Fort Lauderdale, FL
Poet Uses Writing to Sing
Work earns $5,000 Grant from Florida
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.”
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.
lines bring to life Aunt Sara, an eccentric character who is the
subject of a series of poems.
terminology used for playing marbles creates a symphony of words
in a two-page poem.
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.”
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.
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.
submitted sample poems to a panel of literary peers. Applicants
remain anonymous to the panel.
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.”
panel submits its recommendations to the Florida Arts Council,
which gives the final recommendation to the Secretary of State.
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.
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.”
has been published in numerous journals, including The Texas
Review, The Berkeley Poetry Review, and Negative
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
an avid reader, developed a serious interest in literature while
in college studying English at the State University of New York
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.
was just scared,” Cleary said, “of dropping out of
college to be an ex-high school jock forever.”
received his doctorate in English at Middle Tennessee State University
and afterward started teaching at BCC.
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.”
said the grant is good for BCC and the community because it shows
the state is recognizing people for their work, not their reputations
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.”