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Saturday, April 20, 2013
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Poets take center stage in Key West

no man dies:

it's the world that stops.

-- from the poem 'Ego'

by Kirby Congdon

Kirby Congdon, a part-time long-term Key West resident who has published poetry for the past 65 years, is the city's first official Poet Laureate.

"Whatever that means," Congdon said Friday, in advance of a proper ceremony scheduled for 6 p.m. today at The Studios of Key West. "In olden times it meant you wrote poems to order for the king and queen and all of parliament. I don't write poems to order. I just take it as a compliment. I'm a dedicated poet and they recognize my activities. I think friends set it up."

At 88, Congdon calls them as he sees them when it comes to accolades, his own work and even why he stopped riding motorcycles about eight years ago after four decades behind the throttle.

"I quit pretending to be a teenager," Congdon said, recalling a dangerous thunderstorm that erupted as he was riding along the bridge by the Garrison Bight.

Age has made riding a bicycle nearly impossible.

"I stay with walking and that's helped my health," he said. "I'm not going to ride a tricycle. They take up all the room and you've got to be in the street. It's unmasculine and it's inconvenient."

Congdon, who says poetry is the only thing he does well, has published dozens of books of his poetry and prose, including the collections "Aipotu," and "Poems from Fire Island Pines and Key West."

Writing about motorcycle fantasies, machinery, rural New England and at times cats, Congdon has built a following of his own.

Novelist Rosalind Brackenbury said of Congdon: "Sometimes, late in this materialistic century, you may wonder where all the rebellious young men of the '60s have gone, the idealists, the poets who won't compromise. . . . One of these is Kirby Congdon."

He began publishing his work while in his 30s, making his home in New York, where he became part of the postwar avant-garde scene and watched as The Beat poets ushered in a new era.

"They were a release because all I had was high school poetry," Congdon said. "I saw what they were doing. It was very daring. Gregory Corso was almost an illiterate poet. He was daring to say things and do things I wouldn't have done. He was respected and added to the history of poetry by just being honest. It was clumsy work but it was convincing."

He plans to read tonight from his 65 years of poetry, after City Commissioner Jimmy Weekley opens the show by reading the formal proclamation the commission approved earlier this year naming the island's first Poet Laureate.

The Key West Poetry Guild suggested Congdon, said Weekley.

"We've had Poet Laureates that have lived here," Weekley said, referring to the nationally selected poets. "I'm hoping that it's something we can do every year to recognize someone as Poet Laureate of Key West. It could be the same person to achieve that honor."

While Poet Laureates have been around for centuries, the U.S. started its own literary tradition in 1937, then calling poet Joseph Auslander the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.

Each year, the Librarian of Congress makes the one-year appointments, although several have been reappointed.

Congress in 1985 changed the title to Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, and the job includes a $35,000 annual stipend that is privately funded, and a few duties such as giving lectures.

The nation's 19th Poet Laureate is Natasha Trethewey.

Congdon said tonight's poetry ceremony isn't all about him.

"I'm going to try to make it brief; I understand there are other readings after me," Congdon said. "It's about 25 minutes, short pieces from my work that are easy to understand."

Congdon landed in Key West in 1959, after his vacation to Cuba abruptly ended with Fidel Castro's New Year's revolution that soon made him dictator of the Communist nation.

He divides his time between Key West and Fire Island, N.Y. and describes his approach to writing as anything but academic.

"I never wrote to document anything," Congdon said. "I wrote when I felt moved to and I feel that's the proper impulse, not to write it because you want to write a poem but because you're disturbed or thankful and that you learn from the poem why you are writing it. You do not dictate what the poem is supposed to be."

Congdon started writing when he was in the third grade.

"I was writing terrible poetry," he said. "Forced rhyme."

Born in West Chester, Penn., Congdon grew up in Old Mystic, Conn. the youngest of three children during the Depression. He recalls his parents scrimping for meals but said he was too young to understand the gravity of poverty.

Drafted into the Army during World War II, Congdon served for three years and went to Columbia University on the G.I. Bill.

Congdon subscribes to the "a writer writes" philosophy of success and doesn't believe in taking courses or trying to teach poetry writing.

"There's a magic to it after, say, 10 years," he said. "It helps if you can't do anything else. I'm inept at everything except I've got a knowledge of poetry. You learn by doing it. The secret is to put it aside and come back to it as a stranger. Then you see the faults where the language doesn't flow."

gfilosa@keysnews.com

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