A Key West Poem
The southernmost point keeps inspiring generations of writers.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
“Questions of Travel” — Elizabeth Bishop
I knew before making the four-hour drive from my home in Miami to Key West for the Key West Literary Seminar that much of my exploring would be done alone. I had been walking much longer than I’d been writing, but the two had always been intertwined, much like Key West and its literary history. And so I found myself one cool day in January, getting lost before my first workshop, observing the pineapples that punctuated the surfaces of doors, lights, paintings, and shirts. There were many orchids attached by careful hands to trees, bursts of white, purple and yellow. There were also many birds in cages, mostly parrots, watching with careful eyes as I made my way past their homes.
Eventually I found the building where my poetry workshop was being held at the top of the Key West History Museum. The class, “Under the Surface: Studying the Music of Your Imagination,” with Rowan Ricardo Phillips, not only allowed me to workshop new poems, but discover new writers. Soon, I found that the close study of words within the classroom affected all of my senses, but especially that of sound. I found music in many unexpected things—the lobster delicately tucked into folded fans of lettuce; the reeling in of fishing line matching the whir of bike tires; discarded shrimp skins falling to the wooden boardwalks; sequins carefully pasted and glittering on wrinkled cheeks. Poetry, it seemed, was everywhere.
As a welcome to the seminar, on our first night all of the workshop groups gathered for dinner with their instructors in the impressive backyard of Ernest Hemingway’s house. While we ate pink salmon and emerald-hued salad, six-toed cats crept along the walls surrounding the property and peered down at us from tree branches, half-hidden by Spanish moss. Before dessert, thunder sounded and I wondered what rhythm our collective feet would make if we had to rush to take cover under the porch. All of us huddling, eyes a little brighter from the wine.
Miami was not that far from Key West, and yet, the two couldn’t be more different. A big city can wrap itself around your neck, clog your senses and make it hard to breathe, let alone write. On Key West, there was a quiet that lent space for rumination, a slowness that at first unnerved, then calmed me. I imagined that this was what Elizabeth Bishop, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, Ralph Ellison, and so many others sought out. Being able to look up at a sky with more than just a handful of stars, sitting on a dock and not being pulled away by work, or school, or traffic. Just words. I was a tourist in my own state, reveling in the strange and brilliant images that came like wind through a conch shell—fast, intense, and fleeting.
As the days went by, I sped through my breakfasts and lunches, eager for classes to begin. I wrote pages and pages every day: sonnets and sestinas, odes and confessionals. Everything was a possible poem—the island itself, the key deer, children and grown men running out to sea. Each sunset and each sunrise felt newly discovered. This was when I also discovered Elizabeth Bishop (late in life, but in the most perfect place). I, too, was familiar with the art of losing: In Key West, I’d lost the ability to be scared of the unknown; I’d lost my writer’s block; I’d lost my desire to travel only if it was out of the country—for here, practically in my own backyard, was another world.
Five days went by too fast. At the end of the program, we gathered for farewell drinks by the lighthouse. I couldn’t help but think that many years before, back when the lighthouse abutted the coast, we’d all be up to our chests in water, united in our love of the written word, holding onto floats. Before returning to Miami, I took the time to wander one last time. Before I left, I wanted to write one more thing about Key West and found that I couldn’t. So I kept walking, embracing the art of simply being lost in the moment.
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