Saturday, January 17, 2015

Billy Collins in Key West

Once again I'm overdue to post, but I can't wait to share my vacation and writing experience. First of all, it was the first visit ever for my wife and me to Key West, Florida, and we had a great time. My primary reason for going was to take a four-day workshop with poet Billy Collins, as part of the annual Key West Literary Seminar. I wasn't able to attend the seminar itself, though I did attend the closing program on Sunday afternoon, which was open to the public. Then Sunday evening was the opening event for the workshops - a "luau"-style buffet for workshop faculty and attendees. Monday through Thursday we had our workshops from 10:00 to 1:00, in a municipal building that was originally a cigar factory. There were eleven of us, from a variety of backgrounds and parts of the country (and one American ex-pat from London), and coincidentally, one fellow poet whom I already knew who is from my area - neither of us knew the other was coming.  Everyone was an accomplished poet, and we were very productive, workshopping up to three poems each and also sharing the results of three writing exercises that Billy gave us.  Billy himself was charming, down-to-earth, funny, informative and helpful, despite dealing currently with a chronic health issue.  Monday evening was a cocktail party for attendees and their guests, and Wednesday evening was an open reading, in which the readers were drawn at random (their names literally picked from a hat), and I was the last reader of the evening. I read "To Flight 370" (which I had offered for workshop and read with some minor changes suggested by the group); "Autobiography" (the result of one of Billy's writing exercises), and "Archaics Roadshow" (one of the poems I had submitted with my application to the workshop).  There's something gratifying about being the last reader, especially when you get a good audience reaction.

In addition to all that, my wife and I had plenty of time to enjoy the town of Key West . It's a city of contrasts - on the one hand, there's a rich historic, cultural and artistic tradition; on the other, it's quite a party town, with a large number of clubs and pubs, and a happy hour that seems to start around 9:00 a.m. It's also the rooster capital of the world - they're as common as cats, and roam blithely around town, stopping to crow now and then.  My wife and I visited the art museum, the Hemingway House (Ernest Hemingway was by far their most famous resident), and the Audubon House (John James Audubon also stayed briefly on the island). We also took a glass-bottom boat tour out to the coral reef and observed the tropical fish and coral, and were treated to a spectacular sunset on the way back. My wife took a day trip to the Dry Tortugas, an island about 70 miles from Key West where there is a lot of nature and a former Civil War fort.  Of course, Key West is also famous for Key Lime Pie, which you can get just about anywhere in town (including frozen and chocolate-dipped on a stick), not to mention so many other Key Lime flavored treats, including cigars!  The weather was perfect - sunny just about every day with highs in the mid- to upper-70's.  The only thing we would do differently next time is perhaps not rent a car. We ended up with a Ford Mustang GT (very tricked-out but hardly our first choice) and only drove it about 30 miles the whole week. The Old Town section of Key West, where we spent most of our time, is very walkable (and parking is at a premium), plus the hotel where we stayed (the Sheraton Suites near the airport,  a lovely place with a beach right across the street) had a free shuttle service to and from town.  Also, many people get around town on bicycles, scooters, and electric carts.  To sum up, we thoroughly enjoyed our six days there and would gladly come back again.

Poem: Here's one I wrote for workshop for one of Billy Collins' exercises. The assignment was to read Frank O'Hara's poem "Autobiographia Literaria", and to use some of the same elements: Title it "Autobiography", use the first line "When I was  child..." and the first line of the last stanza, "And here I am now...", write in short lines if possible. and use at least one exclamation point at or near the end.  So here is what I came up with:


When I was a child,
I was a skinny, gawky thing
with black plastic glasses
and a target on my back

in the bullies' shooting gallery,
teased and smacked around
for being smarter but weaker,
their sideshow freak.

But I never abandoned
my books and my pen,
while they pulled up stakes
and their carnival left town.

And here I am now, a strongman,
with words like biceps.
Come back and get in my ring -
I'll take you all down!

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