The Idea Of Literary Community In Key West

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 other events.

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.

"Gentrification 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 some.

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 to shame.

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 basis.

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 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."

Rosalind Brackenbury, 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.


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