Borough works its charm on new Merrill House writer-in residence

Kelle Broom is the Spring 2014 Writer-in-Residence at the James Merrill House in Stonington.
Kelle Broom is the Spring 2014 Writer-in-Residence at the James Merrill House in Stonington. Photo by Marion Ettlinger

Poet/memoirist Kelle Groom has lived in more than 50 places - including exotic locales like Florida, Hawaii and Lake Tahoe - so she's more than qualified when she describes her latest zip code with rave reviews.

Groom is the Spring 2014 Writer-in-Residence at the James Merrill House in Stonington Borough and will read from old and new work Sunday in Stonington Library.

"To be in this environment is fantastic," Groom says in a phone interview earlier this week. "The house is beautiful and there's a large library full of books I've never seen. It's just a very stimulating and lovely place with an incredible amount of energy. And the Borough ... I walk down to The Point and it's stunningly beautiful. It's such a wonderful community. I actually saw a seal at The Point the other day and it was just a remarkable experience."

Groom first gained fame and literary acclaim as a poet through the collections "Underwater City," "Luckily" and "Five Kingdoms." Between them, she's won two Florida Book Awards, earned recognition in Entertainment Weekly's "Best New Poetry," and had excerpts from the works published in such powerhouse publications as The New Yorker, New York Times, Ploughshares, Poetry, and The Writer's Almanac. She's also been the recipient of numerous grants and fellowships, including one from the National Endowment for the Arts.

But it was with the publication of a memoir, "I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl," that Groom ventured into prose and reached a huge crossover audience. The book is a beautifully written, emotionally devastating story that describes Groom's hope to learn and understand what happened to her son, Tommy, whom she'd given up for adoption at birth to an aunt and uncle, and who died a few years later of infant leukemia. Much of the memoir is a study in grief and guilt.

At the same time, intertwined is Groom's own search for an understanding of and forgiveness for her younger self. She struggled with alcoholism - she's long sober - self-esteem and emotional dependency issues, and a series of dark experiences that included an episode of gang rape.

At the core of "I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl" is Groom's own desperate self-evaluation as to whether she even had the right to be a mother, and it was a project she started even as the events were happening and she was a student at Florida Central University.

"We didn't have memoir writing at school, just poetry and fiction," she says. "I'd been concentrating on poetry - I'd decided I would be a poet - but I needed to write this so I started as though it was a fictional story." She was able to base a lot of the project on the journals she kept throughout her pregnancy and years of alcoholism.

Along the way, though, Groom got sober and began to experience success as a poet through the work that would culminate in her three poetry collections. As such, it wasn't until 2006 that Groom could return to the work that would become the memoir.

"It took me four years to write the book. You discover as you're writing what it IS you're writing," she says. "I knew I would have to write about the girl I had been to discover what had happened to her and to be able to speak for her. In that fashion, it's also a book about how I became a writer."

In conversation, Groom is pleasant and thoughtful, speaking rapidly but with pauses while she considers what next to say. It's clear that, while she's by this point used to talking about the experiences in the memoir, and many of them are clearly painful, there is a certain relief that came from going through the process.

"I wouldn't exactly call the writing of the book cathartic or an act of therapy," she says, "but there was an excitement to see where the writing would take me each day - and what I would learn and discover. It helped me to be able to see myself as Tommy's mother, which I had not been able to do."

Response to "I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of Girl" was extraordinary and positive - both in terms of her lush prose style and the content. The New York Times Book Review, NPR, Oprah.com, the Oxford American and the Boston Globe are just a representative list of the critical sources espousing the work.

While at the Merrill House, Groom is concentrating on both poetry and prose. She says she is writing as many as two new poems each day and is at work on a second volume of memoirs, which will be called "Antibody."

"I was up 'til 4 a.m. Wednesday working on a chapter from the memoir that's scheduled to run in the summer/fall 2014 issue of Gulf Coast magazine. And the recent seal at The Point just led me to write a new chapter called 'The White Seal.'"

"I'm just really grateful to the Merrill House committee members for welcoming me so warmly into their homes and into the Stonington community."

IF YOU GO

Who: Kelle Groom, Spring 2014 Writer-in-Residence at the James Merrill House

What: Reading and reception

When: 5 p.m. Sunday

Where: Stonington Library, 20 High St., Stonington

How much: Free

For more information: (860) 535-0658

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