To those with a literary
turn of mind who have never visited the place, Key West may conjure
images of burly men with white beards and no shirts, emulating Ernest
Hemingway on the sidewalks of Paradise. Those with a little more
"island savvy" may think of such 20th century literary
luminaries with Key West associations as Tennessee Williams, Wallace
Stevens - or even Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop and James Merrill.
And of course there
are those, in the contemporary world of literary workshops, retreats
and seminars, who will think of Key West as a winter-getaway destination
to network with the latest poetry heavyweights.
Fact is, there's more.
To be sure, the Hemingway
House has its six-toed cats and flash-happy throngs. The Frost Cottage
holds its afternoon teas in a quiet garden said to have inspired
the visiting New Englander to write "we were the land before
the land was ours." The atmosphere of Key West permeates works
like Stevens' classic "The Idea of Order at Key West"
and Merrill's epic "Changing Light at Sandovar." The local
playhouse stages sweaty Tennessee Williams plays regularly. From
winter to winter, somewhere or other on the tiny island, would-be
NEA grant winners are sequestered with the likes of Carolyn Forche
and Galway Kinnell.
To these notions must be added another image - Key West (from the
Spanish Cayo Hueso, or Island of Bones) as continental America's
southernmost alternative literary community. Thanks to a group known
as the Key West Authors' Coop (KWAC), there's more to Cayo Hueso
than the ghosts of mid-20th century writers and phantom connections
to the next Pulitzer Prize.
At the end of the hundred
mile chain of islands pointing like a dagger from Southern Florida
to Cuba, ninety miles away, a cohesive, quasi-underground community
of local writers has emerged, whose work is gradually being disseminated
regionally and beyond, through self-published collections and a
loosely floating evolution of readings, slams, author visits and
You heard it right -
a literary collective is growing up right in the shadow of Papa
Hemingway's Key West.
While Mid-Western tourists
by the thousands offload each morning for a few days in the sun
- and for nights in the rambling playful bars of Duval Street -
KWAC is busy extending the reach of a literary community from its
underground origins to a place in the sun.
It is an effort, say KWAC representatives, which is occurring in
the context of an uneasy truce with Paradise, USA, Inc.
On Key West these days,
there are many locals, not just the poets, who hold a grudging acceptance
of the island's many visitors. Just this winter a newspaper, "Strange
Blue Shark," hit the stands stating in its editorial debut
that "even though we all depend on the tourists, this paper
will not be concerned with the tourists, or their concerns.. (or
just) another of the opportunistic tourist rags." On Duval
Street, the heart of tourist Key West, one can readily find t-shirts
which sport backhanded slaps at the visitors: "Your village
called, their idiot is missing" is just one of them noted on
a recent visit.
Yet the island's economy
also thrives because of the tourist trade, and like nearly everyone
else KWAC members are all too aware that they too were once visitors
to the island before deciding to settle in - and they too had to
gain acceptance among the people who had settled in before them,
and who have years since been duly appointed citizens of Cayo Hueso.
was an issue when we did our first collection," says Robin
Orlandi, one of the founders and more active members of KWAC. "But
we've had to get used to it. You can't stop a juggernaut like that."
Perhaps not. But in the face of a hurricane-force tourist onslaught
on a place some KWAC members have begun to call a "realtors'
paradise," the group has managed to hold its own, and then
One result: an active
local poetry reading scene has emerged at locations like the infamous
Green Parrot, a block or so from mile marker zero of Route 1. "This
was more a child of the Key West Poetry Guild, which has been going
strong since the early 70s," notes Orlandi. "One Guild
member, Tony Klein, decided to start a reading at the Parrot that
is actually an open mic reading." Several true scored slams
were organized there in conjunction with Tony during the "poetry
renaissance" in the mid 90's when Danne Hughes and Orlandi
were running the Blue Heaven Outback open mic reading. "Our
slam team was afoot and the Appelrouth Grill was hosting open mic
nites. Danne and I organized the first scored slam in Key West at
Blue Heaven then exported it to the Parrot, in cahoots with Tony,
as the most appropriate backdrop for amplified poetic chaos."
The readings out back
at Blue Heaven continued "until it got too gentrified,"
she says. "There was poetry floating out over the diners. Chickens
flew overhead, the atmosphere was incredible." An onstage poetry
scene emerged at the Red Barn theater, "an evolution of our
bar slams into a more "professional" theater venue."
Reggie Cabico was a visitor as part of the Red Barn series not too
long back. And Buddy Ray MacNeice, another potent performing poet
with links to Ferlinghetti and with a current residency at the Orlando
Kerouac House, appeared several time - most recently, at the Green
Parrot in early 2002.
Meanwhile in a bid to
find solidarity with like-minded members of the broader art community
in Key West, KWAC has begun meeting at Beverley and Daniele Horlick's
Woodenhead Gallery on Caroline Street, in the Seaport District.
The Woodenhead is an
establishment with enormous alternative cachet, from its waving
Tibetan prayer flags to poetry-inscribed barstools surrounding an
inoperative outdoor French piano; and the smell of Bretagne crepes
wafting outdoors with the tropical breeze. In fact Woodenhead Gallery,
whose "Cafe Noir" holds a quasi-official subtitle as being
"definitely not Duval." is a graceful kind of Key West
chop-shop created out of the cull from woodships and tinsnips, the
decor of which was praised by at least one major Tibetan Lama recently.
And the gallery held an impressive and high end ars erotica art
show which, for its daring and non-commercial aesthetic authenticity,
put the touristic trinkets and t-shirt fashions of Duval Street
For all its barefoot
charm and alternative chic, Woodenhead was the logical choice when
the KWAC group was looking for a place to produce a high-tech live
video feed to its website of a one hour group interview with Poetrybay
- a feed which worked out so well that Orlandi is working to get
an edited version of the interview - along with footage of MacNeice's
reading at the Green Parrot - on the group's website on a more permanent
The effort to stream
the video is indicative of the ambiguity facing the writers of KWAC.
While their aesthetic is decidedly tropical, low-tech, post-industrial
and nostalgic, the future of remote regional groups like KWAC -
at least in getting their work before the wider public - may lie
in part in the instant access, 24/7 world of internet.
This is a stark contrast
to the originating objectives of KWAC. In the words of its own biographical
blurb, when the Key West Author's Cooperative traces its founding
to 1996, the six local writers who organized it did so in order
to find a hard-copy publishing venue for their work.
That they did. Within
a year their first anthology, "Once Upon An Island," went
to press. By 1999 they debuted their second anthology of poetry
and prose, "Beyond Paradise," at Blue Heron Books. In
2002, "Mango Summers" was released. Like its predecessors
Mango Summers takes an unapologetic look at la vida Cayo Hueso,
and the recent evolution of Key West. And like the previous collections,
the topics range in interest and tone - from latter-day sailors'
tall tales (offered up by authors like Allen Meece and Bob Mayo,
operator of the popular Bobalu's Southern Cafe at mile marker ten);
to frank celebrations of the off-center cultural matrices of Key
West's washed-ashore society - the full contact sport of living
la vida Cayo Hueso. It is a world populated by hip artists, gay
celebrants, conmen, drunks and madmen; outcasts and outsiders on
the risky fringes of society...in what Hemingway once called America's
"Poor Man's Riviera."
Also laced through the
published work is a palpable and permeating lamentation of the loss
of Key West's more colorful days in the face of a declasse tourist
invasion and gentrification of the island.
Orlandi, who studied
at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa, is
certainly one of those lamenting the invasion. Her take on the quasi-piratical,
outsider stature of Key West's old cadre of mad men, earth women
and sun-drunk Bone Island celebrants is decidedly positive. In the
poem "Hello Spring Break," for example, she harkens to
the rambling rambunctious outre mystique of the place: Key West
ain't no TV show/Key West ain't a Lexus on Duval Street,/ Key West
ain't a condo that locks up the waterfront for paying customers
only./Key West is the wine in the drunken sailor's rowing arms,/Key
West is the big fat mama who wants to hug you all." In the
same poem, she worries that in a gentrified Key West there may be
no room for the sixtoed, the one eyed, the mongrel dreamers playing
guitar sticks on the sidewalks of paradise. In a more elegiac mode,
Orlandi writes in the poem "The Place We Live" of this
great web of being wheels above and below us/floating on the li....
The "Big Mama"
theme is one picked up on by JT Eggers, one of the founding members
of KWAC and a graduate of NYU's Tisch School. In her story "Island
of Bones," the island is a woman she describes the island/woman
persona who by night is "ignored, and this she can comprehend,
for they would see too much if they saw her, if they really saw
her. It is much safer for people to pretend that her ugliness does
not exist or disgust. They must blind themselves to it, this girl
on her island, this collision of the beautiful and the grotesque.
It is an ugly, maiming mess best not seen by clean young America."
an Englishwoman who traveled widely before settling in Key West
and producing ten published novels and four books of poetry, finds
solace and hope in the ambiguity between the beautiful and the grotesque
in a poem written in Key West cemetery, entitled "Prayer for
my daughter." It's a good place to be at Easter,/it's full
of love, she writes. ...graves open/and people rise up like flowers/and
reunions are possible/in the story we're told. She sits under a
gumbo limbo tree and prays for her "far away daughter,"
as leaves fall to the dry ground/singly in the Easter silence of
this place.. the same way she did the night after her daughter's
birth, now the age that I was/when I woke in the dull anguish/of
maybe losing you... The author revels in the joy of knowing a day
such as the one she is experiencing, and that it's hers. Under the
gumbo limbo writes Brackenbury, I begin again.
As for Margit Bisztray,
who is raising children on the island when she isn't doing food
reviews for local newspapers and magazines, reaches back to the
more distant origins of myth in her story, "I, Olivia."
My mother...told me how the Keys came into being...a long time ago
the first mother lived at the top of the earth, closest to the sun,
where she had a perfect view. The trees grew flowers which bloomed
into fruit, which fed the birds and turned them yellow and green
and red...sometimes boats chanced upon the mother's island, bringing
her gifts of seashells and fish. But then the boats began staying...
So the first mother kept moving southward to get away from the congestion
of humanity until she reached the end of North America, where she
built a hundred mile chain of islands and then skipped to the end
of it. Although many ships tried to pursue her, most met their end
on the shallow rocks...sailors who did reach the final rock in the
hundred mile chain were those with intere...
There is a tall tale
told of the man who chased his wife so hard "that she caught
me." It is the unique challenge of talented writers like those
of the Key West Authors' Coop to sort out for America's artists
what has been caught and what has been freed when we pursue our
aesthetic to the edge of the world - in this case, to a place called
Cayo Hueso, The Island of Bones.