Getting To Know Eileen Cleary And Her New Book Child Ward Of The Commonwealth

When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?

I first encountered poetry as a child when I fell in love with Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson. Later, I found myself drawn to dozens of poets, and then scores more. I’ve always had the sense that I could write poetry, but realized that I was a poet during a course on Medical Ethics at Simmons College.  I did not know how to respond to the idea that scientific research had been performed on fragile populations without their consent. I reacted to The Tuskegee Experiment, in which almost 400 black Americans with syphilis were offered no medical treatment, by writing a poem. This was transformative, and I could not go back to being a person who didn’t write poetry.

Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?

 I wish I could say I had a writing routine, but I do have a reading routine and enjoy reading and immersing myself in other poets daily.

Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?

 My poems are born from images.

Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?

Some of the authors I return to over and over are Kathy Nilsson, Lucie-Brock Broido, Alice Monroe, Margaret Atwood, Emily Dickinson, Marie Howe, Wislawa Szmborska, Louise Bogan, Sylvia Plath, Robert Frost, Gary Soto, Laure-Anne Bosselaar, Jean Follain,W.S, Merwin, Richard Wilbur, Franz Wright, Jack Gilbert, Louise Gluck, Rhina P. Espaillat, Paul Celan, Tomas Transtromer, Czelaw Milosz, Charles Simic, Ilya Kaminsky,  Gwendolyn Brooks, Martha Collins, William Carlos Williams , Cate Marvin, Jason Reynolds, Kevin Prufer, Seamus Heaney and Erin Belieu.

One could never fully answer this question.

Tell us a little bit about your new collection: what’s the significance of the title? are there over-arching themes? what was the process of assembling it? was is a project book? etc.

Child Ward of the Commonwealth is a collection of poems in which I address being a child in foster care here in Massachusetts. It was published by Main Street Rag in June, 2019.

The poems in this book declared themselves over a period of five years. The initial drafts were obscured by the trauma I had buried, until slowly, the poetry insisted upon open authenticity. 

Once that happened, I turned to brave poets who tackled the human condition. Reading Ada Limon’s Bright Dead Things was transformative. In Limon’s collection of intimate narratives, she crafts opposing words and images, includes textured and authentic characters, speaks in an intimate and conversational tone and carefully places disclosures which stayed with me. This gave me hope that I could make art from trauma.

This work became so much clearer after that epiphany. I attended a seminar led by Bruce Weigl at the Joiner Center in the Summer of 2018. Weigl described putting his manuscripts together in a manner that clicked for me, and I assembled this book shortly afterwards.

Read an Excerpt From Child Ward of the Commonwealth

All of My Younger Selves Live Inside Me

The children do commune with one another.
Most ghost some backwoods
where they would have built a stick house
had they dwelled within their own bodies.
Do not ask them to hold one another. They are shy
as trillium bowing their faces to the earth.
Somewhere within a green echo and ash morning,
seeds of me breed a baggy cloak of dusk,
which extinguishes me the way
the North East wind snuffs match light.

Eileen Cleary earned an MFA at Lesley University and second at Solstice. She is twice a Pushcart nominee and has work published or upcoming in Naugatuck River Review, J Journal, The American Journal of Poetry, West Texas Literary Review, and Sugar House Review.

She manages the Lily Poetry Salon and edits Lily Poetry Review.

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