Cleary attended Carrickfergus Grammar School in Northern Ireland. He moved from Northern Ireland in 1977 to Middlesbrough, a large town in north-east England, in order to attend Teesside Polytechnic. He then settled in Newcastle, where he founded Echo Room Press and was also the editor of Stand Magazine. Cleary earned a MA from Sunderland Polytechnic, which later became University of Sunderland in 1992.
Cleary has published a number of full collections throughout his career as well as in many magazines and a prodigious number of small press pamphlets. Martin Mooney noted the importance of pamphlets in Cleary's work 'architecturally' shaping different voices and blocks of work. From early in his career much of Cleary's work has been characterised by its conversational tone, one that "seems to aspire to a state of speech that is highly eloquent, almost as if it is a betrayal to have to write down the poem". His 2006 work, Weightless, was described by Roddy Lumsden as a "modern blues". A major retrospective of his work, Goin' Down Slow: selected poems 1985-2010, was published by Tall Lighthouse in 2010.
Cleary currently lives in Brighton where he edits a new incarnation of The Echo Room magazine launched in 2012.
Cleary's full collections include:
Cleary's pamphlets include:
19 issues of The Echo Room a poetry magazine edited and published by Cleary appeared between 1985 and 1994. Originally the magazine was produced in A4 format later issues were A5. The magazine typically published a mix of new emerging voices often with links to Northern, regional urban centres. Cleary describes his editorship as a quest to discover an urgency in poetry that was missing in the mid-80s and to publish poets willing to 'get their hands dirty'. The Echo Room relaunched in the spring of 2012 with Volume 2 Issue 1 with support from Pighog Press in Brighton. The new magazine published many poets who had appeared in the original series of magazines and retained much of its original low budget style including a Matthew Caley designed cover and a substantial number of typos.
In addition to publishing the magazine Cleary also launched the Echo Room Press in 1986 with the publication of 4 poetry pamphlets: Expecting Cameras by Cleary himself, Hicks by Matthew Caley, The Lost Boys by George Charlton and Tame the Neighbours by Martin Myers.