Home » Newpages Blog » Interview with Sam Hamill

Interview with Sam Hamill

As presses age, as it were, the major problem is dealing with boards of directors and the eternal fundraising problem, and it’s cyclical, and it’s infinite, and it’s consuming, and it really isn’t very healthy, this perpetual begging for money. I’m not opposed to it—I’m a good Buddhist—but I also think you need to work in the garden. The “garden” is the labor- and time-intensive investment in our future, whether as working artists or as publishers. What I plant and nourish this year may bear fruit five years down the line. It’s work done for its own sake, for investment in one’s convictions.

NewPages: Over email, you told me you’ve been in the business for 32 years. Tell me how you got started in publishing.

Hamill: Well, I was editor of Spectrum, a literary magazine at the University of California in Santa Barbara in 1972. I won an award for the work I did there for producing “the best university literary magazine in the country” that year. The lovely people in the English Department tried to take the prize money, even though it was the “editor’s award,” so I decided I wasn’t made for life in academia, and I took that $500 prize money and with Tree Swenson and Bill O’Daly, I bought a printing press in Denver, Colorado. I wanted to get away from California culture for awhile, especially beach culture, which was never that hospitable to me anyway. So it was that year I got involved in printing and publishing.

NP: So you actually did printing as well as publishing?

Hamill: Oh, yes. Especially after we came to Port Townsend. I suppose it is unusual, but it shouldn’t be. It always amazes me that people want to write books but don’t know what a book is. I wanted to be a craftsman and work in the tradition of the book. We did a lot of studying of the history of the book over the years working on our letterpress. But letterpress books are very expensive, they’re very labor-intensive to make, and in order to serve poetry, we went to more modern technology eventually. The book as an object is a really marvelous thing. I still own my platen press and I might do some broadside printing or a book or two in my old age.

NP: Can you direct readers to specific books or articles that would give them a good background on the history of the book or other background book information?

I love Clifford Burke’s Printing Poetry and Adrian Wilson’s The Design of Books.

Also Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style.

NP: How did the press take off from there?

Hamill: In the fall of 1973, I met with Bill Ransom, who lived in Port Townsend. He and Joe Wheeler, who invented a non-profit arts organization called Centrum, were putting together a Port Townsend Symposium—they changed the name when it was pointed out that Symposium meant “to gather and drink.” They invited me to come and work with Centrum. They gave me a building in Port Townsend that was, for several years, rent-free. So I came here in utter poverty and lived in a travel-trailer, cleared some land, built my own house, and lived for several years. I had no regular income. I was basically supporting us and helping to support the press by teaching in prisons part time, in Artists in the Schools Programs, and working with battered women and children.

NP: Did that ever change, where Copper Canyon Press was making enough money that you didn’t have to support it?

Hamill: It changed in the 90s but it also radically changed the nature of the press, which is why I’m no longer there. It became a corporation, which creates corporate behavior, which is a kind of poison. People get involved in power and money and they lose sight of the real work. You have employees rather than real people who want to give something. That’s just the nature of corporate consciousness and I suppose it has to be because that’s what it’s there for. People make middle class incomes and live bourgeois lives. For the first 20 years of the press’s life, we lived “Buddhist economics,” which means we were not paid. That changes radically when you get a board of directors. You suddenly get bourgeois values and practices, a capitalist practice, in something that hadn’t been that way before.

The “garden” is the labor- and time-intensive investment in our future, whether as working artists or as publishers. What I plant and nourish this year may bear fruit five years down the line. It’s work done for its own sake, for investment in one’s convictions.

It’s not that Copper Canyon makes money. Non profit corporations don’t make money. 40-50% of every book that you buy from Copper Canyon or other nonprofit presses comes from fundraising and donations.

NP: So you’ve thrown out “corporate culture” as an appropriate kind of work environment. What kind of work environment do you think a literary press should create and cultivate in its stead?

I didn’t “throw it out.” I simply pointed out that “incorporation” creates a board of directors that may change the direction, the focus and practice, of the organization.

NP: Are you the only founding member who left the press?

Hamill: Bill O’Daly left the press about a year or so after we began. He went back to school and became a celebrated translator of Pablo Neruda, and resurrected a literary magazine, Willow Springs, at Eastern Washington University. Tree left in ‘91 to go to the Kennedy School of Government and she is now the Director of the American Academy of Poets.

NP: But neither of them left for the same reasons you did?

Hamill: We became non-profit to prepare for the separation of Tree and I. We were partners and we knew there would be problems. It was like a child custody battle, and that’s what motivated me to go along with becoming a nonprofit corporation. Tree left before the old value system changed.

For me, because I’m a practicing poet and a practicing translator, [running a press] was really my post-graduate work—which really never ends, because there are no degrees in poetry, despite what universities believe. So for 32 years, there were the people that I became involved with: my friends Tom McGrath, and Hayden Carruth—my last official act at Copper Canyon was to edit Carruth’s selected poems, Toward the Distant Islands. I mentored younger poets and went to school on my elders. Olga Broumas got me reading modern Greek poetry. Paul Hansen taught me how to use a Chinese dictionary and recommended textbooks.

In all of the politics of these 32 years, I’ve always been an engaged poet and an engaged Buddhist, so I’ve been an anti-war protestor for 40 years. I took a lot of flak in the early 70s for being “a feminist.” My work with the battered women led me to publish some books I wouldn’t have otherwise published. To paraphrase Ezra Pound, the work is really more of a fabric than a single thread.

NP: What are some of the experiences along the way that have proved rewarding?

Hamill: All of the above.

NP: Including leaving Copper Canyon?

Hamill: Well, I chose to go out on my feet [rather] than remain on my knees.

If I didn’t learn anything else in 32 years, I learned to stand up for something against powerful bourgeois forces, and whether that something was as broad and indefinable as poetry or whether it’s really a simple system of ethics, it’s what has sustained me most of my adult life. I’m sure most of that goes back to Zen practice, but I liked being in the service of poetry, and I did a lot of homework so I could do it efficiently and well.

NP: What was that homework?

Hamill: As mentioned, I became a major translator of classical Chinese and Japanese poetry. I learned a little Latin and Greek and translated. I learned the history of poetry in what we would call the “civilized” world, as well as the history of poetry from oral traditions. Learning the history of poetry in depth takes someone 20-30 years to really begin to grasp.

NP: So one question that kind of leads me to is whether you can publish poetry AND fiction AND non-fiction, that is, can you publish widely—or should you specialize?

Hamill: My feeling at Copper Canyon was that there was one place in America where poetry should come first. But there are perfectly good publishing companies that do more than just publish poetry and they publish good books of poetry, like Curbstone Press. Sometimes it’s a writer who’s multi-talented, sometimes it’s an editor with an eclectic taste. I simply preferred to keep it to poetry exclusively because that’s where my heart and practice reside. I published a great deal of translations, though I specialized in Asian poetry, but I was also eclectic in the poetry we published.

NP: What are the most common difficulties you encountered? How did you solve them?

Hamill: As presses age, as it were, the major problem is dealing with boards of directors and the eternal fundraising problem, and it’s cyclical, and it’s infinite, and it’s consuming, and it really isn’t very healthy, this perpetual begging for money. I’m not opposed to it—I’m a good Buddhist—but I also think you need to work in the garden.

The “garden” is the labor- and time-intensive investment in our future, whether as working artists or as publishers. What I plant and nourish this year may bear fruit five years down the line. It’s work done for its own sake, for investment in one’s convictions.

Boards of directors are composed mostly of business people who also care about the arts. They want “success,” which means sales, reducing poetry to a commodity for the masses. Great poets rarely reach the masses during their lifetime. Nobody, really, read Whitman or Dickinson, for instance, until the mid-twentieth century. Sometimes the best poets sell in very low numbers during their lifetime. So there’s likely to be conflict in defining “success,” conflict between a visionary editor and his or her support system.

NP: Can a press that publishes poetry forgo that “begging for money”—in a country where people don’t buy poetry?

Hamill: You can’t say that. Part of the problem is that so much poetry is being published—over 2,000 titles each year. You don’t have to sell very many of each before you have a very large audience, but it’s a very eclectic audience. It can’t rival readers of pop fiction, but that’s why we’re nonprofit. We just need to find more efficient ways for the literati to have more control. There’s frankly too much bad poetry being published these days. Every graduating MFA has a fistful of publishable poetry, certified publishable by the institution. That’s foolish. It sets up a lot of false expectations. Most of those people cozy up to academia, where they live comfortable lives outside the mainstream of humanity. And they all publish and publish.

There’s a reason why sacrifice is such a major theme in poetry around the world. It’s a kind of religion. It’s the “vision thing.” We’re losing the tribal knowledge of the sacrifice that it takes to be a poet. We [poets] do this out of love. That is more important than a $60,000 salary. Desktop publishing is both wonderful and a horrible curse, because everything becomes immediately publishable.

Why do people who want to write not know anything about the history of writing? Why don’t they know anything about letter forms? I learned about those things because I wanted to write. I thought you should know where words come from and where letters come from. Did these letter-forms just suddenly appear? People talk about Chinese pictographs—but our D comes from the Greek, probably from Sumerian before that, and is a diagram of a door swinging on a hinge. Our A is from the Greek Alpha, which is a bull’s head turned upside down. So a lot of the letters in our alphabet go back to pictographic sources. We have such a wonderful hodgepodge of ideas in our writing, odds and ends of Greek and Spanish and Japanese. All these words creep into our language and sometimes change and sometimes connect with deep roots to their foreign cultures. It seems to me writers should know about that stuff, but we spend all our time on self-expression.

A good editor goes to school on language, on its sources and traditions, as well as on the poetry. The idea situation would be an endowed press, like New Directions, that allows a brilliant editor to be brilliant without the conflict between the numbers game and the vision of the practice.

NP: OK, but I still want to know whether for-profit poetry presses can survive today. How did Copper Canyon survive for so many years before going non-profit?

We had an “umbrella organization” in Centrum that allowed us to get grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and we learned to master the arts of poverty. We studied hard and worked hard and made sacrifices for the good of the press.

NP: One of the things I’m always curious about is how publishing companies end up with their name. Is there a story behind the name, “Copper Canyon Press”?

Hamill: It actually came to me in a dream in Denver when we were thinking about names. I grew up in Utah, on the east side of the Great Salt Lake valley, and at that time there was a huge open pit copper mine in the western mountains. That was a sacred place for the Utes, who made medicine jewelry out of the copper. So the name Copper Canyon has ecological resonance and echoes of our bloody history of annihilating the original Americans.

NP: What kept you going in the business for 32 years?

Hamill: Love of the work. As simple as that.

NP: Is there a secret to selling poetry?

Hamill: It helps to publish good poetry. It also helps to publish writers who are aware that books need to be promoted, and nothing sells poetry better or more efficiently than poetry readings. Find authors who will do the work to help support the books. It also helps to do your typographic and book art homework to create a product that stands out in an overcrowded mostly ugly marketplace. It takes time and patience and dedication to learn the traditions of the arts of the printed book and there’s a reason why those traditions are enduring. It’s too easy in a busy culture, in a culture where a book has a lifespan of 6 weeks in some markets, to rush a book into print. If a book is good, it’s not so important when the book comes into print. We spend way too much time worrying about sale numbers. As I said, nobody really read Whitman between the beginning of 20th century and the end of the World War II. We have Allen Ginsburg to thank for the resurrection of Whitman. Poetry is full of stories like this. The most important thing is to be a good reader and a good judge of poetry, and to see it in the long-range rather than what’s immediate.

If you really look at the history of poetry, the great editors of our age are really very few. James Laughlin had his own money to do it at New Directions. Harry Ford always had corporate publishers to support him. But people like George Hitchcock— there’s a name that’s disappeared from the literary lexicon, and yet what a wonderful editor he was. He cranked out his magazines and stapled books on a mimeograph machine. That doesn’t make him any less of a great editor. He just had to do it within his means.

NP: If enough presses started doing this—publishing within their means [and thus, publishing with stapled books etc.], it could become trendy!

Hamill: There’s nothing worse for literature than the latest trend. Those days are gone.

NP: Other than readings, how did authors help promote their books of poetry for Copper Canyon? Did any of your authors participate in what is being called “guerrilla marketing” these days and, if so, what did they do?

Hamill: I’m not familiar with that term. But most of my authors promoted their work by participating in readings and engaging in their own communities in various ways.

NP: Can you name a few of the best sources to read about important new books from small literary presses, especially ones that review poetry?

My major complaint today is the lack of intelligent book reviewing. It’s an art not taught in most MFA writing programs, and the lack of crucial critical dialogue hurts poetry and leaves too many poets with flabby self-absorbed practice.

NP: If you were going to give a new independent publisher, one who is just starting out, one piece of advice—advice that would give that publisher longevity in the field—what would it be?

Hamill: Do your homework. Stand for something. Define what you stand for and live for it and be willing to die by it. It’s the same advice I give a new poet, or for that matter, an old poet. Or a young Buddhist.

NP: In 2003, you started a startlingly successful project, Poets Against War. How did you start that and where are you going with that these days?

Hamill: I’ve been deeply involved recently with poets in other countries. I spent January in Argentina, and I suspect the Argentine Poets Against War organization will go online sometime in the next few weeks. I’ve been working with a Bengali poet, Prabal Kumar Basu, with the Indian Poets against War. We have fellow organizations in England, Spain, France, Italy, kind of all over the world. While there aren’t any official organizations there yet, there are a great many poets in the Middle East that support what we do. I am currently editing a manuscript for an Iraqi poet who escaped from one of Saddam’s prisons and who lives in France now and writes mostly in France. My friend Salah Al Hamdani learned to write poetry while in prison. Another is a poet from Jordan who is also a novelist, whom I met at an international poetry conference in Medellin, Ibrahim Nasrallah.

I was shocked at the level of ignorance and downright illiteracy in mass media, people asking me stupid questions like, “Why can’t you just leave the politics out of it?” as if there were any poems in the world that were apolitical. 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.

I think this cross-cultural pollination is really the solution down the road. It’s harder to bomb people when you know them, and it’s harder to hate them when you know their culture. Poets Against War is alive and well. We hope this president [George W. Bush], if he’s not impeached, will be tried in absentia for his war crimes. We support rights to privacy and that wonderful sagging document called the Constitution of the United States.

NP: Do you think the organization [Poets Against War] is experiencing less controversy than it did when it started in 2003?

Hamill: Much less controversy. After all, 2 out of 3 Americans now agree with us, at least on this war. But I must say I was shocked at the level of ignorance and downright illiteracy in mass media, people asking me stupid questions like, “Why can’t you just leave the politics out of it?” as if there were any poems in the world that were apolitical. 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. We’re far less controversial these days than we were in the beginning. But the White House still hasn’t held its Symposium on Whitman, Dickinson and Langston Hughes. If you haven’t done so, you should read Whitman’s advice to poets in the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass and see what kind of revolutionary he was. In fact, it’s short, I’ll just read it to you:

“Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown, or to any man or number of men—go freely with powerful uneducated persons, and with the young, and with the mothers or families—re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book, and dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem, and have the richest fluency, not only in its words, but in the silent lines of its lips and face, and between the lashes of your eyes, and in every motion and joint of your body.”

You should also read the Poets Against War files—there’s some pretty good stuff in there.

NP: Do you have a good relationship with Copper Canyon Press these days?

Hamill: No. There is no love lost between us and the feeling is mutual. I’ve written an essay on how I was sabotaged and how I was treated by those who pulled off the coup. I’ll publish it in a collection of autobiographical essays I’m writing for Curbstone Press.

NP: Many people go into publishing because they love books; many writers go into publishing for reasons that remain mysterious to me, even though I am a writer planning to do just that. While you were doing both, how did you balance writing and publishing?

Hamill: I never let my publishing be a routine 40 hour a week job. Sometimes it was 60 or 80 hours, sometimes it was twenty-five. I’ve always been an early riser, 4:30 or 5, which means I have 3 hours or so at my desk before the business day begins. I’d also work in the afternoon or evening on learning, or on translation. So I might wear three or four different hats each day. In that practice, it never grew monotonous. But there was always work to do. I’m a disciplined writer and I believe you master your craft by working at it. Writing, editing, translating, learning the history of language and the history of the printed book… it’s all one work.

Sam Hamill is the author of fourteen volumes of original poetry. He is Founding Editor of Copper Canyon Press and was Editor there from 1972 through 2004. In January, 2003, he founded Poets Against War. He lives with his wife, the painter Gray Foster, in a home he built himself in the cedar woods near Port Townsend, Washington.

Spread the word!