Thursday, December 22, 2022

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Eileen Cleary

Eileen Cleary is the author of Child ward of the Commonwealth (Main Street Rag Press, 2019), which received an honorable mention for the Sheila Margaret Motton Book Prize, and 2 a.m. with Keats (Nixes Mate, 2021) She co-edited the anthology Voices Amidst the Virus which was the featured text at the 2021 Michigan State University Filmetry Festival. Her poems have been published in Sugar House Review, West Texas Literary Review, The American Journal of Poetry, Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices, and other journals. Cleary founded and edits the Lily Poetry Review and Lily Poetry Review Books, and curates the Lily Poetry Salon.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

My first book changed my life because that is the book in which I translated myself to myself. Publishing that book also made me feel as if I belonged in the poetry tribe.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or nonfiction?

I had been practicing as a nurse for many years and also volunteering in a construction ministry called the Appalachia Service Project, which has the wonderful mission of repairing homes for impoverished families living in Southern Appalachia. This work caused me to take an interest in writing grants to help bridge the gap in healthcare for impoverished communities. I took a graduate seminar in order to learn to write grants. The nurse leading the graduate seminar gave us an exercise to create a poem about disparities and unethical practices in medicine. During the writing of that poem, I experienced shaking and trembling and a kind of heat rising. When I got to the end of the page, I knew I could never go back to a life without writing poetry again.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

Writing projects start to declare themselves as I am writing. The writing comes slowly in general, inch by inch. The drafts always take the form of poetry but don’t always look like their final container.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

For me, the poems begin in images and energy. The energy builds and the images start to filter in and I know it is time to sit down and write. After a project is finished, it takes a while for me to know when a new one has started, but once my subconscious lets me in on the secret, I’m off and running.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I much prefer listening to other people read. I can’t believe that as adults we get to have others read to us, and for the most part, at no cost. I give readings because I feel an obligation to my publishers and I love my community, but definitely would rather be an attendee.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I don’t know if I am trying to answer questions. I hope one day, I know the right ones to ask.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

I think the most important roles of a writer are authenticity and compassion. My first book concerned my experience as a foster child and some topics such as disability, addiction, the role of the state in private lives, child safety, and hunger. It wasn’t my job to judge or give my opinion on these topics, just to translate the lyric heart of my experience, without compromising or harming others. I hope that book gives another person who is hungry or separated from their family, no matter the cause, a sense of belonging and understanding. Perhaps our roles are to translate our unique experiences and the readers’ roles are to universalize them. The more compassion and empathy in our writing, the better. What is art that extinguishes the heart?

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Both! Not really. I love the collaborative nature of peer editing, and I have several people for whom I edit. They also comment on my work.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

When I was in my second MFA program, I was talking to Nicole Terez Dutton about conditionals: how as soon as I was a published author, and had accomplished this thing and that next thing, I would start a poetry press. She responded, “You are enough already.” 

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

My writing routine is mostly about reading. I try to read poetry every day and that keeps me writing. My day starts around midnight because I work overnight as a hospice nurse. Sometimes, between patients, I jot down notes about poems.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I turn to reading and to the outdoors for inspiration.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?


13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Nature, newspaper articles, documentaries and science absolutely influence my poems. More and more, music is taking hold as well.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

My trouble is that I am enamored with too many writers, but luckily not all at the same time. The writers I am most smitten with this summer are Adrian Matejka, Kevin Prufer, Emily Dickinson, Martin Espada, Nathan McClain, Jennifer Martelli and all of my Lily authors.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

I would like to write a song and plant a tree.

16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

I have been a nurse for many years but I would also have loved to teach young children.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I can’t draw.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

One of the last great books I read was Celeste Mohammed’s Pleasantview.

I have only recently seen Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams and the cave paintings have replayed in my mind ever since.

19 - What are you currently working on?

Ever since I heard the story of the heroic boy, Steven Stayner, who was abducted at age seven and escaped at age 14, saving another boy in the process, I have been inspired to write it in verse. As a child, I was taken away from my family of origin for seven years (for entirely different reasons), and I identified with his story. We were also around the same age. I am currently finishing up that project.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

1 comment:

Summer Pager said...

Wonderful interview. Eileen Clearly is amazing.