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, 202.1) Her recent work is included in Tree Lines: 21st Century American Poetry (Grayson Books, 2022.) She is founder and EIC of Lily Poetry Review and Lily Poetry Review Books. In addition, she co-edited the anthology Voices Amidst the Virus, the featured text at the 2021 Michigan State University Filmetry Festival.
KMD: Throughout the book, the specters of Lucie Brock-Broido and Keats loom large. To what extent is all of poetry an act of reading and response?
EC: I think that on a universal, biological level what we perceive are calls, and we respond to that input. From something as simple as feeling cold and donning a coat, we are constantly calling and responding to the world. In art, this elevates itself to conversation. One poet or artist calls out to another who in turn responds. One of the highest callings of the poet is to read deeply the work of other poets. Luckily for us, poetry flattens time and shortens distance, so that in a single poem in 2023, one can walk with Keats among the river-sallows in 1819, and simultaneously sit in a rarefied ghost garden with Brock-Broido in 2018. The poet actively enters another’s work, engages, and responds. Something new is born and something old is reborn.
Beyond that, I believe we can have relationships, albeit existential, with other poets on the page. I worte 2 AM with Keats just prior to the pandemic. My calling as hospice nurse allowed me to comfort Keats. I understood viscerally that he’d endured his brother’s and parents’ deaths, and that he’d anticipated his impending premature and certain death. If solace could be transported across centuries, from the living to the dead, I was determined to offer it. During that endeavor, I was comforted while facing the uncertain fate of the pandemic.
KMD: Your poems make expert use of white space. The page becomes a canvas, a visual field. Can you speak to the power of white space in poetry as a unit of composition?
EC: White space is a force in a poem. It is its mortar. For instance, even tiny amounts of white space between parentheses became little alcoves where Keats read his sonnets to me before I responded with my own verse. His words were off page, in another book. But his presence was in the parentheses.
White space can pause a conversation or become a shared silence. In “Stories of Your Death” parentheses keep space and time between the stories. A lot is happening in the empty space between parentheses and in the white space above and below them.
Also, white space became a private room for me to gather myself before continuuing the narrative. I imagine a reader using white space to rest and reflect on their own responses. White space stores all of the vital material intentionally left out of a poem.
KMD: In addition to your achievements as a poet, you are an acclaimed editor. What has curation opened up within your creative practice?
EC: Editing has allowed me to appreciate a wide aesthetic. There are so many extraordinary poets and it is a privilege to enter their works. Editing another poet when that poet has not been able to translate themselves on the page is most exciting for me. That process of conveyance and discovery not only illuminates that poet and their book, but provides tools for me to translate myself to the page.
KMD: Tell us a bit more about Lily Poetry Review and Lily Poetry Review Books.
EC: When I founded Lily Poetry Review Books in 2019, I knew there were spectacular writers who may or may not ever publish books, and I knew I could do their work justice. The poets at Lily are extraordinary, not just their poetry, but they are magnificent people. They support one another and have created a generous and caring community. I would do anything for them.
We are drawn to lyric narratives but have also published some visual and experimental poetry.
The books are all beautiful and compelling. We have published over 40 books to date and we run one contest annually. This annual prize is named for a master of the lyric narrative Paul Nemser, who lost his struggle with lung cancer this February. He is published widely and Lily published his last two books, A Thousand Curves and Break on Through.
KMD: What’s next? What can readers look forward to?
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 writing that manuscript now, and also a longer poem which is an Ars poetica. These projects will keep me busy for a while.