I started reading Merrill Gilfillan’s poetry in around 2000, when his Selected Poems, 1964-2000 was published by Adventures in Poetry. It wasn’t until about 2019, though, that I started reading his prose, when our mutual friend and publisher, the late Scott King, sent me a copy of Old River, New River (Red Dragonfly, 2019), along with an earlier book of prose pieces, Chokecherry Places (Johnson Books, 1998). I was immediately taken by the sparse clarity of Gilfillan’s prose, as well as by the empathetic incisiveness of his details. Both books spoke to me as excellent companions, perfect for quiet moments in the woods or sitting in the sun. So, when Talk Across Water was published by Flood Editions later that year, I immediately bought the book—and was yet more deeply astonished by the quality of Gilfillan’s prose, here put into the service of beautifully shaped short stories, most of them set in the “Indian Country” of Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas. The qualities I had earlier admired in Gilfillan’s poetry and essays were wonderfully employed in his stories. In fact, the prose in Talk Across Water sings to me like the best poetry does: uncluttered, beautifully cadenced, outward-looking and finely detailed. Like all of his writings, these works grow stronger on each reading.
Though Merrill and I met in person to discuss the parameters and focus of this interview, the interview itself was conducted entirely by email, in February, 2022. Since Merrill has none of his writing stored on computer, examples of his work had to be drawn from internet postings. As strong as the pieces I could find may be, they give the merest taste of the flavor writing offers. His true work lives in the books themselves.
To start us off, would you please talk a little about your childhood, family, and early influences on your writing? I know you grew up in Ohio, and I know your father was a well-respected writer and poet. To what extent did these things shape your worldview and sense of vocation?
I inherited my father's innate interest in going out to discover the details of a place/day, their mechanisms, beauty and flow. From the time I could walk we spent countless hours together out-of-doors. And that attention was of course applied in the several look-about prose projects I took on as a writer years after.
Now that I am older, less energetic, less excitable perhaps, I write mostly at my table beneath a window overlooking a various grove--work from warm memory, sudden association, faces and affections from moments in the past: my brown-eyed Irish mother's side.
You attended the MFA program at University of Iowa, where you studied with
such figures as Ted Berrigan and Anselm Hollo, among others. To my ear and eye,
your poetry draws from very different sources than theirs. To what extent did
someone like Berrigan influence your poetry and/or your attitude toward the art?
Who else influenced your work there?
Arrghh, all so far back! Far enough, though, that things seem to fall into neat
progressive blocks. In high school, several of us discovered poetry on our own,
along with jazz and subterranean culture. We read stuff like Cummings,
Ferlinghetti, Doc Williams...and even fell hard for Eliot's Preludes.
At the University of Michigan, I had friends who were interested in writing
prose, but I knew no poets. Over my four years there I moved steadily through the
bountiful Ann Arbor bookstores; poetry shelves, from Aiken to Zukofsky, pretty
much on my own.
Iowa, of course, was much more focused on recent and contemporary poets,
caught me up to date. But I was well prepared, with a broad reading base, for the
day I was reading Ted Berrigan's Sonnets by the Iowa River and ran across the line
"O, Ma done fart!" A capillary opener!
Mostly, the Iowa teachers introduced us to many poets we hadn't known before,
books we had never encountered. Fellow students did the rest late at night.
You lived for many years in Boulder, Colorado, and I know you interacted with the poets and writers there, particularly with those associated with Naropa Institute and The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. Can you talk a bit about your involvement with those poets and writers? Did you teach there?
After some time on both coasts, I ended up in Boulder to visit a friend, and stayed. A lovely town in a lovely place, and endlessly active in the arts. Readings, concerts, passers-through, an occasional slo-mo brawl over Buddhist protocol. Also the place from which I began exploring the West, mountains and prairie.
Jack Collom became a close friend (he followed the birds as well as poetry). He has tireless energy in composing and often challenging poetic ways and means in the highest spirits. Second Nature and Exchanges of Earth and Sky, among others, carry on his greatly missed presence.
I taught one course at Naropa, a weekend intensive on the history of the Japanese poetic diary, its birth and development. Material I loved unearthing myself, having long considered Haibun, that interfacing of prose and short poems, a major human breakthrough, right up there with the wheel.
You’ve lived in Asheville, NC, for the past few years. What prompted you to move east, after all those years in Boulder? Was it something in the landscape or culture of the Appalachian region?
And since you live in Asheville, I’ll ask an obvious question: I wonder to what extent the poetics of the Black Mountain poets has influenced and/or inspired your work? I’m thinking first of Creeley and maybe Ed Dorn’s short poems, but also, in a different way, the work of Charles Olson. And then, perhaps, of the poets who are associated with Black Mountain without having been there—writers like Denise Levertov and Paul Blackburn.
Ronna Bloom, my partner of 28 years, and I moved to North Carolina for both a change of scenery and to be nearer to various family. I'd been through the Appalachians a number of times in previous years. And wrote a short book of sketches from one of those mountain trips, called Burnt House to Paw Paw.
Upon relocating in 2014 I immediately began writing a series of poems, to re-acclimate I suppose, one line at a time. I had absorbed and admired many of the Black Mountain writers long long before, and soon drove over to visit the former campus at Lake Eden near Asheville.
Before we move on, I’m curious to hear whom you see as major influences on your writing, in both poetry and prose. I’m particularly interested in hearing the prose writers you love, both past and present.
I learned a great deal from W.H. Hudson's easy-going rural sketches from English byways. Turgenev's Notes from a Sportsman's Album I've read many times. D.H. Lawrence's travel books (the way he can brew pages from almost nothing! The great New Yorker duo Joseph Mitchell and A.J. Liebling--great exemplars for personable prose.
When I decided to write some short stories myself, I turned first to the masters, Chekhov and de Maupassant. And more Lawrence. Later H.E. Bates, and others.
It's harder to say with poetry. Recently, when I simply want to sit down with poetry, I read largely old Asian poets. Or, to touch down in America with a bright mind and sound body, I pick up Elizabeth Bishop (her longish Nova Scotia conjurations). Robinson Jeffers. Late Wallace Stevens ("the big lights of last Friday night"!). Some days, a few Rilke sonnets.
As far as any especially deep long-lasting influences, I have to say that the Japanese wandering poets gave me an instant model for not only a sort of poetry, but for a way of life: "Going out to write and see."
I know you started as a poet. When did you begin to write prose? To what extent do you think the discipline of poetry influenced your prose style?
I registered the native peoples of North America as a young child, books and films, and read many volumes on their histories and cultures, their oral literature. In fact, I first got serious about writing short fiction when I began to investigate the Great Plains, about 1985, age 40. I realized soon enough that the wide spaces out there demanded a wider canvas than my poetry at the time could accommodate; and, secondly, that on my excursions I inevitably ended up in Indian country of some sort in the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming. Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Lakota, Arapaho. Visiting friends, hanging out at many powwows. All this eventually provided me the tractioned subject for fiction I'd sought for a long time.
Turning to the work itself. You’re among that rare species of writer who writes equally well in prose and poetry—and, even rarer, in poetry, essays, and fiction. Tom McGuane has said of your essays, “prose doesn’t get any better than this,” and Jim Harrison said, “if anyone writes better prose in America, I am unaware of it.” I concur with this assessment. In fact, your selected stories, Talk Across Water, moved me as deeply as any book of stories ever has. Please talk some about how this beautiful work was made.
The pieces in Talk across Water, my only collection of short fiction, grew slowly, incited (gently) and nourished by much quiet talk and listening. I set a strict limit as to the actual story-base as opposed to raw invention, and held to it pretty well. To honor the subjects as much as possible. To seek no white-knuckle drama when it isn't there. To "receive" the stories as human delicacies (even harsh ones) when they unfold in my presence.
In short, it didn't take long to accept that any prose and any poetry are distinct creatures, organisms of differing dynamics, metabolisms, and demands.
One of your lovely small books, Old River, New River, is titled “A Miscellany,” and it contains both prose (essays) and poetry, and essayistic prose is included in your books of poetry—particularly Small Weathers; Selected Poems 1965-2000; and Red Mavis. It’s a minor observation, and a small question: what are you trying to achieve by such mixing of forms in a single book?
Any short prose pieces I include in a book of poetry (as opposed to a Miscellany, for example), I think of as a prose poem, a genre that attracted me even during university days. Those of Baudelaire and especially Rimbaud, his illuminations. Later I discovered and translated from those of Aloysius Bertrand, his Gaspard de la Nuit, a collection from about 1830 and the prototype for the French prose poem thereafter. An early chapbook of my own, Skyliner, comprises a set of fifteen prose poems, in the rather lippy Rimbaud vein. Hart Crane's “The Mango Tree” is a stellar American example, complete with haibun-style quick-poem kicker at the end.
To define the prose poem is tricky. I once had a theory of a horizontal movement to vertical progression ratio regarding the form...but it seems to have melted away. We could say a prose poem is relatively brief and firmly directed toward it end. That it carries a poetic lode, but moves directly to convey it via a well-wrought natural prose. Your phrase, Michael, "moving via sentences rather that lines", is an excellent approach to it all.
I thought the counterpoint of prose poems and very short poems in Red Mavis might create an interesting weave, fabric, systole/diastole.
Turning to your poetry: Do you see yourself as part of any school or line in American poetry?
No. Just another isolate Keatso-Proustian.
Your poems often feel like distillations of experience, clarified to pure perception, pure moment. Do you write them “in the moment,” in a notebook or journal and then work them later; do you make notes for poems you compose and revise later? What’s your usual process in writing poetry?
I do make notes when out and about. Many of my poems begin with such a quick fragment or conjunction. It's a process that sustains the root-notion of writing as a fundamental interaction with the world, an act of establishing relations.
From the beginning, your poems have tended to be spare, stripped to their essences, distilled. Your recent chapbooks, Wood-Be Dogwood and The Panicle, continue in this pared-down, distilled vein. Talk a bit about this process. How and when do you find these poems? Do you write them with intention, or do you find they come to you unbidden?
Over the long term, I have often moved between short poems and long. Short poems I consider the cream of the crop. Many of my favorites hang in the 6 to 10 line range. It's most simply a matter of becoming bored with one sort, and turning to another wave-length for a few months.
Please talk a bit about your longer poem, “The Serpent,” written at the Serpent Mound in Ohio.
"The Serpent" has emerged as a personal favorite, in part because of its beginnings, its orogeny. The serpent mound in southwest Ohio is a world-class earthwork site, probably the loveliest mound on the continent. I visited frequently, making notes as they arose. Eventually I thought to write an essay in its praise, and began looking through my impressions. Slowly but surely, I realized I was moving toward a poem, began to see it all from a higher level. As I blocked out the sections, the quiet knowledge that I suddenly in poetry mode called up an unforeseen welling, both deeper and loftier than my original plan. Modulation led to modulation to modulation, as I watched it take form.