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An interview with Christopher Merrill

- by Goutam Datta

Urhalpool: Chris, thank you for your time. You are a very busy person, always traveling somewhere in the world for IWP. We, from Urhalpool, really appreciate your time for this interview. Please tell us a brief history and the goals of IWP.

Christopher Merrill: The International Writing Program (IWP) was founded in 1967 by the poet Paul Engle, the former director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and his soon-to-be second wife, the Chinese novelist Nieh Hua-ling. The story goes that Hua-ling proposed the venture on a boat ride around a nearby lake, and he replied that it was the craziest idea that he had ever heard—an idea that he and Hua-ling then put into practice. Since then, more than 1,200 poets and writers from over 120 countries have participated in the IWP, a three-month-long residency that we like to call the United Nations of Writers, in which participants write, give readings and panel discussion, visit classes, translate their works, experience the intensely literary city of Iowa City (which was recently designated the third UNESCO City of Literature), and get to know writers from—well, everywhere. I tell them on the first day that I hope that at the end of their stay they will have many new pages written, many new impressions of this country and of other countries, and many new friends.

Urhalpool: How do you differentiate IWP from other institutes offering international writers’ workshop programs?

Christopher Merrill: The IWP is a non-degree program designed for professional writers in early to mid-career, with at least one book to their credit and some degree of national, if not international, prominence. The IWP interacts with the other writing programs at the university, with the hope that the American undergraduate and graduate writing students will learn from their international visitors, and vice versa.

Urhalpool: You, Christopher Merrill, became the director of IWP at a very young age and at a very financially troubled time for IWP. What was your vision to guide such a prestigious institute?

Christopher Merrill: First, I needed to rebuild a storied institution that had fallen apart, which meant on the one hand spending a lot of time with auditors, account specialists, and the general counsel and, on the other, trying to figure out what was best about the IWP: what to save, what to build upon, what to discard. Then I wanted to reach out in every direction, hoping to make the IWP a nexus of connections—between writers and readers and students and translators and the entire community. Out of these connections new ideas emerged, which are described in fuller detail on our web site:

Urhalpool: I know that you travel all over the world for IWP. What is the main purpose of such a grueling travel schedule?

Christopher Merrill: I travel for several reasons: to lecture; to teach creative writing workshops; to introduce the IWP and its various programs to new audiences; to host symposia; to take American writers on reading tours; to attend conferences; to do research for my nonfiction books. I am fortunate in that I like to travel: this job would be impossible otherwise!

Urhalpool: There was a recent article which noted that the rate of extinction of languages in the world exceeds that of animals and plants. English is becoming the main communicative language of the world. Many foreign writers are quitting writing in their mother tongues and choosing English as their language of expression. How do you address this exodus of intellects?

Christopher Merrill: We always encourage poets and writers to work in their mother tongue, especially since translation is an important component of our program. From time to time a visiting writer will experiment with English, mostly with uninteresting results—though we once hosted a writer from Uruguay who composed an entire book of poems in English for the purpose of improving his facility with the language, and the poems were very good. I am happy to report that his subsequent writings are in Spanish.

Urhalpool: Do we need to try to preserve languages or let the languages follow "survival of fittest" theory?

Christopher Merrill: Any steps that can be taken to preserve any language are worth the effort. For the loss of a language, like the loss of animal and plant species, diminishes us all.

Urhalpool: I have seen every year there are writers and poets from thirty to forty countries attending IWP. At times you may not have the resources to provide volunteers in all these writers’ languages. How do you address this problem in communication?

Christopher Merrill: Every visiting writer is expected to have a working command of English, which is the language that we use in all of our public events.

Urhalpool: In your words, when you see all these writers mingling together at IWP, what do you think is the main accomplishment? 

Christopher Merrill: Natasa Durovicova, the editor of our online journal, 91st Meridian, has a nice phrase for what we create: this is our three-month-long performance piece, which brings together writers from everywhere, expanding our network of connections, reminding us that the world is at once smaller and stranger than we imagine. It’s very gratifying.

Urhalpool: Do you think creating dialogue between cultures can bring peace on earth?

Christopher Merrill: As Winston Churchill said, “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”

Urhalpool: The IWP depends to a certain extent on grants from State Department for its funding. American embassies from each country can nominate local writers for the program. I wrote in my last editorial that "Mr. President has promised to bring drastic changes in American foreign policy. He has promised to bring the human face of America to the world... And the reeducation and retraining of American diplomats will be an integral part of this vision of change.” In my experience, I have seen American public affairs diplomats remain aloof from the local culture. Do you think that in this changed environment the IWP can help the State Department with cultural diplomacy? For writers from small countries, how do they overcome noncooperation from American embassies?

Christopher Merrill: Every post and consulate has its own priorities regarding cultural exchanges, and in my travels I often raise the issue of nominating writers for the IWP. The key person in every post for cultural matters is the foreign service national (FSN), the local who will be there long after the cultural affairs and public affairs officers have moved on to their next postings. FSNs in the literary loop are more likely to know who is doing good work, and it seems to me that any effort to include FSNs in literary matters is a good thing.

It is also important to note that the State Department is not the only avenue for funding IWP writers. We have productive relationships with foundations, in this country and abroad, which allow us to bring writers from China, Korea, Japan, Russia, and the like. I hope that at some point we might establish similar relationships with foundations and patrons interested in sending Indian writers to the IWP. 

Urhalpool: Now, let me ask about the Bengali language. Bengali is the fifth most spoken language in the world and one of the most creative. (Just note the list of Bengali writers writing in English!) Only four or five Bengali writers have ever attended the IWP from West Bengal, India. I think it is because the continuous presence of leftist politics in West Bengal and animosity between local intellects and American diplomats. Urhalpool is trying to eliminate this atmosphere of mistrust and create dialogue between these two great cultures. How do you think IWP can help us or do you have any opinion on this subject?

Christopher Merrill: Local politics plays no role in determining whether the IWP accepts a writer: the quality of a writer’s work is the only thing that matters. Indeed we regularly host writers from countries at odds with the U.S. government, recognizing that our role is to provide a place in which writers can write, freely exchange ideas and opinions, broaden their aesthetic horizons, and deepen their understanding of the world. For example, we usually have Israeli and Palestinian writers in residence, and their conversations with each other and with their fellow writers, their insights and witness, their stories, are always illuminating.

Urhalpool: Chris, I have read your poetry books Brilliant Water and Watch Fire, and have read many of your articles and translated one of your poems into Bengali. In my mind, you are a writer and poet first, then the director of IWP. However, you must spend most of your productive time working for the IWP. How do you find a middle ground between writer Chris Merrill and director Christopher Merrill?

Christopher Merrill: It isn’t easy! All I can say is that I don’t get much sleep.

Urhalpool: Thank you Chris for your patience. This is my last question. I know that you were at the Iowa caucuses, you were the first person to predict to me that Barack Obama might win the election, and you took your daughters to Grant Park in Chicago for the rally on the night of the election. You have been very excited about Barack Obama winning the presidency. What are the changes you would like to see him bring to America?

Christopher Merrill: One virtue of living in Iowa is that you get to see presidential candidates up close, and from Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention through his campaign in Iowa I had the sense that America had been given a chance to set the ship of state on a new course—a course in which pragmatism would reign. After the disastrous, and indeed criminal, tenure of George W. Bush, it was good to know that this country possessed the ability to self-correct. Now Obama faces enormous challenges but you get the feeling that he is up to the job. What a relief it is to have someone in the White House who listens, who can think on his feet, and who at every turn seems to possess the wisdom of the ages. It’s no accident that he’s also a great writer. It’s about time.

May 2009, Vol:2, Issue:1

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