DECEMBER 4, 2017
CHRISTOPHER MERRILL was on Mount Athos when he was invited to apply for the position of director of the International Writing Program (IWP) at the University of Iowa. Founded by Paul and Hualing Engle in 1967, the IWP had been floundering since the end of the Cold War, and it was hoped that Merrill could rebuild it. He had spent the prior decade covering the Balkan Wars, and was now making a pilgrimage to the legendary Greek peninsula to recuperate and rediscover his sense of vocation. Then, one year after he took the job, two passenger planes hijacked by al-Qaeda terrorists flew into the World Trade Center, inaugurating a new geopolitical order that would urgently renew the IWP’s cultural-diplomatic mandate. If Merrill was searching for a calling that would unite his aesthetic and political sensibilities, he found one in the position he has occupied for the past 17 years, as a poet-diplomat for the new millennium, updating the august tradition of Octavio Paz and Pablo Neruda.
Merrill has led a restless life, in terms of both geography and genre. He was born in Northampton, Massachusetts, and raised in suburban New Jersey. His childhood and adolescence were haunted by war, as local legends of the American Revolution collided with news reports from Vietnam. Merrill took solace in the natural world, hiking and fishing in a newly created nature reserve called Dismal Harmony. This push-and-pull between political engagement and poetic retreat has remained with him throughout his itinerant career. He received a BA in English with honors from Middlebury College, after which he went to the University of Washington to study creative writing. At Washington, Merrill further cultivated his interest in nature, as he supported himself working at a local nursery. He also began studying and translating Anglo-Saxon and French surrealist poetry, sparking a lifelong interest in the theory and practice of what some call the “invisible” profession. It would also be in Washington that Merrill would meet his wife, Lisa, a classical violinist with whom he has two daughters.
Merrill left Seattle for the doctoral program in creative writing at the University of Utah, but, as he writes in his recently published memoir Self-Portrait with Dogwood (2017), “workshop rivalries left me reeling, the seminars bored me.” He left the program but not the region. Newly certified as a master gardener, he moved with his wife to New Mexico, where they became caretakers of an estate abutting the Santa Fe National Forest. He founded and directed the Taos Conference on Writing and the Natural World and the Santa Fe Literary Center, through which he met W. S. Merwin, who would become a longtime mentor and friend. During this period, Merrill supported himself with a scattering of temporary teaching gigs. Still restless and in need of money, he embarked on a career of freelance journalism and creative nonfiction, starting with The Grass of Another Country: A Journey Through the World of Soccer (1993), which would spur his dedication to documenting the Balkan Wars during the 1990s. In 1995, he took on his first permanent faculty position as the William H. Jenks Chair in Contemporary Letters at the College of the Holy Cross.
Merrill is, in the words of his friend and collaborator Marvin Bell, a “phenom.” By my count, he has published six books of poetry and six books of creative nonfiction, co-translated seven books of poetry from the Korean, as well as others from French and Slovenian, and edited or co-edited 10 anthologies and collections. He has also authored a host of individual poems, articles, introductions, and afterwords, not to mention white papers and other bureaucratic documents, and has participated in innumerable collaborative projects. His work has been translated into three dozen languages, including Bengali, Malay, and Uzbek. He has served on the editorial and advisory boards of the Associated Writers & Writing Programs, the Prague Summer Seminars, The Iowa Review, Poetry International, and the International Writers Workshop at Hong Kong Baptist University. In 2006, he was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture and Communications. In 2014, he became an honorary citizen of Baghdad.
I interviewed Merrill in Shambaugh House, the small former residence on North Clinton Street in Iowa City that is the administrative home of the International Writing Program. The hallway outside Merrill’s office is dominated by posters and prints documenting his wide network of friends, mentors, and collaborators, including a cloth hanging honoring his role as the guiding force behind Iowa City’s designation as a UNESCO City of Literature in 2008. Also prominently displayed is President Obama’s official appointment of Merrill to the National Council on the Humanities. On a large wooden file cabinet behind Merrill’s desk rest pictures drawn by his daughters, Hannah and Abigail, as well as a ball and chain — a gag gift from UI’s vice president for Research given to Merrill when he turned down a job offer as director of Arizona State’s Creative Writing Program in order to stay at the IWP. During our interview, Merrill discussed his lengthy and productive career, and the many challenges to cultural diplomacy in the new millennium.
LOREN GLASS: You describe your most recent book, Self-Portrait with Dogwood, as a literary exploration of certain events through the lens of nature, but your literary career has really ended up in the realm of culture, specifically cultural diplomacy. So I thought we’d start out by speculating broadly on the relationship between nature and culture in your work and career, particularly in terms of the eco-critical turn your work seems to be taking more recently. Do these trends mesh, or are there contradictions between them?
CHRISTOPHER MERRILL: To some extent this eco-critical turn is a return to my origins. Early on, I might have described myself as a nature poet, inflected by my translations of French surrealism. I worked as the poetry editor for Orion magazine for 10 years, published an anthology titled The Forgotten Language: Contemporary Poets and Nature (1991), and then proposed that Orion sponsor a “Forgotten Language” tour, which went to more than 30 states in this country and abroad. So Self-Portrait with Dogwood marks a return to these roots.
When my first prose book came out, The Grass of Another Country: A Journey Through the World of Soccer, a friend told me that a fellow nature writer had said, “What’s he doing writing about soccer?” — as if I had betrayed the cause. I replied, “Well, wait till he sees what the next book is.” Because by then I was covering the war in the former Yugoslavia. The common thread is curiosity about the world, which is rooted on the one hand in an understanding of the larger dimensions within which we live — in the natural order, the political order, the global order — and a certain restlessness of spirit that has taken me to different places. I would like to think that these are not signs of all the ways in which I contradict myself (I’m not so sure I’m large, but I do contain multitudes), but that they are emblems of a restless imagination.
Which makes perfect sense, given the extent of your travels, both mentally and geographically. You mentioned the first book — and actually, soccer is very much a global sport. Are there ways in which that triggered or furthered your interest in cross-cultural contact or more global as opposed to national experience? I have a friend who tells me a joke that in the United States soccer is the sport of the future and it always will be. So soccer takes you out of this country in some ways.
Except, in my case, it began in this country, because I grew up in a part of New Jersey where we played soccer instead of football. Playing for the Newark Sport Club and at Farcher’s Grove in Union, New Jersey, I met kids from many different cultures. And I played for a powerhouse high school soccer team, which was a mosaic of different ethnicities. So when I covered the World Cup, I drew on my knowledge of soccer’s cross-cultural appeal, within a particular national context (let’s say, urban centers in the mid-Atlantic region) and came to view it in a larger global light. Soccer teams at the international level reveal certain national characteristics, and while I didn’t want to take an essentialist view of the matter, it seemed important to explore these national traits.
For example, when my former college soccer coach and I traveled with Roy Hodgson, who was the manager of Neuchâtel in Switzerland and would later coach England, we spent a day by Lake Constance. We were talking about buying talent from Eastern Europe — it was 1990, the Berlin Wall had just come down, and players from the Soviet bloc were available — and Roy said that the only players he didn’t want to buy were from Yugoslavia. “Why is that?” I asked. He replied, “Because they’re the most beautiful soccer players but they can’t play together.” Now I never used that anecdote in The Grass of Another Country, but it did make its way into my next book, which was about this very beautiful country, Yugoslavia, that could not hang together. Here was the kind of perceptive comment that an astute soccer coach with a grasp of the world can make, which reveals a central truth about the human condition.
So there’s a clear connection between this soccer book and the move to Yugoslavia, to war and military engagement as a thematic. Was that a natural move?
To return to your first question: the funny thing is I originally went to Slovenia to write a piece for Sierra magazine. I traveled with my friend Aleš Debeljak, a Slovenian poet whose book of prose poems, Anxious Moments (1994), he and I had translated together. I had an assignment from Sierra to write a piece about two poets wandering in the mountains after the Cold War. You can walk across Slovenia in three weeks, and indeed we walked across one mountain range. But on the third day, when we arrived at a hut where we had planned to stay, it was filled with refugees from the war. My friend said, “I don’t have the heart to ask them any questions.” I think at that point I was hooked. I spent six weeks in Slovenia reporting from lots of places, and when I got back, I called the editor to say, “The piece I’m going to write is a little different than what we had planned.” She said, “Just write it as you want.” I think I got the fastest kill fee in the history of American journalism. But I was in. I felt this was a story I could understand, because it had to do with poets and writers, filmmakers and artists, and the role they played in fomenting, prophesying, or attempting to stave off the crisis, and then in bearing witness to what they saw. This was deeply interesting to me as a poet coming from a country in which the arts have a rather marginal place. It was disorienting to be in a place where artists took center stage. When I first went there, Aleš had just appeared on Slovenian TV with the president to discuss the nature of friendship. It’s impossible to imagine such a thing taking place in this country.
In terms of your literary identity, you call yourself a poet, but obviously the turn to nonfiction was important in your life. What made you turn to prose, especially journalistic writing?
From the very beginning, I wrote prose alongside poetry, usually short fiction. When I took a job as a caretaker in New Mexico, I had written a few reviews for literary journals, but I became more systematic about the life of a freelance journalist. A joke I sometimes tell is that the first short story I published I worked on for three months straight, sold it to the Carolina Quarterly and got a check for nine dollars. You’re not going to survive on that. So I started writing for newspapers: the Albuquerque Journal, the Santa Fe New Mexican, Sierra, Sports Illustrated. My dear friend, the Greek poet and journalist Anastassis Vistonitis, calls his prose the continuation of poetry by other means. I like that.
Could we shift the vocabulary and call that creative nonfiction? I’ve sometimes thought of creative nonfiction as a way that poets move into prose. There’s a lot of career stories of poets feeling restless with either the audience for their poetry or the form of their poetry, and moving into a different form — usually creative nonfiction.
That’s certainly true. My first prose books are literary journalism; creative nonfiction is what I’ve done in Self-Portrait with Dogwood. Of paramount importance to me is allegiance to fact, to corroborating information, to checking every source: all the things that make up proper journalism, proper nonfiction. Remember that I came of age as a writer covering a war, where you have to get everything right, insofar you can, because the stakes are so high. My move into nonfiction came out of a need to make money and a desire to work on a larger canvas. It was a way for me to record and think about what I do as I travel around the world, as well as to see what can be done in different forms.
In Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars (1999), I approach matters from a variety of angles. For example, there’s a chapter about Albania, which consists of one long paragraph. I had been thinking about writers like Claude Simon and David Albahari, a wonderful Serbian writer (and IWP alumnus), who compose book-length paragraphs, thinking that this might be a way to capture the claustrophobic feel of Albania — which at the time was as far as I was willing to expand my reach as a nonfiction writer. Now might be different. My work, always, is in the service of trying to figure out how to get down what’s going on out there.
And is that a matter of witnessing on a political register? The questions you were asking before are in a sense aesthetic. What is the form in which you write about war? And did this transition in your writing career help in the cultural diplomacy you do now for the IWP?
When I covered the war, I was determined to see as much as I could, record as much as I could, encounter as many different kinds of people as possible, and then try to get everything right. The trick to writing a war book is you have to survive. If you do, then you have all these stories to tell. At the same time, I had filed a number of pieces of journalism, and when I looked at them in the light of a book project, I was taken aback by how much I had missed. I really didn’t see the larger implications, which is one problem with daily journalism — the first draft of history — or even long-form journalism. You’re writing quickly, to deadline, and you get things wrong. You have some leisure with a book (especially if you miss deadlines, as I so often do) to get it right, to tease out meanings.
When I got the job at Iowa, an editor friend said to me, “Who could have guessed that all those years of traveling to war zones, driving your wife crazy, allowed you to accumulate the skill set for one job in the world?” There was something to that, because as a journalist I had to learn how to navigate lots of complicated situations, which is something that goes on in university administration. Especially when you take on the job of rebuilding a program that has completely fallen apart. I had to learn a whole new set of skills in order to have any hope of succeeding. The adaptability that I acquired as a journalist ended up being useful in putting out the various brush fires awaiting me in Iowa.
I wonder if you see any sense of calling in your literary vocation and the jobs that have come your way. More specifically, given that 9/11 happened shortly after you took your current position, how has the IWP responded to that challenge? One way to look at the history of the program is to see the Engles’ IWP as a Cold War program and your IWP as a post-9/11 program. I’m very interested in the contrasts or concordances there.
The Engles did found the IWP during the Cold War, and then there was the era of the so-called peace dividend in the 1990s when, among other things, the Clinton administration did away with the cultural diplomacy apparatus at the State Department — disbanding the US Information Agency, cashiering public affairs staff, destroying institutional memory, which hastened the IWP’s breakdown. Then came 9/11, and because the IWP maintained a tentative foothold at State, we were brought into conversations revolving around the question of why the United States was in such disfavor in the Islamic world. At least 30 reports were commissioned to address failures of public diplomacy, including the one on cultural diplomacy commissioned by Senators Joe Biden and Richard Lugar and Iowa Representative Jim Leach. I was put on the committee charged with issuing this report, and in that capacity I had the good luck to travel around the world on fact-finding missions to explore the dimensions of cultural diplomacy — a term I had never heard of before I came to Iowa. (Which reminds me that in a meeting during my first week at the University of Iowa, the vice president for governmental affairs said to me, “We’re so glad you’re here. We’ll get together next week to talk about your legislative agenda.” I thought to myself, “What’s a legislative agenda?”) I was given the task of writing the report, which inspired me to think of cultural diplomacy as a two-way street. For a long time we had said that in the IWP the world comes to Iowa. Now we took the Iowa creative writing model out into the world, particularly to Islamic countries.
I’ve been impressed by that throughout the history of the IWP — the really deep engagement with public policy and international relations.
In the early years of the Cold War, the Engles reached out to writers in the Soviet bloc. After Nixon went to China, the Engles translated Mao’s poems and then began to invite all the leading Chinese writers, including Ding Ling, Wang Meng, Bei Dao, and, in my time, Su Tong, Yu Hua, and Mo Yan. In the post–Cold War era, which is more difficult to characterize, we began to invent, with the encouragement of the State Department, projects designed to address larger issues of cultural diplomacy: youth empowerment, women’s empowerment, disability studies, LGBTQ studies — all the things we hold to be integral to the American ideal of diversity and inclusion.
Has cultural diplomacy been shaped, possibly enabled by the global dispersion of creative writing programs? Do they have them in the Islamic world now? I know they have them all over the Anglophone world. It’s become a global phenomenon.
That’s what’s so interesting about this since the first creative writing program was not the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The Maxim Gorky Literature Institute was founded in Russia just before Iowa’s program was established in 1936. Because of my work on the bilateral presidential commission to reset relations between the United States and Russia, I’ve had the good fortune to travel to Russia consistently since 2009, where I’ve had many interesting interactions with the Gorky Institute. What’s interesting, as I’ve said in lectures there, is that the Iowa model has been widely replicated. There are more than 300 creative writing programs all over the United States, and increasingly in the Anglophone world, but also in other countries: Spain, Latin America, France, Finland, Israel. By contrast, the Gorky model has not been replicated anywhere. Indeed, their approach to creative writing is closer to the master/apprentice transmission of information, in line with the lecture model you find in universities around the world. But I’m always meeting students who are deeply interested in what we talk about in creative writing workshops: how to read like writers, to do technical and imaginative exercises, to honor process more than product. They find it funny that this guy from Iowa comes to talk in different places about creative writing.
Increasingly, creative writing seems to be replacing or reforming the English major as such. We get students coming to the University of Iowa not to study literature but to learn how to be poets or writers. It’s interesting that this might be a global phenomenon, maybe making the emergence of a new creative class or a different sense of who can be a writer.
The first principle of the Iowa model, as articulated by people like Paul Engle and Wallace Stegner, is that it is inherently democratic, which suggests that anyone who has access to public higher education in the United States will have access to a creative writing class. The Gorky model attracted talented students from throughout the Soviet bloc. There’s a terrific novel by Ismail Kadare, titled Twilight of the Eastern Gods (2014), about an Albanian writer studying at the Gorky Institute in the late 1950s/early 1960s, when Albania was expelled from the Soviet orbit and came into the orbit of China, which in turn would also break with them. But again, it attracted the cream of the crop from different countries, including apparatchik kids. But the Iowa model goes against aristocratic or feudal models, offering the possibility of a literary apprenticeship to anybody. On our cultural diplomacy missions to, say, refugee camps on the Somali/Kenyan border, we talk about creative writing, the creative process, and curiosity to people who have limited access to higher education, even at universities in Kenya. We try to give them ways to think about how to take charge of their education.
Engle, it seems to me, throughout his life had an absolute conviction that the imagination was a global, cosmopolitan space that would leaven social conflict. Is that a philosophy that you also go by?
Yes. For example, we generally have in residence at the same time Israeli and Palestinian writers. They always disagree on political matters but often become friends. Last year we had a Russian playwright and a Ukrainian novelist. On one panel the Ukrainian translated into English for the Russian, who described her new play, which concerned the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. What happens when you bring together writers from lots of different places is that they discover what they hold in common, and they can articulate what divides them. We hope from the cultural diplomacy perspective to create some reservoir of goodwill.
Do you ever run into conflicts doing all this under US auspices? What is it like working with the State Department, especially given that America is a global hegemon that a lot of people obviously still dislike to one degree or another?
I began at the tail end of the Clinton administration, and then of course my next eight years of work here were under the Bush administration, where writers came to Iowa with a chip on their shoulders. My job is to explain to them, in whatever ways possible, something about American literature, politics, traditions, and be open to what they bring to the table so that we can have a wide-ranging conversation. This is what we shoot for.
When Obama was elected, a Lebanese writer and I were in Chicago teaching workshops to inner-city high school students. That night, we gave the students an assignment to go out and record five overheard conversations, because we knew it was going to be a big night, and five observations — which would furnish the basis for their writing the next day. It was thrilling for me to be with my family in Grant Park that night, and then to hear the next day what the students had registered around the city. When I returned to Iowa City, though, I said to my staff, “The good news is that writers are probably going to come here without a chip on their shoulders about George W. Bush and the occupation of Iraq. They may give us another look. But I have a funny feeling that things might get complicated for us at the State Department” — as indeed they did. Nine months after Obama was sworn in, I traveled to Iran at State’s behest to see what sorts of literary connections might be established, after which I was getting ready to go to DC for a roundtable discussion about my trip, when I got a frantic phone call from our program officer saying that the new political appointee wanted to do away with the IWP. So I learned a lesson.
Because you had gone to Iran? Or just generally?
This had nothing to do with Iran. As near as I can tell, the appointee had been involved in Hillary’s Iowa campaign, and she was ticked off at Iowa, which had voted for Obama. I spent months working every angle to try to save the program, calling in political favors. I did the Iran debriefing, but really I was there to convince the appointee of the IWP’s worth. We put together a PowerPoint presentation for her, and I knew within the first 10 seconds that we were doomed: she didn’t want to hear about writers. I was stunned.
But the way it worked out is sort of funny. I flew home in despair, and that Friday night I was driving to Chicago — my wife and daughter were there for a figure skating competition — when I got a call from the chief of staff for the Undersecretary of State for Public Affairs, asking me to join the Bilateral Presidential Commission to Reset Relations with Russia. I understood that, if I agreed, then perhaps the IWP could be saved. So I went to Moscow to serve on working groups for higher education, cultural exchange, sports, and mass media — a strange mix! There were representatives from Congress, the NHL, NEA, NEH, the President’s Commission on Arts and Humanities, and at one point I was pulled out of a meeting on higher education to go talk soccer.
At the first meeting on cultural exchanges in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, when we went around the table introducing ourselves, Anatoly Smeliansky, the artistic director of the Moscow Art Theatre, stood up and said, “We’ve trained a thousand Americans in the Stanislavsky method in the last 20 years, and now I can talk to my daughter every night in Cambridge on Skype. Can’t we figure out how to connect virtually?” I broke protocol, exclaiming, “Yes, yes!” We batted ideas around until the undersecretary and the Russian ambassador left, along with their entourages. The atmosphere was noticeably lighter. Then the chief of staff returned and tapped me on the shoulder to say that the undersecretary wanted to see me. “Oh man,” I thought, “I’m screwed.” When I went out into the hall, the undersecretary stood very close to me and said, “You make this work. Theater to theater, university to university, internet connections.”
So the IWP was partly saved by the World Wide Web.
Exactly. We ended up getting something into the final communiqué — a commitment for the IWP and the Moscow Art Theatre to work together. At the lunch after this statement was issued at the American embassy, the undersecretary pulled me aside to say, “I’m really glad you got that in the communiqué.” I said, “By the way, I’ve got this little problem.” She said, “Write me a memo over the weekend.” Which I did — and the problem went away. This was an important lesson for me in how Washington works.
That is a fascinating story, and I don’t think anyone on the ground here knew how much things were teetering at that point.
The funny thing is that the political appointee and I ended up doing a dog-and-pony show at a number of stops after that. We became fairly close. The bottom line was that someone probably said to her, “Look, your boss is probably going to run for president again. Do you really want to upset the whole state of Iowa over this piddling little grant?”
I’m afraid to ask this, but: How are things now with the State Department basically almost dismantled? Are they just not even paying attention to you?
We have our funding for this year. But this has been a period of great uncertainty at State. It’s hard to know what will happen. Our basic approach is to do what we do as well as we can and hope for the best. Recent reports suggest that the funding for the State Department will not be cut as drastically as the administration has proposed. But who knows? I will say that I pay regular visits to our state legislators, and my sense is that they like what we do. Iowa’s a small state, and the legislators know one another. The IWP and the Writers’ Workshop are things that Iowa can be really proud of.
I want to trace another strand of your life and career, and that is religion. I wonder how you reconcile your Christian faith both with your global cultural diplomacy and with your sense of poetic vocation. Increasingly as I’ve been studying the Iowa Workshop and the writers who have come here, the sense of a vocation either in a quasi-religious or explicitly religious sense comes to the fore. I wonder whether you see that kind of devout vocational commitment as being connected in some essential way to creative writing in the university.
It’s a thorny question, and I’m glad to have colleagues like Marilynne Robinson who try to delineate this. But also look at the number of Workshop students who come here with divinity degrees. In my mind there has always been a very close connection between poetry and prayer. From early on, poets like Donne and Herbert and Hopkins have profoundly influenced my work and thinking. Closer to home, my uncle — and godfather — is an Episcopal priest; he’s the family member I’m closest to. He was the captain of Drew University’s soccer team, he still runs in his 80s, and, like me, he reveres the church fathers, many of whom sound like poets. They had deeply metaphorical imaginations, and it’s important for me to engage with thinkers like that, a contemporary version of whom would be Geoffrey Hill, the British poet, who sought to carve out a spiritual place for poetry in the modern world. Jim Galvin said something I love — that he’s interested in the structure of belief. Which I think is analogous to the structure of poetry, the ways in which a poem might work. All of these things factor into my thinking and daily practice.
My next prose book will be on my first ancestor in the New World, Roger Williams, who was quite devout — and ended up without a church. He was banished from Massachusetts because he could not reconcile the Puritan theocracy in the making with his understanding of what is owed to God and what to Caesar. He articulated the idea of liberty of conscience, which was crucial to the establishment clause of the Constitution. And yet, by the end of his life, he was not in a church. I find that fascinating.
That leads to my next question. Do you think your religious sensibility helps or hinders your understanding of — or your ability to work through — religious conflicts in the world? You tend to be attracted — or at least you spend a lot of time — in places like Israel and the Middle East. Are you low-key about your own religious identity in these sorts of environments?
I am by nature low-key, which perhaps allows me to understand how deeply faith matters to different people. In the Obama administration, I was invited to an Iftar dinner to celebrate the end of Ramadan, and I had the good luck to sit next to the man in charge of religious policy for the White House, an engaging figure. We had a passionate talk through the course of the night, and I think when people of faith engage with other people of faith, there are ways to do it that open things up.
In my new book, I talk about my friend, the poet Agha Shahid Ali, who was also my older daughter’s godfather. After she was christened, my wife said to him, “You had to agree to tenets of Christianity that you, as a Muslim, must have found complicated.” He said, “I take it all very metaphorically.” My favorite religious figures are the ones who are comfortable enough in their own faith to be able not only to see the worth of other faiths but also to recognize the connections. In my book Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain (2016), I said it was providential that I arrived at Mount Athos on the feast day of Gregory Palamas. Of course, in my ignorance, I had no idea who he was. Then I start reading him and learned that he invented Hesychasm, the Jesus prayer, inward prayer — the mystical heart of Orthodoxy. He spent a year in captivity at the hands of the Turks, and had deep conversations with his Muslim captors. The Sufi tradition, which is another form of quietism, must have influenced his thinking I am always looking for such connections — say, between the Jesus prayer and Buddhist chant. They work on the mind and the body in some of the same ways. Discovering such commonalities can be helpful.
It sounds like the commonalities lie partly in modes of practice: every religion has its versions of monasticism and its versions of prayer. But also, it seems to have to do with the ability to understand that the concrete objects of belief are potentially metaphorical, that there are equivalences in other cultures. And I guess that would tie it all back to poetics or poetry or art in some way.
It would go to the heart of what Keats talks about with negative capability, which is in my view distinct from, let’s say, the dogmatists — who are generally the ones who start the wars.
One of the figures you have written about is T. S. Eliot, who obviously wanted to bring Christianity into the modern world through poetry. The Waste Land is one model of how to string poems together into a book or into an overall conception. In reading through your books of poetry, such as Boat (2013) or Brilliant Water (2001), I was deeply impressed by the thematic cross-references and the sense of the works as organic wholes. And I wonder whether you conceive of your poetry in book form, and whether certain kinds of religious themes give them organic completeness or integrity.
That never happens by design, at least not at the outset. It is always the case with me that I discover what I am writing about, particularly in the longer poems. A poet once asked me what I was thinking about writing my long poem, “Luck.” I replied that I let it rip, within a metrical framework, to see where the language might lead me. If you think about Eliot’s design in Four Quartets, he is rewriting the liturgy, adapting it to poetry. This must have been the product of his deep meditation — yes, prayer — and engagement with both poetic and spiritual traditions. Whether he did that by design or not, the result is some of the most beautiful poetry that we have. I also love the way he strings fragments together in The Waste Land — which is another way that I proceed, though I’m usually obeying a musical imperative. The religious imagery that finds its way into my poems is, I think, a function of my reading, what prayer life I have, and what matters to me — what is near at hand.
I am friends with the former archbishop of the Old Calendar Orthodox Church, one of the most learned men I know, and we trade emails pretty frequently. I’m struck by his engagement with poetry, his open-mindedness. He has very firm ideas about what Orthodoxy is, and he is part of what some in the Orthodox world regard as a splinter group. His defenses of Orthodoxy are thus part of his life. But at the same time he is so open and curious about the world. I prize that. And I think you find it in Eliot’s poems too. It’s easy to dismiss Eliot as the high Episcopal —
— fascist, reactionary, anti-Semitic. Some of that is there, no doubt about it. But at his very best, he brings to life D. H. Lawrence’s notion that we bring our best selves to our writings.
Your talk of your friendships and engagements makes me think of an opposing question I had about your poetry, which is that a number of your individual poems were actually written for specific institutional events or persons — such as the founding of a church or for the president of the university. And I wondered both how you write a poem like that and also whether it’s a sign of your particular role — that you end up writing poems within this institutional context around honorary events for administrators, in essence.
The poem for Trinity Church was commissioned for its 150th anniversary. My first instinct upon receiving such queries is, “Oh come on, not a chance.” Then something goes through my mind. “Maybe I can do something with that.” When a colleague was retiring, his assistant called to ask if I could write something. My heart sank, but as soon as I hung up, lines formed in my mind. The trick is to be open, then something might happen.
I studied with Mark Strand, an exacting craftsman, and there was a story that The Kenyon Review had commissioned him to write something, which he failed to complete. The issue was about to go to press when an editor thought to ask John Ashbery if he could fill that blank page — which he did, after staying up very late. When I first met Bill Stafford, who was returning from a reading tour in Texas, I asked him about his travels. He said the editor of The Texas Quarterly had asked him if I had any poems about Texas, which he did not. Then he got a twinkle in his eye. “But by golly if I didn’t get one the next morning,” he said. This is the spirit of openness that I try to cultivate.
I’d like to talk now about your work as a translator. I know translation goes back to the beginnings of your career, and it’s central, obviously, to the mission of the IWP. Translation always has been an underappreciated profession, and yet it’s crucial to the history of literature. You do a lot of collaborative translations, and I wonder whether you can talk a bit about that — about either your philosophy of or your work in translation.
I learned a lot from Merwin in this respect. When I used to house-sit for him, I would arrive a few days before he left so that we would spend time together working in his gardens and talking about writing and translation. There is the story of him visiting Pound at St. Elizabeth’s when he was 18, and Pound telling him to write 75 lines a day and translate. This was a good model, and so I have now translated seven books of Korean poetry with my friend Won-Chung Kim. I understand why Merwin said that he is always swearing off the practice, and then something comes along that intrigues him enough to think, “Let me see what I can do.” There’s great pleasure in engaging with another person to see what we can bring to life. And I find it very interesting to serve another poet’s vision. It’s not unlike being an actor. You get inside the skin of somebody else. I’ve joked that the first poem I translated, by André Breton, made me feel like a genius for about an hour. Of course Breton was the genius, but I loved the feeling of being in his skin — which has surely influenced my own work.
In how many languages are you fluent and what level of fluency do you think is required? I assume you’re not fluent in Korean, or maybe you are.
That’s why I ask, because it seems to me that, on the one hand, if you know French really well, then you can do a Breton poem; on the other hand, in Korean you’re going to have to work closely with your collaborator and have some sort of dialogue.
My translating began with a year-long graduate course in Old English, which concluded with us translating 100 lines a night of Beowulf. I absolutely loved that experience. That class was made up half of poets and half of linguists. The linguists were very particular with their 3-inch-by-5-inch index cards, and the poets were listening for the music. I was pretty good at Old English by the end, and I like to think I’m pretty good at translating French. But when I work in Korean, I am at sea. I know Won-Chung’s customary moves, which it is important to push back against, and he must know my moves. Obviously, it’s much better to translate from the language you know in the way that Agha Shahid Ali translated from Urdu. He knew the poems of Faiz Ahmed Faiz by heart, but he wrote in English, and so he translated what he heard in his imagination into the language of his poetry — which for me is the best way to proceed. Failing that, you do what you can.
Does it affect your own poetry, the experience of translation?
Merwin said that he tried to always keep a distinction between the two, and I’ve tried to maintain that distinction, too. But sometimes, when I’m writing, I think, “Is this coming from something I’ve translated?”
You’ve also written some — ghazal, is it called? You’ve written in some forms that were invented in other linguistic traditions.
Shahid challenged American poets to write, as he said, real ghazals in English, and now it is quite common to read ghazals in literary journals. I was at dinner the other night after a reading in Santa Fe, when Tony Hoagland suddenly recited a ghazal by Robert Bly. He had been on a train in England when it came to him that he wanted to memorize this ghazal, which he now shared with us. It was so beautiful. He said the poem had come to life for him some years ago after he had first read it — which is how the imagination works, no? We get ideas about certain poets and stop thinking about them until someone opens up a crevice in our imaginations.
You’ve lived all over the place, yet nature poets are usually poets of place. And I wondered, where do you feel most at home? What’s your relationship to place? Some people are always connected to where they were born, and I guess that’s where you first contacted Dogwoods. I find Iowa City to be a very funny region. Marilynne Robinson has in some ways reinvented Iowa for us, but I think it’s rarer to say you’re a poet of the Midwest than a poet of the South or the West.
I think we are rooted in the imagery of our childhood. Wherever I have lived, I have tried to engage in the local landscape as much as I can. Last week in Santa Fe, I was walking along trails that I used to know so well, and I thought, “This is how this ecosystem works.” When I moved to Iowa, I felt at sea as a writer, and then, reading Jane Mead’s poems about the prairie made me look at the place in a different light. That was for me was a way to enter. I am by no means a Midwestern writer, particularly since I spend so much time on airplanes, but I am conscious of working within this particular part of Eastern Iowa, in this particular landscape.
Do you ever write airplane poems, or poems about movement and migration? That seems like it would be a sensibility you might have.
A fair number of my poems have begun on planes, when I drift off and something comes to me. I’m working on a sequel now to my book of prose poetry Necessities (2013), titled Migrations, which is an abiding theme — and, with any luck, this will be my next book of poetry.