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

Jeff Winkler Contributor
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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.

TheDC: So if “poetry is partisan,” then why the hell don’t political figures keep away from poets altogether, if they want to avoid controversy? Conversely, why the hell did you refuse Laura Bush’s invite? It seems like you could have used that important and public platform to unleash some serious poetic justice.
SH: Of course it crossed my mind that I could go and raise hell. But if I did that, my argument about the coming onslaught would be overshadowed by my behavior. The “argument” was presented by (at that time) 13,000 poets, which initiated a national discussion of the role of poetry in our culture as well as discussions about the proposed invasion. The Poets Against War anthology is now 30,000 poems by 26,000 poets—the largest single-theme anthology in recorded history.

A young poet in Bahrain was raped and murdered for speaking against tyranny. A young poet in Yemen just had his tongue cut out for speaking against tyranny. Poets can be very dangerous to politicians.

TheDC: So it seems you consider this controversy over Common of lesser value than the poets’ protests against the war in 2003 and that these attacks over the White House’s tacit support of Common’s violent, misogynist language are really just a racial issue? Can you elaborate?

We have a profound problem with race in this country. There are more black people in our prisons today than were slaves before the Civil War. The whole “birtherism” controversy was race-based — He is *not* one of *us* and so forth. Our whole criminal justice system is demonstrably racist.

Black and brown and red people fill our poorest schools and have the least of our health care. I suspect some of the outcry over Common is racist — a lot of comfortable white folks have a very low tolerance for angry black men. I believe part of the implied violence of rap music is the result of hopeless and frustrated young black men who achieve fame and money by out-doing the shock-potential of the next guy.

TheDC: I don’t necessarily see racism in the immediate complaints against inviting Common to the White House, then again, I am pretty white. However, reading Common’s “poems,” it’s my understanding that this artist is expressing the trials, tribulations and struggles of trying to do well while also having to act, live and survive in an manner that is sometimes diametrically opposed to that ideal. So, er, what do you see in the “poems”?

SH: I think I share your opinion.

I looked at some of his lyrics on-line between answering questions. He also seems to be devoting time and energy to helping inner city kids through teaching them to write poetry — a job I know very well from 20 years of Poets-in-Schools and teaching in prisons. That’s valuable, honorable work.

TheDC: If you were president — or first lady, as it is in this case — would you have invited Common?

SH: Whether old white guys like me sit in judgment of rap artists really doesn’t matter. Rap is street poetics, a performance art, that speaks to and for young people. Sadly, much of it has come along with pants on the ground and hats backward and a lot of prison gang culture. I think it wise for Obama to invite someone who is clearly trying to provide a more positive image for kids, trying to make them *literate* and articulate.

TheDC: I’m trying very hard to not veer into a sophomore level discussion of “What is Good Poetry,” so — putting the controversy aside, along with the idea that Common is an actual “poet” — who would you have invited to such a public forum as a White House poetry night?

SH: Poetry is a mansion with many rooms. Who would I invite? Martín Espada, Yusef Komunyakaa, Marilyn Hacker, Fady Joudah, Linda Gregg, Jane Hirshfield, Alfred Corn. These are all poets with international standing, “engaged” poets in various ways who have contributed in a major way to our literary heritage.

We need “internationalism” in our poetry. We need poets to hold up a mirror from the second and third worlds so that we may see what we really look like to the world. Just as we need to see America from inside the barrios, inside the slums, inside the eyes and hearts of poor, broken folks who mine our coal or fish our seas.

TheDC: After snubbing the White House, have you ever been called back?

Since ’03, I’ve had meetings, dinners with several House members, but no public “official” invitations. Nor do I anticipate invitations in the future. My 5 minutes of fame comes with an attendant infamy factor, I suppose.

TheDC: Although unfamiliar with rap music, is there any song or rapper that you have heard and liked? Or that seems interesting? I’m a big fan of Jay-Z myself.

SH: I’m nearly deaf. I don’t know anything about hip-hop or rap music.

TheDC: Do you think it’s a good idea for political commentators to be commenting on the merits of poetry? What about two very white guys on the merits of black culture and hip hop?

SH: In America, everyone is entitled to an opinion, but all opinions are not equal. I can argue the merits of Tu Fu’s or Basho’s poetry with the best of scholars, but my opinion of rap music doesn’t come with any substantial credentials. I look at politicians’ remarks on poetry as the comments of the uninformed in all but a few cases. Quite a number of poems from Poets Against War have been read into the Congressional Record.

We have a great many people in Congress who believe that Darwin’s Theory is “just a theory,” that global warming doesn’t actually exist, that earth was made by God 6,000 years ago, and a lot of other nonsense. It’s frightening to think of these people planning our future. And of course they all have opinions about poetry.

TheDC: Last question( and I gotta ask it) — Are you related to Mark Hamill, aka Luke Skywalker?

SH: I’m NOT related to Mark or Dorothy (skater) Hamill — or anyone else.

TheDC: In that case, I think our interview really is over.

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Jeff Winkler