Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed poet Richard Merli about his career, what motivates him, his new poetry collection, The Light Of Ancient Stars, and the advice he has to inspire others.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
I’m Richard Merli, poet, novelist, and editor. Following a long career as an investigative journalist and editor, I began my journey to become a poet and novelist. My first poetry collection, The Light of Ancient Stars, was published simultaneously in Denmark and the U.S. in April 2021. My first novel, The Animals, will soon be published in the U.S. And I’m beginning my fifth year as editorial director of a quarterly literary publication I created, October Hill Magazine.
When did you first WANT to write poetry?
I believe I always wanted to write poetry. I loved the symmetry and rhyme of words. It was like magic. I loved poetry from the moment I heard Robert Frost read at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy.
When did you take a step to start writing poetry?
I first attempted to write poetry in my teen years. I was a rather shy, introverted person in those years. I was drawn to poetry. So, I read a great deal of poetry in high school and college. But I knew very little about the craft of writing poetry back then. I believe I began to improve at writing poetry in my early 20’s.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
Not long at all. I had already written scores of poems. It was more a question of going back and selecting what I believed were the most impactful poems from among the hundreds I had written.
Focusing on your latest release, what made you want to write The Light Of Ancient Stars?
I believed that I had made enough strides as a writer that I wanted to publish some of my better works as part of a collection. I believe we all write poetry for our own satisfaction. But I also believe that most of us would like to share our works with friends, other poets, and the reading public.
What were your biggest challenges with writing The Light Of Ancient Stars?
I think the biggest challenge was writing and choosing poetic subject matter people could understand and relate to – not necessarily like. The works had to illuminate some aspect of nature or the natural world. They had to explore experiences in my own life which had a more universal relevance among people. Or the works had to acknowledge the lives of significant historical figures.
Do you keep to a theme with your poems, or just go where the mood strikes?
I often write when I feel inspired or challenged. I have to feel strongly about subject matter before I can write about it. My themes generally fall within three subject categories: Poems of the natural world and natural phenomenon; poems from my own interior landscapes, or past; and poems about controversial people or historical figures, from General Pinochet to Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
What is your favorite poem in The Light Of Ancient Stars about and what inspired it?
“Dietrich Bonhoeffer.” Bonhoeffer’s life in Nazi Germany inspired it. One of the most heroic men who ever lived – a theologian, a humanist, and possibly a spy, who frequently risked his own life and took to the airwaves to rail against the inhumanity of Nazism and Nazis. He was hanged two weeks before the Allies liberated Berlin.
Does music help you write, or is it a distraction?
Music frequently inspires me to think about interesting subject matter. But I cannot listen to it while I write. It is a distraction.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did The Light Of Ancient Stars need?
My editor in Denmark, Martha Elias, did a wonderful job of reviewing my manuscript and of clarifying the meaning of certain words and phrases to make certain that they would come across as intended. She also translated my work from English into Danish. Kudos to Martha!
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write poetry?
First of all, if you feel inspired to write poetry, you must write it. You must feel a sense of passion about what you are writing. Most of all, you must believe in yourself and believe that you have something important to say. Never doubt yourself. You may suffer setbacks and rejections along the way, but make a commitment to learn your craft, read the great poets, and never stop trying to improve yourself.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
I’m hoping to publish a second collection of new poetry by next summer. I’m just not certain yet which poems will appear in it.
And, finally, are you proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
I’m extremely proud of my accomplishment. Quite honestly, growing up, I had no idea that I’d ever be a published poet. It has taken a lot of hard work. But it was worth every effort. So, for the past four-plus years, I’ve committed myself to helping other young, aspiring poets publish their works in my magazine, October Hill.