Fierce Friday: Suzanne Cleary

"Feminist since the 1970’s, I do believe that the personal is, and, always will be, political. Following your own vision is political, and it is vital. Write what you must write, I say." Suzanne Cleary

Five years ago, I met poet Suzanne Cleary at my second residency for the Converse College MFA. She taught me that poetry can be fun and funny, and she has supported me and my work with care and enthusiasm ever since. I am lucky to call her my mentor and friend.

Enjoy my interview with Suzanne below for this, the first Fierce Friday post! Fierce Fridays will celebrate fierce, strong women. Read on, and be inspired. 

Out of all of your accomplishments, what are you most proud of and why?

I am proud to have published poems in many of the best of the best literary journals—which probably is the main way that I measure success as a poet; other poets find other personal markers of success. And certainly I am proud of my poetry books, especially Beauty Mark, which I think displays energy and risk and depth, if I dare say.  But when I really think about it, here is what I am most proud of: the fact that I have managed, for these many years, simply to keep writing poetry. I have been able to retain my passion for finding the right word, poem after poem after poem.[Note: I have been able to retain this passion through reading great poetry and through sharing my poems with a small group of valued readers, who critique and encourage me.] Why am I so proud of this? Because I believe it is a real accomplishment for any of us—especially women—to keep following our passion, whether or not the world is rewarding us with recognition. I believe that we must each recognize ourselves, and write of what matters to us. Let’s each recognize ourselves, and let the world catch up with us!  

What are you currently working on? How long have you been working on it? How did you become interested in it / where did you get the idea for it? 

As I type these words, I await word from a publisher that may want to publish my new book of poetry, my fourth book. So that is very much on my mind, distracting me a bit from the new poems brewing in my notebook. Nevertheless, currently I am working on my fifth book. Little scraps of paper attest to this, as do manuscript pages which bear the marks of having been crumpled and tossed across the room, then smoothed semi-flat. I think it will be a book of poems about obsession, obsessives. This remains to be seen.

Beyond poetry, I keep a sketchbook. In my early 30’s I received a poetry fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts. NYFA asked me for an Artist’s Statement and in it I wrote that what I “really wanted to be” was a painter. The statement woke me up! It scared me. I thought that it would be a terrible shame if I never tried to become a painter. I began studying art at the Art Students’ League, but I am mostly self-taught and mostly lazy. About three years ago I decided to get more disciplined, and now sketch nearly every day, usually in pencil or ink and watercolor. In truth, I am not awfully good at sketching, but I find it to be a deeply pleasurable activity. Most gratifying, it seems to activate the Poetry node of my brain.

What issue are you currently most passionate about? What is the one thing you would like people to know or understand about this issue?

Well, the occasion for your Fierce Friday blog series is the recent presidential election. I share the fears of so many people in the United States and beyond. Lately I am feeling especially concerned about the planet on which we live. What will the new administration mean for plants and animals, as well as for humans? The water surely is rising. I mean this figuratively as well as literally.  

Can you tell that I am trying not to type the name of the new president? As a poet, one of my big fears is that the president, and the 24-hour coverage of his dangerous shenanigans, will suck all of the air out of my psychic space. I have become addicted to CNN. I am watching too much television.

As heartening as it is for me to see artists responding to the election, I believe that attention also must be paid to the interior world, where our own particular creative impulse originates. We are now under no obligation to write—or paint or sing or dance or create some new art form—“about” politics. Feminist since the 1970’s, I do believe that the personal is, and, always will be, political. Following your own vision is political, and it is vital. Write what you must write, I say, topical or hermetic. 

What female author's work would you recommend and why?

I love and recommend the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. “At the Fishhouses” and “Crusoe in England” are touchstones for me. Why? Bishop demonstrates the power of steady observation to reveal resonance, often in the quotidian or homely. Seeing is such a radical activity! Bishop’s is a poetry of clarity and mystery, the two qualities I most want in a poem. I love the model of Bishop’s unflinching attention, her curiosity, her humor. That mind. That heart.  

Name one woman who has influenced you, had an impact on you, perhaps as a mentor. Why and how did she impact your life?

Your question brought her back to me, after 30-plus years of absence. Her name is Ruth Danon. She perhaps does not even remember, in the mid 1970’s, reading her poems to a poetry workshop at SUNY Oneonta, where I was an undergraduate. It was a snowy night, and this small woman with long dark hair parted-in-the-middle stomped her boots as she arrived, late. Ruth settled into our circle’s empty chair as the teacher, poet Donald Petersen, told us that tonight we had a special guest, a local poet who would read us a few of her poems. I remember that this guest wore a furry white hat, and that she spoke into her coat collar as she read. Honestly, I do not remember what she read. But I do remember that she seemed emissary from a world that I had never imagined before that night: some place where you could “be” a poet, some place beyond that small and hilly college town. The image of her remains a talisman for me, like a holy medal.

I suspect that this image resonates so strongly for me because I have had the great good fortune to be that poet for my MFA students, and for other poets who study with me, or who watch me stomp snow from my boots and walk up to a podium and read my poems. I am proud and also humbled to be a poet among poets, all of us together struggling and rejoicing in this mad world.

Suzanne Cleary won the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry for her third book, Beauty Mark, published by BkMk Press in 2013. Her other prizes include a Pushcart Prize and the Cecil Hemley Memorial Award of the Poetry Society of America. Professor of English at the State University of New York at Rockland, she also teaches as core faculty in the low-residency MFA in Creative Writing Program of Converse College. Her website is She is not the Irish dancer of the same name. She is not much of a dancer. 

Suzanne Cleary's third book and winner of the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry.

Suzanne Cleary's third book and winner of the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry.