PORT TOWNSEND -- Sam Hamill, a reclusive former Marine turned Zen Buddhist poet, is an unlikely spokesman for the anti-war poetry movement he started almost by accident.
Hamill triggered a nationwide artistic uprising when he declined a White House invitation to a literary symposium Feb. 12, instead asking fellow poets to write protest poems.
That act of dissent continues to gain momentum, and yesterday Hamill braved a blizzard to join other poets in the limelight of New York City's Lincoln Center for public readings to raise money for anti-war efforts.
Scheduled to share the stage before a packed house with Hamill: former U.S. poet laureates Stanley Kunitz and Robert Pinsky and Pulitzer Prize winners C.K. Williams and Mark Strand, to name a few -- heady company for a man who describes himself as a bookish recluse who spends most of his time "talking with dead Chinese poets."
The New York event, "Poems Not Fit for the White House," and the national movement of nearly 9,000 poets came together after Hamill and several other poets declined to attend the White House symposium on Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes. First lady Laura Bush canceled the event after Hamill e-mailed the following letter to fellow poets:
"When I picked up my mail and saw the letter marked 'The White House,' I felt no joy. Rather I was overcome by a kind of nausea. . . . I believe the only legitimate response to such a morally bankrupt and unconscionable idea is to reconstitute a Poets Against the War movement like the one organized to speak out against the war in Vietnam. . . ."
He asked "every poet to speak up for the conscience of our country and lend his or her name to our petition against this war."
The White House response: "It would be inappropriate to turn a literary event into a political forum."
Hamill says he expected 400 or 500 responses, not the national outpouring that followed. In the first week, more than 4,000 poets stepped forward with statements and poems denouncing the war. The contributions came from some of the most distinguished poets in the country, including Galway Kinnel, Hayden Carruth, Phillip Levine, W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich and Ursula Le Guin of Portland. By Saturday, submissions to his Web site (poetsagainstthewar.org) had exceeded 10,000.
"The Bushes did the best possible thing they could have for me by shutting down the program and demonstrating how afraid they are of poets and poetry," Hamill said.
Hamill, 59, admits his role as de facto spokesman for the movement is a bit unnerving.
"Being on the public stage is a little difficult for me, but in this particular situation, I welcome it," he said. "I don't expect to be the spokesperson or leader of this movement at the end of this summer, but I'm proud to have started it. . . . This is the largest assembly of poets ever to speak in a single voice in all of recorded history -- it's pretty amazing."
The fact that the Internet, the technology that facilitated the effort, was developed by the military isn't lost on him.
"Irony never escapes poets," he said.
Hamill founded the Copper Canyon Press, now housed at Fort Worden State Park, three decades ago. In the years that followed, he built his home and studio, a peaceful retreat tucked in the trees on the outskirts of the Olympic Peninsula, to suit his solitary personality and his practice of Zen Buddhism, which began while he was in the military.
"I'm not the Marine Corps' proudest moment," he said.
Nonetheless, it was while serving on Iwo Jima in 1963 that Hamill came to a conclusion about war that put him at odds with his duty.
"When it comes to murder -- which is really what killing of the innocents is -- there is no middle ground," he said. "If you understand the line between killing and not killing, you really can't have it both ways."
Although an understanding commander counseled him to keep those thoughts to himself and persuaded him to finish out his tour, Hamill came home a changed man.
"The practice of non-violence, the practice of poetry and the practice of Zen is one practice," Hamill said.
"I will lay down my life for my Constitution, but I will not kill for it."
As the leader of the poets' movement, Hamill has taken considerable flak, and searing rebukes have appeared in the pages of The Wall Street Journal.
"I get hate mail all the time, right-wingers who have a spleen to vent, and I'm a pretty large target," he said. "I have pretty thick skin."
It's not Hamill's first effort to derail a war.
In 1991, Hamill said, he sent a message to Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, a haiku by Japanese poet Basho:
All that remains of a great soldier
In return, he got a form letter: "Thank you for supporting our troops."
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