Key West Literary Seminar: We Become What We Read
The first full day of the 31st annual Key West Literary Seminar ended Friday night with The John Malcolm Brinnin Memorial Reading by Jay Parini, Mark Doty, and Billy Collins. True to this year’s theme of “Writers on Writers,” Parini began the evening with several poems inspired by his encounters with other writers, one of the earliest being Jorge Luis Borges. As a young poet studying in Ireland, Parini was charged with entertaining the aging, nearly-blind Argentine for a couple of days while he was overseas working on translations of his stories. Parini’s poem told of how, as the two walked through a rookery in the countryside, Borges heard the crows overhead and, his expression shifting and becoming distant, he essentially became the cawing birds.
I suspect that this experience of becoming what we hear was familiar to most in the crowd last night, and I believe it’s part of why everyone is attending this year. When we hear writers we admire speak about other writers we may have only had the chance to know on the page, we can become, if only for a moment, those other writers, and better understand their craft, as Borges became and understood those crows simply upon hearing them.
Mark Doty opened his portion of the reading with several poems from “An Island Sheaf,” a series of poems written during his first visit to Key West many years ago, giving the audience an idea of what it was like to be a poet experiencing this “strange island” for the first time. Through his stories and the poems themselves, we were able to become the writer as he encountered our town’s inquisitive parrots, sea grapes perpetually in bloom and decay—“all throb and trouble and fallen”—and a hermit crab inhabiting an abandoned hot-pink can of watermelon soda near the beach. Again, we are left with more insight into a writer in our town, a writer on his own writing.
Billy Collins finished the evening, also mentioning Borges as he introduced his first poem, “You, Reader,” by explaining that he’d “shoplifted” Borges’s belief that “I just happened to write these [lines] down before you did.” It was “Aimless Love,” Collins’s final poem of the night, however, that really seemed to resonate with the readings that had come before. In the poem, the speaker tells of his inability to resist falling in love with everything he sees, a simple, uncomplicated love of all the objects around him, from a bowl of broth to a bar of soap. Reflecting on the poet’s painterly eye, Collins brought the evening to a close by reminding us once again of what it feels like to write, of the urge to tell others what we have seen.