Merrill's high-mileage passport
He is unfailingly good-natured and polite and he returns emails promptly, but good luck catching Christopher Merrill in one place for long. Always making global connections to advance the cause of literature and cultural diplomacy, he never seems to stop. When the Graduate College talked with him at his office Shambaugh House, he had recently returned from a trip to Bangladesh.
The next week he was slated to go to China. The week after was his first National Council on the Humanities meeting in Washington, D.C. After that, he was travelling with four writers to Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Then back to Iowa City to welcome 32 writers from around the world for the fall International Writing Program residency.
Is that all?
Of course not. Later in the fall there will be trips to Russia, Egypt and North Africa. And probably, he says, a trip to Burma, now that that the U.S. has re-established relations.
That’s a lot of air miles. Does Merrill have any travel tips?
“Sleep on the way over. You have to get over the jet lag in a hurry,” he says. “It’s important to get as much rest as you can because you want to get on the ground and have your eyes open and take in as much as you can.”
Merrill produced first-hand reporting and analysis on the Balkan Wars in the 1990s, and during last year’s “Arab Spring” Merrill found himself travelling in seven different countries affected by the turmoil in the Middle East.
“My job as a writer is to keep my eyes open and try to make some sense out of it. It’s hard to go into a war zone, but it’s also exciting to be in a place where things are happening very quickly,” Merrill says. “You know that it’s important for someone to chronicle this and get it right.”
Merrill says while his work with the National Council on the Humanities has a fairly set schedule of commitments, the IWP’s work with the State Department is not entirely predictable.
“Each year the programming we put together changes, sometimes quite a lot, and it’s important for us to be adaptable , to be able to put things together quickly and expertly,” he says.
Grateful for his good fortune, Merrill credits a talented and loyal staff “who also believe in the mission of the IWP.”
“That makes it easier for us to all pull together and try to put our stamp on things,” Merrill says.
An ambassador for world literature, Christopher Merrill brings writers from all over the globe to the University of Iowa and has raised Iowa City’s international profile. Now Merrill brings his talent and enthusiasm for literature to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).
President Barack Obama appointed Merrill—poet, nonfiction writer, translator, and director of the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program—to serve on the National Council on the Humanities, the advisory body of the NEH.
Merrill was nominated by President Obama in June, 2011 and confirmed by the Senate in the spring of 2012. Merrill replaces archaeologist Iris Love, whose term expired. He will serve until January, 2016.
Jim Leach, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, calls Merrill “the quintessential humanist and a wonderful poet and essayist.”
Beyond his gifts and work as a writer, Merrill helps bring other authors’ books into the world.
“Chris is a natural facilitator of literary thought,” says Leach.
“Just as the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is preeminent in American arts and letters, the International Writing Program, which Chris heads, is preeminent in bringing the most accomplished and most promising international literary figures together to share their crafts and their cultures. Following in the footsteps of Paul and Hualing Engle, Chris has helped stamp Iowa City as the literary capital of the world.”
In 2008, Merrill led the initiative that resulted in the selection of Iowa City as a UNESCO City of Literature, a part of the Creative Cities Network.
To describe the mission of the International Writing Program, Merrill frequently quotes British novelist E.M. Forster, who said, “Only connect.” But when Merrill arrived at the University of Iowa in 2000 to rebuild the IWP, he found he needed to restore some old connections and establish new ones. Only 13 international writers were in attendance; the program was about to lose its office space.
Merrill began a search for office space and new funding sources, forging new connections.
“After 9-11 there was a widespread recognition in the government that we had lost track of the practice of cultural diplomacy, which has been defined as the exchange of ideas and information and people, sometimes called winning hearts and minds,” says Merrill. “The State Department has rebuilt that apparatus over the last 10 years. We have been very fortunate to play a role in that effort.”
Merrill helped put together reports for Congress on cultural diplomacy, and he says knowing more about this process helps him understand how the IWP can help make cultural connections.
A key turning point, Merrill says, was finding a productive relationship with the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the State Department.
“They encouraged us at every turn to think bigger.”
While funding from the State Department has gone up in recent years, Merrill points out more than half of the visiting writers come courtesy of private fundraising efforts, foundations, and bilateral agreements with culture ministries of foreign governments.
Now the program has a handsome home in the restored Shambaugh House and will host 32 writers from around the world for the fall 2012 residency. The IWP has also expanded its mission.
For the first 33 years of its existence, the IWP was focused entirely on bringing writers to Iowa for a three-month residency. While the fall residency remains central to the mission of the IWP, Merrill says they now think of themselves as a year-round program, hosting symposia in other countries, sending American writers on tours to places of strategic interest.
The IWP now also brings high school students to Iowa City for two-week writing camps that build on distance learning projects. Last year, students from Arabic-speaking countries attended the writing camp. This year, the program includes students from Russia.
“We have managed to use the incredible literary resources of this university and share them with students around the world who would not likely have the chance to come to the University of Iowa,” says Merrill.
Recent grants have encouraged the IWP to send American writers, including several Writers’ Workshop graduates, to places such as Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank, Cyprus, Turkey, Bolivia, Uruguay, Brazil, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Afghanistan.
Merrill visited Afghanistan last May and again in January, travelling in a convoy of armored vehicles through the war zone on a mission to discuss poetry. As the last American and NATO troops prepare to pull out in 2014, Merrill says it feels like a race against time to help establish and maintain a stronger framework for civil society, and this framework includes the arts.
While there, he talked poetry on an Afghan television program that reaches 20 million viewers. “Poetry matters in Afghanistan,” says Merrill. “To try to connect with Afghans on that level in a cultural sense means a great deal.”
He also recalls a concert at the newly re-opened National Institute of Music where young American musicians were teaching and Afghans, including a sizable number of orphans, were learning to play both Western and Afghan instruments. Merrill says many Afghans see such cultural opportunities for youth as a positive way to build society and stave off extremists.
“None of this was possible under the Taliban,” says Merrill. “The notion of kids being able to study music, that’s a good thing. Being able to talk about poetry in a country that has a long and rich poetic tradition—where poetry really matters—that’s a good thing. We’re making a connection across cultures. Cultural diplomacy: that’s what we’re doing in these places.”
His duties at the National Council for the Humanities include reviewing grants, serving on the cultural preservation and access committee, three annual meetings, and advising Chairman Leach. In September, Merrill will travel with Leach and other Council members to China for a conference designed to foster closer connections between humanities scholars and artists in China and the U.S.
Merrill looks forward to combining his new duties with the National Council on the Humanities with his responsibilities as head of the International Writing Program. Together, the two roles will help him—and the University of Iowa—become even stronger advocates for the humanities.
“If you believe as I do in the absolute importance of the humanities, then it’s a good idea to put your money where your mouth is,” Merrill says. “When we go out into the world and practice cultural diplomacy through the art of poetry, we’re making connections around the world. That’s the same thing that goes on in the humanities, which provide us with a way to think deeply about our experience. Humanities thinkers through the ages have tried to understand what it means to be human: that’s a fundamental part of our education.”
Selected Christopher Merrill works:
Nonfiction and journalism:
- The Tree of Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War.
- The Grass of Another Country: A Journey Through the World of Soccer
- The Old Bridge: The Third Balkan War and the Age of the Refugee
- Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars
- Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain
- Watch Fire (Peter I. B. Lavan Younger Poets Award Winner, from the Academy of American Poets)
- Brilliant Water
- Seven Poets, Four Days, One Book (2009)
- Anxious Moments Aleš Debeljak
- The City of the Child Aleš Debeljak
- Scale and Stairs, Heeduck Ra
Merrill has also edited several books.