Half Falling, Half in Flight: A Conversation with Mark Neely
part of our Emerging Poets Interview Series
by Eric Higgins
Mark Neely’s first book, Beasts of the Hill, won the FIELD Poetry Prize and was published by Oberlin College Press. He is also the author of a chapbook, Four of a Kind, which won the Concrete Wolf chapbook contest. His poems have appeared in Gulf Coast, Barrow Street, Indiana Review, Boulevard, and elsewhere. He directs the Creative Writing Program at Ball State University. Read two poems by Mark Neely.
Eric Higgins: Before we talk much about the disciplined yet formally daring poems in Beasts of the Hill, those who aren’t familiar with the poems might benefit from an overview.
The book contains two primary structures. One is what I’m calling the four-of-a-kind poems. These poems (“Four Wheels,” “Four Names,” “Four Blues,” “Four Falls,” etc.) are arranged in a square, occupying four frames on the page. Each frame, or quadrant, contains a brief narrative—a prose poem—that represents a variation on the theme alluded to in the title.
The second primary structure is a lyrical poem. These are often about 12 lines each, and these lyrics are paired, and the pair is interspersed between the four-of-a-kind poems. There are a few substitutions wherein, rather than a pair of lyrics, a two-page poem appears instead. But, basically, you’ve given us a stable spatial organization of one four-of-a-kind poem followed by two pages of poetry in a different (but mostly consistent) form.
I’ll ask more about the four-of-a-kind poems in a minute, but was there something in that length of about 24 aggregated lines that appealed to you? Did it provide the right amount of, I don’t know, breathing room between the much longer four-of-a-kind poems?
Mark Neely: The four-of-a-kind poems are fairly dense, so I definitely wanted some shorter, sparser poems in between. As a reader, I always like to take a breath after a longish poem, so I took that into account when ordering the manuscript.
Also, I intentionally put two pages between each prose poem (either a two-pager or two short lyrics) so that a publisher could print the four-of-a-kind poems across a spread (column one on the verso, column two on the recto), which would allow for a standard-size book. Fortunately, Oberlin decided to make the book a little wider so these poems could appear on one page, which encourages the kind of reading I talk about in a later question.
Most of the shorter poems are 12-18 lines, basically sonnet-sized. Some of these are sonnets (“Cardinal,” for example), and others are ruined sonnets where maybe the rhymes have been perverted (“Song”), or the concluding couplet has either come two lines too early (“Self-portrait with Straw Hat”) or been torn off (“The Book of Paradise”).
And there are also some longer more rambling poems like “Notes from a Tuesday Traffic Jam” and “I Pick a Fist-Fight with the Sky.” The line is one of my favorite things about writing poetry, so I didn’t want to give myself entirely over to the prose poem and give up the energy and surprise of a well-crafted line.
EH: Because of its four-of-a-kinds, the 12-line poems, and the abecedarian “Einstein’s Alphabet,” the book seems guided by a mathematical (though non-metrical) formalism rather than a narrative progression. But just when I think that, I encounter the brief, self-contained narratives in the four-of-a-kind poems. This balancing act (or is it a seesawing act?) between mathematical formalism and narrative—the kind we see here in “Four Falls”—what about the poems made that blend so necessary for you?
The royal sky (only maples with their
Garage roof, bike ramp, the high
Mist speckles my face like lice from
Late at night the screen goes purple
MN: I love the “mathematical” aspects of poetry. Form is where the poem begins for me. The first things on my mind are usually musical or formal. I rarely begin with a narrative in mind; instead, I start with a phrase or a rhythm or even a rhyme. You know Frost’s saying about a poem beginning in delight—form and music is where the delight begins for me.
The abecedarian, the four-section poems, the sonnets, the quatrains, the tercets—all these are methods for the arrangement of language, of drawing the eye and ear to certain words or phrases, or of separating or juxtaposing words and phrases in a way. Readers associate certain things with each of these, and bring certain expectations to each. In the abecedarian, for example, a question I might ask as a reader is, “What’s he going to do when he gets to that wxyz sequence? How will he navigate that?” The beginning of an abecedarian is simple. There are millions of possibilities, but you get down to x and the possibilities are severely limited—not only because there are so few words that begin with x, but also because of the limits imposed by the earlier choices and the narrative those early lines set up.
One reason I find the four-of-a-kind poems appealing is that they are in one sense very loose—because they are prose poems—but in another sense formally strict, because the prose blocks have to be a very specific length. The four sections allowed me to go back and forth between lyrical or meditative sections and more narrative sections in the same poem.
EH: I wonder if you’re onto a new form here. As you were drafting and revising this manuscript, what did you call these four-of-a-kind poems and the interludes? What shorthand terminology did you use at readings or when explaining the shape of the manuscript to friends?
MN: The first four-of-a-kind poem I wrote was called “Four Panes” (which I eventually abandoned), and I originally conceived of these as “window” poems, but I think the form works differently depending on the subject of the poem. In the poem “Four Fields,” for example, one might conceive of the white space of the poem as a crossroads, and the text as the surrounding fields. The white space also forms a cross, of course. I also think of these as flags.
EH: Some jostling and rewarding moments occur when I read the line of one quadrant and continue across the page to the adjacent quadrant. There are lots of those moments here in the opening of “Four Furies,” for instance.
|Out from the poles these furies fly and
boil the ice into oceans. Meanwhile
I’m buying shoes, my feet propped on
|The elders rough me up and drag me
through woods as dark as buried
Also, a related jarring pleasure appears in “Four Fields:”
|Those locust trees could hiss like
snakes, then still to painted leaves—
the wind playing with its paper toys.
|Most summer nights I sat on the barn
roof at dusk as the dog ran rodents
The fact that these passages can be read across the line but also as discrete units (as part of the quadrants), does that imply an anxiety about, or a reluctance toward, the surrealist gesture of collage?
MN: This form was intriguing to me because it leads to interesting readings like the one you’re doing here. Many of the four-of-a-kind poems have an element of collage because they take four often disparate sections and place them on the same canvas. One reason the sections are left and right justified, and of equal length, is so they have the shape of a painter’s canvas.
EH: How do you, in the privacy of your own home, prefer to read these poems? Do you read them sideways across the page from left to right? Do you read each quadrant as a distinct unity, perhaps beginning clockwise or counter-clockwise?
MN: The form of these poems is meant to gently disturb the reading process. I hope that people will look at them in different orders. I’m guessing most people read these in columns (like reading a newspaper) or from left to right.
With this in mind, the top left section usually functions as the beginning of the poem, and the bottom right section as the end. When I read these aloud, I read the sections in different orders. Sometimes I just read one section as a stand-alone poem. The versatility of this form appealed to me, and I tried to exploit it. So, a poem like “Four Years” is a linear narrative over the course of four years, “Four Names” is a group of four meditations on the theme of naming, and poems like “Four Falls” or “Four Moons” are essentially four separate poems related to the noun in the title.
EH: I imagine there are literary forebears but also similarly-minded visual artists and designers whose work impressed upon you the appeal of quadrants. To which poetic and visual lineages would you say the book belongs?
MN: It seems to me the number three is more common than four in art and literature. The triptych in visual art; the tripartite structure of odes and many other kinds of poems (everything from Beowulf to Howl). Whereas three is a powerful number because of its imbalance (think love triangle), four is powerful because of its symmetry (think double date). My teacher Bruce Smith called the four-of-a-kind poems “triptychs plus one.”
There are four states of matter, directions, quarters in a game, chambers of the heart, gospels, etc. And four-letter words of course, which I occasionally deploy in my poems and in my daily life. I wanted these common groupings of four to create interesting resonances in the poems, even though I mostly avoided writing poems directly related to these common sets of four.
So there is no poem called “Four Directions” (although “Four Lanes” is based on the cardinal directions) and no poem called “Four Gospels” (although a reader might think of the gospels when reading “Four Names”). The word four’s homophonic nature also allows for the pun in the title of “Four Fathers,” and of course the “four bears” pun in your question!
EH: Some of these poems were part of a chapbook, Four of a Kind. Can you talk about that migration? Were there considerations you took up while constructing the longer collection that you were able to maybe put aside when assembling the shorter work (and vice versa)?
MN: It took a long time to find a home for this manuscript. At one point I took a group of the four-of-a-kind poems and put them together in a chapbook manuscript and sent them out with the thought that even if I had to give up on the complete manuscript, I’d like to get some of the prose poems (many of which had been in magazines) together under one cover.
Looking back, I can see that revising and editing the poems for the chapbook made the whole manuscript stronger, and also gave me the confidence to keep sending it out.
EH: To introduce a gross generalization: there seems to be a prevailing wind in certain first books of contemporary American poetry to almost novelize a world of recurring characters. Does Beasts of the Hill participate in that undertaking? In your view, does it build that type of collection-length arc, or is it occupied with building something else?
MN: I think the trend towards first books with a narrative arc, recurring characters, or a central subject has to do with several things. It’s partly the influence of some very good poetry based on this model—Maurice Manning’s Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions, Louise Gluck’s Meadowlands, Vasko Popa’s “little box” series, Zbignew Herbert’s “Mr. Cogito,” etc.
Beasts of the Hill does have something of a central speaker, and a few recurring characters, but it doesn’t really function like the works I mention above. Like the four-of-a-kind poems, the book itself could be read in various orders, although I did put a lot of thought into ordering the manuscript.
I think the trend you’re talking about also has something to do with the absolute glut of poetry manuscripts being sent in to publishers and poetry contests. Some of these contests are getting over a thousand manuscripts a year. A “concept” collection with a hook might do a better job fighting its way out of the slush.
And it’s also the result of the incalculable influence of John Berryman on contemporary poetry. Everyone wants to invent his or her own Henry.
Eric Higgins has poems appearing in or forthcoming from Barrow Street, Prairie Schooner, Guernica, Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. A recent Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the recipient of a Vermont Studio Center fellowship, he holds a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston, where he was awarded the Inprint Verlaine Prize in Poetry. (11/2013)