Tom Cleary


Tom Cleary grew up in County Tipperary and taught English for thirty years in secondary schools in London. His poems have appeared previously in Orbis, The Stinging Fly, and Smoke.

His debut pamphlet The Third Miss Keane was published by HappenStance Press in 2014 and in 2015 he won a Northern Writers’ Award. He was also recently announced in the longlist for the 2015 National Poetry competition.


Hi Tom. I hope you are well. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Your debut pamphlet The Third Miss Keane was published in 2014 by HappenStance Press, the end result of you winning the 2011 Writers Forum competition. For the uninitiated, how would you describe this collection of poems?

I’m very well thank you. I think the first thing I would want to say about The Third Miss Keane is that most of the poems are fictions. Some readers thought they were reconstructions of childhood memories. It would be more accurate to call them an imaginative reshaping of events and people from my past.

Take for example the poem ‘Matty’. When I was a small boy, a young woman next door spent some time recovering from consumption in a hut on her lawn. She was twice my age and ‘Matty’ is not about her. When I chose to write a poem about her predicament, I invented Matty.

A third of the poems in the pamphlet are not connected with my past at all such as ‘Goose’, ‘Hobgoblin’, ‘They Came for the Tiles’, ‘The Wheelbarrow People’ and ‘The Silence’. There are one or two poems about actual events and people though. ‘Distant Peering’ and ‘Panus Angelicus’ for example are about my maternal uncle Jack, a small farmer, who was a very simple but talented man.



I understand you only started writing poetry later in life after you retired. Had poetry been a big part of your life before then or mostly confined to the classroom in your career as an English teacher?

I think poetry was closely linked to my career as an English teacher, though I was always a poetry reader. As an English teacher, the contemporary poetry I read and worked with in my classroom tended to be major 20th century contemporaries like Heaney, Plath, Hughes, Larkin and First World War poets like Owen.

I also liked to work with poets like Donne, Pope, the Romantics and Browning. Encouraging students to read and write poetry was very important to me. I had to wait until I retired to discover the full range of contemporary poetry, and I’m happy to say become a small part of it.



The poems in The Third Miss Keane have a very distinct style and voice – often describing what on the surface seem to be domestic scenes that quickly veer into the uncanny and have an almost dream-like or fairy-tale quality. Are these the sort of poems you wrote from the outset when you first began writing or did the style and voice emerge over time? And are you aware of any influences that have shaped your work?

This is a really hard one, because I don’t think I can identify any specific influences that shaped my poetry. I think the way Irish poets such as Bernard O’Donoghue, Maurice Riordan, Eiléan Ni Chuilleanáin and Ciaran Carson build their worlds by using detail has influenced me. The precise selection of detail.

In another sense Larkin is an influence, as in ‘Mr Bleaney’; I’ve always liked the way the dark underbelly of Bleaney’s life is hinted at rather than revealed. And I’m strongly drawn to Browning and ‘My Last Duchess’, Keats and ‘La Belle Dame’. And poets such as W. H. Auden, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, or Jo Shapcott.

But I’m not conscious of any of them being strong presences when I write. I think that since I began to write poems that I was pleased with, I’ve wanted to reveal a dark side, a hint of danger, of menace. The cinema has been a strong influence, and writers such as Henry James, Penelope Fitzgerald, Breece Pancake in ‘Trilobites’, Javier Marías, and George Simenon’s romans durs.

I like at times to mystify, to leave the reader puzzled, unsure of what the poem has just said. A friend of mine says that my poems sometimes take him to a place he’s not sure he wants to be.



Congratulations on receiving a New Writer’s Award last year. I imagine that must have been quite a boost to give you the confidence to forge ahead with new writing. Have you plans to work towards another publication?

A bigger boost even than winning the award has come from working with the other five poets in the New North Poets group and with our mentor, Clare Pollard. I’m doing a lot of new writing at the moment, and I would like to publish a full collection in the near future. I read too in local reading groups such as The Puzzle Hall in the Calder Valley. Within our NNP group we will be reading at literary festivals towards the end of the year of our award. I think my principal goal is to write, to go on writing and to get my poems published.



Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?

I’ve chosen the poem ‘Hobgoblin’ from The Third Miss Keane. Like other poems in the pamphlet this one was wholly imagined. My idea was to make the lost girl a version of the Catholic saint Bernadette, imagine her abandoned by the Virgin as of no further use or because she had become over-demanding, and then driven out of her village. Then I lost interest in the back story of the girl’s past and focussed centrally on her. I’m fascinated by the way myths and legends are developed. I try to show in this poem how the truth about the girl and what happens to her gets buried in the myths and legends surrounding her.



The girls carried her into the house that Easter day
when we were preparing the baked meats for the feast.
They found her in the hay field wailing and choking
and stumbling and falling over in the furrows.
Her eyes bulged from her little ferret face.
She tore the meat I gave her with her teeth.
She bolted down a hot drink of herbs so quickly
that it scalded her, and she howled and spat out a torrent.

She never once spoke to me. My girls said
she spoke to them in a tongue no-one understood.
She soiled her bed. She smashed delicate ornaments.
She left greasy knots of hair in the tines of combs.
Sums of money went missing.
There was the incident of the dead soldier.

One morning she was gone. No one heard
the sound of her preparations in the house.
She took no food or drink with her on her journey.
People in the village saw her with travellers begging.
Villainous men, they said, who drank and robbed.
Blood was spilt and at least one man hanged.

Years later, travellers coming a great distance said
they saw her preaching to crowds gathered in marketplaces.
People moaned and chanted and fell down in fits.
She plunged her devotees into deep water and held them down.
She rode with bandits in the night burning farmhouses.
Then she gave birth to a hobgoblin that bit its way out.