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Key West, Day One: An Overview

January 8, 2012 in Florida Feature, Hemingway in Key West, Key West Travel, Uncategorized

Arrive approximately 7:00pm at apartment/hotel. Clearly people live in this building full-time (“I’ve lived here five years and never taken the elevator,” one resident confessed), but we pickup our key from a “concierge” in another building; the one across the pedestrian bridge from the Sunrise Suites, our temporary home. The apartment smells like a hotel and the distinctly Floridian odor of sun-baked mildew.

As we head out for dinner, we weave through a parking lot full of white vans decorated with competitive messages and symbols. Each one ends up looking the same. The relay-race from Miami to Key West supports the Florida Special Olympics and hosts hundreds. Many of the runners at the Sunrise Suites wear tall striped socks and mill aimlessly. In addition to the literary conference going on, the tours, cruises and themed retreats, a 199 mile race stops here. Key West is full to the brim with visitors who want to have a good time.

On nearly every downtown corner, large groups of strapping young lads built like Hemingway roam like big cats, and I wonder, is everyone here to do something? Has anyone come to Key West to relax, or is it the kind of place fun looks tiring? The “rummies” look a wee bored, cigars fashioned listlessly in their lips. And fun-havers everywhere, stepping over obstacles, have their eyes fixed upon the next bar. Occasionally I witness a tourist stop to sniff out a particularly gorgeous scent in the air (which is where Key West gets truly interesting): ocean air, roasting meat, cigars rolled in the Cuban tradition. These are the real charms of Duval Street. The lights and shops are only a glint in her vast sparkling eyes.

Florida Feature: Henry Flagler Father of Modern Florida

December 13, 2011 in Florida Feature, Henry Flagler

Chances are you’ve heard of the Florida Keys’ sprawling overseas highway. You may even have enjoyed the unique pleasure of traversing its 120 plus miles by car. If this is the case, you’ve got turn-of-the-century real estate and railroad tycoon, Henry Morrison Flagler to thank, as he engineered the original over-seas-railroad back in 1912. In fact, if you have set foot in the state of Florida in the past century, you’ve seen his fingerprints all over. From the mega-resorts of Palm Beach to the quaint seaside villas of St. Augustine, Florida is littered with monuments to Flagler’s prodigious (even by Gilded Age standards) accomplishments.

Known as the “father” of modern Florida due to his construction and philanthropic efforts, Flagler has countless streets, schools, hospitals and even entire towns named in his honor. In 2006, Key West erected a statue of Flagler on the site where his finest achievement, the overseas railway, once ended. Although a modern highway has since replaced the railroad tracks, the first overseas railway remains the jewel in Flagler’s crown. By founding the Florida East Railway and spearheading its expansion, Flagler facilitated the development of the state’s remote, swampy hinterlands and provided access to the Keys. Perhaps more than any other region of Florida, Key West has flourished due to his efforts. Before the overseas railway, Key West was isolated from the mainland by more than 120 miles of ocean. After its completion, the island gradually became a popular destination, evolving into the eclectic melting pot of artists, locals, travelers and outcasts that it is today.

The overseas railway is merely an episode in the storied life of Henry Flagler. This month on the Literary Traveler Blog, as part of our ongoing series on Key West, we will be exploring the life of this titan of industry. Stay tuned for more, including his profitable friendship with John D. Rockefeller and the tale of grand failure that was Flagler’s first business venture!

The Key West Writers Guild: Writing Key West’s Literary Future

December 2, 2011 in Contemporary Literature, Key West Travel, New Writers, Writing Advice

From Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams to Elizabeth Bishop, Key West is steeped in literary history.  You can see Bishop’s house on White Street, have a drink at the bar where Hemingway was a regular and attend a show at the theatre named in Tennessee Williams’ honor.  Key West has as much to offer literature aficionados as it does beach bums, but, you may ask, what can Key West offer the contemporary writer?  The literary scene in Key West is far from a thing of the past.  In fact, Key West has much to lend aspiring writers hoping to follow in the footsteps of their literary predecessors who once called Key West home.  In addition to the annual Key West Literary Seminar, The Key West Writers Guild, a non-profit organization founded in 1995, has been supporting local writers since its inception.  According to their website, the Guild “provides a friendly forum for authors to share their writings and receive encouraging and helpful feedback.”  They meet twice a month and provide an inclusive community for all writers of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and prose, both published and unpublished.  In addition to providing a forum for discussing their work, the Guild also holds an annual short story contest.  The winning submissions have subsequently been compiled into anthologies, which are available for purchase locally in Key West. The latest edition, Voices from Key West, is available on  In conjunction with the Florida Keys Council of the Arts, they also honor one writer annually with an award for the best work in progress.

While it is not a requirement, many members of the Guild are published, and their works run the gamut from thrillers and children’s books to romance novels and literary fiction.  Although not a prerequisite, it is no surprise that many of the Guild’s members are creatively inspired by their surroundings.  Joanna Brady Schmida, a member since 1998 and the Guild secretary, won the annual award in 2009, and her self published novel, The Woman at the Light, is praised on as “a wonderful ‘trip’ to Key West’s past.”

The members of the Guild come from all walks of life, bonded together through their love of writing.  The Guild president, Diana Reif, is an attorney, and the members’ day jobs cover as wide a spectrum as the genres in which they write.  Dorothy Francis, music teacher and mystery writer extraordinaire, has written books for both children and adults, and her Key West mysteries include the aptly titled Conch Shell Murder and Pier Pressure Mike Dennis, musician and professional poker player, also found inspiration in his surroundings.  His second published work Setup on Front Street is the first of a trilogy of noir novels set in Key West.  Peg Gregory, a retired nurse turned romance writer, penned Starfish, a piece of romantic fiction inspired by the city’s past.

Whether historical fiction, romance novel or psychological journey through the region’s darker side, local writers cannot help but be fascinated by the rich culture and breathtaking beauty of Key West.  I think sometime-Key West-resident Hemingway would agree. After all, his only novel set in the United States, To Have and Have Not, is set in Key West, where he began writing it. Strangely enough, although Hemingway and Tennessee Williams resided in Key West simultaneously, they reportedly only met once.  Providing a community of intellectual nourishment and mutual admiration, it is safe to say that if Key West is to ever again see the likes of two such literary greats, they will have met more than once… perhaps even twice a month at Guild meetings?


Key West Friday: Visiting Florida with Elizabeth Bishop

November 18, 2011 in American literature, Key West Travel

Photo by Daniel Peckham

The state with the prettiest name,
the state that floats in brackish water,
held together by mangrave roots
that bear while living oysters in clusters,
and when dead strew white swamps with skeletons,
dotted as if bombarded, with green hummocks
like ancient cannon-balls sprouting grass…

So begins Elizabeth Bishop’s famous ode to the state of Florida. Of course, in a traditional sense, this isn’t an ode, for while it speaks of Florida—almost sings of Florida—it doesn’t call to the region. Like many of Bishop’s poems, which are set apart by their precise descriptions and finely-observed detail, this poem describes Florida to an outsider. It captures a place filled with pelicans and rot and beauty and teenage flesh. Florida feels, to me, like an intimate portrayal drawn from a vast distance.

Yet Bishop didn’t experience Florida from a distance. After moving to Key West in the early 1930’s, Elizabeth decided to stay in the city, moving from apartment to house and enjoying the booming literary scene (as well as the lush surroundings).

Embarrassingly, this is new information for me. I have long admired Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry—I love her confessional style, her raw emotion, and her delicate balance of imagery and abstract—but I insisted on thinking of her as a Massachusetts girl, much like myself. However, the truth is that Bishop didn’t belong to Boston, and even her first book of poems bares testimony to that fact. Titled North and South, the collection jumps back and forth from Key West to Boston, moving from the cold brick and winter twilight of the North to the invading sun and carnival colors of America’s far south. It compares and contrasts the two, never really settling on either, playing to the strengths and terrible weaknesses of both.

But this is, in essence, what I admire so much about Bishop’s poetry. Before I began writing our Key West Friday series, I had never given much though to what I’m going to call her “landscape pieces.” I much preferred her descriptions of love, loss, and anger. But buried within these tantalizing images of a place I have never been (for I haven’t quite made it down to Florida quite yet) is something I can recognize. Reading her poems about Florida is a bit like looking at an old postcard. They provide a fragmented and slightly distorted and appealing picture of America.

Key West is, for Bishop, a place that is filled with growth and overrun with decay. She describes with equal the “enormous turtles, helpless and mild” that are doomed to “die and leave their barnacled shells on the beaches and the fireflies, who come after dark and “map the heavens in the marsh / until the moon rises.” In another poem, titled Florida Deserta, she spends the first stanza discussing summer clouds that “shade the houses / soothe they eyes” and “banish the break-bone fever” before launching into a description of the summer stars. She captures them converging “invisibly on each tin roof,” turning light into color and the shine of hundreds of scales. For Bishop, Florida is alive and pulsing, constantly moving with heat and the glittery refracted light of water and ocean.

After a more thorough exploration, I realize I have to give up Bishop as a fellow Bostonian. She’s much too American to be limited to a single city—even a single state. I think it is her particular skill for imagery, for drawing dreamscapes out of words, but after reading Elizabeth’s lines on Key West, it’s hard not to wonder: what else is out there, waiting with half-closed eyes?

Bishop, in her usual cryptic way, has one answer:

The alligator, who has five distinct calls:
friendliness, love, mating, war, and a warning–
whimpers and speaks in the throat
of the Indian Princess.

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