Interview with Mark Neely

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Mark Neely is the author of Beasts of the Hill and Dirty Bomb, both from Oberlin College Press. His awards include an NEA Poetry Fellowship, an Indiana Individual Artist grant, the FIELD Poetry Prize, and the Concrete Wolf Press chapbook award for Four of a Kind. His poems have appeared in Gulf Coast, Indiana Review, New England Review, Boulevard, Willow Springs, and elsewhere. He teaches at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where he lives with his wife—writer Jill Christman—and their two children. He is the advisor for Broken Plate, a national journal edited by the students of Ball State University.

 

BF: Can you talk about your first experiences editing a journal or magazine and how this shaped you both as a writer and an editor? 

My first experience working on a magazine was as a graduate student at The University of Alabama, where I worked for Black Warrior Review. Unlike a lot of my students who are interested in editing and publishing, I didn’t work for my high school or college newspaper or literary magazine. So BWR was my first exposure to that world. I was interested in working for them because I wanted to be more immersed in contemporary poetry. So I started out as a volunteer poetry reader for Black Warrior Review, then later became Poetry Editor.

This was a fantastic experience, allowing me to witness firsthand the kind of conversations editors have about work they are considering, which were so different from the conversations we had in writing workshops—since, of course, the author wasn’t around to listen. From reading through the thousands of poems submitted, I also learned the value of a powerful/interesting/surprising first line or opening stanza, of careful editing and proofreading, and of what it means for a poem to have a certain urgency and voice that makes it stand out from the crowd.

I also noticed flashy or gimmicky poems sometimes stood out on a first reading, and quiet, more subtle ones often took longer to appreciate—more time, more careful reading.

BF: You’ve been the faculty advisor for The Broken Plate at Ball State University for a while now. What exactly is The Broken Plate? How has it changed since you’ve joined the masthead? 

When I first took over advising The Broken Plate, it was run by a couple of student volunteers who put out a call for submissions to Ball State undergrads. I’ve seen this model elsewhere, and it can work well if you have highly motivated editors with the skills necessary to edit, design, and publish a magazine.Screen-Shot-2017-04-03-at-12.33.19-PM.png

But my idea was that the magazine could be an incredible teaching tool and could give a larger number of students editing experience if the editors were students in a Literary Editing and Publishing course. I also thought the experience would be a broader and more valuable one, and that we could produce a better product if we took submissions from all writers, not simply from our own students. We still publish the work of undergraduates, but the majority of work in each issue usually comes from outside Ball State. 

BF: What were the primary challenges and concerns from switching from a campus only journal to a national one? What are some notable things that you feel like you and the editorial team during this transition learned along the way?

A big increase in submissions was both a challenge and a boon. It made for a lot more work for the editors obviously, but also allowed them a much wider view of the landscape of contemporary literature (and art).

Some of the challenges were financial. The larger number of subs were harder to manage, and we had to move to a submissions manager, Submittable, which has steadily raised its subscription rates. Having authors around the country (and abroad) increased mailing costs. We were lucky enough to have generous donors who helped us on the financial side of things.

One thing I’ve personally learned is that the whole experience of working on this project has gotten better and better the more I’ve learned to trust the students. To give them as much responsibility as possible. And to recognize that I’m not the “expert” in the room. Editing a magazine takes a combination of skills, so I think it’s helpful to have students from a variety of majors—English, creative writing, journalism, telecommunications, marketing, etc.

I also know that we’ve earned the trust of authors by being very professional in our dealings with them. We respond to submissions relatively quickly, and are diligent about proofreading, design, maintaining our website, corresponding with authors and artists, etc.

BF: One of the challenges of campus based publications esp. in undergraduate institutions have to do with sustainability and training of new staff. How involved are you as an advisor in this regard? Are students responsible for finding potential editorial staff and training them? 

This is one drawback of the class-based model—we have a brand new set of editors every year, so I’m sort of the institutional memory. I also have each group of editors (design, prose, poetry, web, etc.) write a letter to their successors describing their process, and any problems they met along the way.

BF: What value do you think publications like Broken Plate add to both the campus and literary community? For people outside of fields like Creative Writing and English?

One thing I’ve argued when asking for support (money) from administrators for this project is how many students it reaches. As I mentioned, our editors come from a variety of majors and backgrounds. Students from all over campus submit art, photography, stories, screenplays, etc. Some of them get published in a national magazine alongside authors with established reputations, which is a great first step for many of them. But even the ones we reject have had the valuable experience of going through the submissions process, which is valuable in and of itself.

The students in the course itself learn valuable skills, but more importantly, they learn to work as a team on a long-term project and see it through to the end.

BF: Three things that aspiring editors should keep in mind. Three things that aspiring writers should keep in mind. 

Editors:

1) Make a schedule, stay organized, stick to your deadlines.

2) This is a complex process involving a lot of people—editors, artists, writers, printers, etc. so you will miss your deadlines. Our trick for keeping on track is making deadlines much earlier than we actually need them to be.

3) Pay close attention to a poem/story/essay/etc. that causes disagreement in an editorial meeting. This will often be a stronger work than one that everyone agrees is pretty good but no one is passionate about.

Writers:

1) Probably the only advice that makes any sense is the most obvious. Read widely. Write often. Read your work in public—reading something aloud in front of people is the best editor.

2) One thing I am still learning after fifteen years of sending out my work, is not to send out work too early. I try to force myself to wait until the initial excitement of creating something new has worn off and I can look at a piece of writing with some objectivity.

3) Work for a literary magazine! If there isn’t one in your school/ area, find one you can read for online. Or start your own. And find other ways to build a literary community—start a reading series, an online workshop, a poetry book club. I’m going to my poetry book club this afternoon—we’re discussing Carolina Ebeid’s book, You Ask Me To Talk About The Interior. She’ll be here for the In Print Festival (see below) in March. 

BF: Anything else coming up with Broken Plate that people should be aware of? 

The 2018 issue of The Broken Plate will be released at the In Print Festival of First Books at Ball State University, March 28-29. We also hope to have early copies ready for the AWP conference in Tampa, FL, in early March.

We’ll be open for submissions for the 2019 issue in September and October, 2018.