Sam Hamill, who co-founded Port Townsend’s poetry powerhouse Copper Canyon Press, wrote and translated poetry and was an anti-war activist, has died in Anacortes. He was 74.
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.
Mr. 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.
A writer himself, Mr. Hamill published four books of literary prose and seventeen books of poetry, including the 2014 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 invasion of Iraq, which President George W. Bush began the following month.
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Known for his confrontational style, Mr. Hamill had been responding to an invitation from first lady Laura Bush to a poetry forum at the White House. The event was canceled.
Mr. 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.”
Mr. 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.
His career also included twelve years as editor at the American Poetry Review and thirty years with the Port Townsend Writer’s Conference in Washington (ten as its director). Mr. Hamill’s many awards and honors included Guggenheim, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, The Lila Wallace – Reader’s Digest Fund, and Woodrow Wilson Foundation fellowships, The Stanley Lindberg Lifetime Achievement Editor’s Award from the Rainier Writing Workshop – Pacific Lutheran University, Lifetime Achievement Award in Poetry from the Washington Poets Association, two Washington State Governor’s Writers Day Awards, the First Amendment Award from PEN USA, a US Japan Friendship Commission Fellowship, and the Decoración de la Universidad de Carabobo in Venezuela.
He is survived by a daughter, Eron Hamill, of British Columbia. A memorial is planned in Anacortes on May 15, with details to be announced later.
Seattle Times arts critic Moira Macdonald contributed to this report.