NIU alumnus returns to DeKalb with published poetry book

By Jerene-Elise Nall

DeKalb has yielded many great things, including writers.

Gary McDowell, a 2003 graduate of NIU, will be reading in the Fellowship Hall at the First Congregational Church’s, 615 N. First St. at 7:30 p.m on Saturday with fellow poet Chad Sweeney. Both authors will sell copies of their books and will be available to talk afterwards.

Dekalb Scene got the chance to speak with McDowell about his upcoming reading, his newest collection of poetry and his time as a student here at NIU.

Northern Star: You’re reading here on Saturday. I know you have a couple different collections, is there going to be a specific one you’ll be reading from?

Gary McDowell: I’m going to be reading from American Amen, it just came out this fall– about a month ago. I’m actually reading with poet Chad Sweeney. He’s celebrating the release of his new book, as well. His book is called Parable of Hide and Seek. That’s his new one. This is his fourth or fifth book now.

NS: Is there any specific topic you’re trying to focus on for the reading? Does your collection of poetry focus on anything in particular?

GM: There’s a couple major themes– I guess you can call them– that run through the book. I write a lot about fatherhood, both from the perspective of a son and a father. Also, I spent a lot of time in northern Wisconsin as a child fishing, so there’s some aspects of that in there. It’s a pretty wide-ranging thematic collection, but those are two of the major things.

NS: I know that you have some previous publications. You have a book out called They Speak of Fruit. Is there anything else?

GM: There’s that one, and there’s a book called The Blueprint, like the Jay-Z album, which I didn’t know about at the time [laughs]. And I also edited a collection called The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry. It’s a collection of essays that I edited with a colleague of mine about the prose poem, which is a form of poetry written in sentences and paragraphs instead of line breaks like traditional poetry. We edited a collection of essays on it from writers all over the country.

NS: What was your experience in your major like at NIU, and what have you done with your degree since graduating aside from being published?

GM: My time at Northern was extremely formative. I was able to take a wide range of classes. Dr. Amy Newman, she’s a mentor of mine, and now a very good friend. She wrote a blurb for American Amen and she’s been extremely amazing both in my time at Northern and since graduating, both as a friend and mentor. I’m deciding to pursue education as a career, that’s what I’d ultimately like to do, besides write. But [laughs], there’s no money in poetry. That’s what I do for love. I teach for love, too, I just adore being in a classroom. And those teachers at Northern are why I love it so much. They were so incredibly important to me.

NS: What would you say writing does for you? Is it a release? Is it something that you have to do? What is it for you?

GM: It’s as much a therapy for the soul as it is for the mind. I feel like, if I go a few days without writing, which happens all the time, I feel very uneasy. I have to do it. It’s therapeutic in the way that I have to enter another world sometimes to understand the one I’m living in now.

NS: Any advice for English majors here at NIU, or for writers that would like to get published?

GM: As far as writers at NIU– utilize the incredible faculty there. I’m being completely honest, I don’t remember ever having a negative experience with a faculty member or the Department of English at all. What I always tell my own students, my college-level poetry students, is just read. Read voraciously. Read everything. You should be reading 10 times more than you’re writing. Everything from the classics like Shakespeare and Homer to stuff that’s being published now by up-and-coming poets. It’s extremely important to just read and learn about what’s being done out there so that you can participate in the conversation about poetry across time and space. Basically, just read.