Central Illinois has been a muse for author Dan Guillory.
Guillory came to Illinois a Bayou man, growing up in the Southern Louisiana country before attending a prestigious prep school in New Orleans, then later earning a Ph.D. at Tulane.
In 1972, Guillory became an English professor at Millikin. Forty-four years later, the bulk of the nine books Guillory has authored have been inspired by the history of Decatur and Macon County, and the region's most iconic figure, Abraham Lincoln.
"Lincoln was not a household word where I grew up," Guillory said. "I remember seeing the Land of Lincoln license plates when tourists would come to Mardi Gras and the French Quarter, but that's about it.
"Once I moved here, I developed a lot of great relationships and gradually put down roots."
Guillory's parents spoke French as their first language, and while neither was educated, his father made a good living as a master machinist.
"They put me through a very exclusive private school. At 18, I'd studied Latin, Greek, physics and philosophy," Guillory said. "It was a beautiful education."
Guillory became interested in writing, working for his high school newspaper and dabbling in poetry. He attended college at the University of Wisconsin and later Tulane, getting his doctorate in Modern American Poetry. But after college, the job market wasn't promising.
"In 1972 there 200 openings for people with a Ph.D. in English and 1,200 people trying to get those jobs," Guillory said. "I was on about my 50th letter when I finally heard from Millikin."
Guillory lived in a house on West William Street, near campus, when he first came to Decatur. But in the 1980s, during the same year his daughter was born and he served as a Fellow at the University of Chicago, he bought a house in Findlay that he restored and still lives in today.
That year, he drove from Chicago to Findlay every weekend. It was those long trips in a battered old pickup truck from the towering skyscrapers and bustle of the city to the flat farmland and barns of east Central Illinois that led Guillory to start writing a series of essays that would later make up his first book, "Living With Lincoln: Life and Art in the Heartland."
"I had quite a few of these pieces – I'd been writing them for a couple of years – but I'd never thought about making them a book," Guillory said. "But after someone mentioned it to me, I realized the pieces had a wholeness and integrity.
"The problem was I had too many of them. And while some of them were good for the moment, they weren't for eternity. I tossed out about half; then, put the remaining pieces in a readable configuration – chronological and accroding to themes – then sent it out."
The result was his first book, published in 1989 by Stormline Publishing. It was Stormline that also published his next two books: "Alligator Inventions" in 1991 and "When the Waters Recede: Rescue and Recovery During the Great Flood in 1996."
"Alligator Inventions" is Guillory's only book inspired by his childhood. It's a collection of poems about life in the Bayou written while teaching American Literature in Africa on a Fulbright Professorship. "When the Waters Recede" is a much different book – a collection of essays about those living in the Mississippi River Valley in Illinois trying to pick up the pieces after the 1993 flood.
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While Guillory was a professor, he didn't have much time for writing. But that changed when Guillory retired from Millikin in 2004, becoming a Professor Emeritus. That year, the first of Guillory's three books for Arcadia Publishing's Images of America series was released: "Images of America: Decatur." It was followed a year later by "Images of America: Wartime Decatur, 1832-1945" and "Images of America: Macon County," in 2007.
For more than a decade, Guillory had been scribbling ideas for poems based on the romance between Lincoln and childhood sweetheart Anne Rutledge. As more information about that relationship was uncovered by historians, Guilllory began to write some formal poems about the couple's romance and received positive response when he read them at a conference at Michigan State.
From there, Guillory expanded the poems to include other periods of Lincoln's life, and switched to a more informal free verse form. The result was "The Lincoln Poems."
The problem was getting the book published. Then Guillory read a Herald & Review story in 2007 about a small press in Mahomet called Mayhaven Publishing. Doris Wentzel is the owner.
"The book wouldn't exist if it wasn't for her," Guillory said.
"The Lincoln Poems" was reviewed favorably by the Library Journal and a year later was chosen as one of 21 Lincoln books presented at the National Lincoln Bicentennial Celebration in Springfield.
"I didn't expect much from the book because poetry is invisible in the culture, but it got some good feedback and did pretty well," Guillory said.
Later, Guillory was asked to make an audio book of "The Lincoln Poems," and Guillory discovered a new passion – readings. He's done readings of "The Lincoln Poems" in Lincoln's assumed voice at colleges, museums, libraries and bookstores throughout the Midwest.
"At first I thought of readings as a dog and pony show, but what I discoveres is when they go well, it's like getting a shot of B12 – it's really energizing," Guillory said. "I enjoy connecting with audiences and using the full effects of the English language to present the poems."
Guillory has stuck with Mayhaven, publishing two more books, "People and Places in the Land of Lincoln" (2010) and "HousePoems" (2013). "People and Places" was written as a high-end tourist guide. "HousePoems" was inspired by the houses and mansions of Decatur – a subject that has fascinated Guillory since he wrote about them in his first book, "Living With Lincoln."
More recently, Guillory wrote a section of a book called "Gettysburg Replies," which came out in 2015. He's currently working on a book tentatively titled, "Moving Pictures," which Guillory said is a collection of essays and poems reacting to art, be it paintings, music or naturally occuring beauty.
"The goal is to put the art into language," Guillory said. "It's different, but that's the way I've always been. It was a goal for me when I started to explore and write in as many different forms as I could. I don't want to be pigeonholed."
Guillory also has no plans to stop. He continues to do readings, he'll be presenting "A Brief History of Decatur," at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, June 4, at the Macon County History Museum, and he still has plenty he wants to write about.
"I tend to think in lines and titles, and I have a lot of titles still with nothing to go with them," Guillory said. "The poet Wallace Stevens wrote that poetry is a form of health. I believe that. Forget about weed or booze, there's no high like writing something you are invested in or satisfied with. And I also genuinely enjoy meeting people who enjoyed or respond to something I've written."