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“His prose is a continuation of poetry by other means”

An interview with Christopher Merrill, American poet and writer

“His prose is a continuation of poetry by other means”

Christopher Merrill is a poet, nonfiction writer, translator, and journalist. Director of the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, he has conducted cultural diplomacy missions to over fifty countries. He serves on the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO, and in 2012 President Obama appointed him to the National Council on the Humanities.

How did you get to be where you are in your life today?

When I was on a pilgrimage to the Mountain Athos, researching Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain, I kept losing on a path that was overgrown. But whenever I looked back I saw that the way was clear; what lies ahead of us is always murky, no? I thought this insight would be a useful metaphor for the writing of my new book. But I also think it also says something about how a life unfolds.

I knew I wanted to be a writer. I went to graduate school to study creative writing — and left without a degree. And when I took jobs as a gardener and a caretaker the one constant was that I tried to write every day. In 1990, I got a book contract to cover the World Cup in Italy, which opened the world for me. I realized how much I like traveling, interviewing people, and writing. Then I went to the Balkans to write a pair of books. And in time I became known as a writer who travels and writes about interesting and complicated places.

I never expected to return to academic life until I was offered a chair at the College of the Holy Cross, which I held for five years. Then my friend, the poet Jim Galvin, suggested my name to the search committee at the University of Iowa, which needed someone to rebuild the International Writing Program (IWP), because I had written books about my foreign travels and organized writers’ conferences, which meant that in theory I had enough administrative experience to undertake what would turn out to be skill. That’s how it began.

What or who convinced you that you have a talent?

At the age of twenty-one, I was in a poetry workshop at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, which did not go very well. On my last day, I went to the bar, where John Gardner often held court. I don’t know where I found the courage to ask him to look at a story of mine. He said: “I’ll read until I get bored” — which I thought would not take long. He read a page and a half then turned to me. “You’re a writer,” he said simply. Then he talked to me for several hours about the nature of my calling (he used that word) and what I needed to do to be a writer. After about four hours, a crowd gathered to ask him questions, the only one of which I remember was this: “Can you tell if somebody will become a writer?”

 He turned to me and said: “This is Christopher Merrill. He’s a writer” 

All I have done since is to try to honor that calling.

He impressed upon me the importance of reading as widely as possible, in different literary traditions (he claimed to read twenty-seven languages), and cultivating good writing habits. Not long before this encounter, he had been diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer, and so in the hospital, over the course of six weeks, he put down on paper what he knew about writing fiction. On Becoming a Novelist (Published October 17th 1999 by W. W. Norton Company) was a revelation to me, not least because it included useful exercises, like describing the interior of a barn from the perspective of a young woman who has just been asked for her hand in marriage and then describing it from the perspective of a father whose son has just committed a suicide. This book made all the difference for me.

And which period of Russian literature do you like the most?

Like many American writers, I was raised from an early age on the novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and the short stories and plays of Chekhov, without whom I would never have even thought of trying to become a writer. I absolutely adore Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam, whose poems mean more to me with every passing year. Joseph Brodsky hated the English versions of their poems, believing they dishonored his formal genius. But they are quite readable. I also love the poems of Velimir Khlebnikov and Daniel Harms. I had the good luck to visit Esenin’s house twice in Tashkent. And I often quote “Instead of a Preface” to the “Requiem,” where Akhmatova, standing outside the prison, is recognized and called by name. “Can you describe this?” says the woman. And Akhmatova replies, “Yes, I can.”

Christoper Merrill at the Higher School of Economics. Photo: Anna Pravdyuk

Who are some of your favorite authors — and the most influential on your work?

For nonfiction the Polish journalist and writer, Ryszard Kapuściński was incredibly important to me. He wrote dazzling books about revolutions in Africa, in Asia, in South America, and he taught me everything about how to find the best stories in a war zone. The novels of Graham Greene and the short stories of William Trevor, who I believe was one of the greatest writers of our age, opened the world for me. Also travel writers like Peter Matthiessen, Patrick Leigh Fermor, V. S. Naipul: anyone who has an eye for the larger world. Among poets Brodsky, of course. Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, W. S. Merwin, Elizabeth Bishop, Czeslaw Milosz, and Wislawa Szymborska. But the most important poet of all for me was the French poet diplomat Saint-John Perse, who won the Nobel Prize in 1960; he is a kind of model for me.

The strangest or most uncomfortable place you have been?

A rural highway in northern Afghanistan, where I was in a head-on collision. I had worked for several days in Mazar-i-Sharif, when my hostess and her fiancé arranged a field trip for me to Samangan, at the base of the Hindu Kush, where a famous Buddhist stupa had survived the Taliban regime. Samangan was two hours away, and I dressed in Afghan clothing, in case we met Taliban soldiers, for what turned out to be a beautiful drive through mountains and across high desert. My anxiety dissolved on the walk around the stupa and the nearby caves, where monks had once prayed and mujahedeen had camped during the Afghan-Soviet War. On the way home, however, I was in the back seat of a taxi traveling 60 miles per hour (90 km/h) when another taxi driving toward us at about the same speed tried in vain to pass a truck.

 I had a split second to think, “It’s all over”

I don’t know how long I was unconscious. But I do know that when I came a man was dragging me out of the car, speaking to me in Dari, thinking I must be Afghan. My hostess and her fiancé were still unconscious, both with broken arms. I had a concussion, broken ribs, and a wrenched neck and back. Our driver had a compound fraction in his leg, and his head was bleeding. In the car following us were doctors who had come from Kabul to see me, and they took the driver and me to Mazar-i-Sharif. The driver was in very bad shape, so the doctors pulled into a village to stabilize him. They jerry-rigged an intravenous therapy for the rest of the drive, and then the sky blackened. I thought: What else can go wrong? A sandstorm passed over us.

Does war influence your poetry, your way of writing?

During the seven years I covered the war, writing two prose books about it, The Old Bridge: The Third Balkan War and the Age of the Refugee and Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars, I thought, perhaps mistakenly, that I should not write poetry about it. Better for Albanians, Bosnians, Croats, Macedonians, and Serbs to write poems about their wars than for an outsider. My obligation, so I imagined, was to document the tragedy in the clearest, most engaging prose I could muster, in the manner of, say, Ryszard Kapuściński.

More time passed, and I fell out of the habit of writing poems. Indeed I thought I might never write another poem. I wrote a prose book about Mount Athos and kept finding ways to not write poems. I suppose I was following the example of my closest friend, the Greek poet-journalist Anastassis Vistonitis, who likes to say that his prose is a continuation of poetry by other means. Early in my tenure at Iowa I realized it was now or never, and so I began.

One of your professors described a creative writing program as a space in which to devote oneself to a literary vocation before real life begins. What is the next step?

Upon finishing a degree in creative writing, many students face a period of uncertainty, and this was certainly my experience. In graduate school you had a structure, classes, and colleagues, who could help you discover the ins and outs of your craft, and now you find yourself on your own. This is when you figure out whether you will become a writer or not.

 If you have cultivated decent writerly habits, then you might find your way.

After I finished my degree, I took a job as a college soccer coach in Vermont. My fiancée and I house-sat for the head coach, who was playing in Europe that summer, and while I finished only three poems before the team started training for the fall, I made real progress. I wrote every day in a barn, where a milk snake slithered past my feet. I read Chaucer Geoffrey Canterbury Tales slowly, memorizing his cadences, and wrote different kinds of poems than what I had written in graduate school — more musical, in keeping with Brodsky’s disdain for the free verse that so many American poets wrote. This put me distinctly at odds with my countrymen. But as I learned to write in the meters I realized that this was where I wanted to journey.

Could Anna Karenina or The Brothers Karamazov have been written as homework?

No. The creative writing pedagogy in our time is radically different from the literary apprenticeships that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky served. And of course the same could be said of nineteenth-century American writers. Now students in creative writing programs workshop poems and stories, do technical exercises to learn their craft, trade ideas and writing tips, and then pray to be touched by God. We teach students to read like writers, not scholars; show them the nuts and bolts of masterpieces; help them understand how the creative process works. That was what Brodsky did for me and my classmates, reading poems from the inside, as it were, in order to explain why the poet did this instead of that. No one had any illusions that we would become artists on the order of Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, much less Shakespeare. But an education in creative writing can make students better writers and more sophisticated thinkers. If nothing else, such students will learn the importance of maintaining artistic discipline, which is useful in any walk of life. Anyone can learn to be more creative, right?

What did you find most useful in learning to write? Least useful or most destructive?

There are many ways for teachers to be destructive: some are lazy, some prefer to create replicas of themselves to helping students discover what only they can write, and some, like Brodsky, are just cruel. After Brodsky’s seminars, which were three-hour-long monologues, I would walk for hours by the Hudson River and over to Central Park, mulling over his brilliant observations and needlessly cutting remarks — which left me at once inspired and bewildered. Mark Strand, who could also be cruel, said the most important thing for young writers is to maintain the illusion that they are writers. Easier said than done.

The most useful part of my literary apprenticeship was learning to read like a writer. Thus in a seminar titled Difficult Loves Mark Strand pointed out that in Chekhov’s short story, “The Lady with the Dog,” buried in the middle of a paragraph describing Dmitri Gurov’s hotel room, there is a statue of a headless man on a horse: one sentence that Strand admitted to having read many times without taking special notice of it. But the story is encapsulated in this detail, for Gurov has lost his head over Anna Sergeyevna. A teacher can help students not only to recognize such details, which often represent the difference between a masterpiece and middling work, but also how to use such discoveries in their own writings.

Why do universities need creative writing programs?

When the administration of the University of Iowa decided in the early 1920s  to grant graduate credit for creative work, he transformed the landscape of higher education in America. Artists and writers began to migrate into academia, and that spurred new ways of thinking about the very nature of education. Nothing is lost, and much may be gained, by learning to be creative.

The Proust Questionnaire

Which living person do you most despise?

Donald Trump, who is destroying my country.

When and where were you happiest?

Walking around Mount Athos.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

My two daughters and my latest book, Self-Portrait with Dogwood.

What is your favorite occupation?

Writing, of course.

What is your greatest regret?

Failures of love.

When you meet Joseph Brodsky, what will you ask from or tell him?

I will show him one poem and ask, what do you think? Then we will have a shot of vodka.

Stefan Khmelnickiy