Copper Canyon Press Editor Sam Hamill, the Port Townsend literary firebrand who famously irked the White House last year by rallying hundreds of fellow poets against the Iraq War...

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Copper Canyon Press Editor Sam Hamill, the Port Townsend literary firebrand who famously irked the White House last year by rallying hundreds of fellow poets against the Iraq War, has announced he is leaving the publishing firm he helped start 32 years ago.

Hamill, 61, said he will step down as Copper Canyon’s founding director, editor and artistic director on Jan. 1. He will work instead as a consultant to the company.

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Hamill has served as the nonprofit press’s editor since its earliest days, helping to turn it into one of the country’s largest and most prestigious poetry-book publishers. Copper Canyon released the two most recent volumes by America’s current poet laureate, Ted Kooser.

Known as a colorful and strong-willed figure in the Northwest book world, Hamill organized Poets Against the War in February 2003 after first lady Laura Bush invited him to a poetry symposium at the White House. Rather than simply decline the invitation as a way of expressing his opposition to the impending Iraq invasion, he solicited anti-war verse from poets across the country and made plans to present those submissions at the symposium. The White House quickly postponed the event.

Sounding no less passionate about his anti-war stance in a telephone interview yesterday, Hamill said his political efforts, his own poetry and translation projects and his day-to-day work at Copper Canyon, based at Fort Warden State Park, had become too much.

“I’ve been at Fort Warden for 30 years and I feel like the work that we’re doing with Poets Against the War was just terribly important,” he said. “One can only wear so many hats — I stretched myself thin on both ends.”

“I want to do more work as an ambassador for poetry,” he said.

But it was unclear yesterday how much influence the board of directors had in Hamill’s decision. The publishing house is growing at a time when Hamill has been dividing his attention among outside projects.

Earlier this year, Hamill was removed from his job as director of the Port Townsend Writer’s Conference, which is staged by the nonprofit arts organization Centrum, an umbrella group that includes Copper Canyon Press.

Hamill acknowledged conflicts with others in positions of authority over Copper Canyon, but he declined to elaborate.

Copper Canyon Board President David Brewster, however, described the decision as “organic.”

“I would say that it was a mutual effort that got us to where we are, but there was not a lot of fist-banging,” he said.

Press co-founder Tree Swenson, who now works as executive director at the Academy of American Poets in New York, described Hamill’s departure as a natural transition in the life of a successful, if small, publishing house.

“In a way, it feels like our child is finally going off into the world to make its own way,” she said. She expressed confidence that Copper Canyon’s board and staff will be able to move the press forward.

Copper Canyon Executive Director Michael Wiegers will assume Hamill’s role as artistic director, a position that allows him to choose which books the press publishes. Citing Hamill as his mentor — as well as the man who hired him — Wiegers said he’ll remain dedicated to Hamill’s vision for the company.

“It’s now an institution that has an identity of its own,” Hamill said. “That’s my gift to the poets and poetry that have made my life worth living.”

Tyrone Beason: 206-464-2251