Poet remains unbowed against Iraq war

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Remember "shock and awe"? It's one of those memorable phrases uttered before the United States invaded Iraq four years ago, but it set in motion a unique protest movement that continues to flourish.

It began as a one-man revolt by Sam Hamill, prolific poet and founder of Copper Canyon Press, who was so appalled at the implications of the phrase that he spurned an invitation to read at the White House.

Instead, he launched Poets Against the War, an online writing project that has since collected more than 20,000 poems and organized nationwide protests that continue. His opposition also forced first lady Laura Bush to cancel the Feb. 12, 2003 event.

Hamill, 64, has not canceled his poetry-fueled protests, though. Wednesday, he opens the International Poetry Forum's season, another stop in his busy travel schedule.

Poets Against the War has "geared down a little bit," Hamill said last week from his home in Port Townsend, Wash. "We're not in the newspapers much anymore, but we continue to take part in demonstrations."

He listed what he called "sort of a writers convention against the war" planned for Washington, D.C., in late March called Split This Rock.

"Writing is a solitary undertaking," explained Hamill. "Although most of us are engaged one way or another [in anti-war efforts], writers have to earn a living, so we continue to do what we do, and that, for the most part, is to study and write and try to elevate the conversation a little bit from the moronic level -- mostly, I would say, unsuccessfully."

The Vietnam War engendered more memorable protests than the Iraqi occupation, but Hamill believes that "in many ways this war is a much more serious mistake.

"Just as we have poisoned Vietnam with Agent Orange -- and I've been there interviewing first-, second- and third-generation victims of Agent Orange, and I've seen what it does -- we're doing the same thing with depleted uranium [contained in shells] in Baghdad."

He believes the American legacy in the Middle East will be a troublesome one.

"Arabic cultures have a very long social memory," Hamill said. "They will remember Abu Ghraib 500 years from now when we've long forgotten it."

The political legacy will be just as damaging, he added.

"This is an administration that is basically destroying our Constitution. We didn't have that in Vietnam. Even [President Richard] Nixon, as nasty as he was, didn't try to demolish the Constitution."

Sam Hamill reads at the Carnegie Lecture Hall at 8 p.m. Tickets: 412-621-9893.


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