PORT TOWNSEND — Sam Hamill, a poet, translator and anti-war activist who as co-founder of Copper Canyon Press published works by Pablo Neruda, W.S. Merwin and many other celebrated poets, has died at age 74.
Hamill died Saturday at his home in Anacortes, following a period of ill health. His death was announced by Copper Canyon, which he, Bill O’Daly and Tree Swenson helped start in 1972.
Although based thousands of miles from the New York publishing industry, Copper Canyon became the literary home to some of the world’s greatest poets, whether Merwin or Theodore Roethke or such Nobel Prize winners as Neruda and Octavio Paz. Hamill himself wrote poetry. His works include the career retrospective “Habitation.” He also translated poetry from Mandarin and Japanese, and, at times, used poems for protest. In February 2003, he helped organize a campaign to send thousands of poems and statements to the White House in opposition to the imminent Iraq War, which President George W. Bush began the following month.
Known for his confrontational style, Hamill had been responding to an invitation from first lady Laura Bush to a poetry forum at the White House. The event was canceled.
Hamill’s growing involvement in the anti-war movement helped lead to his departure from Copper Canyon in 2004.
“Through his advocacy, social consciousness, political engagement, and acts of resistance, he set a model that the Press still engages today,” Copper Canyon Press Editor-In-Chief Michael Wiegers said in a statement Tuesday. “Sam was a passionate defender of those he loved, and had a determined, yet open mind when it came to new discoveries. He was a mentor, friend, and model for living with a great commitment to poetry.”
Hamill was raised on a farm in Utah and endured an early life of violence, drug abuse and jail time. He was a teenage heroin addict, living in the San Francisco streets, when he had the “dumb luck” to fall for poetry, as encountered in the basement of the famous City Lights bookstore. He studied under poet Kenneth Rexroth at the University of California, Santa Barbara. A $500 literary prize he won while a student was used in starting Copper Canyon.
He is survived by a daughter, Eron Hamill, of British Columbia.