machine ever more widely, and this has clearly become war-without-end. The US government is the largest and most successful terrorist organization in the world, threatening all peoples everywhere. My on-line anthology, Poets Against the War, collected 30,000 poems by 26,000 poets protesting the attack on Iraq. That is the largest single-theme anthology in all of history. Did it stop the invasion? No. Of course not. But it became a part of the history of that criminal war and its extension into other countries.
Shadab: What drew you to translation? Being among the best known and prolific literary translators, what do you find most rewarding about the process and the product?
Sam: I grew up reading Greek and Roman myths and tales and then reading Rexroth and others on Zen, reading the Spanish poets, the Harvard Classics, etc, it was natural that I’d want to know more. My Zen practice drew me into the world of Asian classics.
Shadab: What is the translator’s first allegiance: the original poem in all its cultural specificity (context, tradition-based allusions, nuanced language) or the poem’s more “translatable” aspect— its essence and meaning from a universal viewpoint?
Sam: Each translation brings its own particular challenges. Every translation is unique. Many classical Chinese poems can be translated in a very literal way—like Tao Te Ching for instance. And yet we have perfectly awful translations of it from people like Stephen Mitchell when the translator intrudes on the text. It’s a delicate dance. Mitchell reads no Chinese, so he simply invents and interprets from what others have done. I go through the poems character by character and try to make the poem a poem in English that is true to the original. We can’t replicate the 5 or 7-syllable line of classical Chinese poetry, nor mirror the interior and exterior rhymes, so I seek a speaking music in English to convey the sense of rhythm in our own tongue. In my Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese, there are a variety of styles and distinctly different voices. We lose a lot of nuance and subtlety when bringing them into English.
Shadab: What are some of the glaring and subtle differences between the Western tradition of poetry and the Eastern, in your experience as a translator?
Sam: This would take a book to answer properly. Chinese is rhyme-rich,
while English is rhyme poor. Chinese and Japanese poets use “pillow words,” a fixed epithet that gives a double-meaning. When our Asian poet speaks of “clouds and rain,” it may be about weather, but it also may be about sex. Clouds are masculine, rain is feminine. And individual Chinese characters often contain two or three or even four distinct meanings all at once, so the translator must choose a primary single meaning in English and “dumb it down” for the western reader. Classical Chinese poetry is chanted, not simply spoken. Classical Japanese poetry is loaded with sensibility, nuance and social awareness and often makes use of “honkadori,” “shadows and echoes” of classics both Japanese and Chinese. Translation is a provisional conclusion and great poetry needs to be translated freshly for each generation.
Shadab: What can we learn from Eastern aesthetics— in particular, the Chinese tradition?
Sam: Confucian exactitude of language, Taoist-Buddhist “non-attachment,” and most of all something about great human character at its core. Rexroth called Tu Fu “the greatest non-epic, non-dramatic poet ever,” and I think that reflects what he saw as Tu Fu’s character. As Heraclitus says, “Our character is our fate.” I think most classical Chinese poets would concur. I could make a similar case for Basho or Saigyo in Japanese.
Shadab: Is there such a thing as a “poem for all times”?
Sam: Sure. “Ode to the West Wind” would be a great poem in any language any day. Same with the great Zen poets or Rilke’s “Archaic Bust of Apollo” or… I could make a very long list.
Shadab: Are poets duty-bound to include a political consciousness/conscience in their work?
Sam: “Duty-bound?” I think not. But it’s almost impossible to write “apolitical” poetry in a world in which everything has political ties either directly or indirectly. A simple love poem is loaded with politics: is it heterosexual love we celebrate today? Is the “she” submissive or assertive? Is the “he” passive or dominant? Is “she” objectified or are her complexities reflected in the poetry? We’d have no “romance” in our poetry were it not for the meeting of Arabic and European tradition in Provence in the 12th century. I can’t imagine a poetry without conscience. Poetry, because it’s meant to communicate, is a social medium. Art is a social activity because it reaches out. Whether it’s Hopper or Goya, Plath or Rich or Gary Snyder, there is a social engagement that reflects back on culture and history.
Shadab: Is activist poetry effective as a catalyst for change in our times?
Sam: The “women’s movement” of the 60s and 70s was mostly begun by poets: Margaret Atwood, Adrienne Rich, Robin Morgan, Susan Griffin, et alia. They were inspired by Sappho, by Akhmatova, etc. Poetry has almost always been a part of social revolution. Think of the great poets of the Spanish resistance to fascism or the role of poets in Latin America and elsewhere. Nazim Hikmet struck terror into the hearts of his oppressors.
Shadab: How would you define the term world poet? Has America produced such a poet?
Sam: Whitman. He was read all over Latin America before we northerns realized how important he was. And to a lesser degree, Ezra Pound, and many of the post-modern poets transcend our borders.
Shadab: You once said: “You can’t write about character and the human condition and be apolitical—that’s not the kind of world we’ve ever lived in.”
Unlike most politically inclined poets, “apolitical” poets, such as the supremely popular former poet laureate Billy Collins (and a number of others), seem to have received tremendous success in earning laurels and even money. Why is that?
Sam: They entertain the lowest common denominator. They ask (or demand) almost nothing from their audience. They are the Edgar Guests of our age. They also ask very little of themselves, and certainly nothing the least bit revolutionary. They don’t present any threat to the status quo. Billy Collins was Poet Laureate when the USA invaded Iraq. But you’ll find no protest in his poetry.
Shadab: Is a compromise inevitable on the part of the poet laureates in terms of exercising their right to freely criticize government policies?
Sam: Laureates serve their masters. And themselves. Their primary function is to try to popularize poetry.
Shadab: The national poet laureate is an ambassador of sorts — between the dynamic world of poetry and the society at large. As the designated poet-ambassador of the world’s leading super power, should the US poet laureate speak to (in poetry or in person), or speak of — the people around the world whose lives are influenced by US policies?
Sam: A poet’s first duty is to open his or her heart and stand naked in the act of revelation. I wouldn’t be a poet laureate even if asked. My “master” is revolution—nonviolent anti-capitalist humane revolution. The greatest threat to the world today is American imperialism, just as it was a hundred years ago. The body count is almost beyond comprehension—millions dead in Iraq and Afghanistan, genocide against Palestinian peoples whose lands are being stolen day by day, 30,000 gun deaths in the USA every year, drone bombings of children in Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the sabotage of democratic governments in Latin American and elsewhere, sweatshops in Indonesia and China… the list goes on and on. Who will listen to the cries of the world? Who will dare speak for those who have been silenced?
Shadab: Would you tell us a bit about your forthcoming publications?
Sam: In September, Lost Horse Press will publish my Habitations: Collected Poems. It spans nearly half a century of writing. Recent translations of my poetry have been published in Egypt, Argentina, Italy, and one is forthcoming in France.
Sam Hamill is the author of fifteen volumes of poetry including Almost Paradise: Selected Poems & Translations (Shambhala, 2005), Dumb Luck (2002), Gratitude (1998), and Destination Zero: Poems 1970-1995 (1995). He has also published three collections of essays, including A Poet’s Work (1998), and two dozen volumes translated from ancient Greek, Latin, Estonian, Japanese, and Chinese, most recently, Tao Te Ching (2005), The Essential Chuang Tzu and The Poetry of Zen (with J.P. Seaton), Narrow Road to the Interior & Other Writings of Basho, and Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese.
He is editor of The Gift of Tongues: Twenty-five Years of Poetry from Copper Canyon Press, The Erotic Spirit, Selected Poems of Thomas McGrath, The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth (with Bradford Morrow), and Selected Poems of Hayden Carruth.
Hamill taught in prisons for fourteen years, in artist-in-residency programs for twenty years, and has worked extensively with battered women and children. He has been the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the U.S.-Japan Friendship Commission, two Washington Governor’s Arts Awards, the Stanley Lindberg Lifetime Achievement Award for Editing, and the Washington Poets Association Lifetime Achievement Award for poetry. He co-founded Copper Canyon Press and was Editor there from 1972 through 2004. In January 2003, he founded Poets Against War, editing an anthology with the same name, Poets Against the War (Nation Books, 2003). His work has been translated into more than a dozen languages.