Commentaries - March 2012
Obra sonora poética, Parte II
This is Part II of a four-part essay that appears in Portuguese in Deslocamentos Críticos (Lisbon: Babel; São Paulo, Itaú Cultural, 2011) under the title "Obra Sonora Poética: 1980-2010." Read Part I here.
Brazilian Poetic Sound Work: 1980-2010
Ferreira Gullar’s major poetic work has an interesting sonic history. Gullar spent much of the 1970s in exile (1971-77) from Brazil and its dictatorship. While living in Buenos Aires, he wrote the long poem, Poema Sujo, from May to October of 1975. In order to get the poem to Brazil without attracting the attention of the dictatorship, Gullar recorded it on a cassette, which his friend Vinicius de Moraes carried back. In Rio de Janeiro, Vinicius and others held house gatherings to play the recording and share the poem, which was eventually transcribed and published in 1976. It was an early moment in Brazil when new audio technology became a means of disseminating poetry. And in a time of violent repression, it also became a medium for poetry’s potential to give people a sense of freedom through art and communal solidarity.
In her essay, “Rhyme and Freedom” (2009), Susan Stewart argues for another of sound’s liberatory potentials: the attainment of artistic freedom through the use of rhyme and lyric sound in the making of a poem. Contemplating the writing process, she observes that sound, suggestive as it is of speech and bodily rhythm, gives life to writing; a poet’s choices, including those of sound, make the artistic process “resonant” (30). “Artistic freedom reaches its apogee when intention approaches the rich cognitive moment on the brink of realized structure,” Stewart writes (30). As a choice made in creative contact with historical structures and the liveliness of language, the use of rhyme releases the poet to explore language from the inside, playing with language as poetic material through the materiality of sound. Against the modernist legacy of rhyme as “a purely formal device and a kind of restraint,” Stewart offers the idea that “rhyme, along with other intelligible repetitions of sound” frees the artist to innovate with language (29).
Stewart’s suggestion of the intimate connection between rhyme, freedom, and, finally, memory is useful for understanding the importance of sound in Gullar’s poetry of the 1980s and 90s. Barulhos, spanning work from 1980 to 1987, and the subsequent Muitas Vozes (1999) are devoted to personal lyric verse. Although these books diverge from the overtly political and popular forms the poet engaged in the 1960s, as well as the epic that was conditioned by his exile in the 70s, they continue to develop a politics of freedom, through poetic rhyme and sound. In Gullar’s case, individual practice and the return to his earlier philosophy along with aspects of traditional verse (all characteristics of vanguardist poetry in the 1980s) were not only an aesthetic trend, but also a continuation of his poetics of freedom. Gullar’s work of the time features freedom in two forms: individual artistic freedom activated by close attention to sound, and communal freedom generated by the social nature of the (Neo-Concrete) work of art.
As suggested by the titles Barulhos and Muitas Vozes, sound is essential to these books. “Noises” and “many voices” function as content and metaphor in the poems. The books’ title poems suggest what these words symbolize: the material content of a poem: “O poema / é sem matéria palpável / tudo / o que há nele / é barulho” (“The poem / has no palpable material / all / that is in it / is noise”; “Barulho”); the multiple voices that dwell within each person and together make up the individual voice: “estamos todos nós / cheios de vozes” (“we are all / filled with voices”; “Muitas Vozes”). These many voices also compose the unified poem, which is the extension of the poet’s voice. The many voices refer as well to the voices of readers, who, in Neo-Concrete theory, co-create the poem. The poem’s objecthood thus relies upon reader participation, a reliance that generates a kind of public freedom. But it is a necessarily noisy process, as the poem only comes into being when read, an activity that, whether in the head or aloud, always involves the breath of the reader and the words as sounded by the reader. The voice of the poem, then, is highly material, created by many voices/noises together.
Noise and voice are also themes in Barulhos and Muitas Vozes. The poems treat the lyric “I,” the voices and spirits of the poet’s friends who are gone, the sounds (or silences) of his country and his experiences, and the sounds of the world and the social realm. Voice and sound become metaphors for the dead and lost; they are what the poet hears from friends now gone. The poems (in which loss and death sound at times sad and contemplative, at times slow and quiet, at times rustling with life) become barulhos themselves—the rustle of what remains in the place of loss.
Barulhos in particular is a book about soothing grief, both the grief of death and the grief of exile. Its poems employ sound formally to resonate with freedom despite the difficult political and personal history they address. The collection includes strictly metered and end-rhymed poems, free verse, and rhyme and repetition within lines that appear broken and scattered across the page—an arrangement that looks loose (or free), but is highly structured. One such spaced and airy poem is the well-known title poem, “Barulho”:
Todo poema é feito de ar
a mão do poeta
não rasga a madeira
não tinge de azul
quando escreve manhã
é sem matéria palpável
o que há nele
ao sopro da leitura.
Despite the title, this is not a poem of loud rhymes. Sonic repetition, though, drives this sonnet in other ways, beginning with the onomatopoeic a of ar, which echoes through apenas, a mão, rasga, metal, a pedra, azul, and on. A opens the poem, but openness also suggests emptiness. So sound underscores sense in the first line: poems are empty. After all, they are only air.
But assonance is something; a lifts us to the next rhyme. In the sixth line, metal links a to l, and two lines later, the winds change al to ul in azul. From the visual rhyme al / ul, ul reverses momentarily in the blusa that belongs to mulher, and ends finally in barulho. Significantly, ul never achieves perfect rhyme in this poem. Elsewhere, Gullar rhymes barulho perfectly, such as in Muitas Vozes’s “Não-coisa”: “tal dum mar o marulho / … / e reduz a um barulho.” But here, the imperfect quality of the rhyme emphasizes the noisiness of unexpected sounds. The ricocheting ul helps build the poem’s rhythm and balances against the light ar so that when the two finally meet, and air is found to be part of sound, the word barulho resounds.
The choice to rhyme imperfectly and to play with the notion of rhyme scheme is an exercise of artistic freedom that propels the poem. After the power of barulho, the l is displaced, softening the poem’s final rhyme, leitura. The last two lines, visually set off from the rest of the stanza as a couplet, gather their weight not only from their placement and meaning, but from the rhyme that has built and sustained the spare poem. The stanza concludes with the murmur of reading, as we hear the art made from air. The end, with its soft a exhalation, refers back to the beginning; through rhyme and sound we have quickly discovered that air is also the reader’s breath (“o sopro da leitura”), which stirs the poem into being.
Through sound, the poem insists on the corporeality of reading. This physical act is not just receptive but also creative, for poetry, though made of air (“feito de ar”), does not come out of thin air; it is brought into being by the muitas vozes of poet along with reader. In a 1999 interview, reflecting on both Barulhos and Muitas Vozes, Gullar explains, “Na minha visão...[o] poema não é uma coisa estática, terminada, ele é algo em processo. A leitura desencadeia o processo que está latente ali. Ao lê-lo, o leitor transforma a palavra em poesia” (“In my vision...[t]he poem is not a static, finished thing, it is something in process. Reading unleashes the process that is latent in the poem. In reading it, the reader transforms word into poetry”). Gullar’s participatory idea of the poem typifies Neo-Concrete poetry, which distinguished itself from Concrete poetry by its view of the role of the reader. Against the Concrete notion of the poem-object, Neo-Concrete theory elaborated the poem as non-object (não-objeto), achieving objecthood only when engaged by a reader. “Barulho” communicates and enacts this process, through a complex combination of semantic, sonic, visual, metric, phonic, psychic, personal, and physical elements.
Though not a Concrete poem, “Barulho” is conscious of its form. Line length matters; apparently random line breaks visually align to make the fourteen or so lines of a sonnet. Incomplete on its own—full of near rhyme and not exactly fourteen lines (the number depends on how one reads it)—this sonnet needs the reader to create it.
I thank Rumos Literatura do Itaú Cultural for supporting this research.
Works Cited in Part II
Gullar, Ferreira. Entrevista de Ferreira Gullar por Weydson Barros Leal [12 July 1999]. Jornal de Poesia. Ed. Soares Feitosa. Jornal de Poesia, 8 Sept. 2005. 2 Aug. 2011.
---. Toda poesia (1950-1999). 17th ed. Rio de Janeiro: José Olympio, 2008.
Perloff, Marjorie, and Craig Dworkin, eds. The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Sound. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2009.
Stewart, Susan. “Rhyme and Freedom.” Perloff and Dworkin 29-48.
On Christopher Merrill's 'Only The Nails Remain'
I interviewed Christopher Merrill on his book Only The Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars in June 0f 2004 (Cross Cultural Poetics #39). To my mind his remains the best book on those conflicts, and the fact that his journalistic efforts focus so centrally on the activities of the poets in that region is noteworthy. (I plan to speak with him again soon about his new book The Tree of the Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War, which takes us with him on his travels through Malaysia, China, and The Middle East.) At the same time that conversation, and the transcript we did of that interview, also serves to remind us of our own political dilemmas of the not very distant past. It follows here:
Leonard Schwartz: Christopher Merrill is a poet and critic, and the author and translator of more than a dozen books, including the highly praised Only The Nails Remain: Scenes From The Balkan Wars. He is also the director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. Welcome, Christopher Merrill.
Christopher Merrill: It’s nice to be here, Leonard.
Schwartz: Your book, Only the Nails Remain: Scenes From the Balkan Wars, is an extraordinary book. The San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle wrote, “a poet who has journeyed often on foot through the Balkans, Merrill presents anecdotes from ordinary people encountered during his wanderings, as well as from friends in the arts, and political leaders. His wide range and cultural connections provide a clearer understanding of each ethnic group’s triumphs and follies, underscoring the importance of language, literature, and folklore in forging national identity.” I would say that the book actualizes what Ezra Pound meant when he said, “Poetry is news that stays news.” It’s the first book we’ve seen that really goes beyond the journalistic account, into a cultural account of what happened there. Could you say how you became involved with the Balkans so profoundly. It seems it was almost accidental?
Merrill: Well, it really did seem almost by chance. I happened to meet the young Slovenian poet, Ales Debeljak, in the fall of 1989; he was completing a doctorate at Syracuse University. I was on a reading tour and we hit it off at a party afterwards. One thing led to another and we decided to translate a book of his poems called Anxious Moments, which we did over the course of several days in the winter of 1991. To repay the favor he invited me to come walk across Slovenia, and I thought what a wonderful idea it would be to spend a few weeks in the mountainous republic of what was still Yugoslavia — drinking wine, telling stories, walking around, and thinking about poetry’s place in the new world order — little expecting that by the time I arrived the war would be on and I would be after a much different kind of writing assignment.
Schwartz: It turned from a walking tour into an account of war and all its implications. There is also an important motif in the book: your relationship with the poet Tomaz Salamun. In fact your title, Only the Nails Remain, comes from a poem of his. I wonder if you could talk about Salamun’s poetry, its influence on yourself, and maybe read the poem that you actually begin with as an epigraph in the book.
Merrill: I’d love to. Tomaz, is in my view, one of the great poets on the world stage; and I have such a vivid memory of meeting him in what was Ljubljana, Slovenia — the capital — in the summer of 1992. Within a half a minute of meeting him I felt I was in the presence of a rare spirit, a great poet. I remember thinking at the time its like drinking mountain water. He was that kind of figure. We hit it off immediately. He told me stories that were just remarkable; after all this was a poet who at a very young age was thrown into jail in Tito’s Yugoslavia simply for the crime of being a poet and the editor of a journal. I’ve often thought that one of the reasons he was thrown in jail was because of this poem he wrote at 21 or 22, called Eclipse. I’ll read you that section which gave me the title for this book. It goes like this.
I will take nails,
and hammer them into my body.
Very very gently,
very very slowly,
so it will last longer.
I will draw up a precise plan.
I will upholster myself every day
say two square inches for instance.
Then I will set fire to everything.
It will burn for a long time.
It will burn for seven days.
Only the nails will remain,
all welded together and rusty.
So I will remain.
So I will survive everything.
A little earlier in that poem there is a wonderful image that goes, “I got tired of the image of my tribe and moved out.” From the very beginning Salamun seemed to have escaped the bonds of nationalism, of the parochial interests that even as far back as 1964 he could see would eventually tear this country apart, and it was this sense of prophecy in his poetry, the sense that he had touched something dark in poems like this, and his utter sense of freedom. This was a man who, when he was released from jail, found himself in his early twenties, to be a cultural hero on the one hand, and on the other hand unable to find a job. So one of the stories I tell in the book — which I just love — from Tomasz, which I heard from his wife Metka, concerning his job as a door to door salesman when he could not find any other work — and he was not a very good salesman. He went up to one house and was trying to sell books on how to knit and encyclopedias, and this woman looked at him and said, “I’m not interested in the kind of books your selling.” So he asked her who she liked to read and she replied I only like to read Kafka, Proust, and Salamun. Salamun took a step back and said, “But I am Salamun.” It seemed to me these kind of stories were always happening to Tomaz Salamun. I found him to be a reliable guide to the mysterious currents, under-girding everything or flowing through everything in the Balkans.
Schwartz: You don’t go on to say whether actually he made a book sale to that particular woman. But you do say he is a poor salesman and a great poet...
Merrill: That’s what it is.
Schwartz: You know it is interesting that you also say he was able to liberate himself from the bonds of nationalist thinking, and nationalism in general, which was not always the case with writers that you met in the Balkans. In some places I almost hear the suggestion that the poets, in our fixation on language, are part of the problem, since it is a linguistic war as much as anything else.
Merrill: That’s precisely it. I was intrigued by several things having to do with the artists and the writers and the poets I met in the Balkans. First of all to be in a place where poetry is taken seriously, that in itself is a revelation coming from the United States. My friend Ales Debeljak, after all, had just appeared on the state television station in a passionate discussion on the nature of friendship with the president of Slovenia; that’s something impossible to imagine in the United States. I was also intrigued by the ways in which poets and writers may have laid the groundwork for the break-up of Yugoslavia through their efforts to plumb the depths of their national identity. There is nothing wrong with trying to understand that national identity, but also one has to recognize that this created certain centrifugal forces that eventually led to the destruction of Yugoslavia. And then at the same time I was also intrigued by the ways in which certain poets and writers were bearing eloquent witness to the destruction and mayhem around them in the war zones. Very brave souls I met in Sarajevo like the Bosnian poet Ferida who would say things to me like, “I only have to choose and I choose to write. That we learn to cherish every meal we eat, every drink we take, every book we read or every poem that we write here in this city under siege because we very well know it may be our last.” People like Ferida, she was a real heroine to me.
Schwartz: That enviable and yet frightening seriousness with which Eastern Europe takes its poetry... Looking down the table of contents one sees Ljubljana, Venice, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo, Sarajevo: all the places you traveled during this period. Yet for me as a reader, the heart of the book, or the experience that seems to have transformed you as an author, is in Sarajevo. Is that an accurate reading?
Merrill: That’s dead on. On the one hand, I was determined to get to all sides during the course of my travels. I wanted to talk to people on all sides of every conflict, and there were many conflicts in the Balkans at the time. But I can say with my first visit to Sarajevo, the first of many visits when the city was under siege, I can say that my life was forever changed by being in a basement, for example, getting shelled for a considerable period of time in a city without gas, water, or electricity. A modern cosmopolitan city which had after all hosted the Winter Olympics only eight years earlier and now whose inhabitants had been reduced to living in medieval conditions, having to schlep water fifteen flights up an apartment building into flats that had no electricity, no light, in which people were having to burn their books in order to cook a meal: this gave me an altogether different understanding of what it means to live in the modern world. After all, this is taking place in Europe. You could leave Sarajevo, if you managed to get out on a humanitarian flight, as I often did. I would fly back to Italy and in the morning be in a city when I had not had a shower or a hot meal for three weeks, a month, and that night be having a wonderful meal in Florence. To try to put those two things together, seemed to me, to be an important thing to try to do as a writer.
Schwartz: It certainly comes through. There's also the anecdote, well it's more than an anecdote, the fact of the theatre festival and the film festival that is organized during the siege. You say at one point, where you’re quoting one of the people who organizes the film festival in Sarajevo, “‘Snipers are a technical problem for us,’ Dana said indignantly, ‘like trying to line up enough diesel to show a film.’” Then you go on.“These were hardly the only problems she and Pasovic faced. The festival got off to a bad start: a nine hour artillery attack on Sarajevo, which left ten dead and scores wounded. But this did not deter the organizers and their volunteer staff of eighty. They worked around the clock, staying up all night to subtitle videotapes (there was no projection equipment), printing daily schedules (which were subject to constant change), and risking their lives to get to the theatre.”
Can you comment on that?
Merrill: Well this was a remarkable event which took place in the fall of 1993. Over the course of ten days, the organizers of the Sarajevo Film Festival, which was subtitled “Beyond the End of the World,” showed something like a hundred films on diesel powered VCR's, in a theatre that was always standing room only. And to get into the theatre, there was a sniper who liked to shoot right around the entrance; so you would see people ducking behind cars and laughing at this sniper, so determined to get into the theatre to watch a film. Because in one way or another the Sarajevians thought, “this is a badge of honor,” to go and watch a film like any civilized human being around the planet. And indeed this war, particularly this siege, was often painted in terms of civilization versus barbarism. In Sarajevo the Bosnian-Serb para-militaries and irregular soldiers surrounded the city, they were firing down on it; they'd cut off the gas, water, and the electricity. They were targeting civilians, particularly targeting children. And yet you found this curious kind of energy in the city - people wanting to host a film festival, artists doing their work, books getting written and published, anything to try and maintain some sense of civilization. I mean journalists were always remarking on the fact that women seemed to take great care to try to get dressed up, and beauty salons were doing a good business. As Ferida Durakovic, this wonderful Serbian poet kept saying to me, “this is our way of saying to the barbarians that your not going to win, we're going to hold out against you and maintain some kind of dignity.”
Schwartz: Tell me a little bit about your relationship to people in Sarajevo during the bombardment. You mention Susan Sontag flying in to do a production of Beckett's Waiting for Godot, as part of a theatre festival, and the kind of high gesture of that. You were there longer, but on the other hand you could fly to Venice when you wanted too: if it was possible to fly, you had the right papers and so forth. Could you talk a little bit about your relationship to people more profoundly trapped than yourself, and your decision to stay?
Merrill: Well, a couple of things were going on. One, I was a freelancer, a stringer. I really had no institutional support, which made my life somewhat more problematic in the sense that I didn't stay at the Holiday Inn with the rest of the journalists. I stayed in a private house, which brought me closer to the humanitarians, and to ordinary Bosnians. And like other humanitarians that I ran into I made a point…I remember early on having a humanitarian say to me that he didn't wear a flack jacket in the city because he didn't want to be different than the Bosnians that he was encountering. He felt it would make his job more difficult, and I thought that was a pretty smart thing so I didn't wear my flack jacket in the city. I thought, I'm here, the kind of book I will write, the story I’m trying to tell, is one of ordinary civilians caught up in this moment. That may have made it a little bit more risky but I also think it brought me closer to people. And you know it's a funny thing, I have many times thought that I had some of the best times of my life (if you can imagine) with Bosnians in Sarajevo late at night, having too much to drink, telling stories, feeling that maybe this would be our last night, but we would make the most of it. I learned a lot from my Bosnian friends, and the fact that I could get out… actually it wasn't always very easy, the airlift was often suspended by shooting around the airport. Sometimes you had to go out over Mount Igman, which is a very dangerous mountain to drive over, but in general, western journalists (or diplomats or humanitarians) could get out. As I was saying earlier when I could go to, let's say to Florence or Venice, I would feel such extraordinary guilt over the fact that I could get out and I had left my Bosnian friends behind. I think that is what motivated a lot of the writing; I felt I had an obligation to try to write as well as I could to make clear to a readership what it feels like to be in a city where all of the things that we take for granted have been taken away from us. That was the world I was trying to create on the page.
Schwartz: Very powerfully so. There’s a quote you offer from the Greek Nobel Prize poet, Odysseas Elytis , in chapter Sarajevo III. “‘In the years of Buchenwald and Auschwitz,’ Odysseas Elytis writes in Chronicle of a Decade, much of it set in Nazi-occupied Athens, ‘Matisse painted the juiciest rawest, most enchanting flowers and fruits ever made, as if the miracle of life itself discovered it could compress itself inside them forever. Today, they speak more eloquently than any macabre necrology.’ The Greek poet goes on to suggest that ‘An entire contemporary literature made the mistake of competing with events and succumbing to horror instead of balancing it, as it should have done.’” Which I take on Elytis’ part to be a response to Adorno’s “after Auschwitz poetry is barbarism.” Just the reverse: we need to make something beautiful under ugly conditions. Where do you come out on that? I'll throw in as a big addition to that: as poets what are the implications of this for our current war in Iraq?
Merrill: Well, those are all terrific questions. I'll try to address them if I can, in order. The first thing is, it seems to me that in Sarajevo there was a tremendous amount of good journalism done. Particularly by Western journalists who were there risking their lives to get the story out, and that's a part of the story, a part of the truth. But what a poet can offer is a different kind of truth. It is not the kind of truth that is the truth of journalism, it is of a more enduring… where you hope to get to the essence of it. I think that's what Matisse was doing in those paintings, that's what Elytis was doing in his own poem, and that's what so many great artists and writers have done down through the ages. I was intrigued by that on the one hand. Now as for where we are in Iraq right now, it's interesting to think about the fact that most of the journalism we've had from this war has come from embedded journalists, many of whom have worked in extremely hazardous conditions. But you haven't seen the kind of freelancing in this war that you saw in even the first Gulf War. I'm thinking about Michael Kelly's wonderful book about his travels around the war zones. But also particularly in the Balkans, there was a lot more freelancing going on. Which, I think, gave people a closer look at what's going on. I remember when I first arrived in Sarajevo someone said to me, that what you see on TV about Sarajevo, that what you see on TV about a war is usually the worst that's going on; this person said that in fact in Sarajevo that's just daily life. Well, that's true to a certain extent, but in fact what you see on TV is only part of the story. So I wanted to get the story of what people talk about in a basement when their getting shelled? I remember this one day in this basement when suddenly a shell hit a nearby water line and water was flowing in all of the bathrooms and the sinks. Everyone jumped to their feet without even thinking about this and just started filling water canisters. Now you can't get that into thirty seconds on TV, but a writer has a chance to try to get at the essence of what happened in that scene. So that's what I was after. As far as what writer's and poets who are outside the situation in Iraq might try to do, well you follow where your muse leads you, but I think many writers and poets now would imagine that what has gone on in Iraq over the last couple of years represents a traumatic turning point in American history, and indeed in world history. For those who are so inclined, this is one of those things we have to write about to try and make sense of the catastrophe. We have forced it on the Middle East, on ourselves, and on the whole world.
Schwartz: I hadn't thought about it but you are right — there is an absence of your kind of writer in Iraq. Or at least we're not hearing about that kind of writer, not getting that kind of reportage. Except maybe from John Lee Anderson.
Merrill: John Lee Anderson has done a great job.
Schwartz: He's the only one I can think of actually. He's been kind of quiet lately, though. I hope he's okay.
Merrill: The difference between something like Sarajevo and Baghdad, is that in Sarajevo Bosnians looked (within the city) to a journalist, a writer, as somebody who was their friend. Somebody who was in the trenches with them trying to understand their lives. I think right now for any Western journalist to be in Baghdad is an extraordinarily dangerous situation because even if your instincts might be to tell an Iraqi story there are many other people who want you dead. That makes for a very complicated story. So it may be that the real story that we'll get out of the occupation of Iraq will be from, and this will make sense, from the Iraqi perspective. One would hope that we would get such a thing from a Western perspective, and sooner rather than later.
Schwartz: Christopher, would it be OK if I read one passage back to you and asked you to comment on it? There was an intriguing passage pertaining to your encounter with Gabriel Garcia Marquez on a visit to Venice. Very unusual to read. You are in a car with him, and Marquez, suddenly, once he hears some English spoken, refuses to continue an interview that had been previously arranged with a woman in the car with you. Then you go on to a panel discussion he's giving. I assumed the subject of the panel would be Bosnia. We were too close to the fighting- the footage from the concentration camps was too fresh- for these famous engaged artists to avoid speaking out against the war. It was Garcia Marquez, after all, who told The Paris Review, “the only advantage of fame is that I have been able to give it a political use.” A panel including Italian President Paolo Portoghesi, France’s flamboyant Minister of Culture Jack Lang, and filmmakers like Lina Wertmuller could not shirk the responsibility of addressing the slaughter of innocents. I could not have been more wrong. The celebrities had come to denounce the U.S. government for its failure to comply with the “moral rights” provision of the Berne Treaty, the world’s copyrights standard: American filmmakers had no protection against studios tampering with their work...I could not argue with the stars. Yet as they droned on through the morning I grew impatient: they had missed a chance to call attention to a genuine tragedy. I counted up the costs of bringing these people together: hundreds of thousands of dollars. In [Thomas] Mann's rendering of Venice Aschenbach loses his bearings, inflamed with the desire for the forbidden- and becomes infected with cholera.
The implications there are very clear. Could you comment on that passage? I mean we're talking about the Elytis quote and the necessity to continue to pursue beauty. The other side of that in your ethic in the book is this unusual condemnation of the star, specifically Marquez. You know there is a certain way in which once a writer is deified you can’t criticize them any longer. Wonderful the way you go against that in this passage. Could you comment of the whole ethic of that circumstance?
Merrill: The first thing I want to say is that I revere Garcia Marquez as a writer. I went to school on One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Autumn of the Patriarch, and when I had the chance in late autumn of '92 to accompany a Slovenian journalist to the Venice Film Festival to interview him I was so excited. I mean among other things I was very close to his American editor who has since passed away. I thought, I love his work, we even have a little social connection, here's someone who's not afraid to speak out on political issues, and it's August of 1992- the existence of the concentration camps in Bosnia had just been revealed. These images of emaciated men were flying around the world. It was a terrible moment and it seemed to me of course the panel discussion will be on the subject which is so close. But the funny thing with Garcia Marquez… we are driving to this panel discussion and speaking in French because that is the only language we had in common, and then the Slovenian turned to me in the back seat and asked me a question in English - I think she wanted the English word for a billboard — when Garcia Marquez, who I think had thought I might be French or Slovenian, realized I was American he got so angry he said to this woman, not answering another question, “no interview, I don't talk to Americans,” and then walked away. And I thought to myself, well here's a good example of why you should never act badly to anyone. You never know when you might actually do it to a writer who will try to get his or her revenge. But the larger point is this, the artists had gotten together for another exercise in America bashing, and everybody knows that story. And I have nothing against the issue that they picked. I think in some ways there is a lot of merit to their argument. But they were missing the real story which was taking place about a hundred miles away. Everybody there knew what the story was, and that was that there were concentration camps in the middle of Europe, that there were rape camps. There was ethnic cleansing going on and these guys had gotten together to engage in another round of America bashing. Now I would have been the first to engage in America bashing at that point about why the then president, the first President Bush, was not doing anything to try and lift the siege in Sarajevo. Something we could have done then and we could have done later under Clinton. That was the place it seemed to me artists had a moral obligation to stand up and say what they had to say, and they missed it.
Schwartz: To Marquez I guess you attribute a sort of knee jerk anti-Americanism. I wonder if you experience that in your travels these days? I know your just back from a reading tour in Malaysia. As the director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, your in contact with writers from all over the world when they come to visit you in Iowa, and when you go there. What kind of a reception are you getting these days?
Merrill: Well, I can tell you in the last couple of years the anger at this country around the world has reached a level that I have never seen in my lifetime, and I have spent a very long time traveling to a lot of places. I think this is so particularly now in wake of the prison scandal at Abu Ghraib in Baghdad. I was in Malaysia when that scandal hit the news, and my gosh, I don't think we will live that down for a very long time. One diplomat said to me, it will take fifty years for America to shed those images that are flying around the internet. That's where we are right now. It is for me a very frightening time. We in this country may think that we can move on from that prison scandal, and we may be able to deal with the people who committed these crimes, and maybe even in the best of all possible worlds deal with those who clearly set the conditions and directives for this. But in the meantime, what's going on around the world is that you have so many people so angry at this country and its foreign policy, and so disappointed that the idea of America is ceasing as a beacon of hope, a place of freedom and democracy and transparency, is ceasing to hold any meaning. We have really not only committed terrible war crimes there, but we have also stained our reputation around the world, and we will be dealing with the fall-out from that for a very long time to come.
Schwartz: If I can ask you just one last question on your work at the International Writing Program. Do you see that as an attempt to bring the world to us in such a way that slowly or in some small way we begin to conceive of ourselves as a part of that world? I ask that question also because I've had the experience in some of my own work of sometimes wondering, through my own related work, presenting a false image of America — of receptivity — to the other world. I mean, are we trying to show our good side in such a way that actually is misleading, at least so long as the Bush administration is still in place?
Merrill: Again, I think that those are all good questions. One thing I would say is that we think of the International Writing Program, which brings together about thirty writers from around the world every fall for three months, as the United Nations of Writers. A place where writers can get their work done, where they can exchange ideas and impressions in a free and open environment. One component of this might be public diplomacy. Certainly we hope that from an American perspective the writers leave with a more nuanced understanding of this country. But the larger point is bringing writers together works on the writers, works on the cultures in ways which no one can begin to imagine. After all we began talking at the start of this program about Tomaz Salamun, who was in the International Writing Program back in the Early 1970's. He fell in love with the poetry of Frank O'Hara and John Ashberry, think of the effect that has had on his poetry. This, the exemplar of freedom in the Balkans, in some ways took his inspiration from first writers like Apollinaire, but then Ashbery and O'Hara.
Not long ago I was in Rangoon, in Burma — talk about a repressive military dictatorship; I met a young poet who had just translated John Ashbery’s Some Trees. I thought, “now that's interesting, that's how literature works, those are the subterranean connections that bind people together, that bind kindred spirits around the world irrespective of nation, ideology, or religion.” The conditions that we try to create in the International Writing Program are such that we hope the writers will go away with a deeper understanding of the ways in which we are all connected, despite our grand differences.
Schwartz: I should mention that my wife, Zhang Er, the Chinese poet, is John Ashberry's translator into Chinese. That's changed her writing, and creates surfaces, she says , that didn't exist in Chinese previously. The only problem for us is we do so little translation of these languages back into English.
Merrill: That's one of the great disasters of our time. Recent statistics were something like out of 100,000 books published in the United States, roughly 300 are in literary translation. If we believe that we can run the world in a unilateral fashion, it behooves us to learn something about the world, and for a largely mono-lingual society the only way that's going to happen is by translation.
Schwartz: I was just speaking with Ed Foster on Cross Cultural Poetics. He spends a lot of time in Turkey. He pointed out that 97% of Turks were against the invasion of Iraq. Now if only we could have listened to that at some level! They are an ally, but we were not in any position to hear that. It's beyond translation, I realice, but translation can help. As an example Foster set up a journal that publishes Turkish work in translation.
Merrill: Think about the disaster of the occupation of Iraq. It's customary for us now to say that the Pentagon didn't plan for it. Well OK, but one thing they also didn't do was they didn't understand the country they were invading. They didn't really understand the people who they were going to try to master in one way or another. The terrible things you see happen day by day by day I think are born of the fact that we simply did not know what we were getting into.
Schwartz: You know Kanan Makiya, the Iraqi writer and the son of the architect? He was actually in favor of the invasion two weeks before it began. There was a piece on him in the New York times magazine section. He'd come out of a meeting with President Bush and the President didn't know the difference between Shiite and Sunni. It's two weeks before the invasion, Kanan Makiya has his head in his hands, Bush didn't know.
Merrill: I think that history will record an interesting thing. The number of American intellectuals, who I would call something like liberal internationalists, who found themselves in favor of this war because they viewed it as a way to realize their own dreams of reshaping the Middle East, or bringing democracy, or in favor of human rights... The fact of the matter is that anybody examining how this administration was approaching it, the lies that it was telling, would know that such an enterprise was doomed. You can't sell a war on false premises no matter how good the end result might be. The fact of the matter is that American men and women are going to lose their lives, taxpayers are going to be out a lot of money, and there is going to be a furious reaction in all corners. That’s what we’re dealing with right now, and no amount of good intentions by anyone who supported this war, in my view, will absolve them from the disaster that we have foisted upon ourselves and upon the world.
Schwartz: Christopher, I really value that analysis. Let me shift back to the book though. Have you been back to Sarajevo since the siege was lifted?
Merrill: I have. I've been back a few times. It’s interesting to see on the one hand a certain vibrancy returning to the city, on the other hand a certain despair at the grievous losses Bosnians felt. And the fact that there really is no peace yet. There’s a truce, but the truce is enforced by a considerable number of troops from NATO countries, keeping the different sides apart. This is the exercise in nation building that George W. Bush derided, and which is of course necessary in picking up the pieces after a war. It was a terrible war and we'll have troops there for a long time. It will take people a long time to get over those losses if they ever do, some scars will not heal. That's one of the things that writers try to address in their work.
Schwartz: Which you've done so ably, and I’d even say nobly in Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars. Thanks again Christopher for spending this time with us, and I really do hope we can do it again soon.
Merrill: Thank you Leonard, I look forward to that.