Get the Word Out: Here’s Where to Experience Poetry in Florida
By Jodi Mailander Farrell
Floridians have always had a way with words. Or perhaps wordsmiths have always found their way to Florida.
Three Pulitzer Prize-winning poets – Elizabeth Bishop, James Merrill and Richard Wilbur – called Key West home. Miami-born Donald Justice became one of the 20th Century’s most influential poets. Miami-raised Richard Blanco became the inaugural poet for President Barack Obama’s second inauguration. Robert Frost spent winters at his five-acre home, Pencil Pines, in South Miami. For Jack Kerouac, the road ended in St. Petersburg, where he died suddenly at the age of 47.
Florida’s fondness for poetry lives on today through poetry slams, poetry festivals and poetry engraved in public places, from Pensacola to Key West.
O, Miami is a poetry festival held every April that aims to expose all 2.7 million people living in Miami-Dade County to a poem. That means you may find poems plastered on city buses, emblazoned on public toilets, dropped out of helicopters or even printed on “poo-etry” bags for dog owners. Along with bringing big names like singer-poet Patti Smith and former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass to Miami and sponsoring a crowd-sourced poetry contest, the group publishes a regional imprint, hosts a poets residency program in schools and prisons, brings visiting writers to The Betsy hotel, and is constantly pushing the public to re-think poetry. In 2016, artist Randy Burman and O, Miami painted two elementary school students’ poems on rooftops of buildings near Miami International Airport flight paths. Each day, 650 planes pass over the poems, one on a parking garage at Florida International University, the other on top of Mana Wynwood, a multi-venue performance and exhibit space north of downtown Miami. More info: University of Wynwood, 500 N.E. 56th St., Miami; omiami.org.
Sidewalk Poetry, Key West
Shel Silverstein, author of the children’s poetry collection, “Where the Sidewalk Ends,” lived and died in Key West, so it’s fitting that poetry now stops folks in their tracks on the southernmost island’s sidewalks. In 2014, the city’s Art in Public Places Board unveiled the first two concrete-etched “sidewalk poems” by local writers as tribute to the Key West’s poetic spirit. One poem by Key West Poet Laureate Kirby Congdon is in front of Captain Tony’s Saloon, 428 Greene St., the other, by D. Sullins Stuart, is a tribute to Silverstein and can be found outside of historic St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 401 Duval St. Fifteen additional poems are slated to be stamped as the city pours new sidewalks or replaces broken or cracked sections. More info: Key West Art in Public Places Board, City Hall, 1300 White St., Key West; 305-809-3779.
Palm Beach Poetry Festival, Delray Beach
A six-day festival devoted to poetry every January at the historic Old School Square Cultural Arts Center, 51 N. Swinton Ave., in Delray Beach draws U.S. Poet Laureates, National Book Award honorees and Pulitzer Prize winners to this arts-friendly town in southern Palm Beach County. Poetry workshops, nightly public readings, book signings, discussion panels and more culminate with a poetry slam performance on Saturday night. Started in 2004, the festival also fosters poetry discussions at Green Cay Nature Center & Wetlands, 12800 Hagen Ranch Road, in Boynton Beach, and hosts a Haiku program annually at Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, 4000 Morikami Park Rd., in Delray Beach. More info: Palm Beach Poetry Festival, 3199 B-3 Lake Worth Rd., Lake Worth; 561-868-2063, palmbeachpoetryfestival.org.
There Will Be Words, Orlando
Named Orlando's “Best Revival of Live Storytelling” by Orlando Weekly, There Will Be Words produces a periodic reading series called Saturday Night Special that combines prose and poets, and a sporadic poetry slam called There Will Be Verse. Shows rotate among such places as Henao Contemporary Center, 5601 Edgewater Dr, in Orlando, and Stardust Video and Coffee, 1842 E. Winter Park Rd., Orlando. Podcasts of performances are available on the There Will Be Words website. More info: Upcoming events appear on the organization’s Facebook wall @therewillbewords.
Kerouac House, St. Petersburg
Besides being the home of current Florida Poet Laureate Peter Meinke, St. Petersburg is famously the place where Beat Generation poet and author Jack Kerouac spent the final years of his life. Kerouac moved into the modest, three-bedroom brick house at 5169 10th Ave. North in 1964 with his third wife Stella and paralyzed mother Gabriel. He famously deemed St. Pete “a good place to come die,” and he did just that in 1969 at the age of 46 of a stomach hemorrhage. A nonprofit is trying to turn the house into a museum, but for now it is not open to the public. That doesn’t stop tour buses from parking out front and sightseers peering through the curtains. Better to check out some of the writer’s old haunts around town, which include Haslam’s Bookstore, 2025 Central Ave., and The Flamingo Sports Bar, 1230 9th St. North, where Kerouac had his last drink and where a special “shot and wash” is now named after him. More info: Friends of the Jack Kerouac House, 23 Sixth St. North, St. Petersburg; kerouachouse.com.
PoetryLife Weekend, Sarasota
Every April, this two-day festival sponsored by BookStore1 and Florida Studio Theatre brings together poets, students, teachers and others to celebrate poetry. The event has featured former U.S. poet laureates Robert Pinsky, Billy Collins and W.S. Merwin, among others. Events include a luncheon where guests can speak with visiting poets, an evening poetry reading and a Community Favorite Poem Reading, where members of the public read their favorite poems aloud. More info: PoetryLife Weekend, sarasotapoetry.com, or Bookstore1, 12 S. Palm Ave., Sarasota; 941-365-7900, sarasotabooks.com.
Pensacola Poetry is a 10-year-old organization that connects poets to poetry events around town, most often at Constant Coffee and Tea, 615 Scenic Hwy., where an open mic night is held every second and fourth Tuesday of the month, 6 p.m.-8 p.m. The group welcomes free expression in poetry or verse, spoken word and rap without censorship or themes. More info: Pensacola Poetry, 850-380-0581; find upcoming events on the group’s Facebook page @PensacolaPoetry.