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Conversations with Shirley Brewer

Today we’d like to introduce you to Shirley Brewer.  

Hi Shirley, we’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
I was born and raised in Rochester, New York, moving to Annapolis, Maryland in 1969 with two roommates for a new Life Adventure after graduating from college. I had secured a job as speech therapist in the Anne Arundel County Public Schools that summer and fallen in love with the waterfront charm of Annapolis. Before my roommates – also from Rochester – arrived, I found an apartment in Eastport right on Spa Creek. It was called Spa Haven, but the landlord referred to it as “Yum Yum Gardens.” My parents were not amused. I worked as a speech and language therapist for 32 years – retiring in 2001. I never liked the word retire. It sounded so automotive!!! In fact, I invited the owner of my car repair shop – Baxter Tire&Auto – to my retirement party and introduced John and his wife, Rose to all my friends and well-wishers. With the suggestion that John was the true “retirement” expert. 

Throughout my speech career, I used poetry with my students in therapy lessons. I had always loved poetry and creative writing. I wrote fairy tales in third grade. And some poems in high school and college. In 1995 I took a Creative Writing Workshop at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in Annapolis, and that was the start of my immersion in Writing! For those next 6 years – while I was still an educator – I took many poetry and creative writing workshops – in Maryland, Maine, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina – even Ireland and Italy. I was hooked!!!

Once I left teaching, I started a graduate program in Creative Writing/ Publishing Arts – earning my Master of Arts degree in 2005. Prior to graduation, I received the first-ever Creativity Award for Excellence in Plorking (Play + Work). Plork is the keystone of the Creative Writing program at UB; I also moved into the Charles Village community of Baltimore City, where I live in an accessorized third-floor apartment that mirrors my passion for color and whimsy. I am thoroughly immersed in the literary community of Baltimore. I’m the resident poet at Carver Center for the Arts & Technology in Baltimore County, where I teach poetry to high school sophomores every fall. Have completed 10 years in that position. And I volunteer for the Village Learning Place, a community library here in Charles Village. 

I’m passionate about the Baltimore Museum of Art – which is right here in my neighborhood! I’ve written many ekphrastic poems – poems based on works of art = inspired by paintings and sculptures at the BMA. 

I belong to several writing groups that meet regularly. I’ve had more than 200 poems published in books, literary journals, and anthologies. My fourth book of poetry, Wild Girls, will be published by Apprentice House Press this June. 

My self-definition is “I Am Shimmering Goddess Energy.” 

I’d also like to mention that I have an MBA – from the Maryland Bartending Academy. I took the program twice! Once in my 30’s and then bartended part-time at a rustic waterfront tavern in Arnold, Md, called Captain Clyde’s. And also at the United Stated Naval Academy in Annapolis for Homecoming events. And at the Baltimore Convention Center, where I met Muhammad Ali! I returned to the Bartending Academy a few years ago and took the course again just for fun. I didn’t tend bar formally after that, but I believe it’s a useful skill. And I love learning about new cocktails with creative names and ingredients. The title of my next book – which I’m still fine-tuning – will be called Goddess of Swizzle. 

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not, what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
In 2007, I broke my pelvis and right shoulder in a bad accident. I had a lengthy period of recuperation, in which I distinctly recalled how the spirit of Plork helped me out. I viewed it as a deep concept that embodied strength and perseverance. Although my family lives out of state, I am fortunate to have a large group of friends who have always offered their love and support. 

I find that patience is much needed in poetry and the creative arts. There are always rejections to deal with. And, of course, poetry is not a lucrative field! 

I recall struggling often as a speech therapist with the linear, non-creative aspects of the job. Being able to express my Creative Self is paramount to how I live each day. 

As you know, we’re big fans of you and your work. For our readers who might not be as familiar, what can you tell them about what you do?
I’m a working poet! That’s how I see myself. Every day, I’m involved with some aspect of the Creative Process. I’m reading, writing, revising, or submitting poetry. I try to stay involved in the writing community. The pandemic was a challenge for all – so much that was canceled. I find myself almost giddy these days when I attend an in-person reading. I love teaching. I so enjoy my fall poetry residency at Carver Center and working – plorking – with high school students! I’m also a judge each year for Carver’s Poetry Out Loud contest – where students memorize and then recite poems aloud. 

I’m known for my strong passion for color and accessories. I’m proud that I have invested time and energy in my Creative Self. Very proud of my four poetry books – “A Little Breast Music,” “After Words,” “Bistro in Another Realm,” and “Wild Girls.” 

I’m most proud of my book, “After Words,” published in 2013. It’s an elegy to a young breast cancer researcher, Stephen Bradley Pitcairn, who was murdered in my neighborhood in 2010 – while walking home to his Charles Village apartment and while talking to his mom on his cell phone. His mother heard his murder over the phone. I did not know Stephen in life, but I wrote a poem to Stephen’s family in Florida, expressing the grief of our community. I wanted the family to know Baltimore has so many caring people, Stephen’s Mom responded to my poem, and we began a correspondence that eventually led to my book – which are poems written in Stephen’s voice about his own murder. It was a project that took three years. And I feel such gratitude that I took the time to connect with Stephen’s family and to tell his story. 

Where we are in life is often partly because of others. Who/what else deserves credit for how your story turned out?
Oh, wow, yes!!! So many mentors!!! My poetry professor at the University of Baltimore, Kendra Kopelke, who is also the editor of Passager Books. Passager published my first book, “A Little Breast Music.” Kendra remains a dear friend, and I am still part of the Passager community as I read for the journal. I’m also in a poetry group with Kendra and several other dynamic writers. We call ourselves The Carrot-Top Poets. 

All of my UB professors were terrific mentors! I can’t say enough about the University of Baltimore!!!

I think of Baltimore poet, neurosurgeon, and art collector Michael Salcman, who has been a constant guide on my poetry journey. 

Family members in Rochester and Beyond, including my poet cousin, Jim Taylor. 

A huge contingent of friends!!! 

All the poets I’ve worked with in all my poetry groups! 

More teachers: Mark Doty, Stephen Dunn, Peter Murphy, Sue Ellen Thompson, JC Todd. 

The luminous poet laureate of Maryland, Grace Cavalieri, has been a constant cheerleader. I’m ever grateful to Grace for inviting me to read my poems at the Library of Congress in January 2020 – right before the pandemic – for her long-running series The Poet and The Poem. 

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Image Credits
Bonnie J. Schupp
Anthony Hayes

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