ELI CLARE: poetry grabbed me by the collar, whispered in my ear: you’re coming with me

White, disabled, and genderqueer, Eli Clare happily lives in the Green Mountains of Vermont where he writes and proudly claims a penchant for rabble-rousing. He has written a book of essays, Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation (South End Press, 1999, 2009), a collection of poetry, The Marrow’s Telling: Words in Motion (Homofactus Press, 2007), and has been published in many periodicals and anthologies.

Eli speaks, teaches, and facilitates all over the United States and Canada at conferences, community events, and colleges about disability, queer and trans identities, and social justice. Among other pursuits, he has walked across the United States for peace, coordinated a rape prevention program, and helped organize the first ever Queerness and Disability Conference. When he’s not writing or on the road, you can find him reading, hiking, camping, riding his recumbent trike, or otherwise having fun adventures.

I know Eli through Rebekah Edwards, a Queer/Gender Studies professor at Mills College. Two years ago, Dr. Edwards taught The Marrow’s Telling: Words in Motion and asked Eli to come to class and speak with us. The book is beautiful, and Eli is a magnificent speaker and activist.

July Westhale

July Westhale: What books do you love and are currently reading?

Eli Clare: I read widely in many genres. Currently I’m reading Ntozake Shange and Ifa Bayeza’s Some Sing, Some Cry. I just finished Michael Forsberg’s Great Plains: America’s Lingering Wild. Soon I’ll start Stephanie Mill’s In Service of the Wild: Restoring and Reinhabiting Damaged Lands. And finally I’m slowly working my way through Minnie Bruce Pratt’s Inside the Money, Machine; Susan Cohen and Christine Osgrove’s Normal at Any Cost: Tall Girls, Short Boys, and the Medical Industry’s Quest to Manipulate Height; and Johnathan Metzl’s The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease.

I love Adrienne Rich’s What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics, Linda Hogan’s People of the Whale, and Jackie Kay’s Trumpet, among many other books.

What writers do you admire?

Mary Oliver, Mark Doty, Martin Espada, June Jordan , Cherrie Moraga, Beth Brant, Essex Hemphill, Audre Lorde, Terry Tempest Williams, Qwo-Li Driskill, Harriet McBryde Johnson, Susan Stinson. The list goes on and on.

Are there any hobbies or activities that you enjoy, outside of writing? Do you think that these activities help you with your writing?

Camping, hiking, dog walking, trike riding—just being outside. My writing is intensely nourished by time in the natural world. I also recite out loud poems that I’m working on while I’m walking or riding my trike. I often do important revision in this way.

What is your writing process? Do you mostly write from personal experience?

My best writing arises from questions, rather than answers. I write from a mixture of personal experience, communal history, connection to land, and connection to a variety of communities. Personal experience is both vital to my work and not big enough by itself.

How did you get your start? Did you attend an MFA program or not? How did you learn your craft?

In high school I started writing poetry because I was bored. Sixth period I sat in study hall and had nothing to do. The only option was a poetry class. I hated the idea of it. I didn’t like the teacher, either, but I was bored enough to give him a try. We wrote poems, read poems, sent poems out for publication, proudly collected our rejection letters, mimeographed pamphlets of our poems. I fell in love. Almost no one from that tiny backwoods, white, working-class high school went on to college. There were no AP English classes nor National Merit Scholars. The girls got pregnant. The boys got into drunken car crashes. We drove hundreds of miles to hear Gary Snyder, Carolyn Kizer, Galloway Kinnell read their poems. But no one handed us poems by Nikki Giovanni, June Jordan, Lucille Clifton. From the very beginning poetry grabbed me by the collar, whispered in my ear, “You’re coming with me.” I followed willingly, not knowing where we were headed.

A dozen years later I got my MFA at Goddard College. I learned a lot there, but it isn’t the only place I learned craft.

How has your career evolved over time?

I started out as a poet. I now write a fair amount of creative nonfiction, and much of my work straddles the two genres.

Did you have a mentor—how valuable was that? How did the relationship come to be?

I have had several fabulous teachers—my high school poetry teacher, the director of the creative writing program at the school where I did my undergraduate work, my MFA advisor. But more importantly I have several long-term connections with other writers who are my first readers, avid fans, and demanding critics.

What’s your daily working method? How much time do you spend writing each day—and how do you make that happen? 

I write in multiple drafts. Before a poem is done, it’ll often go through a dozen drafts. I compose on a computer and try to write 4 or 5 days a week for a couple hours a day. But to be honest when my life gets too full or stressed, writing is one of the first things that falls off my table, which is ironic because it’s also one of the most important things I do. I make time by blocking writing time off in my calendar and turning off the internet.

How do you balance work and life?

I try, and am successful only some of the time, to write first thing in the day in order to prioritize it.

How do you make money—does most of your income come from your writing, or not? Do you teach? If so, do you feel it helps you to be a better writer, or is it a necessary evil? 

I have worked a variety of jobs to pay the rent: door-to-door fundraiser, coordinator of a rape prevention program, manager of a recycling drop-off center, bookkeeper, office assistant. My writing has never paid the bills, nor do I expect it to. However, in the last several years I’ve been able to make my living by speaking, training, facilitating, and teaching on campuses all over the US and Canada. This work is made possible because both of my books are taught in a fair number of Gender Studies, Queer Studies, and Disability Studies classrooms. It’s good and challenging work that creates many opportunities for me and my writing but doesn’t directly make me a better writer.

Based on your background, what advice do you have for me, as a young poet in an MFA program?

Keep writing. Don’t let the rejection letters from journals, editors, and publishers; the critique from other writers; the general competitiveness of the writing world; or your own self-doubt keep you from putting words on paper. Whatever beauty or sorrow, funny story or profound truth you have to tell, just write and keep writing. For those of us who are queer, disabled, chronically ill, deaf, people of color, poor and working class, immigrants, women; let’s resist all the ways in which the world tries to steal our tongues, our pens, our words.


July Westhale is a writer, femme shark, activist, and archivist with a weakness for botany and hot air balloons. She writes poems, long curly letters, academic articles, art criticism, travel essays, interviews, book reviews, & the occasional terrible short story. She does not normally wear blazers, or drink lattes.

She was recently named a 2011 Lambda Literary Fellow in Poetry for LLF’s Emerging LGBT Voices Writing Residency, an Artist in Residence at Dairy Hollow Writers Colony, a runner up in the Femme Bot & Arsenic Chapbook competition & an indentured servant atCopper Canyon Press. University of Wisconsin at Madison’s lit journal Women in REDzine just named her one of their “top 10 inspiring political poets of 2011.”