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spacer.gif   Sam Hamill Reads For Unity Temple in Oak Park
Posted by : cj on Sunday, April 18, 2010 - 12:29 PM
Chicago Poetry News: Click On Headlines .

For seven years the Unity Temple Unitarian Church in Oak Park has been featuring a poetry / variety open mic with a featured guest on the third Saturday of every month. Over the years, the "Coffeehouse" host, Charlie Rossiter, has put his spotlight on big names and local up-and-coming artists alike. Past featured poets have included Robert Bly, Haki Madhubuti, Maria McCray, and dozens of others, and the venue also features musicians and other performance artists. The more than sixty featured guests are documented on the banner of fame that is draped behind the stage, on which each guest signs her or his name after the show.

On April 17, 1010, the esteemed guest was former Copper Canyon Press Publisher and Founder of Poets Against the War, Sam Hamill, in an event funded in part by the Poets & Writers readings / workshops program and the Social Mission Committee of Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation. I had the pleasure not only to witness Mr. Hamill's provocative reading, but a group of us also had dinner with him the evening before, during which an intimate conversation ensued.

Having been deeply and personally involved with the Poetry Against the War movement in 2002-3, I was excited about finally getting to meet Mr. Hamill, but didn't know what to expect. I was thrilled to meet someone who is completely down to earth and who speaks his mind freely without self-censorship. His controversial views about "not killing people" and his straightforwardness in telling us what we "already know" reminded me of videos that I have seen of Noam Chomsky speaking.

About seventy people came out on a cool spring evening for Sam Hamill's reading followed by a question and answer session. Mr. Hamill also held an afternoon workshop that was completely sold out. He started out by reading some of the work that he has translated, and then he moved on to some of his own poems. He read for about fifty minutes but it felt more like twenty.

Sam Hamill also shared his opinions in-between his political poems. He said that poetry in the United States is stifled by the politics of academia. Mr. Hamill couldn't stress enough that he believes Eduardo Galeano is the greatest poet living today.

The sixty-seven year old poet was very open and honest, admitting he not only finds peace through Zen Buddhism but also through wine and reefer, pointing out with a wink that he smokes it in countries where it isn't illegal. The predominantly liberal Oak Park audience may have been taken aback by Hamill's harsh criticism of President Obama, who Hamill says is continuing the war policies of George Bush and who recently ordered that anyone even suspected of being a "terrorist" can be assassinated. Hamill made it clear that we have invaded Latin America over 100 times and that just about every fascist dictator in Latin America was put into power thanks to the United States government, and that when it comes to war nothing has changed in America. "If you are looking for the answers in Obama you are looking in the wrong place," he said. "The answers are inside yourself." Whether the individual audience members agreed or disagreed with Hamill's views, it seemed clear that everyone found it refreshing to listen to someone who has such vast knowledge, who doesn't mince words and who isn't afraid to exercise his freedom of speech.

During our dinner at Charlie Rossiter's house, Hamill shared a story about how he had a heart attack in Buenos Aries and had to have a major operation involving five hours with two surgeons and a long stay in the hospital. Afterward, the Argentinean doctors profusely apologized to him because they had to bill him (only because he wasn't a citizen), but the entire bill only amounted to $7,000. After returning to the United States, Hamill had to have a much more minor follow up operation involving one hour with one surgeon, but he was billed over $25,000 for it. After about thirty years of publishing Copper Canyon Press, the press' board of directors did something that Hamill describes as "stabbing him in the back"—they forced him into early retirement from the very imprint he founded. And he had no health insurance. Later his wife came down with cancer and the hospital bills stacked up even higher. Presently, the Hamills are being forced to sell their house because of the debt.

But struggling is nothing new to Sam Hamill. Hamill was a high school drop out who served as a conscientious objector in the Marines in order to pay for community college, before he spent 20 years as a publisher without receiving a paycheck. These are the sacrifices of a revolutionary poet.

Sam Hamill said he wanted to stay in Chicago a few more days, but that he had to get back home because he and his wife had just adopted a puppy. "At my age," he said, "getting a puppy is a big deal, because it's probably going to live longer than I will."

--Story by CJ Laity


Note: was in Oak Park to cover the big Sam Hamill event. Here's the story.

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