(Originally from the Orlando Sentinel)
“I have always wanted a life that serves the writing,” says poet Kelle Groom.
Groom has a lot to be thankful for these days. At 45, she has a job she loves at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, and she has just published her second collection of poems, Luckily.
The book was Anhinga Press’ 2006 Florida Poetry Series selection, but Groom’s work has been nationally recognized.
In fact, you might say she has arrived.
In 2002, The New Yorker published her poem “The Boy With His Mother Inside Him,” and this year she celebrates her work’s first appearance in Poetry, arguably the most prestigious literary journal in the U.S.
But the Massachusetts native’s journey to her current sanctuary on calm waters beside the ocean has included crushing heartbreak and daunting personal challenges.
Groom’s family moved around a lot. Her father was a master chief petty officer in the Navy, so her childhood and adolescence included time in Cape Cod, Orlando, Satellite Beach, El Paso, Spain and Honolulu. “I can hula and play the ukulele at the second-grade level,” she says.
After graduating high school a year early in Spain, Groom attended Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts. “I didn’t do too well,” she admits.
The fact that she suffered from alcoholism at the time may have played a significant part in that, though she doesn’t blame the alcohol.
“Drinking made me feel like I belonged in my own skin,” she says.
And though she is reluctant to go into specifics, she admits there were times when her drinking endangered her life.
Alcohol wasn’t the only issue affecting her life. At 18, after a broken engagement, Groom discovered she was pregnant. She made the difficult decision to let her newborn son be adopted by relatives up North.
“My son, Tommy, was born on March 17, 1981. I was 19 years old. I remember the nurse at the delivery saying he would have green birthday cakes for the rest of his life,” she recalls.
Though it was hard to give up her son, Groom was soon to suffer an even more tragic blow. When Tommy was 9 months old, he was diagnosed with leukemia and died five months later.
After Tommy’s death, Groom realized she needed to change her life. She remembers the day she quit drinking for good: Jan. 31, 1984.
“I was 22 years old [and] had been through two treatment centers for alcoholism. I [had] tried [the drug] Antabuse to keep myself from drinking, but without AA — that support and spiritual connection — I couldn’t do it, and drank again. In January, I went into the second treatment program, stayed in meetings, and learned how to live,” she says.
The writing life
Having turned her life around, Groom was determined to make up for lost time. She began to focus on her academic life again, earning a bachelor’s degree in English, then a master of arts degree in creative writing from the University of Central Florida.
Her goals as a writer began to crystallize when, in 1993, while a student at UCF, she participated in a three-week workshop at the Atlantic Center for the Arts.
“One of the first things I saw was a sign that said `Artists at Work’ and I remember thinking that one, somebody is considering me an artist, and two, they think this is work,” she says.
For Groom, the workshop and interactions with other visual artists and musicians in residence filled a void in her life. “It was the kind of thing like when you’re a child and you get to be outside and play with people all day. It was like that, but with other artists.”
Hoping to re-create the fellowship and community she experienced at Atlantic Center, Groom started the Liquid Poetry reading series.
“I didn’t know how to use a computer, I didn’t know how to make a flier, I didn’t like getting up in front of people, but I just missed [that comradeship] so much that I learned how to do these things,” she says.
At first, the series highlighted local talent, though she eventually expanded it to feature poets from throughout the country. After her grandmother died, Groom discontinued the series. It was time, she realized, for her to focus on her own writing.
The next step
She left her job — to make ends meet, she taught a single creative-writing course at UCF — and began to write full time, producing the elegiac poems about her grandmother that would find their way into her first book, Underwater City.
The year after her grandmother’s death is one that Groom remembers as difficult, though not without reward.
“I was just wildly poor. I don’t think I had a telephone, but what I did was go to the UCF library and [check out] hundreds of books. I would start writing about 9 p.m., and read and write until the sun came up,” she remembers.
In effect, she says, she created her own private writing residency. But the epiphany that clarified her identity as a writer did not come until the spring of 2000.
During a brief residency at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass., she met and studied under Michael Burkard, the man who would become her mentor and encourage her to put her first book together.
“It mattered to me to have somebody completely outside of my life, someone I really admired, believe in me that strongly,” she says.
“I was immediately struck by her lyricism and imagery and a sense of real, very honest tones in her poems. They seemed to be genuinely looking for small truths about the world they were forming,” says Burkard.
His enthusiasm for her work gave Groom more confidence in her poetic voice.
Back in Orlando, after scraping by for months on unemployment and part-time employment, she landed a job writing grants for Orlando Opera. Though she enjoyed her position there, Groom once again grew restless and eager to pursue her own art.
That need propelled her to quit her job at Orlando Opera in December 2001. “The idea was that I would write for a year, and maybe longer, and see what I could accomplish.”
The gamble paid off.
A few months later, The New Yorker came through. It was a credit most writers only dream of having, and for Groom it made all the difference. The next spring, her first book was accepted for publication.
But even as artistic success was pouring in, desperate finances forced her to search for full-time work before the year was up, and she began working as a grant writer for the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida.
“The coalition was very supportive of me taking time off to go and do residencies.”
Which is just what Groom did — among them, another Atlantic Center residency in 2004 studying with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mark Strand. It was an experience she describes as “amazing.”
Living her dreams
That year also heralded the publication of her first book. Everything good was finally happening for Groom, and things were soon to get even better.
Rick Campbell, director of Anhinga Press, remembers being delighted to discover Groom’s second book manuscript. “I had long known of her work and admired it. [Groom] can write a good, funny, narrative poem, and she can write tough poems about people on crack in detox centers. She does not hide anything,” he says.
In January, Ann Brady, the Atlantic Center’s executive director, created a position for Groom as the center’s grants administrator and communications coordinator.
It was the fulfillment of a dream. Groom always had loved the time she spent as an artist at the center, and now she would have a chance to spread the word about its programs to other artists and to the public.
These days, Groom can be found sipping tea on the porch of her beachfront apartment in New Smyrna Beach. She moved there to be closer to work and to live near the ocean — another life-long dream.
Now whenever she looks out her window, she can watch the endless play of the waves rolling in and listen to the soothing sound of the surf as she writes, surrounded by books. It’s her private slice of poet heaven.
She also is enrolled in the creative-writing master of fine arts program at UCF. With that degree, she would be able to teach creative writing at a college or university.
Her third book is finished and circulating, looking for a publisher.
“The poems have moved away from themes of family, lost love and recovery and toward more transformative narratives exploring the self in relation to the world,” she says.
There are political poems, too — about poverty, homelessness, the bombings in Iraq. The poems, she says, question: “What do you do? They bring up things that people have done to take a stand, to save the things they care about.”
“Well, what I can do is, I’m a writer, so I can write it.”