The University of Iowa

Interview with Christopher Merrill

International Writing Program Director Christopher Merrill will read from his new memoir, Self-Portrait With Dogwood, at Prairie Lights Bookstore on Thursday, February 16 at 7pmIn the course of researching dogwood trees, poet and essayist Merrill realized that a number of formative moments in his life had some connection to the tree named—according to one writer—because its fruit was not fit for a dog. As he approached his sixtieth birthday, Merrill began to compose a self-portrait alongside this tree whose lifespan is comparable to a human’s and that, from an early age, he’s regarded as a talisman. This memoir provides new ways of thinking about personal history, the environment, politics, faith, and the power of the written word.

In advance of this reading, we wanted to sit down with Merrill to ask a few quick questions about his new memoir, his work and what readers and listeners might expect for the event. 


1. Could you describe a few of the driving forces/themes behind your new memoir "Self-Portrait With Dogwood"?

This book was originally signed up by Trinity University Press for a series titled The Life of Trees, which commissioned a number of writers to compose portraits of different trees, addressing their place in the natural order, their etymology, any folklore and customs associated with them, and so on. I chose the dogwood, which from early childhood had exerted a pull on my imagination, and in the course of my research I realized that in one way or another dogwoods had figured into my experience at key points in my life. So I found myself writing what my friend Pam Houston calls "a new form of memoir in which the self--rather than being spotlighted--is but one slender thread in an intricate weave that reaches across species, centuries, and time zones." The series had come to nothing by the time I turned in a draft of my book, which freed me to range more widely over my material--botanical, personal, and political.

2. How is this book different from your previous work?

For one thing, it is shorter than each of my last three prose books. And since a good portion of it is set in this country it has a more domestic feel to it than what I generally write. Not that I ignore the foreign travels that have informed so much of my adult life. Bosnia, Russia, Iraq, Scotland, and Taiwan, all figure into the narrative that encompasses more elements of my biography than I have heretofore revealed. It also highlights one of my abiding concerns: the threat to the natural environment posed by human activities.

3. Do you have a specific "set list" of excerpts or sections that you will read at Prairie Lights? How do you decide what to read for an audience?

I know that I will start with the Prologue, and then, depending on the temperature of the room, I will choose other excerpts to read.

4. What is one thing that the audience should know about your work before they attend the reading?

Eliot Weinberger calls my book "an arboreal memoir," which I hope will offer writers and readers a new way of thinking about this literary tradition. I also like to think it has some funny bits, some of which I will probably read at Prairie Lights.


Christopher Merrill is the author of numerous books including poetry collections BoatBrilliant Water, and Watch Fire; many edited volumes and translations; nonfiction Things of the Hidden God and The Tree of the Doves. He most recently published a collaboration with Marvin Bell called After the Fact: Scripts & Post Scripts.  Merrill directs the International Writing Program at The University of Iowa, serves on the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO, has conducted cultural diplomacy missions in over thirty countries for the U.S. State Department, and in 2012 President Obama appointed Merrill to the National Council on the Humanities.

“Merrill, like the dogwood seeds and seedlings, roams the planet, appearing or pausing at unexpected moments in history. The migrant trees sink their roots in various foreign soils; the man, though wandering―even in zones of war―remains rooted in the humus of poetry.” ― Eliot Weinberger