Stories & Beer | Saturday, April 14 | 3 p.m. | The Iron Post | FREE
Mark Neely belongs to an ever-growing group of writers who have grown up in Champaign and gone on to find success in the literary world. Though Neely is just embarking on a very promising career as a professor and a poet, his early success has been impressive to say the least. His chapbook, Four of a Kind, won the 2010 Concrete Wolf contest and is, moreover, a triumph of form: each poem consists of four blocks that, as S&B friend Chris Newgent points out, "seem to have the shape of a window, or the negative space of a crucifix." Just this year, Neely's full length manuscript, Beasts of the Hill, was the newest addition to the prestigious FIELD Poetry Series. For reasons beyond my comprehension, Mark agreed to read at Stories & Beer this Friday. We're super-stoked to have him, and I'm sure after reading a little about him below, you'll be super-stoked to come see him do his thing.
Smile Politely: You're a great example of a local Champaign boy done good. You grew up on Elm Street, attended Uni High, then moved on to Illinois for your undergrad before moving for grad school. You've since gone on to publish rather prolifically, and your manuscript, Beasts of the Hill, just recently won the FIELD Poetry Prize. Amid all of your success, how have you come to look back at your hometown?
Mark Neely: I lived in Champaign or Urbana for the first 22 years of my life, and after college I was desperate to get out of there. After that, I lived in Cincinnati, Chicago, Philadelphia, then Tuscaloosa, Alabama for grad school. But C-U never got out of my head. I found myself in the deep south writing poems about soybeans and Trans Am's circling green street (not sure if they do this anymore) and the Kraft factory. My work definitely has a strong Midwestern aesthetic. At times, I’m writing about the desire for community in conflict with the desire for freedom and individuality. Midwesterners (especially in a semi-rural place like Champaign) seem more attentive to minor details, subtle shifts, small slights.
Nowadays I’m very nostalgic about C-U. A short list: Space Port (gone) and Aladdin’s Castle (gone). Spalding Pool. The Centennial sledding hill. Sunday pickup football and baseball at Eisner Park. Garcia’s and Papa Del’s. Zorbas (gone). The Thunderbird (gone?). Seeing bands like Titanic Love Affair and Milo at The Blind Pig (gone — maybe back?) and Trinos (gone). Pages for All Ages (gone). Lord, I guess things change. But I love coming back to Champaign now. My parents and sister still live there so I visit often. It’s really grown up since 1994.
SP: Oh man. I have bad news for you regarding Spalding Pool. Just in reading your response here, I'm struck by how strange it is to watch a town change over time. I remember most of those places, and each of them seem(ed) like such staples, like they could never go away. Are there any places you plan to stop by when you come to read for Stories & Beer this Saturday?
Neely: I'm just making a quick trip this time, so I won't have time to do much. I might hang out at Hessel Park on Sunday with my kids and my cool nephew. And maybe eat dinner at Ko-Fusion. I used to work at Janet's other restaurant, Miko, when I lived in Urbana. Allerton Park and the disgustingly beautiful student lounge at Uni should probably also be on my nostalgia list.
SP: How did your time at Illinois influence you as a writer? Were there any professors who had a significant impact on you/your work?
Neely: I took writing classes in college from Brigit Kelly and Mike Madonick and Michael Van Walleghen (who retired a few years ago). All of them were amazing and influential. They taught me to read poetry and maybe more importantly, to love poetry. Brigit taught me about care and patience and mystery and song and introduced me to Elizabeth Bishop. I have a clear memory of Michael Van Walleghen reading “In a Dark Time,” by Theodore Roethke aloud in class one day and being blown away. So blown away that 20 years later I stole part of a line from that poem (“Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den”) for the title of my first book.
I had a summer class with Mike and there were only about five people in it and we met in his office. He was the first person who was a little tough on my work, which I needed. Some teachers are hard on students’ work because they are mean-spirited and want to tear everyone else down. But I knew immediately that Mike’s toughness came out of generosity. That’s a rare and amazing quality. Also, he kept me after class one day and read me "In Response to a Rumor..." by James Wright. I bought his Collected Poems the next day and have been a James Wright fanatic ever since.
I also was fortunate to have some incredible literature professors like Jan Hinely (for a Shakespeare class) and Michael Berube (for Twentieth-Century American).
SP: Mike and Brigit are the best. In fact when I told Mike you were coming to read for S&B, he told me that you were way above our pay grade. Are you starting to feel like a big shot with the success of Beasts?
Neely: I don't think the words "poet" and "pay grade" can technically be used in the same sentence. As George once said on Seinfeld, poets don't need unlisted numbers. And any poet who feels like he or she is a big shot should probably be taken out back and put out of his or her misery. But I am excited and happy about Beasts of the Hill. I spent seven years working on those poems, so it means a lot to me that the editors at Oberlin College Press believed in them. And I couldn’t be prouder to have the book coming out from Oberlin — they’ve been publishing for over 30 years and have put out a lot of books I love.
SP: Okay, my final and most important question: of late, there has been a faction rising up in the Champaign-Urbana area that denies the greatness of Jarling's Custard Cup. As a townie who has been to many places, and presumably, eaten a variety of different custards and cold dairy treats, how does Jarling's measure up?
Neely: Custard Cup will always be number one in my heart. I'm sure this "faction" you speak of has been brainwashed by the lies and obfuscations of the frozen yogurt lobby. When I was a kid there used to be a little store called "The Nutty Nut Shop" attached to (or inside?) Custard Cup. It's long gone of course. It turns out most people didn't need a store specifically for nuts and nut-related products.