Meet Shane Seely: UMSL poet, Hollis Summers Prize winner

Assistant Professor Shane Seely's second book "The Surface of the Lit World" won the 2014 Hollis Summers Poetry Prize. He is currently working on his third book while teaching in the MFA in Creative Writing program at UMSL. (Photo by Jennifer Goldring)

Assistant Professor of English Shane Seely’s second book, “The Surface of the Lit World,” won the 2014 Hollis Summers Poetry Prize. He is currently working on his third book while teaching in the MFA in Creative Writing program at UMSL. (Photo of Seely by Jennifer Goldring)

Eclectic subjects like spontaneous combustion, frantic bats and Walt Whitman inhabit the same mythical landscape in “Surface of the Lit World”, an award-winning poetry collection written by University of Missouri–St. Louis Assistant Professor Shane Seely.

Even after placing individual poems from his collection in established literary journals and magazines such as Hayden’s Ferry Review, Confrontation and Passages North, Seely was unsure of how the complete manuscript would be received.

“Poetry publishing, like most literary publishing, is a tough gig,” Seely said.

Despite the challenges of the literary industry, Seely won the 2014 Hollis Summers Poetry Prize, an annual contest sponsored by the Ohio University Press. Alongside the win, he netted $1,000 and joined a distinguished lineage of acclaimed poets, which includes contemporary writers Alison Powell and Kwame Dawes.

Hundreds of contestants entered the competition, yet Seely set himself apart and claimed the prize with his deep knowledge of form and theory. Throughout the scenes and narratives of his latest collection, Seely seamlessly blends a range of themes and technical frameworks.

“Techniques aside, all good writing is an entry into a subject, idea or dramatic moment,” Seely said. “Joan Didion talked about writing a novel that started from an image she had in her mind of a plane on a tarmac. She wrote the novel just to figure out what the people inside were doing.”

The ideas for Seely’s poetry didn’t come from dreams, visions or repeated mental images but simply from subjects that interested him.

“A lot of the times the poems in my collection would start with a mythical story or piece of art that piqued my interests,” he said.

As represented in “The Surface of the Lit World,” Seely’s interests are rich and varied, featuring an array of figures from classic stories. Icarus and Daedalus discuss their wings in “The Fledged Boy.” Isaac contemplates becoming a sacrifice for Abraham in “Isaac’s Lament.” “Danaë” features the titular character and her maid caught in a deluge of gold coins.

Each poem in Seely’s collection has been diligently crafted over months and years, and although the final product is polished and well tuned, Seely is more interested in the development of his writing than the final product.

“My goal in writing is not about the product but the process,” he said. “I’m looking for that jolt you get from saying something truer or more interesting than what you thought you were going to say. You have to feel like the writing is leading you somewhere and that the surprises are strange but absolutely right.”

Seely teaches his students the virtues of practice and patience, yet he says one common question always seems to come up during class discussion: What if writing a good poem is just luck?

“When a student asks me whether writing good work is a matter of practice or luck, I explain it like sports,” he said. “A famous golfer once hit an impossible shot and someone asked him, ‘Wasn’t that just a lucky shot?’ and he replied, ‘Yeah, it was, but I find the harder I work, the luckier I get.’”

More information on “Surface of the Lit World” and Shane’s other books can be found here. Seely is teaching creative nonfiction and a graduate workshop in poetry through the MFA program this semester.

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