Smile Politely

PygLit every bit: with Mark Neely

In such a cultured and diverse community, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that a of lot talent comes out of this place. Take Mark Neely for example — Neely is both a University of Illinois Laboratory High School and University of Illinois alumnus and author of the 2011 FIELD Poetry Prize winner Beasts of the Hill. Fortunately, the Pygmalion Festival and Smile Politely recognize and support this talent. 

Beasts of the Hill is well deserving of its critical acclaim; it is a powerful collection of poems that tell of loss and love in the Midwest.  In a word, Neely describes its publication process as “long,” but it was this lengthy process that allowed him to discover the unique format of this book. 

Beasts of the Hill started as his MFA thesis, which was completed in 2002, however, when the manuscript was finally finished around 2010, only three poems from the original thesis remained. “Though I didn’t know it at the time, most of the writing in the thesis was really apprentice work — written while I was still figuring out what a poem could be,” Neely said. “I continued writing new poems and taking out weaker ones over a period of years. Finding the four-section ‘windowpane’ form that makes up a third of the book was an important breakthrough.”

One of these “windowpane” poems, “Four Lanes,” is one of Neely’s favorites. “To me it’s one of the most successful of the windowpane poems — it takes advantage of the circular nature of the form, and also gets a lot of movement into what can be a very rigid and constrictive structure” Neely explained. “And it connects to many of the major concerns of the book.”

His other work includes Dirty Bomb and the award-winning chapbook Four of a Kind.

After receiving a BA from Illinois, he went on to receive an MFA from the University of Alabama, where he was the poetry editor of the literary magazine, Black Warrior Review. Neely is currently an associate professor at Ball State University, teaching undergraduate and graduate classes that focus on literary editing and poetry writing.

“I love working at Ball State,” Neely said. “I don’t assign my own poems for students to read, but I love talking with students about poets I love reading.” Although I can personally respect the fact that he is not one of those professors, I know I would have loved for his work to be assigned in some of my English classes here.

Mark’s reading will be held at Krannert Art Museum, and campus residents may have noticed the street pole banners displaying a bullet going through an apple. Interestingly enough, “Bullet Through Apple” by Harold Edgerton, which was once featured at the museum’s “Blown Away” exhibition, is the cover image of Neely’s Dirty Bomb.

“It’s such a beautiful, disturbing image,” Neely explained. “To me it represents the collision of the ordinary, domestic world with the violence of the 20th and 21th centuries. The religious connotations of the apple also reflect some of the book’s subject matter.”

For Neely, Lit Fest will be a reunion of sorts. “I’m looking forward to seeing family and friends in town, and also writer friends who will be coming from far and wide, he said. “There’s such a great lineup of readers — I’m looking forward to hearing everyone.”

As well as hearing other writers, he is also excited to check out the music. “When I was in college, I was very into the Champaign music scene — going to see bands like Titanic Love Affair, Hum, Milo, Corndolly (and many others) and playing briefly in a C-U band called Sidecar Racers,” Neely said. “To sneak in to Pygmalion on the Lit side is a dream come true.” 

Neely will appear as part of the Pygmalion Opening Ceremony on Wednesday, September 23rd from 7:30-8 p.m. at Krannert Art Museum, located at 500 E. Peabody Dr. in Champaign, and is free to the public. 

The full lineup for Wednesday’s event is as follows: 

Lit | Reading by Russell Evatt at 6:30pm

Lit | Reading by Jaime Brunton at 7pm

Lit | Reading by Mark Neely at 7:30pm

Music | Big Scary at 8:30pm

Music | Feral States at 10pm

Author photo provided by Mark Neely

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