Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Christopher Merrill
By Yeow Kai Chai
On his website, Christopher Merrill quoted a line from E.M. Forster's epigraph to Howards End (1910): "Only connect."
It's an apt mantra for the American who wears mulitple hats: He is poet, non-fiction writer, editor, translater and, last but not least, the director of the prestigious International Writing Program (IWP) at the University of Iowa.
He commandeered an intiative in 2008 which led to Iowa City to be selected by Unesco as the world's third City of Literature, as part of the Creative Cities Network. Three years later, he was appointed to the US National Commission for UNESCO.
He is the author of six poetry collections, including Watch Fire (1995), for which he received the Peter I. B. Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets. Last year, he had a double-bill: Boat, which comprises meditations and fantasias, ghazals and lyric sequences; and Necessities, a book of prose verse influenced by his reading of writers such as Kafka and Calvino. In 2011, he publised a travelogue, The Tree of the Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War, the first part of which was set in Malaysia.
His latest project is Silk Routes: Heritage, Trade, Practice, a three-year project of the IWP. It is aimed to creare virtual networks of writers working in their own traditions but linked by a common engagement with the craft and art of writing. It is scheduled to be launched in the third quarter of 2014.
He took time off from his busy schedule to answer the Proust Questionnaire during late summer before autumn set in.
1. What are you reading right now?
2. If you were a famous literary character in a novel, play, or poem, who would you be, and why?
"Levin strode along the highroad, absorbed not so much in his thoughts (he could not yet disentangle them) as in his spiritual condition, unlike anything he had experienced before.
The words uttered by the peasant had acted on his soul like an electric shock, suddenly transforming and combining into a single whole the whole swarm of disjointed, impotent, separate thoughts that incessantly occupied his mind. These thoughts had unconsciously been in his mind even when he was talking about the land.
He was aware of something new in his soul, and joyfully tested this new thing, not yet knowing what it was."
His endlessly questing sensibility strikes a deep chord in me.
3. What is the greatest misconception about you?
4. Name one living author and one dead author you identify with most, and tell us why.
5. Do you believe in writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?
6. What qualities do you admire most in a writer?
7. What is one trait you deplore most in writing or writers?
8. Can you recite your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
9. Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but I...
10. At the movies, if you have to pick a comedy, a tragedy, or an action thriller to watch, which will you go for, and why?
11. What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
12. Write a rhyming couplet that includes the following three items: mast, eschatologist, stone.
13. What object is indispensable to you when you write?
14. What is the best time of the day for writing?
15. If you had a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soiree, and why?
16. As the director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, you have witnessed many writers up close and personal. What are your best memories?
17. What would you write on your own tombstone?