ALMA — One of the few “good things” to come from the COVID-19 pandemic, said Robert Vivian, was an increased emphasis on being outside.
For Vivian, a writer and professor of English at Alma College, that meant more time pursuing his longtime obsession of fly fishing — the same obsession that fueled his new book, “All I Feel is Rivers: Dervish Essays,” published in March through the University of Nebraska Press.
“Fly fishing on the rivers of Michigan is really the only time that things seem to make sense anymore,” Vivian said. “The essays figure into that. They touch on everyday beauty in the natural world. I experience them more than I understand them.”
“Dervish essays,” Vivian explained, are a type of prose poetry he has helped to pioneer, deeply shaped by his experiences living and teaching in Turkey. Through a connection at Alma College, Vivian has taught several courses at a state university in Samsun, a city on the Black Sea, which has in turn inspired his own writing.
“While there, I took part in a panel discussion extolling the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, when I could tell that a friend of mine was getting upset,” Vivian said. “He said, ‘(Pamuk) is not a Turkish novelist, he writes like a Westerner.’ I asked him, ‘What would a Turkish novel look like?’ He replied, ‘It would float like a butterfly.’
“The second he said that,” Vivian continued, “I decided I was done writing dark novels. As a Westerner, I had fallen into this expectation of what a novel should be. He exploded that for me.”
Vivian was specifically inspired to pursue what he calls “dervish” writing after becoming interested in Rumi, the 13th century Sufi mystic, poet, and founder of the religious order that performs the dervish dance. Dervish writing, Vivian said, attempts to reflect the dynamic movements of the dance with an ecstatic lyricism, spoken with an urgent cadence.
“They are written out as if they are essays, but a lot of people who read them and hear them say they are poems,” Vivian said. “They look like prose on the page, but they are pretty intense and short. They’re less about intellectual meaning than a kind of expression.”
Vivian, a member of the Alma College English faculty since 2001, is the author of 10 books and numerous short stories, articles, plays, essays and poems. He said his latest effort feels like the “culmination” of a feeling he has wanted to express for some time, but hadn’t found the path to do so until now.
“This is probably the truest kind of writing I’ve ever done, for good or ill,” Vivian said. “This is the real person behind the words. I call them my love letters to the world. If I go tomorrow — I’m not a bestselling writer, and that’s OK. These make me happy.”
“All I Feel is Rivers: Dervish Essays,” is available on Amazon.