“If I had learned anything during the war, it was that our walk in the sun is brief, and so I resolved to wander from monastery to monastery, a sojourner in the world of last things.”
“It was time for me to come to terms with the way my life had turned out: the love I had squandered, the misgivings I had about my vocation and my faith, the dread I felt at every turn.”
The lines above from Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain have inspired this interview with Christopher Merrill. I haven’t met Chris, but I seem to know his poet and the sojourner in him, who is also a pioneer of many things.
Reading Christopher Merrill’s work is like walking barefoot on the slabs of white marbles set in a courtyard of an ancient temple. These soothing pieces of marble are created by the forces of nature in heat and pressure, recrystallizing the purities and impurities of earth in them. Chris engraves his true words on the walls of this place of worship like Ayat, Hymns and Psalms. It is not about being spiritual; it is all about the sacredness of what we do, and how we do it.
Christopher Merrill who is a poet, nonfiction writer, translator, editor, journalist, teacher and the director of International Writing Program, appears to be like a modern day Sufi, who whirls across the globe for his work, blessing the continents and their people with his creativity, and to be blessed by them – writing a history in sand and water, and breathing in an air that is essential for his poet to keep a fire ablaze with in, and the creative universe to stay warm in its presence!
Christopher Merrill has published six collections of poetry and more than a dozen edited volumes and books of translations. He received the Peter I. B. Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets for Brilliant Water and Watch Fire. His non-fiction works include The Grass of Another Country: A Journey Through the World of Soccer, The Old Bridge: The Third Balkan War and the Age of the Refugee, Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars, Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain, and The Tree of the Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War.
It was an absolute honor for me to have the opportunity to converse with Christopher Merrill for Life and Legends.
Kalpna Singh-Chitnis (KSC )- Chris, you are a poet, nonfiction writer, translator, editor, journalist, and the director of the International Writing Program (IWP). What do you like being the most?
Christopher Merrill (CM) – I have liked all my jobs, beginning at the age of eleven—gardener, teaching tennis professional, laborer, short-order cook, college soccer coach, nurseryman, caretaker, arts administrator, and journalist (print and radio)—though it is true that my literary work is closest to my heart. And while poetry gives me the most pleasure, perhaps because it is the most difficult form, I cherish every opportunity to write, even answering questions in an interview!
KSC – Tell us about the day, when your poet was born, and you called yourself a writer?
CM – I had written hundreds of poems, over the course of many years, before I wrote, in one sitting, what I consider to be my first real poem, “A Boy Juggling a Soccer Ball.” I was living at the time in Seattle, trying to write about a signal event in my life (the hurricane that swept our family home out to sea when I was five years old), and from some recess of memory I summoned an image of what I had spent thousands of hours practicing in my childhood: keeping a soccer ball up in the air. In the writing of this poem I felt as if I had caught something essential about my experience, and that is what drives me to the desk each day. The funny thing is that two days after I wrote this poem I was offered a job coaching a college soccer team—which convinced me that poetry could change my life!
KSC – You have traveled worldwide, and seen many faces of life on earth. What moves you the most as a writer and a poet?
CM – Poems can begin at any time, with an image, a phrase, a rhythm, or a word, and so I try to make myself available for whatever might be coming my way, wherever I am. My prose is a different matter, which requires more deliberation, research, and note-taking, though the ideas may emerge in the same way as a poem—on the fly, as it were. Curiosity is what governs my writing and my travels.
KSC – What have you written so far, that has given you the most satisfaction as a writer?
CM – I am tempted to quote Theodore Roethke, who famously said that what most interested him in contemporary American poetry was his next poem. Indeed I am less interested in what I have written than in what I am writing now—a short prose book on the dogwood tree, a volume of prose poems, an essay-review of Pierre Joris’ translation of Paul Celan’s collected later poems, and a long poem in blank verse for my friend, the Indian novelist Chandrahas Choudhury.
KSC – When did the passion for writing became your profession?
CM – I was the caretaker of an estate in Santa Fe when I began to earn money with my pen, working as a freelance journalist, writing book reviews, profiles, and feature pieces for newspapers and magazines. From there I went on to write prose books, which allow me to take a longer view of a subject—though for the last twenty years I have had to hold another job to make ends meet. I consider myself fortunate to have found work in the literary field, first as a chaired professor at Holy Cross and now at the IWP.
KSC – Tell us, how did you end up being in the places that inspired your non-fiction works like The Grass of Another Country: A Journey Through the World of Soccer, The Old Bridge: The Third Balkan War and the Age of the Refugee, Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars, Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain, and The Tree of the Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War?
CM – The first prose book grew out of a conversation at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, where I worked as an administrative assistant for seven summers. I was talking to an editor, and as a joke I said that if by some miracle the U.S. soccer team qualified for the World Cup in 1990, he should send me to Italy to cover it. To my amazement, he agreed; and when the U.S. defeated Trinidad & Tobago on a fluke goal I had the good luck to spend six weeks in Tuscany with my former coach at Middlebury, Ron McEachen, who served as my guide to the Mondiale, as it was called. We had great fun.
The Balkan Wars inspired my next two books, thanks to my friendship with the Slovenian poet Aleš Debeljak. In 1990, we worked together to translate his book of prose poems, Anxious Moments, after which he invited me to walk across his homeland, then the northernmost republic of Yugoslavia. I got an assignment to write a piece about this excursion for Sierra, but by the time I arrived in Ljubljana the war was on, refugees from Bosnia and Croatia were streaming into Slovenia, and it was not long before I realized that I would write a very different kind of article, which my editor at Sierra wasted no time killing. But I was hooked on the story. Little did I know that I would spend seven years reporting on, researching, and writing about war: a crucial period in my life.
When I finished writing Only the Nails Remain, I made a pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain of Athos, in northern Greece, praying to come to terms with a host of issues rooted in the war. My journey into Eastern Orthodox Christianity, recounted in Things of the Hidden God, profoundly altered my outlook on this world and the next, shaping my post-9/11 travels to Malaysia, the Middle Kingdom, and the Middle East, which formed the basis for The Tree of the Doves, a meditation on some of the ways in which we contend with fear. One sentence leads to another and then another.
KSC – You have been inspired by St. John Perse, W. S. Merwin, E.M. Forster, Kafka, Calvino, Zbigniew Herbert, Czeslaw Milosz, Charles Simic, James Tate and other writers and poets of the West. Did any writer or a poet from the East ever had any impact or influence on you?
CM – My best friend for nearly twenty years was the late Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali, whose influence on my work and life was decisive. He was brilliant, kind, and witty, and we talked on the phone almost every day, telling jokes, gossiping, reading and commenting on each other’s new work. I am still in dialogue with him when I write, despite his tragic death from brain cancer in 2001. I miss him terribly, especially as I am writing this on the anniversary of his death. It is safe to say that my openness to the East is a function of my deep love for my friend.
KSC – What initiatives do you think are necessary to inspire Western writers and readers to read and understand the relevance and importance of the literature being written in the East?
CM – Literary translation and cultural exchange are the most effective means of bringing together writers and readers from different parts of the world.
KSC – Do you think International Writing Program is going to take broader initiatives to encourage international writing; and sharing the literature of the East being written in original languages, translated into English for the readers in the West, and vice-versa?
CM – That has always been our mission—to connect the writers of the world. And we do everything in our power not only to encourage writers to do their best work, in their mother tongue, but to introduce them to diverse audiences across America. During the residency, they forge friendships with writers from other lands, translate one another’s work, dream up collaborative projects, and make plans to visit one another after the program ends. In this exchange new ideas are sparked, and all have the chance to learn about literary traditions far removed from their own.
KSC – When President Barack Obama appointed you to serve on the National Council of the Humanities, (the advisory body of the National Endowment on the Humanities), what was your reaction? Did you see it coming before it was announced?
CM – Nominations from the executive branch are subject to extraordinary scrutiny, even unpaid positions like the National Council on the Humanities, and in my case the vetting process went on for fifteen months. One editor I wrote for reported that the FBI had asked him if there was anything in my background that a foreign government could use to turn me into their intelligence asset. So that he can leak humanities policy to Iran? the editor asked. By the time the Senate confirmed my nomination I had abandoned hope that I would ever serve on the Council, given the political gridlock in Washington, and so when the White House called with the good news I was thrilled—and remain so. It is a rare privilege to see how much good work that scholars and curators are doing in this country and to play some role in the effort to highlight the centrality of the humanities to our lives. What does it mean to be human? It is in the humanities that you will find answers to that crucial question.
KSC – Have you spoken on things that you value the most, in the books you have written so far?
CM – I like to think that whatever I am writing at a given time commands my full attention—which is to say: it goes to the heart of what matters to me.
KSC – What are you planning to read and write next?
CM – If and when I complete the works listed above I hope to write a book about my first ancestor in the New World, the radical Puritan divine, Roger Williams, and the second volume in a trilogy of prose poems, Cadenzas in a Variable Key, the first part of which, Necessities, appeared in 2013. Of course I am always praying for new poems to arrive. And then? We shall see.
Books I am reading now: Paul Celan’s Breathturn into Timestead, Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, Ismail Kadare’s Twilight of the Eastern Gods, Walt Whitman’s Memoranda During the War, Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, Stanley Plumly’s The Immortal Evening: A Legendary Dinner with Keats, Wordsworth, and Lamb…
KSC – Have you ever been afraid of facing criticisms by writing on sensitive global issues? Especially, after working closely with the government?
CM – I am not immune to criticism. And it would be foolish for me to imagine that I could write about global issues without attracting the ire of certain people and parties, more so since I work with the State Department, the NEH, and UNESCO. Developing a thick skin is essential to the literary trade.
KSC – As a journalist, what solutions do you see to the recent political crisis and wars in the Middle East? As an American, do you think we can do better in our foreign policies and diplomacy?
CM – Wars are brought to an end by military means and diplomacy, not journalism, which has a much different responsibility: to record the truth, which may lay the groundwork for bringing warring parties to the negotiating table. Think of the photograph of the young woman who hanged herself in the woods outside Srebrenica, during the Serbian massacre of Bosnian men and boys. By 1995, Serbian forces had committed countless crimes against humanity, which journalists had faithfully documented, often at great peril; this photograph galvanized international efforts to stop the carnage, first by American air strikes targeting Serbian positions around Sarajevo, then by a Croatian ground campaign in Slavonia, and finally in the negotiations leading to the Dayton Peace Accords. I was under no illusions writing about this that my role was anything other than getting the facts straight, teasing out their meaning, and composing a lively narrative true to the events that I witnessed.
Foreign policy and diplomacy are by definition difficult to manage, and surely American policy makers and diplomats know they can do better, in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world. The problems are legion; no country has a monopoly on success in its relations with other countries. Thus one form of the writer’s obligation to speak truth to power is to shine a light on political and diplomatic failures, of which America has no shortage in this century, Exhibit A being the Middle East.
KSC – You have been part of the mission to secure Baghdad’s designation as a UNESCO City of Literature and in the cultural exchange programs outlined in the Strategic Framework Agreement to increase mutual understanding and strengthen connections between the people of the United States and Iraq. What progress has been made since your three visits to Iraq?
CM – The steering committee for Baghdad’s UNESCO City of Literature bid has put together a strong dossier; established an organization with a budget and office space in a palace that belonged to Saddam Hussein; reached out to other Cities of Literature to explore collaborative possibilities; and displayed the ingenuity of the people who invented writing and then created a center for artistic and intellectual production, which for hundreds of years shaped thought in the Middle East and beyond. I have high hopes that in time UNESCO will welcome Baghdad into its Creative Cities Network.
The IWP has undertaken a variety of cultural diplomacy initiatives in Iraq, including teaching creative writing workshops; hosting digital video conferences on American literature; and building web galleries to showcase Iraqi poetry in translation. My travels to Iraq have been postponed until the security situation improves. But this will not stop us from trying to engage. It is the least we can do.
KSC – The socio-political atmosphere in Iraq is concerning, especially after the uprising of ISIS. Is this going to affect the UNESCO cultural and literary mission in Iraq, and your future visits to Baghdad to make continuing progress?
CM – The rise of ISIS has been an unmitigated disaster for Syria and Iraq. And we must hope that their gains can be reversed by the Iraqi military and moderate Syrians working in concert with American forces and their allies in the Gulf. Meantime we will keep trying to connect, understanding that taking the long view is essential to cultural diplomacy, especially during an armed conflict.
KSC – Does the complexity of Iraq’s political, social, and economic situation inspire you to write yet another non-fiction book?
CM – I have not spent enough time in Iraq to write at length about it. But one entry in After the Fact: Scripts & Postscripts, a book of prose pieces that Marvin Bell and I wrote together and will publish in 2016, touches on some part of my experience there:
Black Watch, Gregory Burke, 2006. We were ordering drinks at the Scotch Malt Whiskey Society in Edinburgh when my host recalled his father trying a single malt described as having the aroma and taste of industrial effluent. But what he chalked up to Scottish humor was truth in advertising—which was missing from the arguments made for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the subject of the verbatim play I was to discuss at a conference on Scotland’s place in the world. Three members of the Black Watch Regiment are killed in a suicide car bombing, and when the survivors recount their tour of duty to a writer in a pub things turn ugly. One soldier wounded in the attack reports that he kept re-breaking his arm so that he would not have to return to battle. “Better. Break it,” he chants, closing in on the writer, his refrain bringing to mind the warnings that military action would break Iraq apart. The Scottish independence movement was gathering speed, and at the conference it was assumed that revenue from the North Sea oil reserves belonged to the Scots. No one thought that London would object. I took an interest in the Scottish programming on TV—part of my family had emigrated from Fife—without understanding a word of it. Nor did I imagine that one day I would travel to Baghdad to coordinate the staging of new plays by American and Iraqi writers on the theme of courage. There were rumors of civil war, car bombings, assassinations; after one meeting our security detail drove us into a traffic jam by a crowded market. I asked a diplomat, my control officer, if she thought the man tailing us along the sidewalk was a local intelligence asset or a spotter for the insurgents. She shook her head. We sat in silence for more than twenty minutes, until the traffic cleared. The man vanished into the crowd when we reached the road that led to the Tigris River, and not until we arrived at the embassy did the contractor in the passenger’s seat turned around and said, He’s one of ours.
KSC – Have you ever visited India, and do you plan to have any literary mission there?
CM – I have visited India twice, first to negotiate American participation in the Kolkata Book Fair and then to take part in it one year later; in both cases, a lawsuit led to the fair being canceled at the last moment, when all the foreign literary delegations had already arrived in Kolkata. This was, as you might imagine, disconcerting. I hope that if I visit India again I will have a better experience.
I should add that when I was reporting from Bosnia Shahid said, repeatedly, that after the war I should turn my attention to his troubled homeland, Kashmir. I have not forgotten his imperative.
KSC – Do you think the sojourner in you has continued on his quest looking for answers in the world of last things?
CM – I am always thinking about last things.
KSC – What thing challenges you the most, and how do you face your disappointments?
CM – Writing sentences that are at once graceful and true: an endlessly exasperating, and occasionally, satisfying occupation.
KSC – Do you have any spiritual quest?
CM – See above.
KSC – If you have one message to send out to the world, what would that be?
CM – I would hate to be reduced to a single message: every moment of life brings fresh demands on our attention and imagination, which I pray to honor word by word.
KSC – Do you have any message you have for Life and Legends?
CM – Make every issue an occasion for wonder and surprise.
KSC – How do you want the world to remember Christopher Merrill?
CM – As a writer who tried to make sense of his time here below.
Also by Christopher Merrill – Notes from a Journey