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HOMETOWN, USAThe Sun-Sentinel
Fort Lauderdale, FL

Prize-Winning Poet Uses Writing to Sing
Work earns $5,000 Grant from Florida

by Lourdes Rodriguez-Florido


Michael Cleary sat in his office at Broward Community College and talked about writing. The English professor had just realized one reason he writes poetry. “I was one of those people in high school not able to sing,” Cleary said. “Poetry is a lot about sound. It’s almost like singing if you put the words together right. Maybe it’s the same type of frustration—I can’t sing, so I’ll write. Maybe that’s my way of compensating.”

Cleary sees beyond the obvious in his poems. A truck driver, the subject of an Associated Press article when he attempted flight on a lawn chair attached to weather balloons, becomes a modern-day Icarus.

Zigzag lines bring to life Aunt Sara, an eccentric character who is the subject of a series of poems.

The terminology used for playing marbles creates a symphony of words in a two-page poem.

“Part of it is observing and thinking, ‘this is worth exploring,’” Cleary said. “A good deal is introspective, things that have happened that I’m trying to make sense of.”

Cleary’s way of looking at things has paid off. In October, he was awarded a $5,000 Individual Artist Fellowship from the state for his poetry.

The yearly grant is given out in seven categories: visual arts, literature, theater, dance, folk arts, media arts, and music. “It’s basically an award for achievement,” said JuDee Pettijohn, assistant director of the Division of Cultural Affairs for Florida.

Cleary submitted sample poems to a panel of literary peers. Applicants remain anonymous to the panel.

“I like the anonymity of it,” Cleary said. “Sometimes you send things off and you know the person from the big-name university will get it.”

The panel submits its recommendations to the Florida Arts Council, which gives the final recommendation to the Secretary of State.

Cleary will use the grant to take the summer off from teaching to write. During the Fall and Spring, Cleary teaches five classes and in the summer, he teaches two. The curriculum ranges from freshman composition to advanced creative writing workshops. He often spends nights and weekends working on his own writing.

“I’ve never had the luxury of simply taking time to write,” Cleary said. “It’s always been squeezed around other things. This will give me the opportunity to give it some concentration for a period of time.”

Cleary has been published in numerous journals, including The Texas Review, The Berkeley Poetry Review, and Negative Capability.

One of his earliest, “Aunt Sara on Valentine’s Night,” was the result of attending a writers’ conference in St. Petersburg. During a workshop, participants were asked to develop an idea for a poem from squiggles on a blackboard.

“I saw it as the scratches on a pane of frosted glass,” Cleary said. “I saw this woman making a kiss and tracing with her tongue.” The last stanza reads:

Elbows framed along the peeling sill,
she presses her lips against the glass
in a cautious, frosted kiss,
savors the chill of melting ice
sliding smooth and slick,
then moved by a memory,
she traces tongue-tied lines
into twin black hearts.
Lick Lick. Lick. Lick.

The poem was published and Cleary followed up with other Aunt Sara poems. Cleary said that a poem will take several weeks to write, with hundreds of drafts.

The poems take on a life of their own. “You think you know where it’s going, then you change a word, then a line, and the poem takes off in its own direction.”

Cleary said this occurred in his poem, “Plastic Flamingos,” which started out critical of Florida kitsch and ended up as a celebration of the modern. “That’s the exciting part,” he said.

Cleary, an avid reader, developed a serious interest in literature while in college studying English at the State University of New York at Potsdam.

In high school, Cleary concentrated on playing football and basketball on championship teams. He made a conscious effort to avoid playing sports in college because of the time commitment, and he was determined to finish college because neither of his parents had the chance to complete high school.

“I was just scared,” Cleary said, “of dropping out of college to be an ex-high school jock forever.”

Cleary received his doctorate in English at Middle Tennessee State University and afterward started teaching at BCC.

“I admire both him and his poetry,” said Shirley A. Stirnemann, Stirnemann, editor of the South Florida Poetry Review and adjunct professor at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, was one of Cleary’s students. “He encouraged me and prodded me to go ahead on and do other things,” Stirnemann said. “I attribute much that has come to me in my life from having known him.”

Cleary said the grant is good for BCC and the community because it shows the state is recognizing people for their work, not their reputations or contacts.

“You’re always thinking, ‘if I only had more time,’” he said. “But there’s always the next set of papers waiting, pecking at your soul. At least for this summer, it won’t be that way.”

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