With all our connections and tricks and machines, the physical landscape of a place can still dictate destiny. I think of this idea whenever I cross Tampa Bay to go to St. Petersburg.
A little while back, I visited the Salvador Dali Museum to see a staged reading of Prokiev House, the new play by my fellow Spalding MFA alum, Heather Jones. The play concerned the relationship and family life of the last Czarina and Czar of Russia—a love story, very much a love story about two otherwise perfectly nice people who just happened to be born on the wrong side of history.
I don’t cross the bay as much as I should, I’ll own up to that right now. It isn’t even very far, it just seems far when you’re travelling over water. It’s a shame too, because both Tampa and St. Pete have so much to offer, and the drive itself can be beautiful (unless you happen to hit the middle of the apocalyptic blood sport of rush hour traffic).
The literary life of Tampa Bay is, for better or worse, a tale of two cities. Tampa and St. Petersburg have their own cadres of writers, their own literary histories, their own attitudes. To explain, I want to tell a bit about each city’s most influential literary resident- for Tampa- Jose Marti and for St. Pete- Jack Kerouac. I feel that each of them set a tone for each cities’ artistic life—tones that are still ringing today.
Jose Marti lived in Tampa off and on throughout the 1890’s- he was a man without a country, facing exile from Cuba for daring to stand against Spanish rule. Marti was a revolutionary, a diplomat, and a humanitarian, who fought tirelessly for Cuban independence and for the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean. He was also a poet, whose work ranged from fierce political screeds to florid Romantic scrollwork. He wrote my favorite line of poetry in the Versos Sencillos (the poem that eventually morphed into the song Guantanamera)
“I’ve seen a man live with a knife in his side
And never speak the name of the woman who stabbed him.”
Marti lived on 8th Avenue in Ybor City. There, he organized the Cuban exile community, and raised an army- he died in 1892 in the first battle of the first Cuban revolution. The story goes that he rode into battle dressed in his usual black suit because he refused to wear a uniform, even for his own army.
This is Tampa to me- this is the literary heritage of that city- a volatile mix of passion and politics, a raised fist of defiance, a clear and burning Romance, and a level of Utopian idealism that seems foolhardy in the 21st Century, but that can still be charismatic and inspiring. And Ybor City is still, as Stetson Kennedy observed, “an unhealthy place for fascists.”
St. Pete was the final stop for Beat Generation icon Jack Kerouac. If you go down to the Flamingo Bar you can still find old men who used to drink boilermakers and shoot pool with Jack in the months just before his death. Twice a year (on Jack’s birthday, and on the anniversary of his death) The Flamingo hosts a night of poetry, jazz, and folk songs in honor of the Beat hero.
A local legend says that Kerouac’s ghost wanders into Haslam’s bookstore on Central Avenue to move copies of his books to eye level, just like Jack did when he was alive. And though the city and the author had something of a turbulent relationship, the spontaneous madness of Kerouac’s prose still resonates in the literary soul of St. Pete.
Though we may not all know, or often think about the literary heritage of these cities, that doesn’t keep it from having an impact. Though writers in this part of the world may only rarely think of Kerouac or Marti, they’re still flowing through our veins.