portrait Kelle Groom

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 194 ~ July, 2013

Kelle Groom (http://www.kellegroom.com) is the author of the memoir, I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl (Free Press/Simon & Schuster 2011), which was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great Writers pick, as well as a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice selection, a Library Journal Best Memoir of 2011, a Barnes & Noble Book of the Month, an Oxford American Editor’s Pick, and Oprah.com O Magazine selection. “In stirring, hypnotic prose,” Groom’s memoir tells of her struggle with addiction, and the loss of her son, first to adoption when she was nineteen, and then, after being diagnosed with leukemia, to his death at the age of only fourteen months.

Groom is also the author of three poetry collections, Five Kingdoms (Anhinga Press, 2010), Luckily (Anhinga Press, 2006), and Underwater City (University Press of Florida 2004).

Kelle Groom

Kelle Groom

Her poetry has appeared in Best American Poetry 2010, The New Yorker, Ploughshares, and Poetry, among many other literary journals and publications.

She has received special mention in the Pushcart Prize 2010 and Best American Non-Required Reading 2007 anthologies.

Groom is the recipient of fellowships from Black Mountain Institute, Millay Colony for the Arts, Atlantic Center for the Arts, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, to name a few, as well as both a 2010 and a 2006 Florida Book Award.

She is Distinguished Writer-in-Residence (2012-2013) in the Sierra Nevada College English Department, and is also on the faculty of the low-residency MFA program at Sierra Nevada College, Lake Tahoe. A former poetry editor of The Florida Review, she is now a contributing editor.

Derek Alger: One source of continuity in your life is clear from your statement about how you “Always went back to the Cape.”

Kelle Groom: I’ve spent a lot of my life moving. Over fifty different places, half of those before I was twenty years old. Both of my parents are from Massachusetts, my mom’s family from Cape Cod. My grandparents lived in South Yarmouth and Dennis all their lives.  A few years after my Dad joined the Navy, we left the Cape, but we came home every summer. I still try to return every year.

DA: Another example of continuity in your life was, of course, writing.

KG: I recall learning to read and beginning to write poems and stories as happening at the same time. I loved the way another world opens up in both. It seemed as if the only way to understand something was to write about it. I always wrote – as a kid, in my teens, into adulthood, drunk, sober.

DA: You certainly moved around with your family..

KG: Yes, I spent my early childhood in Massachusetts. But even there, we moved several times. I was born in Brockton, but never lived in that city. We were living in Whitman, but my mother didn’t want to give birth in a military hospital. A year later, we spent the winter in a summer rental on Bass River, among other places. My grandfather was a builder, and he built our last home on the mid-Cape, in Dennisport. We left it for Hawaii – Waipahu and Honolulu, then Orlando, El Paso, Satellite Beach in Florida, the coast of Spain near Cadiz. I graduated from high school there. I’d published my first story at fifteen, in my school’s literary magazine.

DA: College was rather a rude awakening at first, though, I must admit I had a similar experience.

KG: I’d graduated from high school a year early, and my parents would only allow me to attend my mother’s school, Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts. They were still stationed overseas, and wanted me to have family nearby. On my college application, I’d written that I wanted to be a writer. I’d done well in English. But in my first literature class, we analyzed poems, and I was told my answers were wrong. It was disorienting, as if literature had become math. I made a C. I’d never made a C in anything but algebra.  It reminded me of my college music class. My teacher would play music, and then ask us to write about it. I had no idea what he meant, so I wrote images and scenes. Made a D in music.

My first semester, I was on academic probation. I started drinking before my 8 a.m. class. But it was a class I audited that saved me. The class certified me to work a Suicide Hotline off-campus. I’d had self-destructive thoughts and hoped the class could give me some tips on staying alive. I did get certified, and was also befriended by an older classmate who connected me to a community and support. I’d found out about the class at a family party in Brockton. A woman, who I never saw before or after, mysteriously related to me and told me about this class. All around me were my dad’s relatives, most of whom I’d never met. I kept hearing strangers say, “That’s Mike’s girl.”

DA: Then you found an academic home at the University of Central Florida.

KG: Yes. I received my BA, MA, and MFA from UCF. When I left Bridgewater, I went to a community college in Florida. I almost flunked out, and went to see an academic counselor. She said that since I made As in my Creative Writing classes, I should only take Creative Writing. I think I took four sections of it, and my grade point average stabilized. I was pregnant at the time, and following the pregnancy, drinking alcoholically. But I went on to UCF for my BA, and though I dropped out several times, one of my first writing teachers, Wyatt Wyatt continued to visit me at work and encourage me to return to school.  Wyatt always made me feel as if I were not only okay, but interesting.  If it had felt like pity, as if he were doing me a favor, it wouldn’t have worked. But I felt that Wyatt genuinely missed me and valued my writing. He introduced me to other writers. Wyatt invited me to a dinner with Harry Crews, and it meant so much to me to sit at that table when I was twenty years old and not yet sober.

Don Stap was also a great supporter at UCF. He created the student literary magazine, The Cypress Dome, in which I published my first poem and won first place in their literary contest.  He continued to support me throughout my academic career, and I received awards for outstanding undergraduate poet and graduate student. I’d never had the word “outstanding” applied to anything I’d done before. When I returned to UCF for my MFA, Don was my thesis advisor. He nominated my thesis for the University’s Thesis Award – one thesis chosen from every thesis in every college that year.  It won.

DA: You originally were writing prose but decided to concentrate on poetry.

KG: I wrote both, but in graduate school, we had to choose a concentration. I love the distillation of poetry, the direct line to feeling and emotion. I continued to write prose, including flash fiction, in my graduate workshops, but focused primarily on poetry in school.

DA: You experienced the stress and scramble of adjunct teaching after college.

KG: While working on my M.A. in Creative Writing, I’d been teaching English as a Second Language full-time. But when the private language school hired a new director, faculty were required to have an M.A. in Linguistics.  I was out of a job and mentioned this in passing to Wyatt Wyatt, who was still teaching at UCF then. He’d immediately marched me down the hall to the Chair of English Department and announced, “Kelle is available to teach!” As if it were the luckiest thing in the world. I was very lucky to have had Wyatt as a champion.  I did teach seven classes at four different campuses that semester, and ran a car into the ground.  But the next semester, UCF gave me five sections of composition to teach.  It was valuable teaching experience, and it helped me in a tough time. But I couldn’t live on it and had no insurance.  For another semester, I managed a bookstore full-time and taught two classes. At the same time, I ran a non-profit literary arts organization, liquid poetry, that I’d created as a graduate student.  I’d learned to do grassroots fundraising for liquid poetry, and loved the work. I found the persuasive skills I’d learned in teaching argument in composition, lent themselves to grant writing. It led me to other nonprofit organizations, and I spent the next decade working for them.

DA: The acclaimed poet and writer, Kelly Cherry, was an inspiration for you.

KG: When I was an undergraduate, Kelly Cherry visited UCF. She read from her memoir, The Exiled Heart. After she’d left, Wyatt told me that he’d spoken to Kelly about my writing. Kelly said, “Tell her to write me a letter.”  I was thrilled, but couldn’t imagine how to do it. It was several years later that I wrote a poem, “Letter to Kelly Cherry.” I mailed it to her. I also invited Kelly to read in the liquid poetry series. Luckily, she was able to return to Orlando for an unforgettable reading. Andy Solomon, who was the English Department Chair at University of Tampa, drove down to interview her for our author video series. It was such a joy to hear Kelly read again and to talk with her.

In The Exiled Heart, Kelly had left everything behind in a little room in Amsterdam. My poem, “Letter to Kelly Cherry,” asks her how to leave everything, to take a train into the wilderness. I recall that as she traveled by train into the Soviet Union, each station was progressively grayer, more drab. But her departure from everything known thrilled me. I lived in a museum of my life. A stranger coming into my apartment said, “It’s like walking into a poem.” Every space was covered with bookshelves, books, poems tacked to the walls and taped to mirrors, posters for book covers, photographs. My life felt so heavy, and I didn’t know how to move anymore.  I kept thinking about The Exiled Heart. The beautiful music of Kelly’s poems stays with me too. One of my favorites is “Gethsemane” which I’ve loved since first reading it in the Atlantic in 1988.

DA: Your first collection of poetry, Underwater City, explores borders separating individuals, with powerful poems ranging from a Civil War battlefield to a laundry room.

KG: In Underwater City, there are a number of elegiac poems, for my grandmother and for my son. I wrote the poems I needed. When I didn’t know what to do with grief, I turned to form. After my grandmother died, I took her Methodist Hymnal. In it, I found “The Order for the Burial of a Child.” I hadn’t been present at my son’s burial, and it took me seventeen years to find his grave. I needed some kind of form to begin to write about this, so I took “The Order” from the Hymnal. In writing about my grandmother’s death, I began with a pantoum and changed it slightly. I was unable to let go of her, and the pantoum was perfect as it allowed us to simply stay in one moment. I also began writing poems that used ekphrastic elements. “Pinhole Camera” began with Marian Roth’s photographs. Marian was incredibly kind to me and allowed me to select one of her stunning images for the cover of the book. I began writing about violence as well, with “Drowning, 1983,” using an image of an abandoned lighthouse to get at what had been done to a woman’s body. There are also love poems in this first collection. In some, as in “The Boy with His Mother Inside Him,” love and grief together.  Judith Hemschemyer was the series editor for the Contemporary Poetry Series at University Press of Florida, and I was very happy when she selected Underwater City. The series had existed for twenty years, and mine was the last collection published.

DA: Your next two collections, Luckily, and Five Kingdoms, demonstrates you as a poet who has mastered a wide range of emotion, with intelligence, passion, and above all, fierce honesty.

KG: If at the ground of the poem, I’m not being honest, it’s doomed from the start. It’s just rococo or ego, some kind of decoration. It has to start out of my own confusion and/or need for the poem. In Luckily, I experimented more with tone, and I also continued to write about violence toward women. Rick Campbell and Lynne Knight run Anhinga Press. They selected Luckily for their Florida Poetry Series. Rick and Lynne are incredibly generous advocates for poetry. I am forever grateful for their limitless support, love of poetry, and friendship.

In Five Kingdoms, also published by Anhinga, I was interested in the idea of safety and what safety means. The title poem was written on the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. It’s non-narrative, composed of a series of questions regarding personal and national security. I used a language of fear and superstition to question what we’re willing to sacrifice to be safe. The first section explores political themes and addresses subjects across a broad expanse of time—the oldest bones of the first human child found in Ethiopia, the oldest map of the world found near Baghdad, the bombing of Fallujah. I was interested in the connection between physical and metaphysical worlds. Voices of the dead and the living. In the second section, the focus narrows from the world to the city. The theme of shelter is important. The third section of Five Kingdomsnarrows to the individual. The predominant tone is elegiac. Political themes recur, as do ekphrastic elements, in the examination of individual lives and the search for physical and metaphysical shelter.

DA: Your earlier poetry seems like a warmup to get to the point where you could write your memoir, I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl.

KG: No, not at all. I don’t think of poetry as a warm-up to anything.  I did first write about grief and violence and loss in my poems. Though I wrote about these in prose as well. I also kept journals documenting these events, trying to make sense of them. I am primarily a poet. Any prose I write is indebted to my training as a poet. I want both poems and prose that say what can’t be said. In writing my memoir, I had a task. I hoped that by writing about my son, it would take me to him. I also hoped to find the girl I’d been – to see what had happened to her and to speak for her.

DA: Many others have been inspired by how you survived the unimaginable.

KG: I don’t think what happened to me is unimaginable. One woman who wrote to me, said, “No one talks about these things.”  Then she told me her story. Each person who wrote to me connected with some part of the book. It’s about loss, but it’s also about survival and love and wanting to live. Another person wrote to tell me about her mother who as a young girl in Ireland had been forced to give up her child. She said that her mother has dementia now, and all she talks about is the child she gave away. Someone else wrote to tell me about her struggles with addiction. She said she’d never written to an author before, that she didn’t need a response. “I just wanted you to know I’m okay,” she said. People have pulled me aside at readings to tell me what happened to them. Just wanting to tell me, to say it. Because I had said it, I was someone who could listen. Nick Flynn told me that my memoir would have its own life. People have their own experience with the book. I’m grateful when they tell me about it.

DA: The range of conflicting emotions at the time must have been confusing and intense.

KG: I’m not sure what you mean. Do you mean during my life in my teens and early 20s? Yes, of course, but I always wrote. The writing felt like I was saving me. And then, when I was on that line between life and death, I got help, and I got sober. That made all the difference. I can’t imagine I would have lived to see 25 without sobriety. Or who else I might have harmed beyond myself.

DA: How did you approach writing such an emotionally charged memoir?

KG: I had those journals I’d kept since I was eighteen years old. But they sunk me. Everything seemed without hope. Even though they had some valuable information – dates, dialogue, etc. – I kept them in another room. Michael Burkard read my very first “draft” of the memoir, which was 350 journal pages cobbled together and lightly edited.  While he’d encouraged me with the material, he said, “You haven’t written it yet.” Of course, he was right, and I had to write it from this point in time.  I’d complained to Michael that because no one in my family spoke about my son, I didn’t know enough to write the book. But Michael had said, “No, you do know some things.” He suggested I start with those. I began with the town of Brockton, where I was born and where my son lived and is buried. Brockton had been a shoemaking town for over 200 years, with 90 shoe factories. I began researching the history of shoes and shoemaking. I couldn’t talk to anyone about my son, but I could learn how to make a shoe. I then took a prose workshop with Richard McCann at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and I brought my first piece, a rambling essay about many things, including the history of shoes in Brockton. After my workshop, Richard told me, “Think shoes.” I went home and wrote about my son and grief in the essay, “How to Make a Shoe.” AGNI published it, and it received special mention in the Pushcart Prize anthology. I felt that I had to approach my subjects from the side, that it would do me no good to write head on.

Richard McCann had also said that while he was a fellow at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, he had a writing studio that was downstairs. As he walked down those stairs to work, he’d think, “Down, Down, In.” I thought of that often as I wrote the memoir. It helped me to stop time in scenes and to go down into events I thought I knew. To try to see them from this point in time. I wanted prose with the power of poetry. Prose that can see an unseen world.

DA: You gained invaluable experience with people over the years working at non-profit organizations.

I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl

I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl

KG: I’d created a literary nonprofit organization while I was a graduate student. Don Stap at UCF had recommended me for a three-week writing residency at Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. I was in residence with Alfred Leslie, Jonathan Williams, Terry Riley and 23 emerging and mid-career artists working in poetry, painting, and music. Living and working within this community of artists changed my life. When I came back to Orlando, I was lonely for that community. I loved attending readings, but there were only a few a year. I was hungry for more, and created liquid poetry out of a desire for something ongoing. Literary events integrated into the every day instead of occasional. In venues that included independent bookstores, university art galleries, and coffee shops, we presented over 100 events in five years –reading series, videotaped author interview series, writing workshops, annual writing contests, and  publication opportunities. This volunteer work led me to my first nonprofit employment at an opera company.  I knew nothing about opera when I was hired, and it was thrilling to learn and have a whole new world open up. I began as a development assistant and before I left, had been promoted to associate director of development. We presented full-scale productions and also supported the work of young opera singers through year-long residencies and children’s programs.

DA: You also worked with a coalition for the homeless.

KG: Yes, In 2002, I joined the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida as their director of grants administration. As with the opera, I had no background working with the homeless, or even with social services.  Again, it was stepping into a new world. Luckily, the program manager decided my office shouldn’t be with other administrative personnel. Instead, my office was a room next to the clients’ rooms. I worked where they lived, and I was surrounded by children. Over 200 kids (under 7 years old) lived at the Coalition every day. Children and infants, families, single women, single men – 700 people a night, and 300,000 meals served annually. The Coalition had been held up as a national model as it included so many services on-site: case management, job services, day care, education, a children’s counselor, alcohol and drug treatment program, transitional housing, and domestic violence shelter (at another location).  But they need much more funding support. Those 700 people live in a building that is an old TV station from the 1950s. The men, up to 375 each night, sleep on mats on a cement floor in a metal tent. Last year, the Coalition provided nearly 250,000 nights of shelter.  Nearly 80,000 nights of shelter were provided to children under 8 years old. The homeless are often stereotyped, and people often use those stereotypes as an excuse not to help.  I’m very grateful for the three years I had at the Coalition.

DA: And now teaching is part of your life again.

KG: Yes, I teach in an amazing low-residency MFA program directed by Brian Turner at Sierra Nevada College, Lake Tahoe.  I love teaching and working with other writers, and am very excited for the upcoming residency in August. I also just completed a terrific year as distinguished writer-in-residence at SNC, teaching poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction workshops to undergraduates. I feel very lucky to be with Brian and the stellar faculty at SNC and to work with such promising new writers.

DA: What’s next on the agenda in the life of Kelle Groom?

KG: I’m working on a second memoir, fourth book of poems, and a collection of linked stories. Next Spring, I’m very glad to be in Stonington, CT as the James Merrill Writer-in-Residence.