Book End - Merrill Gilfillan interviewed by Michael Hettich


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.


What are you working on now?


I spend some time at my window table each day, working with poems.

If, at age 77, I were more energetic, more excitable... I've envisioned now and then a spring drive wandering slowly around the U.S.A., stopping whenever I noticed a fisherman/-woman, or a fishing family, at a lake, river, causeway. Persons with at least a hardware monofilament connection to the natural world. Stop and talk with them a few minutes--what they're pulling in and all that, but also trying to sense, suss, very gingerly, how they feel about life these days in our sadly whiplashed country.


 

Books of Poetry and Prose by Merrill Gilfillan:



POETRY


To Creature. Blue Wind Press. 1975

Light Years. Blue Wind. 1977.

River Through Rivertown. The Figures.. 1982

Satin Street. Asphodel Press. 1997

The Seasons. Adventures in Poetry. 2002. (www.adventures in potrey.com)

Selected Poems 1965-200. Adventures in Poetry. 2005

Small Weather. Qua Books. 2004. (www.quabooks.com)

Undanceable. Flood Editions. 2005 (floodeditions.com)

The Bark of the Dog. Flood. 2010.

Harpsichord Hills. Horse Less Press. 2013. (www.horselesspress.com)

Would-be Dogwood. Shirt Pocket Press. 2017.

Red Mavis. Flood. 2014.

Stars Seen Then. Partly Press. 2020. (partlypress@lynden sculpture garden.org)



PROSE


Magpie Rising. Pruett Publishing. 1988.

Burnt House to Paw Paw. Hard Press. 1997

Chokecherry Places. Johnson Books. 1998.

Rivers and Birds. Johnson. 2003

Sworn Before Cranes. Orion/Crown. 1994

Grasshopper Falls. Hanging Loose Press. 2000.

The Warbler Road. Flood. 2010.

Old River, New River. Red Dragonfly Press. 2019.

Talk Across Water. Flood. 2019.


 

BIO

Merrill Gilfillan was born in 1945 in Mount Gilead, Ohio. He attended the University of Michigan, graduating in 1967 with a major in English literature, then took an MFA in poetry at the University of Iowa. After a number of years in New York City he settled in the West (Colorado, Montana, and northwestern Nebraska). Most of his living was earned as a freelance editor/proofer, though he worked several years at a Native American art gallery in Boulder. Since 2014 he has lived in Asheville, North Carolina.


 

Merrill Gilfillan: Selected Writings


Prose:


The Art of Landscape Writing

Alfresco writing, following landscape painting, is the art of simply Going-out-to-see, bearing the possibility of raising a poem or paragraph within the day. Its essential pleasure and tireless charge derive from its roots in elemental curiosity and, in the end, the word affinity.


More than once our Sunday drives out from the town of  Flicker onto the plains or into the Sandhills would end up being a daylong low-speed drive of two hundred miles, so seductive was the landscape, so instructive, given the simplest of Givens: the earth, as literal past; the sky/space a sort of implied future; and the Going-out-to-see a present, all informed by the principle that each Day-in-Place is one of a kind, negotiable One Day and One Day Only. And to scratch a geopolitical line or two on the given sky above the hills or mountains as in the old Chinese paintings with calligraphy on the clouds: poetry as ingredient of   landscape, catalyst and protean accompaniment.

I remember standing in the poetry sections of Ann Arbor bookstores as a college boy — Bob Marshall’s, Slater’s, Centicore — taken in the abstract by the lines on the pages, the lines in formation, stanzaic or otherwise, remember holding the books at arm’s length, nearly beyond the focal point, to heighten that sense of orchestrated ink, of somehow avian arrangement seen as insinuative choreography: a scape with motion and skyline, with breath and skein of cranes or sea ducks.

 


Arkansas River, Kansas 1995


A small dog, a huge dog, dead by the road, drifted with snow. To move among these bluffs and buttes on a daily basis is both an honor and a gift.

Facing any landscape demands bearings, finding a footing, and then a bearing. Which way is up, for example.

“Landscape” as full context, situation: time, space, chemistry, gases, vectors, and winds — surroundings. Landscape writing as a fundamental noticing. You notice the fleet of yellow school buses parked beyond a river or the white rocks on the rise where they emerge from the earth at the top of the hill, and then one day go up there and make them known things, find a footing and a bearing and mark the details of that intersection and name it when you are through — “The Arikaree at Cope” or “The Wildcat Hills from Route 88” or “Upper Lodgepole Creek, What’s Left of   It.”

The presence of a witness, like those tiny, almost overlookable faces in the lower corners of  Nootka artists’ serigraphs, a cartoonish wide-eyed face in profile looking on, commonly referred to as “the witness.”

Points mentioned, or painted, once poeticized, are never quite the same. The torque of  language (the verbal encounter) on landscape is roughly the equivalent of  brushwork in Chinese painting.

Carl Sauer’s “to comprehend land and life in terms of each other.” And the percentage of sky in Constable’s paintings, and Joseph Cornell making photos of days. Several days after the storm, all the snow has melted save the identical, elongate, triangular white tailings that extend a foot and a half on the upwind side of each and every yucca plant across miles of prairie, a sheepish sunlight on it —

One pretty forenoon instance of Rilke’s law: “Landscape is   . . devoid of chance, and every falling leaf fulfills, as it falls, one of the greatest laws of the universe.”

 


Grand River near Mahto, South Dakota 1997

Looking for September    . . .   Wyoming was wretched last month. A day and a half of passing through tandoori August heat and endless uproar of dust and earthmovers and logjams of road construction and a two-pronged horde of disengaged tourists bound for either Yellowstone or the biker rally in Sturgis, South Dakota — redeemed on occasion by the nonplussed, diminutive thirteen-year-old driving an enormous, scaly-roofed, brick red Lincoln Continental, watching him in the rearview roar heedlessly up behind me, then swerve around and roar on. He carried an even smaller passenger beside him — newlyweds, perhaps   . . .   I love the grimy, old, fluted-deco concrete overpasses battered and gouged on the lower edges by who-knows-what abrupt encounter, straight-faced fossils of  long-lost curse and guffaw    . . .    The cottonwood groves along the South Platte hold at perhaps “one percent” yellow leafage, as aspen watchers would say. And there goes a solo biker of note: northeast-bound, long black braids streaming behind, a young Oglala man heading for Dakota or a high-flying road Valkyrie    . . .    The swallows are still here. They loop contentedly above the smallest of highway bridges. Frederick Delius, forced from his French home early in wwi, said from England that he missed most of all the hirondelles, and soon began sketching that eleven-minute roofless tidal pool elegiac anthem bordering on speechlessness, “Late Swallows.” Teal reeling. Bluestem reddening. Milkweed mostly yellow. The vegetation shows the Pause, but not the Buckle . . .     

Each time I top the ridge and find the North Platte valley off below I stop, thinking to sketch it in my perfunctory way. But the visual chord is always far too complex for my abilities and the most I can do is gaze and hum along. That first view is the ongoing view, the benign geologic one you will tuck away, even after you have spent hours nearer the river, the simple satisfaction of standing in the presence of enormous complexity-in-progress, of a vast, offhandedly competent entity bearing both conception and execution in a tour de force of motion held, perpetual motion both captured and peremptorily dismissed. And the little poem against the sky above . . .

Darrell Gray’s “Birds fly because they have more imagination” seems far more cogent now, thirty-five years later: imagination as a fundamental capacity to not only see, but reach, reach via connection and charged memory, almost a muscular capacity   . . Cattails venturing the first orange/ochre in the aggregate. On the uplands, prairie dogs are out in numbers, sitting high and sharp-eyed — looking for September.


 


North Fork, Republican River, Colorado 1996.

That description is conjuration — Lu Chi and Wallace Stevens cleared that table long ago. “Heaven and earth are trapped in visible form: / all things emerge / from within the writing brush.”


But the function of landscape conjuration changes continually, and the simple Going-out can become a reclamation of the One Day Only and an affirmation/authentication of latitude/longitude, a bestowal of color and protein-level relations.

The poet looking comprises an intellectual sizing, weighing. And if the writing holds, it can function by its very nature as both a naming and a reclaiming, a corrective and a salvaging, within the occupying (preoccupying) culture.

Horses in loose gangs, hillsides netted, laced, fretted with dark pines, the foreground beach-bright sunlit ochre sand, the distance stark blue-black cloud and shelf shadow. Two shiny white gumbo-ruts of a snaking road lower left to upper right, would-be day to would-be night . . .

All day — artists and their surroundings: a mediation and a bartering. And, maybe, even, one of the ultimate human stakes: “Never mortify your landscape.”

(Sursum corda.)

 


The North Platte at Daybreak, Nebraska 1999.

Originally Published: December 2nd, 2013

 

Poetry:

Something for John Clare


Spiderwort, the begs-

to-be-said: Fat of the summer,

off at the crack of the fat

of the bat. A pair of grosbeaks

feed in a hackberry tree

so lost in it all they have

a sort of kundalini air.

Orioles prefer the goatsbeard.

We watch the slow horses trail

the way Baudelaire, a Frenchman

who followed you through,

watched the clouds: a file

of chestnuts and flashy bays plod

across a meadow, drift?

it seems like hours, head to tail

past a clutter of fallen cottonwoods,

disappear up a cool box elder draw.

Then we watch the clouds.



Just After Dawn

Born to bees (they follow the deer trails down to drink from the rivers).

Born to call the dog Houdini— Hoo! Yo, ’Dini!

Born to parlay “First yellow leaves on the ash trees/Cool breeze up the backside/Spinach to Popeye.”

Born to Draco, low, or the lights of town, or home, or cooking fires off along the mesa— Lost Horizon in a common poem.

Born to crows’ eyes the furnace-red of sunrise, and a country girl, old mosquito bites up one arm and down the other.

Born to stand and see as one of the thugs tees up marbles from my childhood cache and drives them in bright smithereens off over the lower town and the harbor.


 


Michael Hettich’s most recent book of poetry, The Mica Mine, won the Lena Shull Book Award from the North Carolina Poetry Society and was published in April, 2021. His website is Michaelhettich.com.