In the Spotlight
Eileen Cleary & Rebecca Connors
About: 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, forthcoming from Nixes Mate. Her poems have appeared in Sugar House Review, West Texas Literary Review, The American Journal of Poetry, JAMA, Right Hand Pointing, and other journals. Cleary founded the Lily Poetry Review and Lily Poetry Review Books, and she hosts/curates the Lily Poetry Salon..
About: Rebecca Connors' poems can be found in Glass, Rogue Agent, Lily Poetry Review, and Tinderbox Poetry Journal, among others. Her chapbook, Split Map (Minerva Rising Press), won the Dare to Speak Chapbook competition and was published in 2019. She lives with her family in Boston, where she received her MFA at the Solstice Creative Writing Program at Pine Manor College. Follow her on Twitter @aprilist or visit her site at aprilist.com.
Photo Credit for Eileen Cleary: Rebecca Connors
Photo Credit for Rebecca Connors: Patrick Connors
Rebecca Connors: I am excited to talk with you because since we met in 2014, you have been one of the hardest-working poets I’ve met. Not only do you nurture yourself and your writing, but you also forge literary communities and support emerging writers. I mean, I can't count how many times I have frantically called or emailed you for feedback, and you have given me insightful, generous comments on my work.
Eileen Cleary: Thank you, Becca.
Connors: Let's talk about all things poetry. What brought you to poetry? Was there a moment where you thought I have to do this, or had you been writing for some time?
Cleary: I am a lifelong reader, but there was a “moment” when I realized that I must write poetry too. I was in a post-graduate class on nursing research and ethics and was asked to write a poem in response to the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. For 40 years, public health officials conducted unethical testing of Black sharecroppers under the mask of offering them free medical treatment. As I responded to this in a poem, I began to shake and felt a change within me. I realized I had discovered a new kind of freedom by the time I reached the end of the page.
I had been writing poetry for about six months before meeting you in 2014.
Connors: When I heard you describe this moment, I immediately thought of Laure-Anne Bosselaar's voice saying, “What made the poet unable to remain silent on the subject?” You needed to speak to that horror. I honestly can't believe that you had only been writing for six months before that workshop.
What I remember from that time was your innate skill in rendering emotion on the page—something which you have honed to a great degree. When did you decide to get an MFA? MFAs?
Cleary: I earned my MFAs because I wanted to become part of a writing community. As a novice poet, I knew that I needed to immerse myself in craft and talk about poems with scholars and poetry lovers who could enhance my appreciation.
Connors: Yes, I agree. I looked to an MFA as a way to learn the language to talk about poetry– being able to point to a specific line and know that it was impacting me because of the diction or the metaphor or the line break before it. Also, being in a group of writers means that one is continuously given excellent book recommendations. What are some books that are particularly meaningful to you?
Cleary: The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson is the book most meaningful to me as a poet. Of course, there are dozens of books I keep returning to, and I get quite excited about contemporary work as it is published. But I am never far from a Dickinson poem.
Connors: You also have a new book coming out soon—can you speak a little bit about it?
Cleary: Yes. My second book is called 2 A.M. with Keats and is slated to be published by Nixes Mate Press. I started writing this book when my friend Lucie Brock-Broido died. I missed her terribly and wanted to commune with her. I began reading Keats and talking back to his sonnets in order to speak to both John and Lucie. The manuscript also has poems directly concerning Keats, as well as elegies to Brock-Broido.
Connors: I am excited about the release of this book. What have you learned from your first book that you brought to your second?
Cleary: I think I learned most from my first book not to be afraid of my authenticity, whether that be the voice, the form, or the subject matter of my poems. I had been terrified that I wouldn't find an audience that would respond to my obscurity or individuality.
Once Child Ward of the Commonwealth was accepted, I realized that I no longer had to stunt myself. In this way, my first book liberated me.
Connors: There is much to admire about Child Ward of the Commonwealth— especially the lyrical moments. I can close my eyes and recall images from your book– burnt skin draped, “deer withers wet in river,” and the porch slats. Then there are the details– slurping noodles, a thin slice of meatloaf– which to me illustrates the type of care delivered, like in this excerpt from your poem, Foster Kid:
...Leenie slurps noodles from the pan, stuffs
liverwurst through porch slats, swallows
meatloaf, sliced-thin and too fast. While
the real share dinner in the next room.
Manuscripts can feel like molting in a way. You work through one, publish it, and you are freed to move forward. Are you by any chance working on another manuscript?
Cleary: Yes. I am currently writing and publishing poems about my hospice work. I hope this manuscript provides a communal place for the ghosts I carry to convene. During the pandemic, I have been thinking about ancient literature. This resulted in my writing about Odysseus's absence and its impact on Penelope, Argos, Laertes, and Telemachus. The hospice and Odyssey poems are coming slowly. I am grateful that they are here at all.
Connors: In speaking with you, I notice that with your second book, and third manuscript, that you are able to have conversations with voices from the past in order to commune with the missing today. To talk to Keats so to speak with Lucie, to talk to Penelope so to speak about loss during this time. I struggle with conversing with the past—what is your strategy, if you don’t mind? There are many people I am interested in speaking to, but I freeze in my approach.
Cleary: One of the greatest gifts poetry has given me is that it collapses distance and time. Poets around the world over various centuries can be in conversation with one another simply by being read by the same person. In this way, Donne can be at the same table forbidding mourning, where Frost advises us that nothing gold can stay. Dickinson can share how she can tell there's been a death in the neighbor's house on a day when we are wrestling with a death. In that very moment, Ross Gay can tell us a needful fact that Eric Gardner's kind acts continue to nourish after Gardner's murder, and just when we might be at the brink of all of our own and others’ grief, Akhmatova tells us that she learned to live again.
What to do next? For me, it is to put my words in conversation with theirs at my own table, to reach across to people I will/may never meet in real life, but whose poetry has given me the gift of community. Every poem I read today might as well have happened today. They exist forever in the present.
My advice is that to speak to people who are gone—as so many poets before us have done—add your voice to the chorus by listening to and reading the others. The response may not be a direct or obvious response but something that transforms you and thus, your writing.
Connors: I never thought about this in this way—in the form of invitation to the table. As poets are always in conversation with each other, there are multiple ways to engage with poets from the past. Thank you!
The practice of writing, of being a writer, seems to me to be ongoing. In my experience, it is a decision to observe with focused attention, to be a witness. And this can happen at any time of the day, so there is a constant gathering of information, of taking notes, etc. The more concentrated writing sessions happen from there.
Cleary: You’re welcome.
Connors: I want to move on to the work you do as a literary citizen because besides all these manuscripts, you are a very busy editor. I wanted to ask a little bit about Lily Poetry Review. I also want to know about some of the other things like the Lily Poetry Salon...when did it start? Why did it start?
Cleary: The Lily Poetry Salon came about during my second year at Lesley University's MFA program. I was looking to connect with local poets and include my dear friend Mani Iyer, a blind poet. He also requires an audio amplifier device to hear. We decided to hold monthly readings at his home. We typically have a bit of socialization with food and wine, followed by a reading and a Q&A session.
Connors: And over time, you have built a core group of poets and poetry lovers and provided a space for both emerging and established poets to read. It seems a natural shift to launch a journal.
Cleary: I had always wanted to edit a journal. I'd been fantasizing about starting a literary magazine for about five years before Lily Poetry Review. I imagined being able to include beautiful poems of various aesthetics in the journal.
I put the idea aside and worked as an assistant poetry editor at Carve Magazine. I learned a lot in that position and knew I'd like to run a journal focused on poetry. It then seemed the logical next step to start the review. I expanded into publishing books because there are so many unpublished, vital, and deserving manuscripts that may never find a home. I wanted to be a part of putting them into the world.
If you are thinking of starting a press or journal, I want to share the advice Nicole Terez Dutton (editor of Kenyon Review) gave me when I shared my dream of becoming an editor and publisher. I had just finished listing the ways that I would turn myself inside out to become "good enough" to start a press. She simply said, “You are already enough.”
Connors: That's beautiful. I think Nicole’s advice applies to many situations. We tend to find reasons why we shouldn’t do something under the guise of “not being good enough.” And now look, Lily Poetry Review has published four issues and has branched to include flash fiction. And Lily Poetry Review Books has published four chapbooks and three full-length manuscripts in its first year. Plus, there are a dozen books in editing rounds for 2021.
You've also been responsive to current events with the anthology, Voices Amidst the Virus: Poets Respond to the Pandemic. Can you talk a little bit about what it's like being an editor and what it is that you really like seeing on the page?
Cleary: The most urgent and challenging thing about being an editor is ensuring that my edits in no way encroach upon or impede the translation of another poet's art. The impulse of the work I edit doesn't belong to me, but it is my job to make sure it is in its most precise form.
I tend to respond to concision, strong imagery, and a distinct voice that has a life beyond the page. I believe that poetry is both an art and a science. If I write poems without heart, I am drawing line diagrams, no matter how well crafted the work. But, if a piece has only emotion and no poetics or craft, it doesn't call to me. This is how I experience poems as a reader, an editor, and a poet.
Connors: I thought it wouldn't be an interview between the two of us if we didn't mention craft as we're both graduates of Solstice Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program, a program that places such a strong emphasis on the craft. What is your favorite aspect of the art, and what do you struggle with the most?
Cleary: Music, sound, syntax, imagery, concision, and line integrity are the things I most consciously enjoy working on in poems. I will always struggle to expand my range and try new approaches to writing.
Connors: Yes, all of this! I love syntax, musical sounds, and finding stand-alone lines. I find it difficult sometimes to be descriptive in a way that is impactful yet not over-the-top. My biggest struggle is to let the poem go where it wants to go. I am learning to be comfortable with messiness.Cleary: Letting go of the editor self when writing is difficult. Thanks for interviewing me! I always love to talk with you.