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The City and the Writer: In Iowa City with Chris Merrill

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Iowa City as you feel/see it?

This is the only UNESCO City of Literature in the New World, and so it has an intensely literary feel, thanks to its long tradition of bringing apprentice and established writers to the Writers’ Workshop, the International Writing Program, and the Nonfiction Writing Program. Within a few blocks of my house, for example, live a number of well-known literary figures (I like to joke that I can spit out my window at any time of day and hit a passing writer), and this can turn a walk around the neighborhood into an occasion to talk shop—which is delightful.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

My father-in-law passed away on the morning of my oldest daughter’s fifth birthday, during a visit by her godfather, Agha Shahid Ali, who was himself dying of cancer. The hospice chaplain who performed the bedside memorial service for us said that my daughter was learning a lesson in what life is all about. So were we all.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most of the city?

There is a ravine behind my house, in which I like to run after writing. Stone steps lead down to a creaky footbridge, across which lies a pile of bark, which was never spread along the trail, and at dusk I take great pleasure in circling that pile on my way to the river.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Where to start? Iowa City is known as Pulitzer Town—alumni of our writing programs have won major awards in scores of countries, including the Nobel Prize—and so it would be foolish in the extreme for me to recite names: the list goes on and on . . .

Is there a place here you return to often?

A footpath above Lake MacBride, where I take my Samoyed for walks whenever I am in town.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Prairie Lights, which is one of the best independent bookstores in the country. The poetry section is filled with surprises, the reading series is always interesting, and the café is lined with writers at work on their next books: a working definition of a literary paradise.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?


Where does passion live here?

To paraphrase Picasso and Roethke: in my next poem.

What is the title of one of your poems about Iowa City and what inspired it exactly?

This poem began with a glance outside the window of my study:


At noon a cardinal and a chickadee
Feed on mulberries in the leafless tree,
A squirrel circles an oak in the ravine,
And from below, again, I hear her keen
For someone I no longer recognize—
A man who hopes to love before he dies.


The demon from the desert comes again
To exact punishment from a sad man
Who lingers for a minute at the window.
His neighbor’s sundial betrays no shadow.
Nor will the demon leave before it has
Convinced the man to pray in the abyss.


Down, down, down, sings the child who wants to cheer
Her father up. And if he cannot hear
Her little song? Deafened by grief, struck dumb
Again, he pours himself a glass of rum
And wonders why he cannot make amends
Or find the key in which to mourn what ends.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Iowa City does an outside exist?”

Tempting as it is to say that the literary texts composed in or about Iowa City comprise a galaxy of their own, I travel enough to know that this is but one of an infinite number of galaxies.

Christopher Merrill was born in Northampton, Massachusetts, raised in New Jersey, and educated at Middlebury College and the University of Washington. He has published four collections of poetry, including Brilliant Water and Watch Fire, for which he received the Peter I. B. Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets; more than a dozen edited volumes and books of translations; and five works of nonfiction, among them, The Grass of Another Country: A Journey Through the World of Soccer, Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars, and Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain. His latest prose book, The Tree of the Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War, chronicles his travels in Malaysia, China and Mongolia, and the Middle East, in the wake of the War on Terror. His writings have been translated into twenty-five languages; his journalism appears in many publications; his honors include a knighthood in arts and letters from the French government. As director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa since 2000, he has undertaken cultural diplomacy missions in over thirty countries, most recently to Afghanistan and Bahrain. He and his wife, violinist Lisa Gowdy-Merrill, live in Iowa City with their two daughters.

His latest poetry collection Boat: Poems was recently published by Tupelo Press.

Published Aug 18, 2014   Copyright 2014 Nathalie Handal

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