“What is true peace, I cannot know.
A hundred wars have come and gone
as I’ve grown old. I bear their burdens in my bones.
Mine’s the heart that burns
today, mine the thirst, the hunger in the soul.”
-Sam Hamill, True Peace
It’s likely no surprise to those who know me or regularly read this blog that I’m an avid reader. I also have a master’s degree in writing and have had the pleasure to meet many writers besides my grad school instructors. Some of those writers and teachers influenced my wanderlust and unknowingly convinced me to move abroad.
I think about those writers every now and then — some more than others as I have connected with some on Facebook and Instagram. And I’ve recently thought about many of them a bit more as I learned of the passing of poet Sam Hamill on April 14.
During my second summer writing program at Naropa University in Colorado, I had the pleasure of meeting Sam. The week he taught at the school, I was enrolled in a class with another writer, but I got to learn about Sam’s work through panels and readings. He was different from the other visiting faculty — he was more straightforward and didn’t want to sugarcoat any criticism he had. Sam didn’t seem to care for the touchy-feely nature of creative writing programs in the US — he was willing to tell students when they were wrong.
Hearing him speak was a breath of fresh air. Some students were even intimidated by his personality. I found Sam fascinating. I was fortunate enough to join the faculty for drinks and light snacks at The Boulderado Hotel bar after faculty readings (most students didn’t go because they didn’t feel comfortable around the visiting writers, so I had an easier time talking with them). Sam talked at length about his time in the Marines, stationed in Japan.
He told me about his love of the language and food and drink. He said he’d wake up early when stationed in Japan so he could study Japanese. His goal was to study Zen Buddhist texts in Japanese instead of through translation. And that led him to translate Japanese poetry, as well as classical Chinese poetry even though he couldn’t speak Mandarin (he admitted that it was a more difficult language).
By the end of the summer, I had a signed copy of Sam’s Gratitude, which I have held on to and reread a few times.
Prior to meeting Sam Hamill, I had decided that I wanted to move abroad for a while. I had a contemporary novel class with novelist Laird Hunt earlier that year. Laird told stories about his time in Japan in the JET program and his subsequent work at the UN. We read Circle K Cycles by Karen Tei Yamashita, which fascinated me with its story and use of Japanese and Brazilian Portuguese.
A semester later, I enrolled in the TEFL certification program to complete while writing my dissertation. I was interested in moving to Japan then, though I wanted to avoid Tokyo at the time. I spent many evenings at the sake bar in Boulder, working on my dissertation as well as some freelance editing to pay for my drinks. As just about everyone there was from Japan, I asked a lot of questions — the staff was encouraging me to move.
As graduation neared, I wasn’t entirely set on moving to Japan. Between my dissertation semester and the second summer writing program, I traveled to Israel. I began looking for jobs there, though there didn’t seem to be much other than some volunteer work.
During that same summer that I met Sam Hamill, I met poet Linh Dinh. When I first met Linh, I had just applied for a job to teach in Vietnam. I told him about it and his response was, “Why?” He didn’t think moving to the country of his birth was a great idea. He did, however, like a short story that I showed him and encourage me to send it to a few publications (that story is still unpublished and continues to rack up rejections (UPDATE: It has been published)).
In the end, I moved to neither Japan nor Vietnam, though I would stay in both for an extended time years later. But it was the insight of those writers and others that drove my experience abroad. They made me strive to learn Chinese — sink or swim as I had thought of it then.
I wrote some poetry during my time in China, and a few of those poems have been published in now-defunct journals. I even started a China-focused literary journal that published nine issues (a few of them are still available on Issuu).
I’m grateful for writers like Sam Hamill who have influenced me through more than just their writing.