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Andrew Merton. Courtesy photos.




Meet Andrew Merton

Gibson’s Bookstore: 45 S. Main St., Concord, Thursday, Feb. 4, at 5:30 p.m.
Water Street Bookstore: 125 Water St., Exeter, Wednesday, Feb. 10, at 6:30 p.m.
Contact: andrewmertonpoetry.com




Role reversals
Andrew Merton on poetry, teaching and retirement

01/28/16
By Kelly Sennott ksennott@hippopress.com



 I recently met with Andrew Merton at the Gibson’s Bookstore cafe to talk about his new book of poetry, Lost and Found. The timing was right — Jan. 28 is the 30th anniversary of the Challenger explosion, the event that inspired the book’s title poem.

Merton, who ended his 43-year reign at UNH last spring,  was my writing teacher when I was a student there. He comes across current and former students all the time, he said, and in fact had recently met up with another UNH journalism alum when The Portland Press Herald covered his book’s release. He still visits the campus all the time to see former colleagues and take piano lessons from music school students.
“As you get older, you start having role reversals with your students,” Merton said, sipping his coffee — sugar, no milk.
The first time this happened was in the late ’70s, when he submitted a story to Esquire about how badly Dartmouth fraternities were treating women, exposing everything from harassment to rape. UNH alum Marilyn Johnson was the magazine’s assistant editor at the time, and she circulated the article around before getting back to him via phone.
“Everyone likes this. And I think we’re going to take it. There’s just one thing,” Johnson had said to him.
“What’s that?”
“Do you remember that A- you gave me? In the magazine writing course?”
In the late ‘80s, he learned that another UNH alum, Barbara Walsh, won the Pulitzer Prize. At first, her face escaped him, but when he rifled through his old gradebook, he found he’d given her an F for turning in her final portfolio 10 days too late. It’s a story Walsh still jokes about whenever she’s interviewed.
“At this point, I felt like one of Einstein’s early math teachers — he’d flunked math,” Merton said.
While Merton said he doesn’t miss the classroom, he does miss the students and in-person conferences. He makes a point to keep in touch with former colleagues and meet for “chair therapy” sessions with his English Department Chair successor Rachel Trubowitz once a month.
But retirement still hasn’t hit him, and he’s remained busy with Lost and Found, which was released mid-January. (His first book of poetry, Evidence that We Are Descended from Chairs, was published three years ago and won Outstanding Book of Poetry for 2013-2014 by the New Hampshire Writers’ Project.)
“I’d published in poetry journals, but actually, the book makes a huge difference. That was one of the biggest thrills of my life, getting a book of poetry published,” Merton said.
This latest work contains 61 autobiographical poems, spanning conception to life beyond the grave, realism to surrealism. Some are brand-new, and some, like “Lost and Found,” have been stewing for decades. He wrote the latter just after the explosion in 1986. Christa McAuliffe’s launch into space had been a very big deal, and while Merton watched at home, his son saw the disaster live on the TV at school.
Another poem, “Relic,” looks back to Merton’s life as a bass guitarist in a rock band called the Checkmates, tackling the time he met a musician who swore the pick he spent $10 for was pulled from Buddy Holly’s dead fingers. Other pieces cover childhood, doubt, failure, divorce, anniversaries, abortion, chemo and losing loved ones.
Spotted between serious subjects are playfulness and humor. “Of Moose and Seuss” is dedicated to his first writerly influence, Dr. Seuss, whose Thidwick: The Big-Hearted Moose changed Merton’s perception of unwanted burdens forever. “Lesson,” written after retirement, is a short piece in which thoughts of his high school crush intrude a lesson he’s giving in class.
“See, you never know what’s going through your professor’s head!” Merton said. “It’s the only one I wrote about teaching, but it’s completely off the wall.”
Merton credits the strong UNH poetry faculty — he mentioned Charles Simic, Mekeel McBride and, later David Rivard — for his entrance into the poetry world. The first two provided important guidance and support, especially in the beginning. Merton remembers plucking up the courage to ask McBride if he could sit in on her graduate poetry workshop in 1985.
At the time, his article “Return to Brotherhood” for Ms. magazine received enormous acclaim. It was another critical piece about college fraternities in America, and media personality Phil Donahue invited him to be on the show. Merton flew to New York, was chauffeured to and from the airport and studio via a limousine and returned to Durham just in time for class.
“I sat down in the little classroom and a wonderful sense of peace came over me. I took a breath for the first time in two days, and I thought, this is where I belong. That was an important moment for me. I knew then that I would probably write poetry for the rest of my life,” Merton said. 





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