February 17, 2015

Writing poetry means often means working into the wee hours in solitude for Ball State English professor Mark Neely. His words often flow from the pen to paper only to be ripped apart as he revises the work time after time.

Mark Neely

English professor Mark Neely will use a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to work on a collection of poems about a man navigating the digital age.

After years of polishing his craft, Neely’s labors have received major recognition from the National Endowment for the Arts.

He is one of 36 people whose work earned a Creative Writing Fellowship after the NEA reviewed more than 1,600 manuscripts. The fellowship's $25,000 award allows published writers to set aside time for writing, research, travel, and career advancement.

"The award means a lot because writing poems can be a lonely business," says Neely. "All the time I spend fiddling with words is one of my greatest pleasures, but a bit of despair does creep in on occasion. Mostly, it’s the thought that those solitary hours might come to nothing.

"Knowing poems I wrote, rewrote, and fretted over rose from a mountain of worthy work and caught the attention of the panelists – whose poems I have been reading and admiring for years – is incredibly gratifying."

Supporting Dirty Bomb

Through 2017, Neely plans to use funds from the grant to continue working on his current manuscript, tentatively titled Bruce Furious, a collection of poems revolving around a central character named Bruce as he navigates the dizzying world of the digital age.

He also plans to take time to support Dirty Bomb, his latest book due out in the spring from Oberlin College Press. The poetry collection looks at life in 21st century America, particularly the juxtaposition of intimate human relationships with the politics and violence of U.S. militarism, terrorism, and the threat of environmental apocalypse.

"Oil tankers leak, atrocities play out across the Internet, and the present always drags the past into the future," says David Walker, editor of the Oberlin College Press.

"Yet Neely’s piercing intelligence and dry wit keep the poems light on their feet and unexpected in their perceptions. Angry, baffled, moon-drunk, and visionary, these poems chart the promise and the danger of America in fresh and memorable ways."

Field Poetry Prize tops Neely's other recognitions

Beasts of the Hill

English professor Mark Neely's first book, Beasts of the Hill, won the Field Poetry Prize.

Neely says it’s particularly gratifying that his writing sample for the NEA grant was made up of poems from Dirty Bomb.

The NEA grant isn’t Neely’s first major recognition.

His first book, Beasts of the Hill, won the Field Poetry Prize, given to one poet writing in English each year, and as a result, it was published by Oberlin College Press in 2012.

His poems also have appeared in such publications as Gulf Coast, Indiana Review, Boulevard, Sonora Review, and Barrow Street.

It started with nursery rhymes

Like many poets, Neely first fell in love with words as a youngster.

"I've always loved the sounds of words – going back to the time of childhood nursery rhymes and Dr. Seuss. I began writing poetry in high school but then fell in love with poetry in college when I found the work of James Wright, Elizabeth Bishop, and Theodore Roethke, among others. These were writers who showed me that poetry could be funny, strange, heartbreaking, exhilarating, and life-changing.

"Unlike movies or music or even fiction, poetry had a kind of rebellious purity. The people who wrote and published it didn't seem to care about making money, which seemed like a pretty exciting and unique thing in this culture."