Writer Christopher Merrill celebrates the “blessedness of gathering” in Hong Kong

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Merrill (far left) with IWP alumni from Norway, Honk Kong, and Japan

“Only connect,” E. M. Forster famously wrote. Forster’s dictum is a plan of action for writer, poet, editor, and translator Christopher Merrill, who is the director of the International Writing Program (IWP), based at the University of Iowa. It’s been callled the “United Nations of Writers.” The late W.S. Merwin called him “one of the most gifted, audacious, and accomplished poets of an extraordinary rich generation.” He’s in Hong Kong right now to celebrate the IWP’s 29th anniversary.

IWP organizes a number of programs that connects literary communities overseas with distinguished American writers. He delivered a short keynote address celebrating the connections at the Hong Kong Book Festival.

He offered some thoughts on literary residencies:

“When I was hired in 2000 to rebuild the storied International Writing Program, there was concern in the leadership at the University of Iowa that another academic institution might seek State Department funding to create a literary residency like ours, thus undercutting our partnership with that federal agency, which dates to the IWP’s founding in 1967. This did not worry me, partly because I had so many administrative fires to put out, and partly because it seems to me that any literary residency is a good thing not only for individual writers but for the larger community: when poets and writers are given space to read, write, and reflect, good things usually follow.

“I often return Robert Hass’s poem, ‘Spring Rain,’ which begins with the speaker taking note of the intervals of light sparked by “a Pacific squall, started no one knows where, which moves its own way, like water or the mind.”

Accordingly Hass makes an imaginative journey, tracing the likely path of the rain… and then charts ends with calls ‘the blessedness of gathering.’” More than 1,600 distinguished poets, fiction writers, essayists, and playwrights have gathered in our UNESCO City of Literature to write, give readings, and engage with their counterparts from around the world, expanding their aesthetic horizons and building a network of literary connections that endure, and that is why I was thrilled to learn twenty years ago that Hong Kong Baptist University had decided to create its own version of the IWP. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and I am pleased to join Nieh Hualing Engle, the co-founder of the IWP, in welcoming the International Writers’ Workshop. That many alumni of the IWP have had the good fortune to take part in the IWW makes this all the sweeter.”


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