Terri Kirby Erickson’s journey to becoming a poet took an unusual trajectory.
She didn’t set out to become a published poet or professional writer.
“I self-published my first book without any thought of how to keep going in this career, that anyone but my mother would read it,” Erickson said.
She also thought about how nice it would be to have a book of poems to give to her daughter Gia Myers.
Now, at 62, Erickson has written her sixth book of poetry. Press 53 will release “A Sun Inside My Chest” on Oct. 8 through a virtual book launch.
Erickson loves both writing and reading poetry.
“A poem can go straight to a person’s heart in a way no other kind of writing can do,” she said. “Soldiers used to write and carry poems with them into battle during World War I and II. Poems unite and connect us to one another’s humanity. Every poem is another little light in the darkness, telling us that we are not alone.”
Life and career
A native of Winston-Salem, Erickson now lives in Pfafftown and is married to Leonard Erickson.
She graduated from Reynolds High School in 1976 then studied English literature at Appalachian State University.
In her sophomore year at App State, Erickson got sick and had to drop out of school because she had Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease.
“It can cause a lot of pain when you eat and things like that, and it zaps your energy,” Erickson said. “I was to the point where I could hardly get out of bed.”
She ended up with an ileostomy for 11 years, but, during that time, she volunteered at Wake Forest Baptist Health and talked to people who were going to have the same surgery — a procedure that requires the use of an external pouch.
“I was happily liberated from it when I was 33,” Erickson said. “That was great. I went out and bought everything spandex.”
And she took a belly dancing class.
Erickson likes to talk openly about Crohn’s disease, saying, it is one of those diseases that people don’t often want to discuss.
“Bowel function is not very poetic,” she said.
In 1991, Erickson received a bachelor’s degree in English literature and mass communications from Winston-Salem State University. She has worked as an intern for the Winston-Salem Journal, been a radio copywriter, and an assistant to the director of vascular ultrasound research at Wake Forest School of Medicine. Before writing poetry, she was a contract technical-medical editor.
These days, Erickson is strictly writing poetry.
“I actually had this momentous epiphany when I was 45 years old,” she said. “I went to a poetry reading by Rita Dove at Salem College. I was so inspired by her poetry and her presence that it made me realize that this was what I wanted to do with my life. That’s when I started writing in earnest. “
Dove served as Poet Laureate of the United States and Consultant to the Library of Congress from 1993 to 1995 and received the 1987 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.
Erickson said she is grateful for the success she has had as an author of poetry and for having six books published. Stephen White, a well-known artist who lives in North Carolina, does the paintings that are on the covers of all her books.
After Erickson self-published her first poetry book, "Thread Count" (AuthorHouse) in 2006, she became aware of Press 53, a publishing house of short fiction and poetry collections in Winston-Salem.
Press 53 published her next five books, including her most recent work, “A Sun Inside My Chest.”
The first poem in Erickson’s new book is titled “Loving You Burns Like Shingles.” It is about loving the wrong boy and was published by The Sun magazine.
“I just love her way of describing things,” said Kevin Morgan Watson, publisher and editor in chief of Press 53. “When you’re reading her poems, you feel like you’re there. You can taste the air. You can smell the flowers. You can hear the birds flying overhead. It really is amazing. She is the queen of metaphor and simile.”
He said it is amazing the way Erickson sees the normal everyday things that people see all the time.
“When she points out and says, ‘Wait. Look at this,’ that’s magical,” Watson said.
He added that her writing has always been good, but she keeps getting better.
In an excerpt of a back-cover blurb for “A Sun Inside My Chest,” Emily Herring Wilson, author of “When I Go Back to My Home Country: A Remembrance of Archie Ammons,” wrote: “Terri Kirby Erickson’s sixth book, dedicated 'for love,' is a world I want to live in: generous people, beautiful flowers, birds of every feather, landscapes of mountains and sea, and love of every kind, from passionate romance to family and friends, hawks and owls and herons and clouds and outdoor cathedrals.
“She is such a fine poet, a shining jewel, a modest woman, and a friend to all mankind and nature. Discovering her in recent years, I have felt young again, to read and write poems, to believe that poets are, as Shelley wrote, 'the unacknowledged legislators of the world.'"
Erickson’s poems have appeared in many literary publications, and she has won prizes for her poetry, including the Joy Harjo Poetry Prize for a poem about the death of her brother, Tommy Kirby, who died when he was 20.
She said the death of her brother was a pivotal time in her life.
Erickson is also still grieving the loss of her parents, Tom and Loretta Kirby, who died last year.
“They died six months apart,” Erickson said. “It was a terrible blow. I was really close to my parents.”
The poetry she has written about her parents are some of her favorite poems.
“They were married for 63 years and they had such a wonderful relationship and were such wonderful parents,” she said.
Erickson’s new book is an eclectic collection of poetry. In her author’s note, she writes about the deaths of her parents, the grief and shock that follows the passing of parents, as well as the love that lives on.
“It is not a book of poetry necessarily about loss,” Erickson said. “It’s a book about the beauty that surrounds us in the world, falling in love with the world and appreciating all the beauty and the gift that is life.”
She said that poetry has been a healing force in her life.