ASFA-CW Seniors Interview Poet Mark Neely

Neely_photoSMALLIn a new feature on the ASFA-CW “News + Notes” blog, the editorial staff of Cadence, our award-winning school literary magazine, will conduct interviews of various writerly luminaries — including (but not necessarily limited to) all our visiting writers. In preparation for this Friday evening’s Ron Casey Reading at ASFA, the staff (a.k.a., the ASFA-CW seniors) has been reading the latest poetry collections penned by our visitors — Lauren Goodwin Slaughter and Mark Neely — who both graciously responded in-depth to a few of our questions about their fine work.

If you missed it, here’s our interview with Lauren. Up next, we have Mark Neely. Mark is the author of Beasts of the Hill and Dirty Bomb, both from Oberlin College Press. His awards include an NEA poetry fellowship, an Indiana Individual Artist grant, the FIELD Poetry Prize, and the Concrete Wolf Press chapbook award for Four of a Kind. His poems have appeared in Gulf Coast, Indiana Review, Boulevard, Salt Hill, Willow Springs, and elsewhere. He teaches at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where he lives with his wife — writer Jill Christman — and their two children.

Poet Peter Campion writes of Mark’s work: “If James Wright had grown up listening to R.E.M. and watching “Twin Peaks,” he might have written the gorgeously disappointed and disturbingly glorious poems in Mark Neely’s Dirty Bomb. Neely renders contemporary America from the inside out. And while this rendering begins in collective nightmare, there’s redemption enough in Neely’s humor, his sheer inventiveness, and the deep sympathy with which he treats his subjects.” 

Here’s the interview (Cadence staff questions in bold):

Maybe our favorite and most relatable section in your book of collected poems is The South. What persuaded you to write the poems in that section? (A related question: What drew you to writing about the South in Dirty Bomb​?) 

I’m glad you liked that section! When I was arranging the manuscript, I had a few poems—“The South,” “After a Football Game,” for example—that were set in Alabama, where I lived for a while around the turn of the century. But I was also thinking about the South as a metaphor for loss and decay—think of the phrase “things have gone south.” So some of the poems in that section (“Odds,” and “I jump down from my soapbox”) are elegies. In “Painter” and “Those Who Favor Fire” those two notions come together—both elegies, both Southern.

What did you have in mind when you came up with the title (Dirty Bomb)? What relation do you want your readers to see between it and the collection as a whole?

Part of what these poems chronicle is the constant “War on Terror” we find ourselves engaged in, and the anxiety and madness of being involved in a never-ending, unwinnable “war.” The idea of a dirty bomb is often proposed as a kind of worst case scenario—the most horrific type of terrorist attack imaginable. The media giddily reports on such a possibility to keep us tuned in, and the government gladly feeds us these terrible visions to keep us frightened enough so that we acquiesce when our civil liberties are stripped away, when Syrian refugees are denied entry to certain states, etc.

Another theme/ repetition/ obsession of the book is the environmental crisis—global warming, water shortages, oil spills, extinctions, and on and on. The title seems appropriate for those aspects of the poems because I think of the human race as a kind of dirty bomb that has exploded on the planet.

And the book also has a lot of poems about love and intimate relationships—the words “dirty” and “bomb” both have connotations there as well. So I guess I like the title because it connects with all the obsessions of the book.

There are a lot of cultural references in your poetry—for example, in “I jump down from my soapbox,” you mention Jeff Tweedy and The Master and Margarita. How much of an influence do music/books/movies have on your writing process?

I think the more I write the more I try to let everything into my poetry. “I jump down from my soapbox” is a good example because in my late teens/early twenties, which I recall in the poem, The Master and Margarita completely expanded my notions of what a novel could be. At the same time Uncle Tupelo was revolutionizing the idea of country music. And Jay Bennett and his band Titanic Love Affair were rocking the heck out of Champaign, Illinois, where I was living. So those things just naturally found their way into the writing.

Did you purposefully title most poems with their first line, while leaving a very few with unique titles? Was it nod to those specific poems for the reader to pay more attention to?

I started using the first lines of poems as titles for two reasons. 1) I felt like my titles weren’t that great, so it was a way of cheating, skipping that step of the process; and 2) it forced me to work as hard as I could to make the first lines interesting/ catchy/ intriguing/ etc.

But then I found myself wanting to title certain poems that I thought really needed some additional framing or had an interesting leap between the title and the first line. I think in the end most of the poems with punctuation have distinct titles, and most of the non-punctuated poems simply use the first line.

Who is the most influential poet for you?

James Wright and Elizabeth Bishop were the first poets I fell in love with. For years I tried to imitate everything they did. Hopefully as I read more and more widely, their influence became less obvious, though I still see it everywhere.

How did you get your start in writing and was it difficult for you to continue with it throughout the years?

I’ve loved to read since I was little and I started writing poems somewhat regularly in high school. The first poem I remember writing was for an English class. We had the option of writing an essay about The Great Gatsby, or writing a “creative response” like a poem or a story. I thought, well, a poem is a lot shorter than an essay, maybe I’ll give that a try!

As far as the “difficult to continue” part of your question, yes and no. It’s difficult to practice an art that is virtually ignored by the culture. But it’s also liberating to have this major part of my life that is at least partly removed from the consumerism that dominates most of American life. And, when I’m lost in the writing, somewhat removed from the social media/ communications/ information tsunami that is contemporary life.

It has been difficult at times to deal with having poems and book manuscripts rejected over and over, and difficult to fail again and again the hundreds (probably thousands) of times when I couldn’t get a poem to do what I wanted it to do.

But the hours spent writing have been some of the most interesting and fulfilling hours of my life. And because I write I’ve met so many fascinating, talented, entertaining and generous people, people I never would have crossed paths with otherwise. That’s the weird paradox of being a writer. The two best things about it are opposites. Part of it is sitting alone in a room, the other part is this incredible social engagement.

The Cadence staff consists of co-editors Lucy Jones and Madeline Pratt and grade-level editors Olivia Bowles, Mary Alice Hughes, Annabeth Mellon, Aeryn Morrison-Alexander, Lydia Oliver, Challen Palmer, and Carly Pappas. The Ron Casey Reading Series was established at ASFA by a generous gift from the family and friends of Mr. Casey, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer and editorial page editor at the Birmingham News. Mr. Casey dedicated his life to using the written word to educate others and inspire a more humane, more critically aware society. All Casey readings are free and open to the public.

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