How often had you sent out Beasts of the Hill before it was chosen for the 2011 FIELD Poetry Prize?
I began sending out a version years before it was published—it was a finalist for a contest as early as 2004. But the manuscript has changed drastically since them, and I think it was fortunate that earlier version wasn’t picked up by anyone—I’m much happier with what it became. In its final form, Beasts of the Hill circulated for about two years before it was chosen for the FIELD Prize.
Tell me about the title. Had it always been Beasts of the Hill? Did it go through any other changes?
The earlier version was called Dogs of Indiana, which was also the title of one of the poems. I abandoned it when I cut that poem from the manuscript. Beasts of the Hill comes from a poem I love, Theodore Roethke’s “In a Dark Time”: “I live between the heron and the wren / Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.”
It seems like there’s a possible misconception among some poets who are trying to get their first book published: that they must win a contest. Were you concerned about winning a contest at any point? What advice would you give to poets sending their book out now regarding contests versus open reading periods?
When I started thinking about publishing a book, it seemed like contests were virtually the only to get a first book published. Even now, a lot of publishers still won’t look at first books. But I sent to open reading periods when it was an option. My rule was, will I be proud to see my name on a book from that press. If the answer was yes, I sent to them, regardless of the editorial system.
What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?
This book began as my MFA thesis, but only about three poems from the thesis remain. Over the years I took out poems I thought were weak, or ones that didn’t fit thematically or stylistically with the rest of the book. Sometimes I think I would have been better off burning the thesis—I see now it was apprentice work—and starting over. But I’m happy with the result. It just took a long time.
How involved were you with the design of the book—interior design, font, cover, etc.?
My father-in-law is a painter and the image on the cover is his. I showed it to Oberlin and they liked it. Their book designer designed the final cover and did all the interior design, which was tricky because of the weird formatting of some of the poems (four square blocks of prose arranged in a larger square, like a crossroads, or a four-pane window).
What about the publication of the actual poems in journals and magazines prior to the book being published? Was there ever a concern for you to have the majority of the poems published before you were sending out your manuscript?
I think it helps to have a solid-looking acknowledgements page—it let’s first readers know
the poems have been appreciated by magazine editors, but no one’s going to publish a book based on the tastes of other editors. I’ve seen excellent books published with very short acknowledgements pages. Since this book took a while to find a home, quite a few of the poems were published in magazines before it came out. I don’t know if had any influences on the editors at Oberlin or not.
How much work did you do as far as editing the poems from the day you knew the book would be published to its final proofing stage?
Actually very little. My editors had some suggestions, which I took, and there were some minor things I changed, but I’d already been over the manuscript with a fine-tooth comb by that point, so most of it stayed pretty much the same.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your published book for the first time?
Joy. I ripped open that box of books and just stared for a while. Also relief that it actually happened.
How has your life been different since your book came out?
I’m better able to take genuine pleasure from other people’s successes, which is good. Resenting other people’s achievements isn’t healthy, and in a small group like the poetry community, it’s deadly. Oscar Wilde summed up this attitude when he said, “It’s not enough that I succeed; my friends must also fail.” For a while there I felt like I was the last writer I knew without a published book and that was a frustrating feeling.
I also have an easier time imagining people actually reading the poems I’m writing now, which makes it harder to write in a way, but also gives me a greater sense of urgency.
If you struck up a conversation next to someone seated on an airplane, and after a few minutes you eventually told them that you were an author who had a book of poetry published, how would you answer their next question: “What’s the book about?”
I’d peek at whatever they were reading, then say the book was about a) the zombie apocalypse, b) a band of child warriors forced to fight for their freedom, or c) the American Civil War, depending on the book they were holding.
Or I’d say it was about love and death, and let my seatmate turn gracefully back to fiddling with his or her electronic device.
What have you been doing to promote Beasts of the Hill, and what have those experiences been like for you?
I’m not much of a social media person, which I know is how you’re supposed to promote your work these days. Instead I did a lot of readings the year after the book came out. I met lots of cool people, caught up with old friends, and generally had a blast. It was amazing and encouraging to see enthusiastic audiences for poetry in so many far-flung places.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?
I’ve heard (and given) all the advice, and all of it is true and none of it means anything. If writing matters to you, write. Don’t worry too much about the rest. Of course it probably would take a lifetime of Buddhist training to not worry about the rest, but try. For a lengthier explanation of my thoughts on this, see here.
What influence has the book’s publication had on your subsequent writing? Are there any new projects in the works?
I’m just finishing up another poetry manuscript, and I have a nonfiction project in the works. I’m not sure having the book published has affected my writing much, but working on it all those years certainly has.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
Yes and no.
Mark Neely’s first book, Beasts of the Hill, won the FIELD Poetry Prize. He is also the author of a chapbook, Four of a Kind, from Concrete Wolf Press. His poems have appeared in Gulf Coast, Indiana Review, Barrow Street, Boulevard, and elsewhere. You can find out more about him at www.markneely.com