Posts featuring Tomaž Šalamun

Summer 2011: Our First Great Issue

Asymptote issues offer much serendipity and often puzzling amounts of connections, and the Summer 2011 one is no exception.

The Summer 2011 issue is, to my mind anyway, Asymptote’s first great issue—not least because of the sheer embarrassment of riches showcased therein. (To this day, I still regret not being able to find a spot in our list of featured names on the cover for: AdonisPéter EsterházyBrother Anthony of TaizéSagawa ChikaHai-Dang PhanAraya RasdjarmrearnsookAzra Raza & Sara Suleri GoodyearJonas Hassen Khemiri, and, last but certainly not least, Tomaž Šalamun, who enclosed English translations of his poetry in a letter sent to my Singaporean address. A savvier editor would probably have chosen to promote local opposition politician and household name Chen Show Mao; indeed, after he shared it on his Facebook page, my exclusive interview with Chen drew thousands of hits from Singaporean readers, causing an unprecedented spike in traffic.) No, it was our first great issue because despite the adverse conditions under which it was produced—a key editor dropped out, taking Asymptote funds along with him; our guest artist resigned three weeks before the issue launch—we still delivered on time, working into the wee hours of the morning. On a lighter note: Sven Birkerts, whose essay on Roberto Bolaño I solicited, once handed me a crisp five-dollar bill after betting in class that no one would be able to identify an unattributed passage from Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. Who says you can’t make money from world literature? Here to introduce this issue (and the Hungarian Fiction Feature that I edited in honor of my Hungarian friend Nora, whose wedding I couldn’t attend because of the journal) is Diána Vonnák, editor-at-large for Hungary since October 2017.

I started writing about Hungarian literature in translation in 2012, right after I moved away from Budapest. In a way, this was a coping mechanism, a strategy to handle the sudden absence of both shared references and the immediacy of lived language. It was a half-serious attempt  to not only recreate the context I had been immersed in back home but also weave it into the much larger and more diverse literary world I encountered in a UK university full of students from overseas.

These new encounters fascinated me, and I found myself immersed in world literature more than ever before. But I realized that if I wanted to write about it, I needed to explore Hungarian literature in English translation and the platforms where it could be found. This journey soon led me to what was then a rather young journal: Asymptote. In 2013, I stumbled upon the journal’s third issue, from July 2011, and was astonished to find the special feature on Hungarian fiction. Yet as I read through the rest of the issue I was mesmerised by the many hidden links between the other pieces, particularly the subtle hints to Odysseus and his many literary heirs as well as modernism in its divergent traditions. If there had been a Greek god overseeing the birth of this issue, it would have certainly been Hermes. READ MORE…

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

What persists through every job I have held...is 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.

READ MORE…