International Writers Program Director Christopher Merrill sits in his office in the Shambaugh House on Clinton Street on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017. Merrill is the author of an award winning series of poems. He will travel to South Korea to accept an award on Sept. 7. (Joseph Cress/The Daily Iowan)

Plumbing the widest part of the mind

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Christopher Merrill wins the Changwon KC International Literary Prize for his many works as a poet, essayist, and translator.

By Levi Wright

levi-wright@uiowa.edu

We won’t make it out alive, the guide said And tumbled down the shaft. What remains? A shred of plastic flapping in the nest The birds left in the hedge, a speckled egg That never hatched, a file of summonses Lost in the flood. The trees hum in the dark. Pray for the guide. Pray for everyone. (24-30)

— “Coordinates,” Christopher Merrill

On April 4, 2012, Christopher Merrill, the director of the University of Iowa International Writing Program, was appointed to the National Council on the Humanities by President Obama. This is not the only award the poet has received.

Merrill has been awarded the Changwon KC International Literary Prize for his work as a poet, essayist, and translator. The award ceremony will be part of the Changwon Literary Festival in Changwon, South Korea, this month. Previous winners include Chinese poet Bei Dao, French poet Claude Mouchard, and American poet laureate Tracy K. Smith.

“Anytime you get something like this, it’s a great thrill,” Merrill said. “It’s at least on some level a kind of validation for the work that you’ve been doing. More to the point, I’ve had so much fun over the years translating Korean poets and being a part of that literary conversation.”

Originally from Massachusetts, he grew up writing poetry about a number of things. His first poem was about a boy kicking a can down the street. However, it wasn’t until he wrote about a boy with a soccer ball that poetry really had an effect on him.

“My first poem that really had some life was about a boy juggling a soccer ball,” Merrill said. “It came on a day when I was trying to write about my family house getting swept out to sea by a hurricane. That’s an image I keep returning to, but I found a way to just capture in language, I hope, the motion of trying to keep a ball in the air. When I wrote that poem, I really felt like I got something, and then I thought, maybe I’ll have that experience again.”

Merrill has traveled from Massachusetts to California, writing about whatever inspires him. In one poem, he captures the cruelty and pain of war, the next he describes the beauty and grace of a dogwood tree. He taps into his 60 years’ worth of personal experience to give a feeling of immersion in his poetry.

Writer James Galvin, a professor in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and longtime friend of Merrill’s, referred to him as a “force.”

“His memoir, written as he was nearing his 60th year, traces the delicate, interactive web of creation that links humans and nature, illuminating how vital each small being, each plant, each person is to the whole,” Forward Reviews said in its review of Self-Portrait with Dogwood.

Merrill has also worked with other authors, including Marvin Bell in creating *After the Fact: Scripts & Postscripts*, and the two authors are working on another book, If & When.

“Chris is an extremely talented poet, memoirist, journalist, essayist, editor, and translator, and a whole lot more,” Bell said. “Among his many other accomplishments, he is the person most responsible for a significant expansion of the International Writing Program and for the naming of Iowa City a UNESCO City of Literature.”

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