Sitting Down with Mary Ann Kelly, Flood Stage Poet
by Jenny Beatrice, Walrus Contributor
How did you get into writing?
That’s kind of a mystery because I couldn’t even read until I was in third or fourth grade. My dad was a Marine and we moved often from coast to coast. I faked being sick and skipped a lot of school. A wonderful teacher in South Carolina would sit in the classroom rocking chair, hold me on her lap and teach me how to read. What a teacher to do that!
Did school get better after that?
Actually, I hated school until I went to Longwood Academy, an all-girls high school in Chicago. The Notre Dame nuns there were gifted teachers in lit and writing, although most of the writing I did was in my diary about the boys I liked. At the College of St. Catherine in Minnesota, there were many outstanding teachers and writers who inspired me. And in grad school at Webster University, David Clewell was a wonderful and thoughtful teacher.
And lo and behold, the girl who hated school ended up being a teacher!
A few years after moving to St. Louis, I began to teach junior high and taught for 30 years in public school. When I was about 12 years old, I took speech and had to memorize for recitation about 75% of those classic poems in 101 Famous Poems–Shelley, Tennyson, etc. As a teacher I incorporated a lot of poetry, poetry writing and yes, memorizing! The kids were really energized by the poetry.
Do your childhood experiences heavily influence your work?
Summers gave me a love for openness and mountains and a lot of that falls into my poetry. My parents would drive us from Chicago to Montana every summer, so it was the going-by-car through the Midwest and then into the deep far West, the farmlands, ranches, and small towns with only one gas station and general store that fascinated me as a kid–a world of life boiling up in what looks like a deserted place. And the names of many of the towns are unique, like Two Dot and Bramble Bush. They tell their own story so you know imagination, variety and maybe wild times exist on those little outposts on the prairie. Place-names on a map of the United States give me a kick.
Any other locations that inspire you?
I married a man from Butte, Montana. Known as the “the richest hill on earth,” Butte was a copper mining town, a “company” town “owned” by Anaconda Copper. Its unique history with unions, the characters in it and the Irish have had a profound affect on me. My experiences and the people I knew there often show up in my writing.
Do you travel much?
At least twice a year at least I leave town for either Seattle, Wa. or Richmond Va., where two of my kids are living with their families My other three children live here in St. Louis. Altogether I have 11 grandchildren. What a prize I was given.
How did you find time to write with five children and a teaching job?
I often woke about 4 o’clock in the morning and the house was quiet, so I’d write during those hours. Now I love it because I can write every day during the daylight as the cat sits beside me on the desk.
What are you reading these days?
I just finished a class on Moby Dick and I’m starting one on The Great Gatsby. Right now I’m reading Josh Kyrah’s “We Are Starved” and “Poets in a Landscape” by Gilbert Highet.
Are you involved in the local literary community?
St. Louis is a wonderful town for poetry. I’m on the board of the St. Louis Poetry Center and belong to a few writing groups that help me refine, think and wonder. There is so much energy in small and big groups writing, critiquing and encouraging. Readings are available at Focal Point, Observable, Stone Spiral, Café Nura, and all over town. Plus, the Poetry Center hosts free once a month Sunday workshops.
How did you get involved in Flood Stage?
Matt Freeman, that unique and wonderful guy, I met years ago. I have a soft spot in my heart for him. And what a gift he gave St. Louis to get Flood Stage going.