Christopher Merrill and Marvin Bell Live Discussion

University of Iowa International Writing Program Director Christopher Merrill and UI Professor Emeritus Marvin Bell, joined us for a live discussion today at 1 PM on Thurs., Oct 15th. Bell and Merrill discussed their new collection "7 Poets, 4 Days, 1 Book" and other literary topics.

Live Discussion: 


Corey, Madison, WI: Chris and Marvin,

I love the concept of group writing that is explored in your book '7 Poets, 4 Days, 1 Book'. I wanted to ask you is you consider what you did as a group a type of Exquisite Corpse (when a a few writers add lines to a poem without seeing what the others have written) or more of a conversation?

Marvin Bell: More of a conversation. Not serial, but many impulses coming in from seven directions at once. Kaleidoscopic. Crazier, too.

Chris Merrill: Thanks for your question, Corey. Although I wasn’t sure where this project might go, it quickly became a conversation in poetry, a forum in which seven poets writing in different languages found ways to speak to one another about matters of the heart.

Lucas, Minneapolis, MN: Marvin, Chris,

Did you feel as you were writing poems for the "7 Poets, 4 Days, 1 Book" book that a momentum developed in which you were lead by the work in a different way than when you usually write alone?

By this I mean: did you begin to feel a different relationship between yourself and you work during the experience?

Marvin Bell: No, because I have done a good bit of collaboration with writers, dancers, musicians and composers. William Stafford and I wrote two books back-and-forth. The musician Marvin Tate and I did just did a back-and-forth collaboration for MAKE Magazine (Chicago). I am always willing to surrender to the materials. That's where the fun is, as well as the discoveries. Make sense?

Chris Merrill: Wonderful questions! Indeed the poems gathered momentum day by day, line by line, joke by joke, and I know that I found myself writing poems that seemed to come from the center of the table around which we had gathered. I wondered how my relationship to my work would change as a result of the experience, and all I can say about that is that it is too soon to say!

Elizabeth, Iowa City, IA: I loved your reading last night, thank you! You mentioned at your reading for the book "7 Poets, 4 Days, 1 Book" that when you first started the project the 7 poets didn't necessarily know each other. How do you think that working in the creative process together helps bond people?

Marvin Bell: If one can surrender, or perhaps at least relax, "one's ego at the door," yes, I suppose the participants "bond" a bit. Though I've never been sure about people "bonding." Sounds as if there might be glue involved. Seriously, I like the idea that we are all in this together. Collaborations by artists can have that feel.

Chris Merrill: Thanks, Elizabeth. Indeed I was the only one to know all of the poets before we started, but I think it is safe to say that as the week wore on we all became rather close. It was as if we had entered a space in which freedom reigned, and there we could experiment with new ways of writing, new ways of configuring our relationship to the world. For four magical days we wandered together in the world of the marvelous, hoping to return with maps of where we had been.


Heather, Iowa City: I very much enjoyed your collection of poetry written by Dean Young, Marvin Bell, and others in the same space.

I was wondering about the international aspects of it. Were there difficulties in translation?

Also, did you find that any political aspects came up out of the writing?

Marvin Bell: Chris can speak to the translations. I think overall there was more play, and maybe a little poetic reaching for the sublime, and also a feeling at times of love poetry--more of all that than of politics, but there was a little politics, too--especially, you may find, in some of my contributions.

Chris Merrill: The translations were made on the fly, and no doubt there were not only mistranslations but also some infelicities in the language—which became part of the process of writing. Indeed we seemed to mishear many lines, and those mishearing found their ways into some of the poems. Chance is an integral part of the creative process, and I sometimes think that we undertook was a grand experiment in chance. To be tugged in different directions by a colleague’s imagery or intonation or inflection was thrilling.

I found that politics entered my poems from the side, in the form of images drawn from my experience of covering the war in the Balkans—a subject that I have heretofore rarely addressed in poems, although I wrote a long nonfiction book about it. And I am happy that in the company of my friends I felt free enough to wander in that direction.

James, Iowa City, IA: What are your favorite words?

What is your favorite shape?

Which do you enjoy more -- reading or composing?

Marvin Bell: I'm afraid I don't have favorite words, shapes or a preference for reading or composing. Well, composing is something different from reading, for me, and all-engrossing, but also perhaps more metabolic? But I do laugh a lot and sometimes it's words that are at hand, such as, say, Doo-wop. My wife, Dorothy, has invented the word boflippybrick. Not sure how to spell it, but one "goes boflippybrick."

Chris Merrill: Albany is a word that has always intrigued me. And this morning my eight-year-old daughter asked me what fisticuffs means: marvelous word! But, really, any word becomes magical, if you listen to it long enough, no?

Otherwise I like circles, and although I may think that I prefer to read, at least when I am avoiding sitting down to write, in fact I prefer to compose.


John, Iowa City: I am an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, and I was wondering what is the best path to take to become a professional writer. How does one become a published poet, etc. It all seems like a mystery to me. Thank you!

Marvin Bell: Oh, it's actually simple. Read and write--a lot. Read good stuff. You can't learn to hit a baseball by watching someone strike out. Read something, then write something. Then read something else, and write something else. But here's the trick: show in your writing what you have read. Not by referring to it but by letting it affect how you write. That amalgam of influences will become your "writing voice." As for being "professional," you'll find that out as you go. You may even decide it's more fun to be an amateur. I can tell you this: wanting to be a writer is different from wanting to (having to) write. Does this help?

Chris Merrill: Read and write, write and read—and the rest will take care of itself. I’m quite serious about that. If you spend your best hours reading as widely as you can, in other languages, if possible, and trying to write in as many forms as you can think of, in poetry and prose, then page by page you will begin to make your way. The late John Gardner liked to say that if you write seriously for ten years you will become a successful writer. Now success means different things to different people. It might mean publication of a book or two, or fame and riches, or the simple validation of attempting to find order in a sequence or words—an activity that is addicting. Good luck.

Karen, Rock Island, IL: I wanted to ask you about poetic form. Do you have a form that you prefer to write in? Do you use form to break periods of writers block or start poems? And how do you think the public responds to form (iambic pentameter, the sonnet, etc) these days?

Marvin Bell: William Stafford used to say, "Got a writer's block? Can't write? Lower your standards." Clever, cagey advice. Writing is largely getting into motion in the presence of language. It's not what one starts with, but the quality of attention one pays to it thereafter. Sure, one can use a known form, but it is best if one knows the form well from reading. There are some poetic forms that don't cause that much in English: the haiku, the pantoum... There are some that promote tediousness: the classroom sestina. But any form works if you pledge loyalty to it, find an identity for the line as you go, etc. Free verse isn't a form but a method for finding new forms. Again, one can only imitate what one has read. Hence, the good effect of reading a range of writers. Me, I have written mostly in forms of free verse, and lately have returned to a form I created, known as the "dead man poem." It comes in two titled sections, the poetic line is an elastic sentence, and there are some other unusual traits to it. The "dead man" is alive and dead at the same time. People send me their own "dead man" and "dead woman" poems. As for the public, who are they? Figuring out what the public likes--that's vaudeville. I can do it, but I only do it when asked to write an "occasional" poem. Does this windy reply help?

Chris Merrill: Good questions. I often write in meter, though I am not wedded to that, and indeed I like to write prose poems, too. What I hear in the first instance—a word that seems to ring in my ear, a phrase with a certain rhythm—may prompt me to seek other words or phrases in that register or key, and then I may follow them for as long as possible, wherever they may lead. I like to keep the process open in order to make my way into what I hope will be new terrain, a subject or theme or musical idea that intrigues me enough to keep writing.

As for public responses to form: a poet is interested first and foremost in his or her own response to the material at hand. If you hear something you like, chances are it will find a readership, however small that audience may be, and what matters most is that you listen hard for what seems central to your being, whether that arrives in traditional or open forms.

Marvin Bell: A PS for Karen: it is good for any writer of poetry to know meter and poetic forms. Besides, even a free verse writer needs sometimes to prove himself or herself to the metricians by speaking their language. I recall a teacher looking at a poem of mine on a worksheet and saying, with arched eyebrows, "This poem appears to be written in free verse." I replied, "Oh no, it's written in sprung accentuals with variant lines."

Tim, North Libery, IA: Thank you for your time. Have you considered making the book '7 Poets, 4 Days, 1 Book' into a series, doing it again with different poets? And how did you choose the poets the first time for this book?

Marvin Bell: Chris knows best. I'm always willing.

Chris Merrill: I would not want to repeat the experiment—and this book really was an experiment. But I love to collaborate with other creative people, and I’m thinking of different ways to continue this adventure in the language. The French Surrealists conducted many such experiments during the most vital period of the movement’s history, games of chance and sessions of automatic writing and nights devoted to the exploration of dreams, and I like to think that another journey is awaiting the right group of poets. Indeed Marvin and I have just been discussing ways to continue the conversation. Which is to say: we’re open to suggestions.

How did I choose the poets? I asked Marvin first, because we have been friends for more than twenty-five years, because I admire to no end the book or poems he wrote with the late William Stafford, Seques, and because I had a feeling that he would love the project. Then I asked Tomaz Salamun, whose poems I had translated for many years, because I hoped that he would return to the University of Iowa to give a reading as part of the International Writing Program’s (IWP) fortieth anniversary celebration. Then I asked Dean Young, who was teaching in the Writers’ Workshop, because I love his poems. And finally I asked the poets from the IWP, Istvan Laszlo Geher and Ksenia Golubovich and Simone Inguanez, after I had come to know them well enough to imagine that they would like to take part in this project. In retrospect, things could have turned out quite badly if I had chosen less open-minded poets. But from the start there was a good feeling in the air, and so we began.

Emily, Iowa City, IA: We've all heard of 'lost in translation'. Do you think anything is 'gained' in translation?

Marvin Bell: Ah yes, translators like to argue about what makes for the best translation. What is retained in a good translation? --The spirit, the feel, the voice, most of the content, varying amounts of the culture of the original, and the very idea of, say, poetry... Some "translation" can only be a transliteration; the languages are too different. Ah, the impure world. Poets just get on with it. Biographers, critics and theorists are sometimes befuddled by the impurity. Translation is not cloning, it's true.

Chris Merrill: Much is gained in translation: poetic logics that are not part of a national literary discourse, patterns of images that may lead readers and writers into new fields of inquiry, visions of the world that broaden one’s sympathies. Yes, the music may be lost in translation. But since the alternative is silence I am all for translators finding a music that will suffice.

Jon, Des Moines: I write poetry as a sort of meditation, but also as escape, and sometimes, rarely, as communication with others. James Joyce spoke of the difference between making art for yourself and making art for an outside audience. What do you think of these two different aspects, the audience of self and the audience of the public? Do you think of others as you write, and who do you write for?

Marvin Bell: I think one writes up to one's own limits--linguistic, psychological, intellectual and perhaps emotional--and lets the chips fall where they may. Frost said it: "No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader." However, I have written "occasional" poems when asked, and that's a different matter, as you might assume. Make sense?

Chris Merrill: I think of a poem as a dialogue with the language—which is to say: a dialogue with the self. In the case of 7 Poets, 4 Days, 1 Book that dialogue was refracted through six other voices, other selves. What fun we had!


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