Christopher Merrill is an American author whose poetry collections, ‘Brilliant Water’ and ‘Watch Fire’ received the Layan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets. He is presently Director, International Writing Program, University of Iowa, United States of America. Bookshelf cornered him for a chat in Abuja.
Bookshelf: On your IWP Lines and Spaces tour you held a creative writing workshop at the Abuja Literary and Arts Festival. How would you describe the experience?
Christopher Merrill: We put together a number of lines and spaces tours over the years, and I can say without reservation that writers we have worked with at Abuja are among the most sophisticated that we have worked with ever. I gave a workshop at the embassy for education USA and I felt the same. We have writers who are passionate about their craft and about learning. They have things to say. We have had incredibly lively conversations. That gives me a sense of hope about the literary infrastructure of Nigeria.
Bookshelf: What do you think this says about the future of literature in Nigeria?
Merrill: Whenever you have the good luck to work with a number of young writers who are passionate about learning their craft, that suggests that you are going to have a thriving literary scene. In my country, I teach at the University of Iowa which had the first creative writing program, Iowa Writers Workshop. From that has grown an entire pedagogue of creative writing. So now we have about 350 graduate writing programs in America and 650 graduate writing programs. This has fostered quite a dynamic writing and literary scene. We have a lot of writers who read a lot and are technically accomplished, who are laying the ground for the creation of more literary masterpieces.
Bookshelf: University of Iowa holds online writing courses up to twice in a year. Has the university considered any other action, as regards participants, beyond the online course?
Merrill: We have a number of writing programs. There is a summer institute at the International Writing Program where we have brought together college-age writers from India, Pakistan and the United States. They worked over a period of two weeks to, not only serve their literary apprenticeships, but also to talk about issues of identity and reconciliation, knowing how fraught everything is on the subcontinent. We have a high school writing program called Between the Lines which began for high school students from Arab speaking countries, Russia and the United States. This year it has branched out to writers from about 40 countries. We imagine that that will continue to grow in other directions. We have our fall residency where we gather 30 to 35 well published writers to spend three months in Iowa, and then we create the smaller digital learning courses. For example, we create digital courses that build on what we have done in Nigeria.
We like to think that what we are doing is giving the world a taste of literary magic that takes place in Iowa city, which is UNESCO city of literature, where we think about writing al the time. We give writers from other countries just a glimpse of that and take whatever discoveries we make as writers into their own cultures and languages, and use them where it is most fitting.
Nigeria has very few publishing companies compared to the number of teeming writers. How do you think this can be reconciled?
At some point every culture develops its own literary infrastructure. I know that throughout Africa the publishing infrastructure is weak and that is something that can be rectified. I will give you an example of how that works in America. For a long time, we had just about five big publishers in New York city. Then universities got the idea that they should have a publishing venture for scholarly works because it was difficult to get out the discoveries made by a scholar into the marketplace of ideas. A New York publisher only takes one poet a year among a lot of talented people, so that gave rise to the development of independent presses, often times small presses.
I noticed that in Iowa city in the Iowa writing workshop, every couple of years there are graduates who take a look at the American publishing scene and say there is a need for a new press. With digital opportunities and off-print publishing, it’s not hard to create a press, so there are literally hundreds of small independent presses in America, all of which contribute to a more dynamic literary culture.
There are ways to imagine the development of a publishing industry separate from the government. Governments are interested in publishing in one way or another, but generally speaking not in the most productive ways. The way that presses got started in various places in America is that somebody thinks he has a little extra money and wants to publish a certain kind of book and goes into business. That is a part of the entrepreneurial spirit that distinguishes a certain part of our literary culture.
So, that is the publishing side. When we talk about teaching creative writing, it’s with the hope that Nigeria already has a lot of great writers, why not invite some of them into different universities to give a course in creative writing. Generally speaking, the old guard scholars don’t like that. Even in my university, scholars have their own way of doing things and writers have another way. But what writers bring to the table in an academic setting is a way of thinking that is imaginative, that can be playful and that can remind the scholars what the original sources are of the texts that they might spend a career interpreting. So, there are different ways to approach this. You need a publisher, a structure, writers need to serve their literary apprenticeship, and so far as they do everything in an academic setting, that can help. In that way more people are creating things.
Bookshelf: From your personal experience, what would you say makes a writer stand out and actually get published?
Merrill: First of all, persistence. Writers that I know who have been successful are those who kept on working in the face of failure and rejection. All the good writers I know are fantastic readers. They are reading all the time and trying to see how other great writers do what they do with the hope that they can internalise some of their tricks of the trade. They are writers who are vivid in their language, playful in their imagination, willing to take on difficult subjects and issues if necessary. All that makes for good writing.
Bookshelf: What’s your writing process like?
Merrill: I try to write every day. I start early in the morning, between answering emails and phone calls. I read every day and translate works on a regular basis and expect that what I write in any day is going to go to the trash can.
Bookshelf: What are you working on at the moment?
Merrill: The big project I am working on now is the biography of a very famous colonial figure in American history named Roger Williams who was banished from Massachusetts. He helped to articulate the idea of the importance of the separation of church and state. He happens to be my first ancestor in the New World. He led a very interesting life and wrote a book about native Americans that was the first sympathetic look at the aboriginal history of America. He was always on the edge of getting his head cut off because of his absolute courage and independence. So, I am trying to make him come to life. A lot of my readings these days is seventeenth century history and theology and trying to get all the facts so I can write about Williams’s life.