TheDC interview: Sam Hamill, the left’s answer to the Common-White House poet controversy

Like some jack-up freestyle artist firing off one verse after another, the controversy surrounding rapper Common’s invitation to join the White House’s poetry night continues to flow along. After The Daily Caller reported that some of Common’s lyrics appear to, among other things, condone violence against the police, commentators took to the web to denounce or support the “poet”/actor/rapper’s invitation.

All the attention has been a minor headache for the Obama administration, which distanced itself from Common’s more uncommon lines (though he’s still came last night!). The White House should have known better, though. Not about inviting Common, of course, but from inviting poetry into the White House in the first place.

In 2003, first lady Laura Bush tried to host a White House poetry symposium to honor the likes of Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. It was cancelled after officials rightfully feared antiwar poets would attempt to sabotage a pleasant evening of verse recitation. Spearheading the effort to turn the event political was poet Sam Hamill, who not only declined the White House’s invitation to attend the festivities but also rallied antiwar poets, wrote an open letter protesting the event and set up the website Poets Against War a month later.

Now that the shoe is on the other foot, TheDC asked Hamill for his take on the current poet imbroglio.

TheDC: First reactions? Quick! This is like improvisational, slam-poetry!

Sam Hamill (SH): I’m not at all familiar with Common nor, for that matter, with rap music in general.

My initial reaction to the White House poetry night is basically unchanged. I would not have accepted an invitation because I don’t bow to those who wage illegal, immoral wars. While I’m glad the Obamas wish to honor poetry, he is a president who refuses to put war criminals on trial and who continues the policies of G.W. Bush and his unwinnable “war on terror.” We are currently engaged in wars in four countries, with no signs of an end in sight. We are also decimating Mexico and Colombia in an endless, violent and unwinnable “war on drugs.” We live in an ever-increasing police state as a consequence.

I ask today the same question I asked when founding Poets Against War eight years ago: “Who will speak for the conscience of our country?” As Albert Camus said, “We can be murderers or the accomplices of murderers, or we must resist with our whole being. And since this terrible dividing line does actually exist, it would be a benefit if it be clearly drawn.” Controversy over some rapper or poet contributes nothing to our national character or to the quality of our dialogue.

TheDC: The big brouhaha was initially based on a couple lines about “Burning Bush” and a NWA-like appreciation of police. What do you think of Common’s lyrics and the critical reaction?

SH: It’s not for me to comment on his writing. This is pop music stuff, a genre I lost interest in more than 30 years ago. Context matters. Do we have to *be* the lyrics we write; might he be speaking through a persona? I have no way of knowing. I personally oppose violence — and that would include a lot of rap music (including its misogynistic practitioners).

It always gets messy when trying to conduct a college course on “The Meaning and Purpose of Poetry” on a national, political scale, so I’ll save that for later.

As a *tactic* the right-wingers have been playing the ad hominem personal attack game since many years before Poets Against War. The NYTimes and Wall St Journal both ran personal attacks on me in ’03 — ironically, both chose former Nixon speechwriters to pen the attacks. I think the tactic was born with Nixon’s Southern Strategy (racial problem?) and brought prominently to the fore by Karl Rove.

TheDC: Ok. You began our dialogue by saying “The right … will of course exploit whatever they can — whether about birth certificates or artists appearing at the White House.” But conservatives’ uproar over Common seems to be a tactic taken straight from The left’s own playbook. That is, taking something as seemingly noncontroversial as a White House poetry reading and turning it into a partisan debate a la 2003. So is this Common controversy just the poetic chickens coming home to write, so to speak. Do you think that’s accurate?

SM: Poetry is partisan. Poets tend to be humanists — liberals in the classic sense. Some of us farther left, but very few (almost none) on the right. But in our case, the issue at hand was not a rapper or an evening of poetry, the issue was the invasion of a country that posed no threat to ours. Is it proper to go make nice with the most powerful man on earth as he is plotting the murder of countless thousands of innocent people?

TheDC: “Liberals in the classic sense,” eh? Sounds suspiciously like classical liberalism. Looking back over your comments, you seems a little libertarian, if I may be so bold.

I think there’s a libertarian streak among poets, yes, especially when it comes to things like the right to control your own body (drugs, abortion, “personal freedoms” etc). By “liberal,” I mean concerned with equality and social and economic justice, a humanistic educational system, and so forth.
As for me, I’m a socialist. I believe everyone should be covered for health care and that “natural resources” belong to all of us, not to corporate capitalists who exploit them for profit. I believe strongly in progressive taxation. But I’m certainly no Leninist.