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Interview: Kelle Groom

by: Katharine Hargreaves of WHOLE BEAST RAG

WHOLE BEAST RAG: One of the underlying themes of your memoir is “the self as stranger or character” and your process of self-discovery through the act of writing. Both the idea that our true self may remain unknown and navigating one’s interior can be isolating. Can you speak about the emotional and external benefits of such an undertaking?

KELLE GROOM: Seeing myself as a character gave me compassion and clarity I lacked. It was startling to see that I was unable to offer this to myself until I saw myself as a character. It came so easily when looking at other people, strangers, but with myself, I hit a wall. There was either no feeling – just a reaching into emptiness – or terrific unkindness and cruelty. It was as if I’d believed I could never be forgiven, never loved, never good. I had to be able to offer the same compassion to myself as I would to anyone else, or I couldn’t write with any clarity. It helped to see my younger self almost as another person. When I died at 21, it seemed that this was my second life. With that clarity, it also meant that I could go into the past and discover what I didn’t know. So that the past wasn’t without hope. For example, after the violent attacks occurred, there was no therapy, no “closure,” no support. The acts were stopped in time. In I Wore the Ocean, I went into that miasma to see my younger self where I’d left her, see what had happened. The distance was very helpful. I felt that I could speak for my younger self, stick up for her, when at the time I was just one more judgmental, hard voice. Countering that immense self-hatred with compassion is a strange thing. There’s great sadness in thinking who I might have been at 20, 21, if I had been able to feel that kind of compassion for the self. I don’t know where self-hatred comes from, but it’s a long road out. It wasn’t until several months after the book was published that I even realized it was self-hatred. I just saw it as a kind of hardness. I’ve also been surprised by the people who have written to me or spoken to me at readings about their own lives. In my twenties, I’d felt isolated and alone, and each time a stranger pulls me aside to tell me something or writes me about his or her experience, I’m overwhelmed with thanks. Early on, a woman emailed to tell me about her past life, but really, just to let me know that she was doing okay. She said her life is good now. I’d never met her, and she didn’t need me to write her back. She just wanted me to know she’s okay.

WBR: What are your thoughts on redemption in regards to women characters, fictional or otherwise? How can the idea of “broken” be beautiful?

KG: Last year, a professor who was teaching I Wore the Ocean wrote to me. He sent me some of his students’ comments. One woman wrote that she felt the language was holding her, so that she could read the story. I want the language to be as true as I can make it. I think that is a necessary beauty, though the story is darkness. But I’m also very interested in what happens in those dark places, in extremity. In an interview, Isabel Allende said that when one is on the edge and not sheltered, “that is when you have to bring out all the strength that you have inside.” Allende said, “then you need all of that strength and you realize that you have this incredible source of energy inside. That it’s there when we reach for it.” Those places of darkness can be places of transformation – the world can crack open. We become ourselves.

WBR: Your connection to the ocean and natural world is particularly moving. In particular, I was struck by your description of spaciousness as a “prairie of the future”. It reminded me of two frontiers we have yet to fully explore: space and the soul. How is the artist responsible to these places? What is your vision of the future?

KG: I have a hard time seeing beyond right now. Except in that vision I had of the “prairie of the future.” It’s as clear to me now as it was when I was twelve. My friend’s older sister had run away. I don’t recall any of the actual details. But I imagined where she went. I saw a split rail fence she’d climbed over, and beyond it – that prairie of the future. It was wide open. Of course it was important that my friend’s sister came home. She was only sixteen or so. But at the time, I was disappointed. I thought she’d gotten away. Many years later, I found out that she’d become a physical therapist, that my boyfriend had dated her, and I was disappointed again. She was still in Orlando! Definitely not the prairie of the future… In that vision, the future – what was possible – was more than I could imagine. That’s still true. I hadn’t thought of it as a spiritual field, but of course that makes sense. In the way that when I write, my soul comes forward, and I feel most myself. Integrated. That’s why this place feels like more than I can imagine.

WBR: Do you think our culture places too much importance on closure? How can the artist embrace understanding without clear answers?

KG: I really can’t stand the word “closure.” It feels so pat and tidy and empty of meaning. No one talked to me about closure when my son died because it was a secret that I was his mother. But when I Wore the Ocean came out, many people who read it asked me if I had closure now. As if that had been my purpose in writing the book. I know what they wanted for me was really very kind – peace, I think. But I wrote the book hoping that it would lead me toward my son, that the writing would take me to him. I trusted each page to take me to the next. My son’s life and death had been concealed from me, closed off. My purpose was to open things up and go toward him. As an artist, I move in the direction of what I need to know. Last year, at a reading on Martha’s Vineyard, a man asked me what I’d learned about grief. If I’d known then that he was a psychologist, I might have panicked at trying to articulate that in front of an audience. No one had ever asked me that before. I said that what I did was the opposite of closure, opening things up, and the man in the audience started crying. He said, Yes, you went toward grief. He said that a woman he loved (wife, fiancée ?) died in 9/11, and since then he had not been able to even go to New York. Until just recently. He’d just done it, gone back to NY, toward grief. It was incredibly moving to me – his relief at moving toward the woman he’d lost, rather than away. I am interested in integration, but not closure.

WBR: You talk a lot of passivity being your “rudder” in writing the book, and of examining the fact that you often felt “frozen in place.” This strikes me as potentially symptomatic of larger underlying issues in our culture, specifically the treatment of women’s voices and lives and pervasive apathy towards issues of increasing (environmental/political) importance. How does passivity become a strength for you? How do you navigate the world in light of this new understanding?

KG: Passivity is not a strength for me. In the new manuscript, I explore how living with fear and uncertainty leads to an inability to act. When I don’t take action, I can almost feel myself silting up. I write the actions down, break them into parts, and keep them visible until I do them. I know the days will come when I’ll feel weighed down, dismissed, overwhelmed, but I’ve already made the decision to do this one thing. And then the next thing.

WBR: What draws you to write about the idea of shelter in your next project?

KG: The next prose project does deal with shelter, but the main subject is fear and living with uncertainty. And within that the struggle for material and spiritual shelter. I’ve been looking at the lives of ancestors to see how they did it. My fifth great grandfather was dispossessed of his land on Cape Cod. He was the last member of his tribe, so the town took the land. He lived on a pond for the rest of his life, died in the almshouse. But he’d also become a self-educated lawyer and fought to get his land back. This summer, I walked into my ancestor’s pond and drove down a claustrophobic dirt road in the woods, toward where his almshouse once stood. I wanted to see where he’d found shelter. I am afraid of uncertainty but I’ve been courting it. The only land I own is a grave plot near my ancestor. My belongings are in a storage unit in Florida. I’ve spent the last year and a half writing, traveling to places I’ve never been before. As with I Wore the Ocean, I’m trusting the writing to take me where I need to go.

WBR: Lastly, what is your anthem?

KG: Many of the words that carry me come from poems. I’ve been thinking a lot of a couple of lines from Tony Hoagland’s poem, “Reasons to Survive November”:

I shove joy like a knife/into my own heart over and over

For years I’ve been thinking of Marie Howe’s poem, “What the Living Do.” I think of this poem all the time – the kitchen sink that won’t drain, heat that won’t turn off, dropping the bag of groceries. When I hear it, remember it, I see my own self in Boston, my reflection in a glass window. I’m walking on the wobbly bricks.

But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass
say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a cherishing so deep
for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless
I am living, I remember you.

In a short poem I wrote about a visit to my son seventeen years after he died (“Songs From Far Away” in Five Kingdoms), I wondered what the dead might be saying to us. What I imagined – live, live, live – is also an anthem.