March 14, 2019KR BlogChatsEnthusiamsLiteratureWriting

The Art of Attending to Our Surroundings: Self-Portrait with Dogwood by Christopher Merrill

Photo by Ram Devineni, Courtesy of the author.

Christopher Merrill has published six collections of poetry, including Watch Fire, for which he received the Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets; many edited volumes and translations; and six books of nonfiction, among them, Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars, Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain, The Tree of the Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War, and Self-Portrait with Dogwood. His writings have been translated into nearly forty languages; his journalism appears widely; his honors include a Chevalier from the French government in the Order of Arts and Letters. As director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, Merrill has conducted cultural diplomacy missions to more than fifty countries. He serves on the US National Commission for UNESCO, and in April 2012 President Obama appointed him to the National Council on the Humanities.

Fiona Sze-Lorrain: Self-Portrait with Dogwood begins with an epigraph by Annie Dillard, “I never saw a tree that was one tree in particular.”  This, I thought, could apply to us humans [substitute for instance “tree” with “man” or “woman”]. What, too, came to mind were visionary poems that managed to stay at once immense and contained, and by extension, I felt tempted to replace it with “poem”—“I never read a poem that was one poem in particular.”  How has your poetic life evolved as an understory in your prose work, notably during the growth of Self-Portrait with Dogwood?

Christopher Merrill: The Platonic ideal embedded in Annie Dillard’s observation is what prompted me to use it as an epigraph to my book, by way of suggesting the dogwood as but one figure in the bounty of nature through which to explore and imagine one’s walk in the sun. “Go inside a stone,” Charles Simic wrote. “That would be my way.” Mine is to think about a tree in the understory of a forest, perhaps because in a group of people I prefer to stay in the background—though as the director of the International Writing Program I am often obliged to take center stage, despite my natural inclination to keep a low profile. “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself (I am large, I contain multitudes),” Whitman wrote. My contradictions fuel the narrative of Self-Portrait with Dogwood.

How to discern the evolution of my poetic life during the writing of this prose book? I can say only that whenever a prose writing deadline looms I tend to compose poetry, which means that by the time I sent the manuscript of Self-Portrait with Dogwood to my editor I had finished a number of new poems, in blank verse, versets, and prose. Some were tied to materials I unearthed in the course of trying to meet a deadline, some derived from exercises I assigned to students in creative writing workshops I conducted during cultural diplomacy missions for the Department of State to “countries of strategic interest,” and some came from that mysterious well of the unconscious. I look forward to seeing what patterns emerge from assembling these poems into a book.

Sze-Lorrain: The book puts forth a caveat that it is “not a memoir, strictly speaking, but a literary exploration of certain events through the lens of nature.”  Yet, it seems to reference itself back to the tradition in order to operate beyond its limits, while not coming across as an “anti-memoir” of sorts:

But they [dogwoods] serve critical functions in the ecosystem as well, and since they have informed so much of my life it seemed to me that an extended meditation on the intersection between personal and natural history might hold interest, if not for no other reason than to offer a different way of thinking about the tradition of writing memoirs.

Might there at some stage exist any ambivalence or tension between the intent, the process and its effort[s], and the resulting word[s]?  If so, how did you work around it?  Why the apparent need to “set parameters,” so to speak, from the outset?

Merrill: Reticent as I am by nature, I never imagined I would write a memoir—a tradition that for a long time did not much interest me, with some important exceptions: Thoreau’s Walden, Elias Canetti’s trilogy, Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time, Mary Karr’s Lying, Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings. So I was more than a little surprised when I realized about midway through Self-Portrait with Dogwood that I was writing a memoir.

You might say I backed into it, or approached it indirectly—which may have been the only way for me to write such a book, plagued as I am by doubts about everything I write. Or it may be that establishing parameters—i.e., every chapter must involve dogwoods—made it possible for me to address material that had long seemed beyond my grasp. Metrical imperatives, after all, can be liberating for a poet, as I discovered early in my literary apprenticeship. Perhaps the requirement to connect dogwoods served the same function in my imagination, freeing me to write a more truthful version of my life story.

Sze-Lorrain: To better honor truth and keep “realities” at life size on the page, how, and to what extent, did you challenge the “I”?  [By this, I’m alluding to distance, self-knowledge, and the need to refrain from over-aestheticization or self-mythology.]

Merrill: The difference between storytelling at a dinner party and writing a memoir lies in the recognition that stretching the truth for the sake of a good story in a social setting may not make for good literature, which depends upon truth telling of a special sort. For I believe that a reckoning with oneself—with the truth of one’s experience—is central to the best memoirs. When a sentence sounds off, as many sentences do in my early drafts of a work, it is usually because I have yet to figure out what I am really trying to say, or I am afraid to face what may be an unpleasant revelation about myself.

It takes courage to interrogate one’s materials; revision is thus a form of summoning the courage to see the truth. It is easy for me to convince myself that what I have written is true—until I read it aloud. The ear does not lie. If something sounds wrong—i.e. false—it probably is.

Sze-Lorrain: In the chapter “The Greenhouse,” you write “What surprised me was how dogwoods surfaced in my early drafts of poems.”  It strikes—and humbles—me how throughout the book you aren’t just hoping “to be renewed by it,” as you’ve quoted Stanley Kunitz, but that as a writer, you’re in fact constantly invigorating, and actively participating in, the renewal—and regeneration—of a spiritual relationship and various imaginative worlds with dogwoods. How do you keep the dogwoods original and sacred, in that this source—and its related sources, both literary and experiential—doesn’t come close to exhausting itself, in spite of time, and as an enduring, galvanizing mystery?

Merrill: Perhaps the best advice I received in graduate school was David Wagoner’s offhand remark that if you grow bored driving across Montana, stop the car and get out. It will not take long for the landscape to come to life for you. Maybe you will hear the wind whistle through dry grass. Or see a red-tailed hawk catching an updraft. Or . . .

And this has been my experience whenever I remind myself to be present, wherever I may be—in nature, in conversation, in a classroom or a grocery store. Instructions for cultivating awareness may be found in many spiritual traditions, and in my efforts to attend to the world I am bolstered by what I view as the inextricable link between poetry and prayer. Howard Nemerov described poetry as an “act of attention,” which offers lessons in the art of attending to our surroundings: useful advice, especially when the spirit flags.

Sze-Lorrain: My favorite chapters include “In Sickness and In Health,” “Eye of the Hurricane,” “Still Life,” “Compost,” “Spike,” and “The Forgotten Language,” in which you write generously and movingly about love, friendship, and your dedication to a literary vocation. You, too, pay homage to several remarkable poet friends. In “The Forgotten Language” for example, you share with us W. S. Merwin’s advice to you in Santa Fe, “Try to maintain your independence for as long as you can.” Have you been doing so? In what ways? Why is independence implied as difficult?

Merrill: I did not follow Merwin’s advice as rigorously as he might have wanted. For one thing, he counseled me not to start a family, believing the exigencies of putting bread on the table for however many children my wife and I might have would make it impossible for me to write as freely as he had. Which was, of course, true. But each of us must answer Seamus Heaney’s critical question in our own way: “How should a poet properly live and write?” For me that meant learning how to write while holding down a demanding job and raising two daughters: rising early to write while my family slept, between emails and meetings, on planes and in cars. Absent the luxury to devote all my waking hours to writing and reading, I learned how to make do, and what I feel is profound gratitude to my daughters for all the lessons in love they daily teach me. Independence is difficult to secure, but love is altogether more complicated to find—and necessary to live, no?

Photo by Guyot/Mendoza, Courtesy Malba.

Fiona Sze-Lorrain is a poet, literary translator, and zheng harpist who writes and translates in English, French, and Chinese. Her most recent book of poetry The Ruined Elegance (Princeton, 2016) was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and one of Library Journal’s “Best Books: Poetry.” Her work has also been shortlisted for the 2016 Best Translated Book Award and longlisted for the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. She lives in Paris.