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

Photograph of 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


Unearthing Surprising Moments: A Conversation with Poet Sarah Dickenson Snyder

Photograph of poet Sarah Dickenson Snyder

Sarah Dickenson Snyder has written poetry since she knew there was a form with conscious line breaks. She has three poetry collections: The Human Contract, Notes from a Nomad (nominated for the Massachusetts Book Awards 2018), and With a Polaroid Camera (2019). Recently, poems have appeared in Artemis, The Sewanee Review, and RHINO. She has been a 30/30 Poet for Tupelo Press and was accepted both times she applied to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. One poem was selected by Mass Poetry Festival Migration Contest to be stenciled on the sidewalk in Salem, MA. Another was nominated for Best of Net 2017.

Sarah took some time to speak with me via email.

Frances Donovan: What first brought you to poetry?

Sarah Dickenson Snyder: The first time I saw a poem in a book and its intentional line breaks, I was hooked—I just loved how it looked. I was probably in 1st grade. I wrote and wrote even more when I realized that poems didn’t have to rhyme and that I could pour out a seemingly endless fountain of thoughts and memories. I ended up sending a stack of twenty poems to Bowdoin College as my college essay. 

Donovan: Did you study poetry at Bowdoin?

Dickenson Snyder: I took a few classes—there were only just a few in the English Department, certainly no writing classes at that time; I was a Religion major.

Donovan: Was there a particular poet whose work was really meaningful to you in those early years?
Continue reading “Unearthing Surprising Moments: A Conversation with Poet Sarah Dickenson Snyder”

A Vivid, Wild, and Free-Flowing Interview with Diane Seuss

Diane Seuss was kind enough to speak with me about keeping poetry wild, freaking form, and her latest book, Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl.  It went up at The Rumpus today.

“I think of my work as punk-rural,” she says, “in that it emerges from rural spaces, but looks for the toughness, the strangeness, the absurdity, the taut stringiness, the rage and pain of it all as opposed to the homespun. The rural is no less punk than the urban. Roadkill. That’s my aesthetic. Naked dancing on the water tower. Cheez Doodles and a Coke. Cigar-smoking ghosts on the riverbank.”

Read the entire interview here.

Read some of Diane Seuss’s poetry online here:

Photo of Diane Seuss by Gabe Montesanti.

Interview with Sarah Nichols, Author of Dreamland for Keeps

Cover image for the chapbook Dreamland for Keeps

The latest chapbook from poet Sarah Nichols, Dreamland for Keeps (Porkbelly Press, 2018), uses found poetry to reclaim a voice for Elizabeth Short, victim of a brutal murder in 1947. The gruesome details of Short’s death led to sensationalized media coverage and the nickname “The Black Dahlia.”  Nichols lifts words from a novel inspired by the case and remixes them into a pointillist narrative–Elizabeth’s own story, rather than the story told about her. The resulting poems are spare, bold, and utterly riveting. Nicci Mechler of Porkbelly Press enhances the manuscript’s artistry with a beautifully designed, handmade chapbook.

Sarah Nichols took some time to discuss the book, her writing process, and the political implications of her work with me via email.

Continue reading “Interview with Sarah Nichols, Author of Dreamland for Keeps”

The Martha Collins Race Trilogy

Cover art for three books of poems by Martha Collins: Admit One (in red), White Papers, and Blue Front

I first met Martha Collins at a seminar on taboo at the Mass Poetry Festival. Sharon Olds read a poem about testicles. Jill McDonough read a poem that included a line about a stripper’s “perfect pink asshole.” And Martha Collins read a poem about race. It was the Collins poem that made me the most uncomfortable. I’ve spoken about race plenty in conversation with people of color, but for a white person to initialize the discussion seemed uncouth in a way that frank talk about sex is not.

Collins read from White Papers, the second in a trilogy about race in the United States. White Papers focuses on the poet’s own recollections of race growing up in the Midwest and living in New England. Blue Front is a book-length poem that spirals around a brutal lynching that her father witnessed in 1909 in Cairo, Illinois. Admit One uses the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis (which her grandparents attended) as a jumping-off point to speak about “scientific racism,” the eugenics movement of the 20th century, and the continuing legacy of racism in the United States. Continue reading “The Martha Collins Race Trilogy”

Interview with Wendy Mnookin, Author of Dinner with Emerson

Close-up from the cover of Wendy Mnookin's Dinner with Emerson
Photograph of poet Wendy Mnookin
Poet Wendy Mnookin

Poet Wendy Mnookin and I travel in similar orbits in the Boston poetry scene, but our paths have never intersected in person. I was happy to be able to speak with her via email about her most recent book Dinner with EmersonA veteran poet with five books to her name, Mnookin has taught poetry at Emerson College, Boston College, Grub Street, and at workshops around the country. Her honors include an NEA Fellowship, a book prize from the New England Poetry Club, and several Pushcart Prize nominations. Her work has been featured on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac and Poetry Daily. We spoke about the difference between tone and voice, the choices she made while compiling each of her manuscripts, and the relationship between her teaching and her writing practice.

What first brought you to poetry?

I have always been a reader, and, in my own way, a writer, mostly scribbling in journals. By the time my third child started kindergarten and I could see blocks of free time appearing in my life, I took a plunge into more dedicated writing and signed up for a poetry course at the Radcliffe Seminars Program. Ruth Whitman was teaching the course and I fell in love–with the reading, the discussion, and most of all, with the regular writing. I took courses there for several years and then attended the low-residency program at Vermont College, where I got my MFA. Although I don’t think courses are necessary for someone starting out in poetry, the structure helped me explore, build confidence, and establish a network of other writers who were serious about their work.

Continue reading “Interview with Wendy Mnookin, Author of Dinner with Emerson”

Interview with Poet Carla Drysdale, Author of Little Venus and Inheritance

Cover of Little Venus by Carla Drysdale

Carla Drysdale’s work explores difficult subjects such as childhood abuse and sexual exploitation with tight, lyrical nuance. Little Venus, Drysdale’s first book of poetry, came out in 2009 from Canadian publisher Tightrope Books. As often happens when poets create a persona, Drysdale’s Little Venus tells truths and makes assertions far bolder than another speaker might be able to.

Poet Carla Drysdale, author of Little Venus and Inheritance
Poet Carla Drysdale, author of Little Venus and Inheritance

Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Paris Press, Cleaver Magazine, and PRISM. Her poem, “New Year’s Eve” was set to music by American Pulitzer-prize winning composer David Del Tredici. Her many accolades include writing residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and La Porte Peinte in Noyers-Sur-Serein, France, as well as PRISM International’s Earle Birney poetry prize for her poem “Inheritance.” Finishing Line Press released her chapbook of the same name in early 2016.

A statuesque woman with a mass of curly auburn hair, she took some time out from her busy schedule as a communications consultant and mother of two to speak with me about her poetry.

What first brought you to poetry?

Poetry first came to me, I suspect, in my pre-verbal state, in lullabies sung by my mother, grandmother, and babysitters, as well as radio jingles and birdsong. My maternal grandmother was fond of reciting everything from Shakespeare to her own variation on Fuzzy-Wuzzy –- I learned from her how to play with language as a toddler. The King James version of the Holy Bible was tremendously important to me as a pre-teen and younger teen. The first time poetry actually stabbed me Continue reading “Interview with Poet Carla Drysdale, Author of Little Venus and Inheritance”

How I Became an Historian: Review and Interview with Poet Penelope Schott

Veteran poet Penelope Schott’s latest offering,  How I Became an Historian, traces a spiral from innocence into an abusive marriage, and out again into wisdom and forgiveness. Three slug poems serve as markers on this switchback trail. In “Pestering the Slug,” the first poem of the book, she recounts something almost all of us remember: the small child’s delight in harassing bugs. “I briefly understood / the unblameable charm of evil,” she writes.

That evil coalesces but also turns to remorse in “Glory is Reached by Many Routes,” when the speaker spends “a whole morning trying / to press a brown slug through a wire sieve / and all afternoon apologizing to the slug.” That remorse turns to redemption in “Keeper.” Here, the speaker keeps the slug for a week, feeding it

Continue reading “How I Became an Historian: Review and Interview with Poet Penelope Schott”

Interview with Widows’ Handbook Editor Jacqueline Lapidus

It was through Holly Zeeb that I first learned of The Widows’ Handbook: Poetic Reflections on Grief and Survival, an anthology of poetry written by, for, and about women who had lost their life partners. Holly, a fellow student of the PoemWorks workshop and an excellent poet in her own right, was one of the many poets who contributed to the book. Holly lived with cancer for years before succumbing to it in late January 2016. Her literary legacy includes not only her poems in The Widows’ Handbook, but also a chapbook from Finishing Line Press and Eye of the Beholder, a book-length collection in limited run. In addition to — or perhaps because of — her poetry, she left behind a wide circle of friends and fellow writers. They crowded Newtonville Books to grieving friends read her work. I got one of the last seats in the house and found it deeply affecting to hear the finished versions of poems I saw take shape in workshop.

I met Jacqueline Lapidus through entirely different circumstances and only realized her connection to The Widows’ Handbook and to Holly after we had been corresponding for some time. The anthology had been on my reading list for some time, and meeting Jacqueline was the push I needed to crack the book. A slight woman with a mop of curly blonde hair, Jacqueline has a fascinating life story that spans continents and waves of the feminist movement. She was kind enough to talk with me about the societal implications of widowhood, her own experiences with it, and the work involved to create such a comprehensive anthology.

What role did poetry play in the grieving process for yourself and the poets in this collection?

My significant other, with whom I was involved on and off over more than 40 years, died suddenly the day after Thanksgiving 2004. We’d been together continuously for the past 10 years of his life.  I wrote poems to deal with my own grief, and anger, and frustration, because writing poems is what I do when I have strong feelings. I’ve done it all my life, and I’ve always sent my work out in the hope of getting it published. But the poems about widowhood that I submitted to literary magazines were rejected, probably because the editors—mostly young—couldn’t deal with such a painful theme. Then Lise Menn, a college classmate of mine who was also widowed, came to Boston for a conference. We went out to dinner, and while we were waiting for our order, she showed me her widow poems. After reading them, I had this bright idea. I said, “You know, this would be a great topic for an anthology.” And when you have a bright idea, well, you’re the one who has to make it happen. That was how we got started on what became The Widows’ Handbook. I pretty much knew what we’d have to do because I’ve worked in publishing for most of my life. I knew there was a potentially huge readership out there—eight million widows in this country alone!—and I knew that nobody else had done this kind of anthology before.

More experienced poets in The Widows’ Handbook, wrote widow poems because writing poems was what they always did. Lise Menn, my co-editor, wrote her widow poems particularly as a way to communicate her feelings to her therapist, because at first she couldn’t talk about her grief directly. But some of our contributors hadn’t written poetry at all before they were widowed. They started writing, sometimes in the context of therapy or writing groups, as a way of coping.

Continue reading “Interview with Widows’ Handbook Editor Jacqueline Lapidus”