freedom at Iowa
This is what the International Writing Program is all about: creating
a global community by fostering individual connections.
In 1971 Tomaz Salamun, a young poet from the Balkans, was invited
to attend the program. Salamun had been jailed in his native Slovenia
because of his poetry and editorship of a controversial literary
journal. But in the United States, he felt something unlock inside
"In America, images flew toward me," he said.
He wrote copiously while attending the program, staying in Iowa
City for a year after his tenure ended. Writing. Talking to other
writers. And, perhaps most importantly, meeting people who could
translate his poems.
"This is an artist who had been unemployed and discouraged,"
says Christopher Merrill, director of the International Writing
Program (IWP). "Then he came here and his work began to ripple
out. He comes from a country in which there are only two million
people. Now, he is considered a world-class poet whose influence
on young poets around the world is dramatic. Thats due in
large part to the International Writing Program."
Salamun returned to The University of Iowa in 1988 as a visiting
writer, then again on April 20, 2001, for a reading with Ales Debeljak,
a good friend and one of Sloveniasand the international
literary communitysnewest rising poets.
Salamuns emergence onto the world stage is a story typical
of the IWP. The program was founded in 1967 by Iowa poet Paul Engle
and his wife, the Chinese novelist Hualing Nieh Engle. It was conceived
as a literary community that crossed the borders of geography, language,
and culture. By the mid-70s, the IWP was established as a safe haven
for writers, a place where "writers at-risk," whose opinions
and words were subject to censorship in their homelands, found sanctuary.
Merrill came to The University of Iowa in August 2000 from the
College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., where he held the William
H. Jenks Chair in Contemporary Letters. He was charged with carrying
on the Engles original mandate for the programto provide
and cultivate a world laboratory for literary minds.
But the connections go far deeper than that. Long before he came
to the University to direct the IWP, Merrill himself had edited
an anthology of Salamuns poetry and translated two books of
Debeljaks work. His professional relationship with Debeljak
became a personal one. Merrill traveled to Slovenia in 1992, intending
to hike through the northern mountains of the region with his friend.
He arrived just in time for the onset of the Third Balkan War.
Over the next four years, Merrill made nine more trips to every
province in the former Yugoslavia, covering the war for publications
ranging from The Nation to Sports Illustrated. In 1999, Merrill
published Only The Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars, a
nonfictional narrative about his journeys. The title comes from
a poem about war and survival written by Salamun. Merrill had witnessed
oppression, and his decision to come to Iowa was based in his belief
that writers from every culture must be given their voices.
"It struck me that this program, which is completely unique,
must continue to do these enormously important things for literature,"
Merrill says. "My job, as I see it, is to set up conditions
so writers from all over the globe can create new works, interact
with the community, learn from and teach one another, and go home
with a richer understanding of the United States and other countries.
This is the reason that Iowa, in the public imagination, equals
By all accounts, Merrills first year of leadership has been
a great success.
Peter Nazareth, professor of English and African-American world
studies and a former IWP participant, has been an adviser to the
program for more than 20 years.
"Chris is a great writer and a good-hearted person who appreciates
and celebrates the achievements of others," Nazareth says.
"He is just the right personnot only to carry on the
tradition of the International Writing Program, but also to take
it to the next stage."
Indeed, Merrill has. He is a director who understands the inherent
assets of the program and knows to take advantage of opportunities.
He puts writers together in a variety of combinations and different
venues, gives them time and space and topics for discussion. Then
he sits back to watch great things happen.
In fall 2000, the program welcomed 18 new writers from 15 nations,
including Argentina, Ireland, Russia, Togo, Uganda, Vietnam, and
Nigeria. By chance, there was an unusually high number of playwrights
among them, so Merrill organized a panel discussion on campus, "Playwriting
and the Dialogue Between Language and Action," in mid-September.
"Three playwrightsMike Finn from Ireland, Motti Lerner
from Israel, and H. S. Shiva Prakash from India," Merrill recalls.
"They began talking about language and action on stage and
what came out was their radically different concepts of drama. Each
defended his position eloquently and came away with a renewed appreciation
for the many possibilities available to a writer."
Based largely upon the vitality of the playwrights panel,
and on the IWPs mission to strengthen ties with other departments
at the University, Merrill followed with a dramatic reading at the
Seacrest 1883 Octagonal Barn in October 2000, where faculty from
the Universitys theatre arts department read sections of the
plays written by IWP participants.
So popular was the reading of Finns Pigtown, a mosaic-style
dramatic narrative about life in Limerick, that Merrill invited
Finn to stay on as the International Programs writer-in-residence
for the spring semester. Finn spent his time in Iowa City working
in area schools, community festivals, and senior citizen centers,
and working on a new play about immigrants coming through Ellis
Island, which was inspired by his experiences in the United States
and at the IWP.
"Theres no other place in the world where I could have
met writers from all parts of the world," Finn says. "We
learned about one anothers histories and insights and perspectives.
One thing I discovered was how lucky I am to live in a country where
I can write pretty much anything I like."
The IWP remains dedicated to providing the forum where writers
from all over the world can write their truths. Toward that end,
the program has launched a major fund-raising effort, together with
The University of Iowa Foundation, to endow the directorship, freeing
funds to support full fellowships for writers from censorious countries.
The first such fellowship was created when Cedar Rapids resident
William Quarton announced plans to permanently fund a $12,500 IWP
fellowship to bring one promising writer to Iowa City each year.
The first recipient of the Quarton fellowship is Cuban writer Norge
Esposito, who will attend the IWP in fall 2001.
"My mission is to engender the sort of support that will keep
the International Writing Program going forever," Merrill says.
"One of Salamuns poems begins I was born in a wheatfield,
snapping my fingers. That alone has set fire to many young
poets and given them new ways to think about what a poem might be.
One young writer came to our country through the IWP, fell in love,
had his work translated. And soon there were poets in wheatfields
all over the world, snapping their fingers."