Poet Mark Conway honored with prestigious fellowship for second time in career

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March 15, 2013

Mark Conway

Mark Conway, executive director of the College of Saint Benedict Literary Arts Institute

Mark Conway is going to find himself in pretty elite company later this month.

Conway, executive director of the College of Saint Benedict Literary Arts Institute, has been awarded the 2012 McKnight Foundation Artists' Fellowship for Poetry.  Conway is one of four writers being honored with this fellowship, chosen by poet Mark Doty in recognition of established poets. The recipients will receive their awards and give a reading at 7 p.m., Wednesday, March 27 in the Target Performance Hall at Open Book in Minneapolis.

The McKnight Foundation provides annual fellowships of $25,000 to Minnesota artists.  For writers, the award alternates each year between poets and prose writers. The fellowship is administered by The Loft Literary Center and is awarded to poets with at least one book or who have published work in a wide number of professional journals. Conway previously was awarded the fellowship in 2004.

 "Having Mark Doty recognize my work means a great deal," Conway said. "And the McKnight Foundation is an incredible place. They're very responsive and know the challenges faced by artists.  Of course what we most want and need is time and the ability to do uninterrupted work, which is exactly what this grant is structured to do. And it's an honor to be among the exceptional artists who have won this award."

Conway has worked at College of Saint Benedict or Saint John's University for 23 years, 15 in his current position. He holds a bachelor of arts degree from SJU, as well as a master of fine arts in creative writing from Bennington College, in Bennington, Vt.

"I've been interested in writing since I was young," Conway said. "But I didn't have many models.  I wrote poems and other things even in grade school - I just had no idea how to become a writer.  During my time at SJU I suddenly found a path.  I went to a reading by the poet Galway Kinnell and was electrified.  He showed how to use my actual experience to create art and how to explore everyday language."

Conway occasionally teaches a creative writing course at CSB/SJU and other writing centers around the country. He hopes to assist students in having the same kind of breakthrough that he did in college.

"It's a wonderful moment when students suddenly find their own lives interesting," Conway said.  "People often think they don't have anything to write about, but of course we all do. We all have rich, imaginative lives."

Conway's inspiration for his current collection, "Fuse," draws from his research on the idea of eternity. 

"I keep this idea in front of me when I write," Conway said. "What interests me is that we live inside time each day and we feel bound by this sequence. And yet, our most memorable moments feel out of time. We know that the idea of eternity, if eternity means anything, is that it has to exist now, at this very moment, but it's the pressing matters of the day that most weigh on us. It's difficult holding both of these senses in the mind at once, but it's an interesting challenge as a writer."

Poems from the manuscript of "Fuse" have already appeared in The American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, the Iowa Review and the "Poem-a-Day" series of The Academy of American Poets.

Apart from writing and reading, Conway spends most of his time with family, including his wife, three sons and three grandchildren.

"Right now we're gardening and ordering seeds, some flowers but mostly vegetables," Conway said. "My grandkids live next to us, and we've just been out tapping trees. We live on 20 acres of land, so were planning to cook some maple syrup when the weather warms up."

Conway's collections of poetry include "Dreaming Man, Face Down," which won the 2009 American Poetry Journal Book Prize, as well as "Any Holy City," which was short-listed for the 2007 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for Poetry.

Individual poems have appeared in numerous publications such as The Paris Review, Slate, American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review On-line, Agni, the Boston Review, The Harvard Review and Bomb. Conway has also published critical work in the Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature.