How does a good piece of poetry get made? And more to the point, where do wordsmiths find their rhythm? Lord Byron would make his way to a cave in Portovenere, Italy, to meditate and write some of the greatest romantic poetry ever composed. William Burroughs was never more at ease than in a quiet, dimly lit room with a fresh fix running through his veins. One of the best poems I've ever written began in the silent splendor of the British Library and finished on a cramped coffee table in a Parisian studio apartment full of noise and debauchery.
But what about the dark ambiance of a lively watering hole such as Gramps, brimming with drunken hipsters sucking craft beers and cheap cocktails?
Writing in a bar would be nothing new -- I've frequented plenty over the past two years while working on my first collection of short stories and poems. But writing in a bar with my own reading lamp, a wooden plaque distinguishing me as the night's designated poet, a reserved barstool, and a stream of free beers in exchange for every napkin full of verse I handed to the barkeep seemed like a strange set of circumstances.
Yet that's exactly the intriguing prospect offered this month by Gramps' "Poet-in-Decadence" program, which sets up a different poet every night at the end of the bar. It's all part of O, Miami, the monthlong festival saturating the Magic City this April with an array of verse-related events ranging from an actor dressed as José Martí riding a white stallion on Calle Ocho while distributing roses and poems, to the first poetry wallcast at SoundScape Park, featuring readings by former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass and National Book Award winner Nikky Finney.
But the question remains: How would my writing fare drink after drink in the poet's chair at Gramps? To find out, I contacted the heavies at O, Miami and signed up as the inaugural Poet-in-Decadence on April Fools' Day. Here's what went down:
7:45 p.m.: It's too early. Much, much too early. I knew this would happen, too eager to jump in the hot seat, too far ahead of the evening's beat. The bar reeks of bleach and smoke and turpentine -- and, dammit, why can't I smoke at my special stool? I'm the goddamn poet. I have a wooden placard and a lamp and a box of napkins. And I'm official, aren't I? Easy now-- it's too early for that bloodthirsty kind of crazy. Sip your free booze and wait -- it'll be time soon enough.
8:00: Poets -- and writers -- are cannibalistic by nature. We rarely play nicely with one another without a fair share of contempt, and we're usually all too quick to smile and then kindly devour our own young. I haven't been here 20 minutes and some yuppie roustabout and his leather-clad lover are already biting at my elbows, trying to wrestle me out of the chair of decadence. You're tomorrow's fool, you fool -- get thee gone from the sight of my stool!
8:49: I'm working at a pace of two poems per hour when my friends begin to arrive and are deeply impressed when I show them how napkins with some scribbled verse can somehow turn into free alcohol. There's a middle-aged man on the stool to my left whose face is covered in four or five days' worth of stubble and a fine, oily film of sweat. He keeps asking for port wine and his eyes look drowsy and lost and mean. He smells like a gutted sturgeon in the sun. I wrote this to honor the pirate at my side:
"Bag of Bitters"
Look at this soggy shitheel,
this stubborn old degenerate,
too dumb to die off
and feed the sea pickles.
Unfiltered and full of poison
and fiending with that age-old bloodlust
for fresh fish;
Fear Him --
For there's danger where he swims.
9:30: Surprisingly, napkins full of poetry are not as quick to attract a bartender's attention as actual U.S. currency. I can't muster the same kind of flirtatious ire with which I usually fill my voice at the bar. That beckoning call of a proper patron feels like it would be ridiculous coming from my mouth since my patronage tonight is, for all intents and purposes, worthless.
9:40: Trivia hour began at some point, and the man with the microphone sounds like Bob Hope and Bob Barker might sound if they screwed each other senseless in the dumpster outside the bar. How am I supposed to write poetry with something like that molesting my ears? My attention strays from my dutiful residence for a little while to help keep my compatriots, Team Fish Blood, afloat.
10:00: My poetry corner has become infested with idiots ensconced in a debate about what technically qualifies as freebasing and whether Mary Shelley was a puppeteer or a lesbian in her spare time. Meanwhile, Team Fish Blood, now tied for second-to-last place -- a true champion in the making -- falls to pieces in a chorus of rancid laughter as Bob Hope Screwing Bob Barker babbles something about Don Cheadle. I am no longer on my special stool. I am on my hands and knees, pissing myself as I laugh at our majestic trivia-master.
10:34: The first of my comrades has fallen by the wayside: Robert, the drunken fishmonger, the stumbling, shouting captain of Team Fish Blood, has gotten the old, stone-cold boot for traipsing out the front door and announcing to the bouncer he'll "christen the wall with a bucket of piss" before whipping his penis out with a slacken grin. He was asked to leave before his gulf stream could even spill across the street. Then he was asked to close his tab. Our paths will undoubtedly cross again before the evening lets us out.
11:00: The night is full of steam now. My gang's all here, scribbling nonsense about Enrique Iglesias and his lover "Banana Domingo" across any and every napkin I touch. Meanwhile, a man to my left, gray and bedraggled and carrying a hint of wet dog about his salty collar, is trying to buy drugs from an exceedingly unamused barkeep. I'm considering whether I should remind him it's Tuesday when he begins to weep softly and shuffles out the back door. A friend of mine, apparently unfazed by the broken man's flight, asks me if I'd be interested in spending some time in her apartment in Morocco. I can't help but think of Burroughs and heroin and passageways with sheets of red linen dangling in a sweltering African breeze and the mystique of the women who saunter in the half-light, and I write this:
"Holding His Secret"
hanging from the slums
of some low-slung dress;
hallucinations of a girl
with amaretto skin
shimmying down the halls
of a Moroccan den of sin,
wandering from room to room
as she holds another man's secrets,
leading you down the darkened corridors...
11:20: Midnight, along with the conclusion of my inaugural stewardship of the Poet-in-Decadence position, seems miles away. A woman stinking of Eau de Unforgivable by Diddy hangs over my shoulder as I push through this note in my ledger. She pesters me about what it means to be the poet and asks me to show her the magic trick where I write some doodles on a napkin, stuff it in a box, and get rewarded with another beer.
11:45: My friends are dropping like flies, patting me on the back, and making tracks to Wood Tavern for brighter promises in this dark, apparently endless Tuesday night. There are 15 minutes left in this April Fool's Day and far fewer people than that in this Wynwood watering hole. But I will not abandon this post, not before the day is done. This is serious business, and I'll be damned if I don't do it right. I reach for another napkin and post my pen to scratch a few lines in an effort to invigorate my waning endurance:
'neath the coconut tree,
damp leaves and loose-leaf cigarettes
and clawing his way to midnight.
12:10 a.m.: Time to pack it in and turn off the lights. I've left nine napkins behind the bar and a handful of lines I'm fairly fond of at the end of April 1, a modest victory with a belly full of booze and a half-dozen of my best friends keeping me company, drinking my free booze, and spewing beautiful batshit ridiculousness into my ear with every mad breath. I'm shipping off to the next port of call now. Make sure you take care of my stool, kids. I got her good and warmed up for you -- she'll buzz with this weird juju for plenty of nights to come.
There was no sleep to be had that night, but eventually I was able to sift through my notes and parse through the poems I'd cobbled together, coming to the conclusion that the opening salvo of the Poet-in-Decadence residencies went off without a hitch, aside from the occasional flareup of blinding hatred for some of the idiots I had the pleasure of writing around.
Granted, I wouldn't describe Gramps as the perfect place to compose a powerful piece of verse, but I don't think that's the point. Along with O, Miami, the bar has found a fine way of paying homage to the art of poetry. And honestly, there's something deeply gratifying about the fact that you can write your way through a bill, especially when you consider the fact that free booze is a much greater sign of respect in a bar than a little wooden plaque and a place to sit.
Even if it might not exactly add up to an ideal writer's retreat per se, the O, Miami one-night residency at Gramps is an experience worth embarking upon. You may not write your best work, and you may only get to share a beer or two with each of your friends, but you do get a chance to feel appreciated as a writer.
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Yes, patrons who find the exceedingly bright lamp and the boxes respectively labeled "pens" and "napkins" a bit odd will bother you, and yes, you may or may not have an impossible time concentrating, what with the men wandering around weeping and the arguments over drug definitions and banal trivia questions.
But at the end of the day, you get to be reminded that your words are worth something -- even if it's just a cold beer.