When the Horse Begins to Neigh on the Page: An Interview with Poet Eileen Cleary

Eileen Cleary seems to have found a way to clone herself. In addition to holding two MFAs from two different Boston institutions, she manages the Lily Poetry Salon and publishes the Lily Poetry Review. Her Lily Poetry Review Press will be publishing its first titles soon. She has studied with teachers near and far and seems to know everyone in the Boston poetry scene — and many on the national scene as well.

Eileen is a nurse and poet who earned an MFA at Lesley University and second at Solstice of Pine Manor College. She is twice a Pushcart nominee and has work published or upcoming in journals such as Naugatuck River Review, J Journal, The American Journal of Poetry, Solstice, and Sugar House Review. Her work has appeared as a Rainworks Installation in Newton, Massachusetts.

Her debut poetry collection, Child Ward of the Commonwealth was published by Main Street Rag Press in June 2019

Frances Donovan: What first brought you to poetry?

Eileen Cleary: I’ve always loved to read poetry. I had a sense that I could write it from an early age. But, I never wrote it seriously until I wrote a poem in response to unethical research on human subjects. I was a different person when I reached the end of that poem, and I could never go back to being a person who didn’t write poetry. 

Donovan: How were you a different person?

Cleary: I found a way to transform trauma into art and in so doing, discovered a power and a freedom I’d never known. I was changed because we all live in an inner world, but must also maneuver in an outer world. Poetry has made it possible to translate my inner self to the outer world, myself to myself.

Donovan: It sounds like social consciousness was one of the things that really cemented poetry in your life. It can be difficult to write poetry that is politically aware without descending into didacticism or cliche. How do you navigate those waters?

Cleary: Poetry’s reach can touch the core of any issue. It has been said over and over, and it seems to be true, that all poetry is political. We are all responsible for the state of the world. We witness joy and pain. All poems are  of that witness. If the poem speaks authentically, uses the art of arranging words for its sounds, syntax, music, imagery, tone, and lexicon to transform experience into art, if a poem is compassionate and empathetic, it transforms the shadow of the horse we write about and it begins to neigh on the page.

Donovan: You mentioned transforming trauma into art. Child Ward of the Commonwealth is a great example of that process — it’s based on your own life experiences, isn’t it? What was it like for you to revisit such difficult memories? How did you take care of yourself during that process?

Cleary: Yes, Child Ward of the Commonwealth is based on my life experience and that of my family. It was extremely difficult to revisit these memories but also essential. In fact, unavoidable. Once the trauma revealed itself as having to be spoken, I could not contain it. Moreover,  I thought of all of the children currently in foster care, or who may be starving or abused and neglected. The desire to give words to that distress was not only for myself, but for them. 

Caring for  myself during that time meant that I needed trusted friends with whom to share my grief. I had to believe that there would be someone who might want to read or publish material that wasn’t mainstream, and was frankly hard to endure, even for a reader. I had to go against my instinct to hide and secret away any family shame. It was important to allow myself to cry, to mourn and sometimes, to put the material away and be kind to myself.

Donovan: Who have you studied with?

Cleary: Some of the poets I’ve studied with are  Steven Cramer, Erin Belieu, Sharon Bryan, Joan Houlihan, Fred Merchant. Kim Addonizio, Bruce Weigl, Barbara Helfgott-Hyett, Tom Daley, Teresa Cader, Brenda Shaughnessey, Lucie Brock-Broido, Kevin McLelllan, Laure-Anne Bosselaar, Iain Haley-Pollock, Kathleen Aguero, Nicole Terez-Dutton, Megan Fernandes, Martin Espada, Annie Finch, and Anne Marie Oomen. There were also poets at Lesley who I did not have as semester mentors but who impacted me greatly in seminars and workshops, including Rafael Campo, Cate Marvin Dupont, Kevin Prufer, and Adrian Metejka.

Donovan: Tell me about your experience at Lesley.

Cleary: There is so much to tell. One important thing is that I met some of the best friends anyone could ever hope to find. This is true of the Solstice Community as well. I remember arriving at the campus for my first residency and realizing I could finally have that conversation about verbs I’d been aching for. I would sit in the dining hall and let the other students’ conversations about their characters. or a storyline or poem wash over me, and I felt like I had finally found a place where other people claimed their rich imaginings and inner thoughts, where they even mined them for the page. Something in me opened. Also, I was an eager apprentice, learning from all of the mentors and my fellow students, who were infinitely more advanced than I.

Donovan: You also have an MFA from Pine Manor College. Please tell me about your experience there as well, and what prompted you to pursue an MFA at two separate programs.

Cleary: I had started writing poetry after a long career focusing on science and nursing. As a nurse, I work hard to become credentialed in my practice areas. I am used to life-long learning and study. I realized that as a poet, I needed to apply that work ethic to my studies. The MFA at Lesley set me going and I continued my studies for two years after at Solstice. This allowed me to establish habits of studying and practicing craft for 30-35 hours a week for four years and has served me well. I dearly love my Solstice community and would not trade Lesley for Solstice or vice versa. They’re both integral to my foundation and the community in each is and will always remain important to me.

Donovan: What do you do to be a good literary citizen?

Cleary: I often read manuscripts for friends or new poets, and offer detailed line edits, reordering, and discussion at no charge. I try to write at least six or eight book reviews a year. I run a literary salon which features other poets. The work I do for Lily has me donating a minimum of 20 hours a week. I also donate the money for the publishing.

Donovan: Tell me more about the Lily Poetry Review and the new Lily Poetry Review Press. These, along with the reading series, are great examples of good literary citizenship.

Cleary: I started the journal, the press, and the salon for the same reason. I am in love with poetry and poets, period. I didn’t know if I would ever be a published poet, but I knew that I would never stop reading or listening to poetry.   I found a way to immerse myself in poetry and to be surrounded by poets. I want to highlight and share as much beautiful work as possible and believe that poetry is art, resistance, and essential to my soul. I knew I wanted a reading series where I could spend intimate time truly listening to poets read their work and having conversations with them, So many times after readings, I find myself wishing I could ask about process or experience or technique. There are amazing things that happen when the words floating around the room at a reading enter into conversation. My friend Christine Jones and I talked about the importance of conversations with poets. Thus, the Lily Poetry Salon was born. There is no shortage of talented and interesting poets, but there are often times when they won’t be published. I wanted to do my part in putting more poetry into the world, and I have to say, no matter the cost, the hours, the challenges, there is nothing like seeing a beautiful journal with the voices in conversation or holding a poet’s collection and knowing it encapsulates a piece of their humanity.

Donovan: What poets do you keep returning to again and again?

Cleary: Emily Dickinson, Lucie Brock-Broido, James Wright, W. S. Merwin, Franz Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Frost, Louise Bogan, Sylvia Plath, William Carlos Williams, Lucille Clifton, Louise Gluck.

Donovan: What are you reading right now?

Cleary: I just finished Mary Ruefle’s Dunce.

Donovan: Very few poets can make their living solely through book sales or reading fees. Many of us — but not all — teach or edit to put our supper on the table. Is this the case for you? If not, what’s your day job?

Cleary: I work full time as a hospice nurse, on the night shift.  I would love to teach and look forward to a door opening for that when the time is right. I work extra hours in order to afford to publish other poets. 

Donovan: What does your writing practice look like right now? Has it changed?

Cleary: When I started the Lily Poetry Review and Lily Poetry Review Books, my writing practice shrunk to allow my editing and publishing practice to expand. I would say that I am now reaching an equilibrium. My most important practice is to read poetry. As long as I am doing that each day, I feel the rest will flourish.

Cover image for Cleary's book Child Ward of the Commonwealth

Donovan: I divide my writing life into three categories. There’s the purely generative work — free-writes and first drafts. There’s revision — polishing those drafts. And then there’s the po-biz — the business of sending out work to journals, networking, reading your work, reviewing others’ work, selling books, running a social media account and/or a website. How do you strike a balance among these?

Cleary: I try very hard to attend other poets’ readings at least a few times a month. As I mentioned, my own writing has taken a back seat this year. I find that editing the journal and the poetry collections for Lily is an act of love and generosity. I know that this work is making it possible for me to share the art that others create, to put more beautiful poetry into the world. I’m working to strike a balance.

Donovan: What do you wish someone had told you when you were just starting out in your poetry career?

Cleary: At the very beginning, let’s say at the very beginning, I’d have loved a little encouragement — to have someone say they believed in me and my work or my potential. I would have liked for someone to tell me what was working and help me to have faith. I nearly gave up in despair of my work, but my love of words, poets, and poetry sustained me. It is not that poets always need outside affirmation to feel accepted or to be a poet. But when someone is starting out, before they get their footing, they need encouragement and support. The person who first gave me that support was Jason Reynolds after a student reading during my second or third semester at Lesley. He walked up to me in the cafeteria and let me know that I was a poet. And that is all I needed. I clung to that brief and hopeful conversation for a long time.

Later, others like Erin Belieu and Tom Daley and many of the folks in my community gave that support. So I think if I had anything to say to new poets it would be: Hold one another in high esteem. Let one another know what you admire even as you yourself may be struggling to know what you can redeem in your own work. If someone who is just starting out admires you, take time to read their work, have a brief conversation or sit with them for coffee. You will never regret taking the time to say a few words, and like Jason Reynolds or Erin Belieu you may be the glue to help that person stick with poetry long enough until they can believe in themselves.

Donovan: What’s next for you?

Cleary: I am about to carve out some time to work on a manuscript in which the ghost of John Keats features prominently and which also encapsulates the grief and Iove I have for a friend who recently died. I have a hospice manuscript is in its germinal stage, and am happy to say that some of those poems are to be published by JAMA and The American Journal of Poetry in January.

I plan to write a critical essay about Marcia Karp’s poetry and I would like to begin writing a different type of book review. I will be trialing looking at an author as a whole and “reviewing” all of their books in a larger essay while tracing their writing journeys. There is a Story Theory of nursing. In order to practice the Story Theory one must listen to a person’s life history and retrace their journey. In this way, the nurse meets the patient right where they are, understanding how they arrived. I want to apply the Story Theory to my critical writing about poets, reading their stories in the lines of their poetry. This will tell me their obsessions, the evolution of their craft and technique, the impulses which move them to write. I will premiere this in-depth “Story of a Poet” in the Summer 2020 issue of Lily.

I will continue to read from my Child Ward of the Commonwealth for the next several months. I’m very grateful to be able to read with wonderful poets. Upcoming dates are:

  • Saturday, February 22, 2020, 2:00 – 4:00 p.m. at the Miller White Fine Arts Gallery, 708 MA-134, South Dennis, MA, with Robert Carr, Tamora Israel, Kate Wallace Rogers, and Al Starkey Music by Rose Martin
  • Thursday, March 5, 2020, 1:45 – 3:00 p.m. at AWP, Lily Poetry Review reading, Bookfair Stage 1, AWP, San Antonio, TX
  • Thursday, March 5, 2020, 7:00 – 9:00 p.m., at La Vallitas Historic Arts House, 418 Villita St, San Antonio, TX, for Tupelo 30/30 and Conference Alumns (an off-site AWP event)
  • Friday, April 3, 2020, 7:00 p.m., at Chapter & Verse Loring-Greenough House, 12 South Street, Jamaica Plain (across from the Monument)
  • Tuesday, April 28, 7:00 – 10:00 p.m., The Poetrorium at Starlite Bar and Gallery, (Open Mic and Poetry Show) 39 Hamilton Street, Southbridge, MA

Donovan: How can people find you?

Cleary: I have a website, it is admittedly not jazzy. Maybe I can work on that too! https://eileenclearypoet.com/

You can find my Lily Poetry review project at https://lilypoetryreview.blog/

Buy Child Ward of the Commonwealth from Main Street Rag


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