Students learn from working writer

Mark Conway a finalist in the poetry division of the Minnesota Book Awards

March 2, 2011

By Mike Killeen

No, Mark Conway won't assign his class to write an acceptance speech for him.

He could, of course. His book, Dreaming Man, Face Down (Dream Horse Press) is a finalist in the poetry division for the 23rd annual Minnesota Book Awards, which will be presented Saturday, April 16 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, St. Paul.

After all, he's teaching a class in creative writing this semester at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University. It certainly would be a creative task for the class, to pull together a speech that would thank all the right people with just the proper tone.

But Conway -- who doubles as director of the Literary Arts Institute at CSB --  is looking for something a little deeper, more profound from his class than a basic thank-you note.

"I love having the opportunity to teach. It's a chance for me to be engaged in the true life of the schools," said Conway, who graduated from SJU in 1974. "I was inspired by such legendary teachers as Steve Humphrey, S. Mary Anthony Wagner and Fr. Godfrey Diekmann, and came into contact with giants like S. Mariella Gable. We also had the chance to hear some of the most important writers of the day."

Like poet Galway Kinnell. One of the great contemporary poets in America, Kinnell visited SJU while Conway was a student.

"I was drawn to poetry, but had a difficult time finding poems that mattered to me, at least on a consistent basis," Conway said. "I'd run into one poem and say, 'Wow, this is great,' and then I'd read something else, and think, 'What is this about?' "

Then he saw Kinnell, and something clicked.

"Galway Kinnell gave an electrifying reading that changed everyone who was there. Part of what was so striking was his vocabulary, what he was describing," Conway said. "He's from New Hampshire, and he wrote about that specific landscape. Though more mountainous than Minnesota, the world he described was instantly recognizable to me. What surprised me was that his poetry was made out of these common nouns, like 'rocks' and 'trees' and 'porcupines.' "

Conway now seeks to recreate a similar literary experience for CSB and SJU students.

"When students have the chance to hear working writers, they suddenly see that the books they've held in their hands are much more than inanimate objects to be deciphered. They feel the presence of a real person and they realize that books are charged with true human concerns," Conway said. "Their relationship to writing and literature is changed forever. That's why I love my job - it's a chance to relive my own original encounter with writing, and to respond in kind."

That means sometimes having to draw out thoughts from the students.

"I notice that many students are terrified by having to look closely at their inner lives," he said. "The main thing I want is for them to have an authentic encounter with their true selves, and to see that is the stuff of which they can and must write, and that it's good enough."

Dreaming Man, Face Down has been described as a long letter to the dead. There's a narrative arc between two brothers - the younger brother writing about a charismatic older brother who leads a wild and interesting life, but is also self-destructive.

"It's constructed as a series of elegies. It's a reflection on an imagined death," Conway said. "I'm not synonymous with either of the two characters. They're fictional. But more often than not, I would really be more easily identified with the older brother, especially when he makes bad choices. So some of the time, the brother is doing things I didn't do, but could have - it's sort of like the road not taken. It's an interesting exercise to play out for one's self - what would have happened if I didn't get lucky, if some friend didn't help me out, or the discovery of a new passion carried me beyond what would have been harmful."

Dreaming Man, Face Down has already received one honor - the 2009 American Poetry Journal Book Prize. Conway's previous book of poetry, Any Holy City, was short-listed for the 2007 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for Poetry.

Despite his previous success, there's one thing Conway won't do at the April award ceremony.

"I'm not getting a tux," Conway said, laughing.