Kelle Groom
April 2008

 

Kelle GroomKelle Groom's first collection of poems, Underwater City, was selected for University Press of Florida’s Contemporary Poetry Series and published in 2004. Her award-winning second collection, Luckily, was selected for the Florida Poetry Series and published by Anhinga Press in 2006.  In 2007, Groom received a Florida Book Award for Luckily. Her third collection of poems, Five Kingdoms, will be published by Anhinga Press in 2009. Groom’s poems have appeared in Agni, DoubleTake, Gettysburg Review, The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Poetry, and Witness, among others. She has been awarded several residencies from Atlantic Center for the Arts, including a residency with Mark Strand in 2004. In 2003, she was the Norma Millay Ellis Fellow at the Millay Colony for the Arts, and in 2004, a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Groom has received grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, United Arts of Central Florida, Volusia County Cultural Council, and New Forms Florida. She has taught writing at the University of Central Florida, Valencia Community College, and Seminole Community College. Since 1999, she has worked for non-profit organizations, including an opera company, a homeless shelter, and an artists-in-residence facility.  A native of Massachusetts, she lives in New Smyrna Beach, Florida.

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Statement about Poetry

As far back as I remember reading, I remember writing. The first three memories of writing: (1) getting the letters of the alphabet to stand up straight on paper lined like a musical score; (2) a letter to my grandmother telling her about a book I’d read, Ginny and the New Girl; and (3) writing a poem in Honolulu, sitting on the living room carpet, sliding glass behind me. I was eight years old, writing for an occasion, a celebration or a gift. I don’t remember any other writing between learning the alphabet and writing the letter, and shortly after, writing the poem in the living room in Hawaii. I don’t even remember reading any poems. In my bedroom, I wrote stories which I kept in a closet. The poems I gave away.

In my teens, in Florida, I had no real sense of contemporary literature. I read classics and biographies from the library, paperbacks from the drugstore. Poems were assigned in school, but the meanings were assigned as well, as if poetry was math. The poems in textbooks seemed to have died there. It was only later, when I could encounter them on my own, that I could bear to read them. Instead, in a used record store, I bought Greetings from Asbury Park, and sang the lyrics printed on the cover for “Spirits in the Night” and “For You” over and over, loving the speed and the compression of language—how in the rush of it, something transcendent occurred.

One town over, in Winter Park, was a small library. I didn’t like to look for specific books (I didn’t know what to look for!); instead, I’d wander around, get lost. On the second floor of the library, sitting on the carpet, I found a row of anthologies I’d never seen before—the Pushcart Prizes. I opened to a story by Jayne Anne Phillips, “How Mickey Made It.” I’d had no idea that writing like this existed, writing this beautiful and fast and dark, a story that felt like a poem and took me to a place I’d always wanted to go, but hadn’t been able to find. It was as if I’d been living in a house with the windows closed, and as I read her story, shutter after shutter banged open. I saw what writing could do, and what I wanted to do. I ran to the one bookstore in town, an independent, and ordered Phillips’ collection, Black Tickets. When it arrived, I was stunned and exhilarated reading story after story. 

The shelf of annual Pushcart Prize anthologies was a treasure—poetry, fiction, and essays all in one place. Here were the living writers. The Pushcart Prize introduced me to literary magazines, taught me where to look to discover new work. I’d been surprised to see the magazine credit for  the Jayne Anne Phillips’ story. “How Mickey Made It” was originally published in a 1978 issue of Rolling Stone that I’d had all along, that I’d carried with me from Massachusetts to Florida, and not even noticed until I opened the anthology in the library.

Shortly after discovering the Pushcarts, my grandmother gave me my first book of poetry by a living writer, the first book I remember: Mary Oliver’s American Primitive. Nana lived near Oliver. She’d spent her whole life in Dennis and Yarmouth, the mid-Cape; Oliver was at the tip of the Cape, in Provincetown. I’d never seen Nana read poetry (except mine), though before she died, she wrote that she wanted Tennyson read, “Crossing the Bar,” at her memorial. She’d found Mary Oliver’s book in a used bookstore in South Yarmouth, mailed it to me. I memorized Oliver’s “A Visitor” the way I memorized a song. Though I’d moved from the Cape early in my childhood, and moved every couple of years or so between Hawaii and Texas, Florida, Spain, and Massachusetts, I almost always returned home in the summer. In Oliver’s poems, I always had home, the beauty of the natural world opening to the spiritual.

The year Mary Oliver’s book arrived, I’d begun taking creative writing classes at the University of Central Florida, reading Philip Levine and Gary Snyder, Sharon Olds, Denis Levertov. Our textbook was Naked Poetry, with Merwin young in a plaid shirt and leaning on an old truck. Kelly Cherry came to visit and talked about taking a train into the wilderness. Leaving everything behind in a little room in Amsterdam.  A Finnish poet visited and said that she read everything: science, history, politics for her poetry. At the university library, I did the same thing I’d done as a child in libraries—I let myself get lost, turned around, and reached out to the shelves to see what I could find. I wanted to be surprised. It’s what I want from poetry.

In 1991, Mark Strand edited Best American Poetry, and in his introductory essay, wrote about his father reading his first book of poems: “The ones that mean most are those that speak for his sense of loss following my mother’s death. They seem to tell him what he knows but cannot say.” This ability to tell us what we cannot say, is what I love most about poetry. Strand wrote that when his father read his poems, “They bring him back to himself.” It is what happens when I read poetry, and when I write it, the poems bring me back to myself. And they bring me to you.

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