If you’ve been following this blog, then you probably know about The Working Poet Radio Show — a podcast and talk show dedicated to the working lives of creative people. I’ve taken a break from the project for a few months to focus on work and my own creative writing, but I restarted WPRS again thanks to The Center for Writing and Literature at Miami Dade College, and we’re back with our first live show that will take place in my home away from home — Miami, Florida.
About a month ago, I received an email from Marci Cancio-Bello, a program coordinator at The Center, the editor of Print-Orientated Bastards, a poet, and a good friend. She had an idea about bringing WPRS to Miami for National Poetry Month, and she was able to make this a reality.
On Friday, April 17th, WPRS will return for one night to put on a show in Wynwood for National Poetry Month. Our guests, so far, are MacArthur Genius poet Campbell McGrath and Pulitzer Prize winning Miami Herald photojournalist Carl Juste.
Our musical guests will be the fantastic Raffa and Rainer. When I was in Miami as a graduate student, I remember listening to them at events and just being floored with the way they could captivate a room.
WPRS will be produced by Marci Cancio-Bello, and I’m so grateful to have her and The Center as part of the team. If you have any questions about the event — or how you can be involved with WPRS — leave a comment below.
Make sure you check out O, Miami, before WPRS on Friday night. There will be a special release party for Jai-Lai Magazine. I’ll have more information on this event soon, too.
I was recently in Miami for my buddy’s wedding, and I took some pictures that I wanted to share with you. I used to live in Miami, so I’ve been desperate to return with my Nikon and take some shots. Finally, I have the opportunity. Let me know what you think.
Credit Joseph Lapin
Credit Joseph Lapin
Credit Joseph Lapin
Credit Joseph Lapin
There really is no place in the world like Miami, Florida, and the light, compared to California, feels harsh and intrepid. I was able to catch some interesting ways that the light interacts with the city and the foliage.
Credit Joseph Lapin
Credit Joseph Lapin
Credit Joseph Lapin
Credit Joseph Lapin
Credit Joseph Lapin: this photo is actually an upside down window in Coconut Grove.
I grew up in Clinton, Massachusetts — a small town in Worcester County. We were once the crowning achievement of the Industrial Revolution, and the factories from the Bigelow Carpet Factory are still on Main Street, serving as a reminder of a former life. I love Clinton. I still have family there, and I have incredible friends there. That town has helped me become the man I am today, but I couldn’t wait to leave when I was a kid. It’s not that I disliked the people or thought it wasn’t a great town; it’s that I hated the snow; I hated the cold; I hated the small-town nature of my childhood existence. It just wasn’t where I wanted to live long term. I needed to find my home, and there were two places I knew where I wanted to live: Florida and California.
I started to develop this fascination with the idea of paradise. I started to think about the ocean, the sun, and the weather. I thought about Florida and California, and I built these ideas of these states as the key to happiness and success. That once I moved beyond the cold winters my life would be easier, more peaceful, and free.
So I went to college in Florida, and I lived there for four years, and I studied creative writing in Miami for three. Now I live in California — the place where I thought would be the most free state in the country — and I’m about to move to San Diego. What I’m trying to say is that I understand what it’s like to live in a place that most people consider paradise. I know what it’s like to live in a city where tourists line up, year after year, with their cameras to take photographs. I know what it’s like to take for granted the beauty that surrounds me and become accustomed to beautiful weather that you almost feel oblivious to the flowers blooming almost all year round or standing on the beach only to turn around and see snow on the mountaintops. What I’m trying to say is that I’ve spent the last ten years of my life chasing paradise, and I’m no longer looking for it. I’ve found it, and I can’t imagine ever leaving it. It’s obviously a state of mind. It’s a place that I can find in my writing. It’s my family. It’s music. Even though it’s so obvious, it’s important to remind myself that paradise is not a place. That’s what is on my mind this week.
Here are some quotes from writers on paradise:
“It is better to have your head in the clouds, and know where you are … than to breathe the clearer atmosphere below them, and think that you are in paradise.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson.
“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” — Jorge Luis Borges.
“Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring–it was peace.” — Milan Kundera.
Today is Labor Day, and I have the day off. I went hiking at Griffith Park, and I’m working on some stories and other miscellaneous writing, but I’ve also been reading. What I found is that everyone and their mother, right now, is writing about two things: Labor Day and the leak of nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton. There has been such incredible writing on this subject (See this essay by Roxane Gay at The Guardian and another by Anne Helen Petersen at BuzzFeed), but I’m not going to write about these events. I was thinking about writing about privacy; I was thinking about writing about work; but I want to write about something completely off the radar: Key West.
I’m working on my application for the Key West Literary Seminar Young Emerging Writer Award. I’ve applied to enough writing programs to know not to get my hopes up, but I would love to have the opportunity to surround myself with writers in one of my favorite places in the country for a week or so. That’s when I started to think about writing about the Florida Keys.
I received my MFA from Florida International University in Miami, Florida, and I would often head down to the Keys on the weekends. One time my buddies and I camped down at Long Key, and I brought my snorkeling equipment. The tides were strange, so you could walk out into the ocean for almost 100 yards without the water rising over your waist. I wandered around in the water, trying to explore the ocean and the exotic fish that live in the Keys as the sun went down. When I emerged from the water and walked back to the beach, my buddies were laughing. It turned out that there was a warning in the bathroom that it was Man-of-War season, and I was lucky that I hadn’t been stung by those giant floating brains.
But when I think about Key West, I really think about one memory that has stayed with me for many years.
When I was in my second year of graduate school, I was driving home from class to meet my fiance and her friend for dinner. I was stopped at a red light, waiting to merge onto the I-95 ramp — the most dangerous highway in the country — and I was thinking about a story I was writing called “A Crash in Boston.” The light turned green, and I hit the gas in my 2002 Buick LeSabre. There were about two cars ahead of me, and when it was my turn to drive through the light I saw the car approaching from the opposite direction. I knew instantly that the car was not stopping, and I prepared myself for the crash. The driver, an old man who was lost and searching for the highway, had blown the red light. He slammed into me at about 30 or 40 m.p.h.
I wasn’t hurt, but my car was pretty banged up. They towed my car, which my grandparents bequeathed to me when they passed away, and the insurance company had said it was totaled. That was a bunch of bullshit. The axle was just bent and the body needed some work. Whenever you have a car that the insurance company tries to total, and you know that you can get more mileage out of that car, don’t take their shit. Demand that they fix the car. That’s, in fact, what you pay them for.
So I pitched a fit, and they eventually agreed to fix my car. In fact, I was so angry that they offered to pay for my rental in the meantime.
Enter the Dodge Challenger. At the Enterprise in Coconut Grove, the guy at the desk put me in a brand new Dodge Challenger. The car just basically debuted on the road, and this specific ride had only 300 miles. Now I was never a big fan of muscle cars — or even really cared about cars — but when I was put behind that Dodge Challenger after driving around in my Buick LeSabre, I couldn’t help but feel like a bad ass. I decided, right then, that I was taking this bad body down to Key West, and I was bringing my fiance and my dog, Hendrix.
You might not know this unless you’ve driven to the Keys, but driving from Miami to Key West is one of the most beautiful road trips in the country. Perhaps the drive down the Pacific Coast Highway from around San Francisco to L.A. rivals this drive (I actually wrote about this voyage at the LA Weekly), but there isn’t anything quite like driving over the countless keys and seeing the strangest sites like giant metal lobsters on store fronts or the stunning views of the oh-so blue ocean that suddenly engulfs you and provides the illusion that you’re passing through some large and cosmic painting. I couldn’t wait to hit the open road with the Dodge Challenger, and I couldn’t wait to take that car over the seven mile bridge.
The seven mile bridge is the king of the causeway, the grand daddy of all ponts, because you’re literally driving on a bridge for seven miles over the bluest ocean you’ll find in the United States.
So my wife, Hendrix, and I are in the Dodge Challenger, and we’ve got the windows down, and Led Zeppelin’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” blaring through the speakers. We hit the beginning of the seven mile bridge at 2:30 p.m. on a Friday. The road is empty. Not another car in sight. The bridge opens up into the water, and on all sides of us, we find the Atlantic Ocean. We’re in the middle of the sea, and I just push that peddle down to the ground, crossing over 100 m.p.h.
For me, this is Key West; this is the Florida Keys: taking a car that I can’t afford and probably shouldn’t be driving to the limits. We’re half way over the bridge when my fiance starts to tell me to slow down.
“Relax,” I say, “I want to see how fast this thing can go.”
She says something else, but I can’t hear her over the music and the open window.
“What?” I say. I watch her mouth move. “I can’t hear anything you’re saying.”
She powers off the radio and says: “Slow down.”
“Come on, Heron. How often to I get to drive a Dodge Challenger?”
It’s funny, now, thinking about how big of a deal I thought it was to drive a hunk of steel at high speeds. I remember pushing down harder on the pedal as if to spite her.
“Slow down,” she says again. “You’re going to get arrested.”
About 100 feet ahead of us, I can see a rise in the bridge. It’s the closest thing to mountains in Florida, and I feel myself giving in, secretly pissed that she is killing my time. I take my foot off the pedal as I’m approaching the rise in the bridge.
“Are you happy?” I ask.
Heron doesn’t say anything. She just looks out the window at the ocean. She’s pissed that I have to make her the responsible one, the rational one.
When we come down the other side of the hill, I see something I will never forget: two police cars hiding just beyond the tree line at the end of the bridge, waiting to write me a ticket. I didn’t even have to look over at Heron to know she was smiling. I had slowed down in time, and the cops didn’t follow me, but I’m sure they would have loved to pick up some young asshole in a brand new muscle car with a Massachusetts license. Even if she wasn’t actually smiling, I knew she wanted to, because she just saved me. She saved our trip. If the police had seen me driving over 100 m.p.h., then I would have surely been handcuffed and thrown into the back of the police car for reckless driving.
That trip to Key West taught me a lot about relationships, about marriage (Heron is now my wife), about trust. When you’re married, you have to know when to listen to your partner. This goes true for any relationship. You might think you’re in the fast lane, but your partner might actually see you’re heading for a speed trap, an accident, an arrest, a failure, and even when you think you’re right, even when you think you know everything, you should probably think twice and just listen to what the other person has to say and trust, because there might be two cops waiting with a radar gun. We ended up having a blast in Key West, and I’ll never forget that bridge, that car, that journey, those cops.
Tomorrow morning, I will be talking to some students at my former graduate school, Florida International University, where I used to teach composition and received my MFA in creative writing (one of the best programs in the country!). The class is English Composition 1102, and it’s taught by one of my friends and former colleagues. She’s always looking for new ways to reach her students. She believes that writing and rhetoric can change a student’s future and provide them with the skills necessary for success — even if they’re not an English major.
So tomorrow, I’m going to Skype into their class from my new office and tell them about how the skills they’re learning in comp class transferred into my job, my life, and my personality. And I’ve got to say, the lessons I used to teach my students (plus the lessons I learned on how to teach from my professors) has played a gigantic role in my life, but it’s impossible to ever measure.
Journaling and freewriting
If you’ve ever been in my class — or you ever really got to know me — then you probably know that I write in a journal all the time. I have countless journals with my thoughts, my dreams, my visions, my story ideas, and they’re probably the most prize possessions I own, because I can look back on those books and understand that it is the material of my mind.
Maybe that sounds strange. But when I was in graduate school, I took this pedagogy class with Kimberly Harrison. We read a bunch of theory, and I enjoyed it, but what I took away from the class, which impacts me everyday, is freewriting. Writing without thinking; writing without censoring; writing without blocking…searching, groping, hoping for some understanding to pop out of the page like a message from a dream.
In the most basic sense, learning to write write without judging was an important hurdle I had to overcome before I could actually communicate with others or myself. How often do we judge our writing? How often do we judge what we say in class? And how often do we stop from saying what we actually want because of fear? Well, freewriting taught me to believe in my words, to write them, to say them, and never look back.
Of course, this has some drawbacks. If I’m just saying whatever the hell I want, well, I’m probably going to say something stupid and offensive. But here’s another way I use freewriting: When I know I’m going into a difficult situation, when I know I have to talk to my boss about a sensitive issue, even when I know I have to talk to a loved one about a pressing matter, I write about it. I see what’s on my mind. I learn about myself. I learn about my fears. I learn about my thoughts. I learn about my insecurities. And what I’m really doing is strategizing by voyaging into myself.
You know, I could probably go on about all the things I’ve learned from teaching, but here’s something I’ve learned that seems important right now: Sometimes, you can plan an entire lesson down to the minute, but sometimes you just have to move on from that routine in order to find the point you wanted to make.
I’m getting married next week. Actually Saturday. I proposed to my lady, Heron, while I was teaching at FIU. Teaching, strangely, had a big part of this decision. And what I learned while teaching is that you always have to know your audience; you always have to know your genre; you always have to know your purpose.
Well, those are basic lessons for writing a paper, but those are the basic lessons for living a successful life. We teach our students to wallow in complexity, to not take the easy way out, and to find the right answer to complicated questions. And when I was trying to figure out if I was going to propose, I asked the same very questions I use to brainstorm a research paper.
So I looked at my life, and I wondered, who was the audience? Who was I living for? Ultimately, it was me, but it was my future wife. It was my dog. It was my family. It was my students. It was the voice I hear inside my head that tells what I’m doing is right or wrong.
And then I thought about the genre. What kind of a life did I want to live? Because I want to be a writer, part of me thought that I had to live some tragically beautiful life and suffer. I could have lived my life like a tragedy. I could have chosen to be alone and a wandering Gypsy. But no, I wanted to make my life another genre. I didn’t want to live a tragedy. I wanted to be happy. And I know what made me happy. I mean, I knew who made me happy.
And finally, I started to think about my purpose: The ultimate question. With my students, I asked, “What is it that you’re trying to accomplish in your paper?” With myself, I asked the obvious: What did I want out of life? And yes, life is tragically short, but I often imagine that when I die, I could be forced to watch my life on repeat, and back in graduate school, I knew that I wanted Heron to be in those scenes. I knew my purpose: to have an incredible family and be one hell of a writer.
Some might even say that being a writer and having a family is a paradox. But I’m the one writing this story.