In Conversation: Christopher Merrill, Director of The International Writing Program

What persists through every job I have my love of reading and writing, which at every turn has helped me to navigate my time here below

I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are
     with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I
     translate into a new tongue.

—Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

This is perhaps the most appropriate introduction to Christopher Merrill, the award-winning poet and translator from Slovenian and Korean who directs the International Writing Program (IWP) at the University of Iowa. Gifted with a style that frequently combines, as Kirkus Reviews called it, “Merrill-the-poet’s gorgeous writing, and Merrill-the-reporter’s sharp eye,” he has risen to greater international prominence in part through his involvement with the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO and extensive cultural diplomacy engagement all over the world.

In his recent memoir Self-Portrait with Dogwood, Merrill writes: “The invention of language made possible what we imagine to comprise human experience, for good or ill—agriculture, warfare, religion, government, poetry, philosophy, art, and science, not to mention the emotions that drive individuals, societies, and civilizations. Long ago, under a tree, we learned to express ourselves in a new key, building structures of meaning word by word, phrase by phrase, alert to the necessities of living, to the varieties of love and grief, to the mysteries of faith, quirks of nature, and consolations of storytelling… The musical possibilities encoded in language expanded our understanding of the worlds without and within, giving birth to poetry—and so much more.”

Claire Jacobson: Can you tell me how you got started writing poetry, and translating, and being involved in the international writing community? Basically, what is the origin story of Christopher Merrill?

Christopher Merrill: A writer’s origin story may change over time, especially if the writer’s life takes many forms, as mine has. Thus at different points along the way I have dated the beginning of my literary vocation to a love affair; a serious illness at the age of twenty-four; working as a war correspondent in the Balkans; making pilgrimages on the Holy Mountain of Athos; and so on. But the most enduring story is that as a teenager in New Jersey I wanted to be a soccer player and a poet: two career paths that did not sit well with my parents—which only enhanced their appeal. When I matriculated at Middlebury College, where I was recruited to play soccer and intended to be a French major, I had the good luck to take a poetry workshop with the novelist Thomas Gavin, who became a lifelong friend; his encouragement inspired me to serve what turned into an unusual literary apprenticeship, which included stints as a graduate student, nurseryman, college soccer coach, caretaker, bookstore clerk, director of writers’ conferences, and freelance journalist. What persists through every job I have held, each of which I viewed as a gift regardless of the pay or working conditions, is my love of reading and writing, which at every turn has helped me to navigate my time here below.

CJ: You can’t go very long at the IWP offices in Shambaugh House without encountering a reference to Walt Whitman somewhere. What is it that draws you to his work, and do you have any other influences or favorite writers worth mentioning?

CM: Early in my tenure at the helm of the International Writing Program (IWP), Ed Folsom introduced our visiting writers to the Walt Whitman Archive, through a series of photographs taken of Whitman at different stages of his life. That presentation stayed with me; and when in the wake of my first cultural diplomacy mission to Iran the State Department invited me to propose a project to introduce Iranian readers to American literature via its Virtual Embassy (established because the United States does not have diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran) I thought immediately of Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” Ed and I thus conducted a year-long, week-by-week exploration of Whitman’s masterpiece, producing the first full-length commentary on its fifty-two sections, with complete translations of the poem and commentaries into Arabic, Farsi, Russian, and Spanish and excerpts in nearly a dozen other languages. It was an exhilarating experience, which inspired us to undertake a second project, Whitman and the Civil War, exploring over the course of nine months his poems, prose writings, and the letters he wrote for wounded soldiers. My devotion to Whitman’s large and compassionate vision only grew.

The list of influences on my work would take up many pages, but here are a few poets and writers who have decisively shaped my thinking, in no particular order: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, John Donne, St.-John Perse, André Breton, René Char, Sir Thomas Wyatt, Elizabeth Bishop, William Blake, Octavio Paz, Eugenio Montale, Geoffrey Hill, Elizabeth Mansfield, Czeslaw Milosz, Paul Celan, Rachel Carson, Pattiann Rogers, Elias Canetti, W. G. Sebald, J. M. Coetzee, W. S. Merwin, Rachel Cusk, Anna Akhmatova, and on, and on…

CJ: Can you talk about your family’s relationship with the Indian poet Agha Shahid Ali? How did he become a part of your lives, and what impact has that had on you?

CM: Shahid was my closest friend for nearly twenty years, until he passed away in December 2001. We met at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, where we were both on scholarship, and it was not long before we fell into the habit of talking daily by phone, sometimes several calls a day. He was the wittiest man I have ever known—also the kindest and most generous—and I loved him like a brother. He was my older daughter’s godfather, and when my wife asked him if as a Shia Muslim he felt uncomfortable assenting to the tenets of Anglican Christianity, he replied, “I take it all very metaphorically.” The longest chapter in my new book, Self-Portrait with Dogwood, focuses on our friendship, which was the decisive influence on my work. From Shahid I learned so much about love and loss, the connection between politics and poetry, and the ways in which a creative person can turn a difficult situation to his or her advantage. I miss him terribly.

CJ: In light of your recent receipt of the Changwon KC International Literary Prize for your translations of contemporary poetry from the Korean, can you talk about your experience co-translating from a language you don’t necessarily speak as opposed to one you do speak? What are some of the challenges (besides the obvious) or benefits of this arrangement?

CM: The literary prize was for my poetry, not my translations (which surely brought me to the attention of the selection committee), which perhaps highlights a complication for poet-translators identified in the public mind with the poets they translate, especially if they do not know the language they are translating from: we bring to the task only what we know as poets, not as interpreters of another language whose overtones will perforce shape our auditory imagination—a serious limitation. But if we subscribe to Kenneth Koch’s notion that poetry is a language that can be learned, preferably through immersion, then an argument can be made for skillful poets working with knowledgeable insiders to bring something new into the target language. Think how impoverished our notions of poetry would be without Robert Hass’s translations of Czeslaw Milosz, W. S. Merwin’s Collected Haiku of Yosa Buson, or Anthony Hecht’s version of Joseph Brodsky’s “Cape Cod Lullaby.” Translating poetry from a language one does not know is, of course, indefensible—unless the alternative is silence or poems lacking music. The practice of translating with a native speaker leaves me uneasy, since I must depend entirely upon linguistic decisions made by an intermediary, and I often resolve not to undertake another Korean book. But my partner in this crime, Won-Chung Kim, a poet with a Ph.D. in English from the University of Iowa, keeps tempting me with poems that I want to bring into English, and so I continue.

CJ: How have your own training and identity as a poet informed your translations of Slovenian and Korean poetry throughout your career? Have the works of poets like Aleš Debeljak, Tomaž Šalamun, Ji-woo Hwang, and Chankyung Sung influenced your writing?

CM: Difficult as it is to trace the influence of translation on one’s practice as a poet, I know I would not have written Necessities without having translated André Breton’s Constellations, a series of prose poems based on gouaches by Joan Miró. No doubt the prose poems in After the Fact: Scripts & Postscripts, the book I co-wrote with Marvin Bell, owe a debt to Aleš Debeljak’s Anxious Moments, which we translated together. And it seems to me that a new poem, “Korean Stanzas,” was conceived in part under the spell of Sunwoo Kim’s If My Tongue Refuses to Remain in My Mouth, which Won-Chung Kim and I are about to publish. Translation has broadened my aesthetic horizons, alerting me to possibilities beyond my range of hearing, opening me to the world.

CJ: The International Writing Program is celebrating its 50th anniversary this fall. Can you talk about how you’ve seen the program grow and develop since your arrival in 2000? What are you excited about for the near future?

CM: I was hired to rebuild the IWP, the mismanagement of which in the 1990s had led administrators at the University of Iowa to consider closing it down. It was my good fortune to work for one of the great administrators of the age, David Skorton, who would go on to become the President of Cornell University and then the Secretary of the Smithsonian. He taught me how to find creative solutions to what often seemed like intractable problems, and he not only offered support at every turn but also inspired me to take chances in the service of my developing vision of what this storied institution might become. Hence we doubled the size of the Fall Residency; made a successful bid to have Iowa City become a UNESCO City of Literature, the first in the New World; developed the first creative writing Massive Open Online Courses, which have thus far enrolled 65,000 students around the world; commissioned a series of plays on common themes with theaters in Moscow, Shanghai, Baghdad, and Cape Town, which were staged simultaneously over the Internet; hosted symposia in Greece and Morocco; conducted cultural diplomacy tours to more than fifty countries; published books and an online journal, 91st Meridian; and more. In short, we have much to celebrate in this fiftieth year of continuous service to the global literary community.

CJ: Has the recent administration change had much of an impact on the workings of the program (i.e. writers deciding whether to come, federal funding, etc.)?

CM: The short answer is that we do not know what impact the Trump administration will have on the IWP. Certainly the signs are not good, with large cuts proposed to the State Department budget, which funds a considerable portion of the IWP. I lie awake many nights worrying that our fiftieth anniversary celebration, which will take any number of inventive forms, may mark the end of one of the most interesting literary stories of our time. As Shahid would say, Pity.

CJ: Finally, with the IWP’s 50th Anniversary this year, we have looked back at the program as Paul and Hualing Engle began it, celebrated what it has now become, and everything in between. What do you hope your legacy at the International Writing Program will be?

CM: The wise and creative stewardship of a storied program that I had the good luck to rebuild and then expand to meet the literary and political challenges of the 21st century.

Claire Jacobson is the assistant interviews editor at Asymptote. A writer and translator from Arabic based in Iowa City, Iowa, she studies Francophone literature at the University of Iowa and works as a research assistant at the International Writing Program.

Christopher Merrill has published six collections of poetry, translations from the Slovenian and Korean, and several works of nonfiction. His work has been translated into twenty-five languages, his journalism appears in many publications, and his awards include a knighthood in arts and letters from the French government. He has held the William H. Jenks Chair in Contemporary Letters at the College of the Holy Cross, and now directs the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. He serves on the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO, he has conducted cultural diplomacy missions in over thirty countries for the U.S. State Department, and in April 2012 President Obama appointed Merrill to the National Council on the Humanities.


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