In the Shade of a Cedar: An Interview with Sam Hamod, by Kalpna Singh-Chitnis

The writer Ishmael Reed once praised Sam Hamod as “… a brilliant poet in the ancient sense of the word. He can write as though his pen were a sword, as well as write as though his pen were the stem of a rose.” Those who are familiar with the work of Sam Hamod would agree.

Nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature by the famed Mexican novelist, Carlos Fuentes and twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, Sam Hamod is a significant literary figure in American literature. His work has been praised by such important writers as Pablo Neruda, Mahmoud Darwish, Jorge Luis Borges, Amiri Baraka, Robert Hayden, Ray Carver and Kurt Vonnegut.

Hoping to trace the intriguing life journey of an American poet born to a Lebanese Muslim family in the United States and raised amidst the diversity in Gary, Indiana, when I contacted Sam Hamod to interview him, he graciously accepted my invitation.  Sam Hamod, the man and the poet, is like a gigantic cedar that was born on American soil, but had its roots extended all the way to the Cedars of God. He embodies America’s promise to immigrants, and inspires a new and diverse generation of writers. We are thrilled to publish this rare interview with Dr. Sam Hamod.

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Sam Hamod. Photo by, Kristine Scott


KSC:
Tell us about the Sam Hamod we do not know.

SH: Most of who I am is evident in my poems; I have a deep rooted belief in God/Allah, and know God/Allah is the source of all I am, have been and can do as a man, as a poet and as a true spiritual leader. Probably the biggest good influences on me were my mother, her sisters and her brothers; they were all self-sufficient, hard-working, but devout Muslims who wouldn’t take guff from anyone, and if and when they felt like it; they would say, “I guess I’ll go down the road.” We’d say where, and they’d say “I’ll let you know when I get there.” My mother was all about love, so much so that my cousins would all say, “I wish your mother was my mother…” because of the love she gave without  ever asking in return. I feel the same way, Allah has been so good to me that I can only say, “Thank you for all the blessings you have bestowed on me in this life…”

KSC: How did you become a poet?

SH: I never planned to become a poet; I was to be a trial lawyer. My partner and I won the moot court, beating the 2nd and 3rd year students, and the dean told me he felt I would be a great trial lawyer because of my ability to persuade rather than just argue in a court case. But after thinking it over, and with some important life events occurring, I decided to become a professor of communications.

I left law school to help my family at a bad time in Gary, Indiana. My father told me we’d sell our properties and move to Iowa, where my mother, also from a Lebanese Muslim family, had been born. Sadly, he lied; he just wanted me to come back in order to run the lounge he had in his past, where he’d made a lot of money. Suddenly, at 22 years old and fresh out of a year in the University of Chicago Law School, I was carrying a 32, a 38, and a 25 caliber in my side pocket, with a slapstick in my back pocket. My customers were mill-workers, garbage workers, railroad workers, pimps, prostitutes and rough African Americans. But, because I’d grown up in the bar business, I knew how to do it and I liked the people and they liked me so it went well until the end of 2nd year when men began losing their jobs in the steel mills and their frustration of smaller or no check led to more fights, and it got so bad I couldn’t keep a bouncer and the police didn’t come when I called them, saying, “It’s your bar, and it’s your problem, we’ll come later…” Finally, after thinking it over, having made a lot of money, I left and decided to go back to graduate school at Northwestern University to become a professor.

I then became a professor, first at Western Carolina College, in Cullowhee, North Carolina, then later at Valparaiso University, and excellent Lutheran University. Later, when I was on the faculty of Valparaiso University, I began to switch from writing stories to writing poems, and I’ve done it since. It came from nowhere, with no plan. When I went for a PhD In American Studies at the University of Iowa, I became bored with that field and decided to go further as a poet.

At first, the workshop, under the direction of George Starbuck wouldn’t let me in, because they said I couldn’t write. But then Bill Merwin  (W. S. Merwin) and Anselm Hollo, heard some of my poems at a party, and they liked them so much that they invited me to join them for lunch in Amana, Iowa, the next day, where they were the featured guests. Actually, when Merwin and Hollo first heard my poems, I told them they were Eskimo poems in translation. Later, I told them the two short poems were mine. It was then they invited me to join them for lunch in Amana.

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Sam Hamod. Photo by Kristen Scott

On arrival in Amana, Starbuck asked what I was doing there. Merwin said, “He’s my guest.” Then as the luncheon went on, Merwin spoke up and said, “Sam has some of the best poems I’ve seen here at Iowa in the two weeks I’ve been here; he should be in the writers workshop.” There was silence, then Hollo spoke up and said, ”I’ll take him in my  workshop.” So it was done; I was in the best of the poetry workshops, and within a year I was teaching the writers workshop. And before I knew it, I had published three books, The Holding Action, The Famous Boating Party and then Surviving in America  (with the great poets, Anselm Hollo and Jack Marshall), and was soon to publish, After the Funeral of Assam Hamady with the unique and famed Perishable Press that was publishing Nobel and  Pulitzer Prize poets.

KSC: What inspires you to write?

SH: Everything and anything: love, war, sorrow, happiness, a first snowfall, the smile from some girl you love and who loves you; events from my past with my family and friends and whatever comes into my heart. I always write from and to the heart, not from the cerebrum. I also write political pieces as many of you have seen, and some of my poems are political, but I make sure they are not simply rhetoric with poetic overlay. This is a fine line, but I know the difference, that many poets do not understand between poetic and rhetoric. Some think of me as an Arab American or Muslim American poet, but I see myself as a world poet, because my poems range from Africa, to the Middle East, to Asia, South and Central America, the Midwest, the northeast and western parts of the USA and Europe. My Arab and Muslim background influences the way I see and feel about many things, but also, my Midwestern background and the poetry of Gibran, Rumi, Lorca and others who influence my work. Also at times, poets will come back and talk to me and tell me how to write a poem: this has happened at times when Lorca, Borges and Neruda came back to me in the late night or early a. m. telling me of their poems and their lives and what to write of and for them, since they were no longer on the earth. But they still had things to say, and wanted me to say them. Yes, I know they were there with me, regardless of what anyone else thinks; because for me, everything is possible and none of us knows very much about existence and the various spheres of existence.

KSC: Do you remember your first poem? Please, share!

SH: “Islam El Arabiya,” Islam of the Arabs, or “Beaten Stones like Memories.”

KSC: You are a Nobel Prize and Pulitzer prize nominated poet, professor, political writer, musician and spiritual leader. What role do you like best?

SH:  I like them all; I am just blessed to be able to do so many things. At this time, I am pleased most to be a poet, because it has given me a chance to spread the love and talent God/Allah gave me; the other matters are more short-lived and the poems continue on forever.

KSC: What do you consider your greatest accomplishment as a writer, poet and artist?

SH: Just the opportunity to write many of the poems I’ve written and the good poems that continue coming every day. As for fame and prizes, they are only temporary, but the quality of the poems is what is most important.

KSC: As a Lebanese American, how do you relate to the country of your origin while living in the United States?

SH:  Yes, I do, but I am not held in by it; as I said earlier, I prefer, as was the case of Rumi and Gibran, to be a poet to the world, not just an Arab American poet. On the other hand, I feel blessed to be of Lebanese origin and I am proud of Lebanon and its people.

just-love-poems-for-you-book-coverKSC: You write in English, but the soul of your poetry is Arabic. How do you manage to reflect your cultural identity and person so brilliantly in your writings, that is rare for a second generation immigrant in America?

SH: This is in my soul, in my heart; language is only the medium, the heart is all those generations from which I sprang, and makes up my DNA, as well as my understanding of our Arab and Islamic cultures, that is the good part of them, not the parts where they have gone astray or gone backward with such pretenders like ISIS, Al Qaeda and those who support these nihilistic fanatics who wear the mask of Islam but who represent the devil. Also, the beauty of the Arabic music, even though at times, I could not understand the words, I loved the music of the singers like Fairouz, and the great Oud players, Dr’bukee players, and the great Arabic music orchestras—not to mention the vivaciousness of the dancers individually and in the great group line dances of the Deb’kee, or the classical sword dances. It is a matter of heart, a matter of feeling, deep in our soul that is reflected in my life and my poetry. As a great French critic once said of a writer, “The style is the man himself.”  In my case, my poetry is the man that I am.

KSC: Your early childhood in Indiana was unique and special. You grew up in surroundings that exposed you to many different cultures, including Indian. What do you like about Indian culture?

SH: I grew up in a boarding house hotel and we had tenants from all over the world: eastern Europe, Europe, India, Turkey, the middle east, and people from the south in the USA. I grew up hearing music from all over the world, and this included Arabic, American, Indian; I used to have records of the great Indian recording artists, such as Shubhalaxhmi, and the great Ali Akbar Khan, with so many others. Also, because we had so many people in our lives, we share foods from all over the world, from stuffed grape-leaves, cabbage, curries and more; each added to my life.

KSC: While taking care of your father’s business at The Broadway Lounge, you hired many artists, comedians and legends of blues, such as B. B. King, Muddy Waters, Red Foxx, Howlin’ Wolf, and others, to perform there. You yourself played jazz and sang the blues professionally. Did you miss being a singer and a musician after becoming a professor? Did you keep in touch with those artists who once played at the Broadway Lounge?

SH: It was great working with all of them, and we had a good time. I used to enjoy hearing them perform, and at times they’d invite me to join them. Blues and making up of songs was easy for me, and I think that was also a lot of what led me to writing poems; because in a sense, all the great blues songs, are forms of folk poems, much more original than some of the white kids who got the fame and money, people like Bob Dylan, who no more deserved a Nobel Prize in Literature than Obama deserved the Nobel Prize for Peace. I enjoyed being a professor, but it was a tame life compared to my time growing up in the hotel and then later at the Broadway Lounge (which was actually my place, and I gave it to my dad when I left for graduate school), along with the lot of the money. I stayed in touch with many of them for a long time, just as I did with friends from college, like the great writer and very close friend, Garry Marshall, Ahmad Jamal and B. B. King. We shared many days, nights, stories and to a person, they were all down to earth, humble, sincere and talented beyond so many in music and show business. What bothered me is, as B B King said, “We write the music, the white boys copy it, they get two months in Vegas, and we do 300 one nighters a year,” and that Garry Marshall, even though he wrote and directed and produced such great shows as ODD COUPLE, HAPPY DAYS, MORK AND MINDY and LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY, never was awarded an Emmy!

Sam Hamod at Princeton University Chapel, Princeton University

Sam Hamod at Princeton University Chapel, Princeton University


KSC:
As a professor of English, how would you define American literature? Or what defines American literature today?

SH:
 American literature today is a mess; it is defined quite incorrectly, by mavens and ravens of New York city, and it has become more and more rhetoric, not literature. There are no Hemingways, no Ellisons, no Kinnells, no James Wrights, no Etheridge Knights, and such famed writers as Amiri Baraka, and the great Ishmael Reed are often kept out of the major limelights on TV or in the literary news. It is a shame that Amiri Baraka was never awarded the Poet Laureate of America title, or that Ishmael Reed has not been given that award. There are few good poets these days, but those most heard of are rhetoricians not poets, and the fiction writers are boring, to say the least.

Those who have the most to say are native American writers like Simon Ortiz and Joy Harjo, Armenian American writer, David Kherdian, and such other writers as Ishmael Reed, Al Young, Clarence Major, Ethelbert Miller, Michael Chin, and Lisa Suhair Majaj, another Arab American writer and the great early Arab American writer, Samuel Hazo.

KSC: How is the cultural diversity of the United States influencing modern American literature? Are the unique voices being heard?

SH: Most of the major publishers have done little more than pay pittance to cultural diversity in American Literature, and the spokespeople allowed on TV are not really producers of literature, but yes men for the major publishing houses and major universities that buy ethnic and diverse writing in favor of a few that are used as examples, but who are not great writers, such as Skip Gates and the youthful TaNaHasi Coates—skipping  over the great writers and those who would upset the status quo that the major universities and media, including NPR are tied to. Not a hell a lot of cultural diversity in American Literature today; see Pinsky and Billy Collins and of those of that ilk who are given all the respect and prizes.

No, not much diversity of quality these days.

KSC: You are a Muslim and an Islamic scholar. In recent years, we have seen a rise in anti-Muslim sentiments in America, and also in other parts of the world. How do you defend your faith, when confronted with anti-Muslim sentiments, and what message do you have for them who are ignorant about Islamic culture and the true messages of Islam?

SH: I tell the truth about Islam, that all Islam means is obedience to the will of God/Allah, and that all men should love one another. We can but correct those who speak wrongly of Islam, but too often in the world, the ignorant make the loudest noises and the media loves the loudest voices, not those of rationality or depth.

KSC: You ran The Islamic Center in Washington, DC. What challenges did you face from the radical Khomeni group during that time, and how did you handle them? Please share.

SH: I opened the Islamic Center to all, including the Khomeni group; as I told all of them, THERE IS NO SHI’A OR SUNNI IN THE QUR’AN, ONLY ONE ISLAM, BASED ON THE QUR’AN. ALL WERE WELCOME. But some in the Khomeni group wanted to stay outside of the gates of the center and protest, and that was their privilege. I did what I did for the sake of Islam for all, not for just one group or sect. Ironically, Mohammad Asi’s father, he was the Imam of the Khomeni group, and my father, were friends win in the 1930s -1960s, but Mohammad and I never met until we were on opposite sides of that conflict. I was always educated in the Qur’an by scholars from Al Azhar and Najaf, so I understood all sides, and by major Sufis as well. For me, then, and now, Islam is one, based on the Qur’an, not on any Hadith.

KSC: You have been a vocal critic of American foreign policy; especially America’s role in the Middle East. If you are given the power to change things in international politics, what changes would you like to make in American foreign policy?

SH: I would correct the imbalance in the Middle East and work for the good regimes that want democracy, and I would return the lands to the Palestinians, and deconstruct the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza which are illegal. I would also make all American congressmen and senators pledge allegiance to America and not be so tied to Israel and I would cut all subsidies to Israel and make them sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and stop their building of Illegal settlements on Palestinian lands. I would make JerUSAlem an Open City under the aegis of the UN, so that no country controlled JerUSAlem and that it would stay open to all.  Walking Toward Cranes American foreign policy is now too lopsided in favor of Israel. This has made us more and more enemies, and led us down to a path of immorality.

KSC: What is the future of the Palestinian movements fighting for the sovereignty of their state, and right of self-determination?

SH: The Palestinians will continue down to their last man, woman and child. As time has gone, more and more of the world will see through the lies of Israel and their immoral and illegal behavior and come to the Palestinian side, as is taking place more and more each day. There must be a peaceful solution so that all can live in peace. If this doesn’t take place, then both sides will continue suffering, that is the Palestinians and the ordinary Israelis, not the leaders.

KSC: Do you think Arab world itself is partially responsible for defeating Palestinian cause, and a stronger alliance of Arab nations to help Palestine can be a reality? If yes, what is preventing it from happening and what are the practical solutions to brave these challenges?

SH: The Arab nations, especially the gulf countries could have done more politically and with oil to help the Palestinian cause, but who knows who is in whose pockets and who is secretly allied with whom in this world. Even when Israel attacked the USS Liberty and killed dozens of American sailors, Israel was never censured and even planes that had been sent out to help the USS Liberty, were called back by Prez Johnson. With all of this evil, it seems we can’t ever expect much fairness from the American government so long as it kisses the Nazis who run Israel.

10865877_822866371090695_6894864482548639542_oKSC: America has a negative image in the Arab world, and people there do not seem to understand the difference between regular American people like you and me and American politics. How disappointed do you feel when you are misunderstood and your good intentions are doubted as a cultural ambassador, only because you are an American?

SH: I still carry on with the truths that I know, and fight on; I always feel truth will prevail and that the liars will be found out. But, the USA media never allows an educated Arab Muslim like myself on the air because the American pro Zionist media doesn’t want us to destroy the stereotype against us that they have created—but, nevertheless, we carry on.

KSC: What is your opinion on plight of women in the Middle Eastern countries? Do you think they have equal rights as men and enough freedom to realize their potential? Please, interpret the Islamic laws that speak in favor of women, not against them, and their right to be free and equal as men, that is not in practice in many Islamic countries.

SH: The way the Saudis have interpreted Islam is incorrect, and has caused many to misunderstand Islam. In fact, it was Khadija, Prophet Muhammad’s wife who hired him. She owned the business, and it was she who taught him how to read and write. The Qur’an makes it clear that women should be as educated as men, and that they have the right to inherit. Prior to Islam, women were not allowed to inherit from a family’s legacy. Too often, tribalism masquerades as Islam, but it is a distortion of Islam. Even the evil of “honor killing,” is tribal, not Islam; this is forbidden in Islam. But many of the countries that call them Islamic do not practice Islam according to the Qur’an, but according to tribal customs, which are far from and the opposite of Islam.

KSC: What prevents Muslims from criticizing violence and terrorism caused by extremist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda in the name of Islam?  Do you think this is out of fear or to justify the violence and terror against the politics of the nations? Do you condemn these extremist groups and encourage good Muslims to speak up?

SH: All of us who are educated Muslims do speak up against ISIS in social media and all outlets that will publish our work. The problem is that the major media doesn’t allow our voices to be heard, or they choose this person or that to be “our spokesperson,” just as the media appointed Jesse Jackson and others to be the spokespersons for African Americans when there were far better leaders that should have been given time on the media.

KSC: You have often criticized Obama’s foreign policies. You have also expressed your disappointments on giving him the Nobel Peace prize. What is the biggest failure of Obama’s administration in your opinion in the Middle-East? If you have to praise Obama for any of his contributions (at home front and internationally), what would that be?

SH: I feel he has been a failure on so many fronts that there is little I can praise him for. But in the last weeks of his presidency he finally showed some guts and did not help Israel on the UN vote, when he did veto the bill that criticized Israeli settlements on the West Bank. Aside from that, I feel he has been a failure in stopping our warfare state, has dropped more bombs on Muslims than any president in history. His Obamacare is fraught with problems because the insurance companies are raising their rates as they wish. He did little to control the corporations and banks from stealing and using our national funds and the funds of individuals, i.e. Jaime diamond and others are running around even though they’ve stolen billions from taxpayers, etc. and were refunded again and again under Obama. I see Obama as ”south side slick, quick with the tongue, and with no guts.”

KSC: In the changed political scenario, after Trump winning the US presidential election, what hopes do you have from his administration to make things better in Syria, Palestine, Iran, Saudi Arabia and other countries? Are you hopeful about his presidency?

SH: Who knows; as the Arabs say,”min shoof”, we’ll just have to wait and see.

Sam Hamod at Vista, California reading

Sam Hamod at Vista, California reading

KSC: What should be the role of a writer, poet and artist in a world full of turmoil and deprived of basic human values?

SH: We must continue speaking truth as we know it in our articles and from the heart in our poems to keep humanity alive in a time of constant warfare, brutality, greed and inhumanity. If we ever lose the sense of love in our lives, all will be lost and we’ll be no more than beasts in a jungle or robots running a circuit of circles leading nowhere.

KSC: Why are we not seeing very many poets and writers of resistance nowadays? Are you troubled by the silences of our intellectual community on social and political issues?

SH: There are poets of resistance, but we appear on alternative media of social media, the major literary magazines don’t want this type of thing because the advertisers and corporations don’t like this. This is also why the major media never allow their voices to be heard. When was the last time you heard a major writer like Ishmael Reed or the late Amiri Baraka on TV?  When was Mahmoud Darwish heard in major media in the west?  Why is it that they allow the milktoast writers to speak on TV, even on the Bill Moyers show rather than people like me who are strong, very vocal, intelligent, able?  When is the last time you saw or heard from Arundhati Roy on major western media?  All too long ago or never in some cases.

KSC: Who are your favorite writers? Did you have influence of any writer and poet on you?

SH: I have been influenced by the stories I’ve heard in my life, by blues songs, by the ethnic songs, by the hillbilly songs, by the poems of Lorca, Gibran, Rumi, Borges, James Wright, Jack Marshall, W. S. Merwin, Anselm Hollo, Ken Smith, Neruda, Adonis, Pound, Darwish, Qabbani, the nobleness of Sam Hazo who made clear I was a poet and others were wordsmiths, the singing of Fairouz, countless oud players in the Middle East and Turkey, sarod and table players from India, B. B. King, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Bobby Blue Bland, Um Kulsum, the speeches of Nasser, Khruschev, Gorbachev, Castro, Chavez, all feed into my writing and thinking, as well as the great spiritual leader and poet, Pietro Grieco, and the Imams I’ve heard do the Qur’an, especially the late Kamal Avdich who made the Qur’an boom in a room, so that you felt the real power of the Qur’an and its message, and the sweetness of the hafiz al Qur’an at The Islamic Center, Sheikh Fat’hi, and the quiet and thoughtful jazz of Ahmad Jamal, the great voices of Joe Williams, Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, Anita’ o Day, Count Basie’s orchestra, Howlin’ Wolf, Stan Getz, Astrud Gilberto, Frank Sinatra and more; the list could go on for pages, but let these names suffice if will.

KSC: What are you writing next?

SH: I want to finish my memoirs that deal with Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad, Dr. Hoballah, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Mu’ummar Qaddafi, my father and the Muslim movement and why some of the great leaders were killed by the U. S. government, and the truths of my life and the lives of others. I also want to finish a great book of love poems, THE KINGDOM OF POMEGRANATES, it will be an amazing book, but it will take me time to pull it together, then JUST BLUES, JUST JAZZ, and then more as I go; there is no end as long as I am alive and can carry on in good health.

KSC: What do you like to do when you are not writing and teaching?

SH: I like to work out every day, swim when possible, and talk to those friends who are still alive. As time passes, we lose more and more friends who pass—and I like to make people smile and feel happy whenever possible and just like to feel ”like a free man in Paris,” or wherever I am. I hate boundaries, and I hate laws that fence us in. That’s why I always told my students, there are now laws of poetry, or tai chi or anything; people make them up as they go. The only criteria should be: is it fair, is it just, is it necessary, and will it do more good than harm.
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KSC:
You have published many books. If anyone wants to read one of your books, which one would you recommend first in both prose and poetry?

SH: DYING WITH THE WRONG NAME ( the expanded version from Xlibris/Contemporary Poetry Press Version), and the expanded version of JUST LOVE POEMS FOR YOU.  But you will like my memoirs, AT THE BROADWAY LOUNGE, and the other two books, KINGDOM OF POMEGRANATES, and JUST BLUES, JUST JAZZ.

KSC: If you have to give a piece of advice for the writers, what would that be?

SH: Write the best you can in a way that allows you to express what you feel, and do not let anyone tell you there are rules. The only ruler is the heart assisted by quality and God given talent.

KSC: Do you have a cause close to your heart, and any message for our world?

SH: We need more peace and love, and should all learn to forgive and to grow so that our souls and hearts become larger and larger—and don’t let the haters and liars scare you off or away from speaking truth as you know it; I assure you, God/Allah will always be by your side at all times, and you will succeed. Have no fear; I’ve never had any, and I see no reason for any of us to have fear if we stand strong in the face of all things.

KSC: How would you like the world to remember Sam Hamod?

SH: That I did the best I could, and that I loved and helped when and where I could without asking anything in return, except that you try to do the same. Together, we can help the world become a better place. Also, that he was a great poet who wrote poems that were clear, like water in a spring is clear, but with the great depth that is in a spring, that is understood by those with wisdom but not seen or understood by those who are short-sighted or those who prefer confusion or insanity.

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SAM HAMOD’S POETRY

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