Saturday, June 23, 2012
U SAM OEUR (ANOTHER HERO)
I stood out a little because I was married with a child on the way, a veteran of four years in the military (the GI Bill was helping me pay for my schooling, thanks to Democrats), and working on a BA and MFA at the same time (first time they allowed anyone to do that) because I wasn't a college graduate yet. And Sam stood out because he was Cambodian, originally studying something a lot more practical than poetry when he wrote a poem that got someone's attention who got him to Iowa. That brought us together into a friendship I was grateful for.
That's Sam above, in my apartment in Iowa City sitting at my desk around 1967 (and James Joyce playing the guitar in the photo under the one of Dylan doing the same). If you want to learn about his amazing life, he wrote an autobiography called CROSSING THREE WILDERNESSES (Coffee House Press 2005) with help from Ken McCullough, another poet at the Iowa Workshop, who had been a minor league baseball player before getting his MFA there in poetry [see photo at bottom]. Sam writes of our friendship in it:
"I formed a particular bond with Mike Lally, who was very 'hip.' Norman Mailer wrote a pamphlet entitled The White Negro, and Michael fit that mold. He had a quick mind, was a good poet, knew his music, but more than anything else, he could run circles around anyone when it came to talking politics. He didn't have much use for white people, though he was one of them. Whenever there was a panel discussion with senators and other big shots, Michael would usually be called upon to represent the far left, and he was always the most articulate person on the panel. I recall in a discussion about Ho Chi Minh, Michael made Uncle Ho seem like Mother Theresa. I'm not sure why we became friends—on the surface we were exact opposites, but on the inside we were brothers."
Although I no longer have such a quick mind and have use for plenty of white people (and other things that have changed since then), when I read Sam's take on me back then I am moved and touched by the power of tolerance and love and poetry.
But most importantly, in CROSSING THREE WILDERNESSES Sam tells how when Pol Pot's murderous legions took over Cambodia, Sam destroyed anything that would identify him as an intellectual (especially one who had worked for the previous government when he went back to Cambodia after Iowa) except for some pages of poetry (Emily Dickinson among them if I remember correctly) which he buried near his home and then tearing his clothes and covering himself in dung he acted the role of a crazy man so that when the youthful Khmer Rouge soldiers came to get him they mostly found him amusing and thus didn't execute him but took him to one of their crude concentration camps, keeping their distance because of the stench.
He lost everything, including family members, but managed to save a son when after being confined to a camp he'd sneak out to catch by hand crayfish in a nearby river to take to his son to eat so he wouldn't starve like so many campmates were doing. (One of the only early photos of him in his book is the one above because almost all of his personal photos were lost or destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.)
Ah, read his book and you'll see all he went through and transcended and why he is one of my heros. He ended up back in the USA in the 1990s working with Cambodian youth gangs in this country and still believing in "the power of literature" as it says in the copy on the back cover of his book.
I saw him back then, and he had the serenity of Nelson Mandela or the Dali Lama. I attribute his lack of resentment and anger for what he and his family went through to his spiritual beliefs, but also to his belief in that power of poetry.
[Here's a photo of Ken McCullough and me in my DC "commune" in 1972.]