Letter from London: Soot and Ash

By Christopher MerrillAugust 22, 2011

Letter from London: Soot and Ash

"INFLUENCE" WAS THE THEME of the seventh annual Worlds in June, a symposium which brought poets and writers from more than a dozen countries to the University of East Anglia, in Norwich, for a series of provocations, discussions, and readings. The word derives from infleur, medieval Latin for "to flow in," and indeed water metaphors proliferated over the course of the week to describe the mysterious process by which writers resist, assimilate, or embrace literary traditions, explore political and philosophical ideas, and render the particularities of the time and space into which they are born: seepage and toxic flow, liquefaction and clotting, inundation and tsunami. Thus the Hungarian-born poet and translator George Szirtes observed that writers float in language, an unfathomable medium with currents and directions that cannot be discerned in their entirety: a fair description of the drift of the conversation at Worlds

Once you begin to look for influences, they seem to be everywhere — in the weather, in politics, in literature and art. Perhaps the end of a two-month-long drought, which had turned fields brown, played a role in shaping our discussions; foreign television viewers may not have been surprised to see matches rained out at Wimbledon, but locals welcomed the change in the weather. All eyes were on tennis star Andy Murray, who would be an English hero, according to a Scottish writer, until he lost, and then he would just be Scottish. An Irish novelist, taking note of the violent protests in Athens over the Greek government's austerity plans, explained the lack of outrage in cash-strapped Dublin this way: We don't have the weather for it.

In a more serious vein, the American poet C.K. Williams tracked some of the changes that books produce in the lives of their readers. "My mind has been shaped by poetry," he said, describing how literature can enlarge one's imaginative capacity. He suggested that sympathy and morality depend upon imagination, which is why individuals make different decisions based on the same data. To reinforce his point, he read "The Foundation," a poem which celebrates his formative influences — Plato and Aristotle, Freud and Camus and Buber, Rilke and Yeats — and what he calls his giants, his Whitman and Shakespeare, his Dante and Homer, and many, many more. The concluding stanza became a leitmotif of Worlds:


Watch me, I haven't landed, I'm hovering here
over the fragments, the remnants, the splinters and shards;
my poets are with me, my soarers, my skimmers, my skaters,
aloft on their song in the ruins, their jubilant song of the ruins.


How to turn the splinters and shards of a life into something that will endure? This is the secret theme of Worlds, which under the auspices of Writers Centre Norwich and the University of East Anglia invites 30-40 writers to talk in depth about issues relating to their own and others' work. Literary value, experimentation, imagination and exile, the relationship between humans and nature, education, translation — these are some of the topics addressed in previous years, all of which fed the discussion about writers singing in the ruins.

No writer better understood this than the late German novelist W. G. Sebald, who taught at the university for over two decades. Some of his former students have collected his classroom comments — "Oddities are interesting," for instance, and "Writing is about discovering things hitherto unseen. Otherwise one might as well watch television" — and I was pleased to learn from one that the masterful prose stylist wore watches on both wrists. On influence Sebald said,


I can only encourage you to steal as much as you can. No one will ever notice. You should keep a notebook of tidbits, but don't write down the attributions, and then after a couple of years you can come back to the notebook and treat the stuff as your own without guilt.


My notebook from Worlds is filled with tidbits from novelists like Andrey Kuekov, Gail Jones, and Alex Preston (This Bleeding City is a timely, and devastating, portrait of the world of hedge fund managers), the poets Gwyneth Lewis and Dimitry Kuzmin, and the scholar Jon Cook, the author of Hazlitt in Love, who moderated the sessions with uncommon grace. Here is my favorite entry, a very short story by the English writer, John McGregor:


"Fleeing Complexity"

The fire spread faster than the little bastard expected.


(This story would take on new meaning over the summer, with fires of a different order destroying businesses, reputations, and lives. First there was Rupert Murdoch's phone-hacking scandal, which led to the closure of News of the World, a Parliament inquiry, and questions about News Corp.'s activities in America. And then riots in London, sparked by the killing of an Afro-Caribbean man in a police operation, spread to Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, and other cities in Britain, leaving a trail of looted stores, burned buildings, hundreds of arrests. Evidently the weather for insurrection was improving; in an economic climate of austerity, courtesy of the policies of David Cameron's Conservative government, and high unemployment from the continuing global financial crisis, it was only a matter of time before angry youths followed the example of Greek protesters and set fire to their neighborhoods.)

Norwich has applied to become a UNESCO City of Literature, its heritage as a literary center dating back more than nine centuries (the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich and Thomas Browne are among its distinguished writers), and Worlds underscored its history of international exchange. One night a taxi carrying four writers to the Norwich Playhouse stopped for some time at a crosswalk. Are we here? I asked. Yes, said the driver, and then continued down the road. It took me a moment to get the joke, which stayed with me during the reading. Norwich is also a City of Asylum for writers at risk, and to celebrate Refugee Week (a banner in a photograph projected onto a screen read, Refugees! What have they ever done for us?) Libyan-born novelist Hisham Matar read from his new book, Anatomy of a Disappearance, which traces a teenaged boy's attempts to answer questions about his identity and place in the world, in the wake of his father's mysterious disappearance from a flat in Geneva.

It was a riveting performance, made more poignant by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen, Libya and Syria. Matar's exploration of the connection between politics and literature, fueled by the loss of his father, a political dissident kidnapped in Cairo in 1991 and then imprisoned in Muammar Gaddafi's notorious Abu Salim prison in Tripoli, left me wondering about the enduring influence of loss. During the question-and-answer session Matar said that his two uncles and two cousins were released after twenty-one years in prison just two weeks before Libyans revolted against the regime. He joked that they had no chance to relax, and now they were fighting alongside the rebels. There was no word about his father's fate.

From Norwich I took a morning train to London, arriving in time to see the Joan Míro exhibit at the Tate Modern. The Ladder of Escapeincluded work from every stage of his long and productive career, and it was instructive to see how he responded to political events, from the ravages of the Spanish Civil War to the oppression of the Franco dictatorship; the violent protests in the early 1970s spurred him to create a haunting series of burnt canvases, employing fire to open new ways of viewing the world; through one hole I could see an older man shuffling along with a limp, taking photographs of paintings for his wife, who was busy sketching.

One room was devoted to Constellations, a wartime series of gouaches that inspired the last book of poems by André Breton, whose influence over modern art and literature looms large. Translating Constellations decisively shaped my literary apprenticeship, and now I gazed at the works that coaxed from the Surrealist poet a final burst of beauty:


"Escape Ladder"

Everything is still closed up like a poppy bud yet traps yawns in the air. All you have to do is stick your nose outside to maneuver among the jack-in-the-boxes of every size from which the head of Bristling Pierre, grown up and spreading his beard of embers, is eager to spring out of his ringed body. Armed with all their gear, the chimney sweeps trade their longest "Ooh-Oohs" through the flue.


Lasting influences may begin with the trading of such joyous sounds, in soot and ash. I remembered a long winter in Santa Fe, where I worked as a caretaker: how every morning I sat by the wood stove reading Breton as if my life depended on his every word, which opened onto a world where dream and reality merged. I am still trying to sort out what it all means.


LARB Contributor

Christopher Merrill's new book, The Tree of the Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War, will be published in October. He directs the University of Iowa's International Writing Program.


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