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HALFWAY DECENT SINNERS Poetry Compilations Can Often Come from Local Streets

The Post-Star
Glens Falls, NY

by Lisa Bramen


A poem in Michael Cleary’s new book, Halfway Decent Sinners, begins,

I never heard a nun fart
though God knows
they were beside us all our days.

The nuns were his teachers at St. Mary’s Academy, from which he graduated in 1963, and the irreverent tone is typical of his poems, many of which are ruminations on his upbringing in Glens Falls.

Cleary now lives in Florida, where he teaches English at Broward Community College. He returns to Glens Falls this week for a poetry reading at the Charles R. Wood Theater. The event is free, but Cleary has used publicity for the reading to solicit donations to Crandall Library’s renovation fund. So far, he said, more than $2,000 has been collected.

“I owe a lot to Glens Falls,” he said. “A lot of my material comes from here.”

Some of the places named in his poems, like the Paramount Theater, no longer exist, while others, including the Hyde Collection, are still around. But it’s the less highbrow landmarks he looks forward to visiting on his annual trips to see family and friends in the area.

“I like the things that haven’t changed, like Dirty John’s hot dogs, Talk of the Town Pizza, and Poopie’s Diner.”

Halfway Decent Sinners is Cleary’s second collection of poetry. His first, Hometown, USA, also focused heavily on reminiscences of Glens Falls in the 1950s and ‘60s—a place where, in his words, “when you had a bike, you were free.”

Free, that is, outside of Catholic school. In poems with names like “Sister Lard Ass” and “For All You Doogie Raiders,” he recalls the mild rebellious streak the restrictive environment of St. Mary’s inspired in him and his friends.

In hindsight, although he no longer practices the faith and didn’t send his children to Catholic school, he thinks it may have done him some good.

“I think you need something firm and formidable to bounce against. We bounced off those nuns,” he said.

When he began his teaching career—he taught English at Queensbury High School before getting his Ph.D.—he avoided following their methodology, which valued obedience over creativity.

“I wanted to at least be more interesting. And more modern,” he said.

Cleary didn’t take up writing poetry until his 30s. After getting his doctorate and moving to Florida, he started writing literary criticism. But when he was coerced into teaching a creative writing class, he decided to try writing poetry himself.

The third poem he ever wrote was accepted by the Texas Review, which he considered a fluke.

“That gave me encouragement,” he said. “I’ve been writing poems ever since.”

Recognition from critics and colleagues is great, he said, but he aims to write poems that aren’t “highfalutin,” that his mother could understand.

His poems don’t have any particular point he’s trying to make, he said. “My impetus is something funny or interesting that happened that I haven’t unraveled yet. I’m only writing to figure it out.”

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