CDR interviews Kelle Groom
Danielle Sellers: One of the many things I admire about your most recent book, Five Kingdoms, and your work in general, is that when you write about deep loss, like the loss of a child, you convey intensity of feeling without sentimentality. Do you feel that’s something imperative for a poet to do, and how do you walk that line of intense feeling without stepping over into the mawkish?
Kelle Groom: In my work, I’m writing about the things that matter to me. I’m interested in what I don’t understand. Tenderness is important to me, writing from feeling is too of course. To me, sentimentality means a failure in the poem – superficial emotion. Intense feeling is the opposite of sentimentality. I have sharp, honest friends who are poets, and I trust them to tell me if something seems weak or empty in a poem. I think that especially in elegiac poems, it’s important for me to have strong readers because it’s possible that the intensity of feeling that I have in the writing might blind me to the weakness of particular lines.
DS: In an earlier interview with 32 Poems, you mentioned your interest in prehistory. In Five Kingdoms, this interest is evident, particularly in poems like “Bone Built for Eternity,” “Oldest Map of the World,” and “Newgrange,” to name a few. Obviously, quite a bit of research went into this book, but it reads very organically, it doesn’t read like an encyclopedia. When writing, how do you work in interesting facts so seamlessly?
KG: It’s common that the fact is the spark for the poem. Rather than integrating research into a poem, the research sets it going – and it becomes part of the road of the poem. Often, until it appears –some glimpse of the world – there’s no way into the poem.
DS: When researching, is there one particular book you go back to again and again for information/inspiration? Do you often have an idea for a poem and then do research, or are certain poem ideas spawned by research?
KG: My beat-up dictionary. No, I never have an idea for a poem and then do research. Sometimes I’m aware of an image or some other thing – some spark. But often, I’m not. But I still want to write. When I was a student, a Finnish poet came to my school. She said that she read everything – science, history, etc. It made so much sense to me. I like to have a lot of resources available on things that are interesting to me – visual arts, history, maps, weird reference books/dictionaries, movies… It’s not an organized process – I just like to get lost in things. But usually, somewhere along the line, something will spark and connect with an image or feeling that had been below the surface, waiting for me to notice. When I write a poem, I like to have more than one thing going on. In part, it’s for the distraction. I need a consuming task to keep me busy, so my subconscious can do its work to help me see something new.
DS: You’ve mentioned a bit about the books which are friends to your poetry, what about other things, like foods or moods, temperatures, which might spur your writing on?
KG: Silence and music. In general, the quieter my environment the better. But I also need music to lift me into and sustain a writing space. Weirdly, I need the house to be quiet, phone off, and the music on headphones only. I try to make it so that I can feel safe from interruptions. I’ve always written late at night when almost everyone is asleep and even the distraction of email ceases. Once I’m writing, I hate stopping for food too, so I keep a lot of protein powder, soy milk, and coffee in the house. I think any mood is good for writing – whatever it is just becomes another element in the writing.
DS: And if we have one thing we have to have its opposite. What are the nemeses of your writing? What things make you not write?
KG: Exhaustion from other work. I try to protect my writing time and the physical wherewithal to do it. I’ve learned to think of being selfish about my writing time as a good thing – a compliment.
DS: Even if one has never been to New York, one can imagine what the literary scene is like there. The literary scene in Florida is more elusive, even to a native Floridian like myself. What is the poetry scene like in Florida?
I don’t really know. My experience is limited to Central Florida. I lived in Orlando for many years, going to school at UCF and then teaching there. I was always thrilled when UCF hosted readings. And they publish the Florida Review. While I was in school, one of my professors recommended me for a residency at Atlantic Center for the Arts, and I lived with other writers for three weeks in a Florida jungle. It made me realize how much I needed a literary community. When I came back to Orlando, I really missed being with other writers. So I started a literary arts organization that offered readings and workshops, dinners, writing awards, and ran it for almost 5 years. It always seemed strange when writers would thank me for it because it was one of the most selfish things I’ve ever done. I loved writers and readings, so I made a place for them. Here in New Smyrna Beach, there is no permanent literary community. It’s a small beach town with no university and a high tourist population. But I work at Atlantic Center, and four or five times a year, writers come here from all over the country for residencies. We bring those writers into the community for readings too. It’s a transitory scene, but exciting while it’s happening. Anhinga Press, which published my last two books, is in Tallahassee. They’ve been publishing poetry collections since 1976, and Rick Campbell and Lynne Knight who run the press and make the books are a poetry scene all their own. These are two people, both writers themselves, who love poets and poetry and do everything to support them. Rick also runs the Florida Literary Arts Coalition and Florida Writers’ Circuit, and the Other Words Conference every November at Flagler College in St. Augustine.
DS: When you come across the work of poets new to the proverbial stage, what criteria do you feel they need to fit in order to remain on your radar screen? That is to say, how do you think poets achieve staying power?
KG: I want a poem to stop me in my tracks. I want to feel that the poet needed the poem. I love to be taken out of where I am and what I know. The poets I always read are the ones who wake me up to what poetry can do.
DS: Are there any new poets you admire whom you think should receive more attention?
KG: Cynthia Cruz (Ruin) isn’t a new poet, but I’ve just discovered her breathtaking work. Teresa Leo (The Halo Rule) who recently published several devastating elegiac poems from a sequence in the Jan/Feb APR. I also greatly admire John Murillo’s work (Up Jump the Boogie), and Terry Ann Thaxton who has a stunning first collection, Getaway Girl, coming out from Salt next year, Aimée Baker, Shane Seely (The Snowbound House), and Alan Felsenthal.
DS: Recently, I was asked whose work inspires me at the moment, which I thought was a good question. We can see from the notes to Five Kingdoms that you were inspired by the art of Guillermo Kuitca and Caravaggio, the poetry of Charles Simic and Mark Strand. What’s inspiring your current work?
KG: In the visual arts, a sculpture from China that I came upon in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston—of Guanyin, Bodhisattva of Compassion; Chagall’s Abraham and the Three Angels; an autographed letter of Van Gogh’s with a sketch; a photo of an old snow-covered house in Sandwich, MA which I’d seen in summer with my mother. On the bulletin board beside my writing desk, I have Spencer Reece’s poem “ICU,” Sarah O’Brien’s poem “Observatory”; and a remembrance of Lucille Clifton. Michael Burkard’s Envelope of Night.
DS: Would you describe yourself as a voracious reader? What’s on your summer reading list?
KG: I would describe myself as addicted to books. This summer I’m reading the New Granta Book of the American Short Story, Adina Hoffman’s My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness, Peter Cole’s Things on Which I’ve Stumbled, Derek Mahon’s An Autumn Wind, Tomaz Salamun’s There’s the Hand and There’s the Arid Chair, Elizabeth McCracken’s An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, Mark Yakich’s Unrelated Individuals Forming a Group Waiting to Cross, Benjamin Percy’s Refresh, Refresh, Franz Wright’s Wheeling Motel, the Spring issue of Ploughshares (edited by Elizabeth Strout), Ander Monson’s Vanishing Point, Christopher Dewdney’s Soul of the World, and two chapbooks: 237 More Reasons to Have Sex, Denise Duhamel and Sandy McIntosh and ABBA: the poems, Denise Duhamel and Amy Lemmon.
DS: Since this interview will publish in summer, what are some of your most cherished summer memories? What screams summer to you?
KG: I spent almost all of my childhood summers on Cape Cod, and I try to go back every summer, at least for a little while. As a kid, I lived in Dennis and Yarmouth, and when I was older and lived elsewhere, I’d come back to the Cape and stay all summer with my grandparents in Yarmouth. Their house is gone now, but my parents have a place in Wellfleet, on the harbor. I love being on such a narrow strip of land with water on either side. It’s the most beautiful place I know. Here in Florida, in August, it feels like the heat is beating me into the ground. But the ocean is close by, and sometimes when I’m in that see-through greenish-blue water, I think I couldn’t be happier.