Interview: Merrill Gilfillan

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We interviewed some of the N11 contributors on their lives outside the notebook. Poet and essayist Merrill Gilfillan talks about finding inspiration on the Great Plains and the importance of taking notes.

What inspired you to write Locus Pocus? What was it about that place? Are there other places like it?

I suppose I might have written the piece from many points on the Great Plains. I had been exploring the region for fifteen years, and the concept of place amid all those high-visibility horizontal spaces was always a slippery one. I think the alignment of the old shoe and the mirror fragment in the ditch nudged me into finally wrestling with the notion.

Do you keep a record or journal of observations/details as you travel or do you recall them later when writing a manuscript? i.e. How does one of your essays come to be?

Taking notes (and even plotting the essential vectors of the piece) on the spot are crucial. You think you’ll remember the details, but you won’t. Back home at the writing desk, the main task is sometimes deciphering and then choreographing the material.

What is something unique that you do every day without fail?

Think of the Ghost Dance.

Describe one thing that you did in 1965.

In August 1965, when I was twenty, I quit my summer job and drove alone to northern Michigan, where I rented a tourist cabin for ten days. General Delivery, Paradise, Michigan. It was a formal occasion: I was there “trying to write.” I paced the Lake Superior shore and listened to the loons. I ended up with one very tight quatrain and a few scattered lines that fed, that fall, into my first published poem, “Letter from Proust.”

What are your five favorite books that have some element of travel in them?

W. H. Hudson, AFOOT IN ENGLAND.
Ezra Pound, A WALKING TOUR IN SOUTHERN FRANCE.
Ivan Turgenev, A SPORTSMAN’S SKETCHES.
Henry James, both ITALIAN HOURS and ENGLISH HOURS.
Of course, the various Basho “poetic diaries.”

MERRILL GILFILLAN was born in Ohio in 1945. After a number of years in NYC, he moved to the American West in 1980. He now lives in Colorado. Recent books include Undanceable and The Bark of the Dog (poems) and The Warbler Road (essays). Read his story in N11 here.

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