life of letters

Key West’s life of letters is preserved in manuscripts, letters, journals, photographs, maps, and other documents, from collections in Key West and around the world. It comes alive in these posts through interviews, essays, image collections, and commentary featuring writers who work under the influence of the island city and its literary heritage.


KWLS Founder David A. Kaufelt turns 70

David A. Kaufelt, who capitalized on a successful career in New York as a novelist and executive to found the Key West Literary Seminar nearly 30 years ago, celebrates his 70th birthday today. His books include Six Months with an Older Woman (1973), later adapted for a made-for-tv movie starring John Ritter, American Tropic (1986), a historical-fiction account of the development of Florida, and the series of murder mysteries featuring lawyer-cum-detective Wyn Lewis, among them The Fat Boy Murders (1993).


The Pleasures of Disorientation:
a conversation with Billy Collins

Billy Collins is a two-term United States Poet Laureate, New York State Poet, and the author of eight collections of poetry. With the Library of Congress, he established Poetry 180, a teaching aid for high school students founded on the belief that “poems can inspire and make us think about what it means to be a member of the human race.” His newest book, Ballistics, has spent nearly a year on the Poetry Foundation’s best sellers list, where his previous book, The Trouble with Poetry, has now appeared for more than 120 consecutive weeks.

In this interview, conducted over the course of several emails this summer, Collins talks about his poetic rivals, the theories of John Keats and T.S. Eliot, trumpeter and singer Chet Baker, the importance of keeping secrets in poetry, and the pleasures of disorientation.


Lawson Corbett Little shot Key West

Lawson Corbett Little was born in Chicago in 1945 and studied photography at the Rhode Island School of Design and the California Institute of the Arts. For much of the past 20 years, he has lived in Nashville, photographing luminaries of the country music scene including Dwight Yoakam and Hank Williams III. In the 1970s and 1980s Little lived in Key West, where he helped establish the photography program at Florida Keys Community College and photographed notable authors and musicians including James Merrrill, Thomas McGuane, Jimmy Buffett, Philip Caputo, and David Allan Coe. The images above are among hundreds Little produced of Shel Silverstein, the inestimably talented writer, artist, and musician.


Hildegard Ott Russell’s Spanish Limes

Alongside Key West’s tradition of acclaimed writers-in-residence like Elizabeth Bishop and Wallace Stevens lies the output of obscure authors whose work met the world through small press and self-publishing ventures. We found this autographed copy of Hildegard Ott Russell’s 1964 Spanish Limes an’ I got ’em Sweet at Bargain Books on Truman Avenue about two years ago. The collection of 100 poems appears to have brought together more than 30 years of Russell’s previously published and new work. It includes a foreword by Florida Poet Laureate Vivian Yeiser Laramore Rader and six silhouette cuttings by Phoebe Hazelwood Morse.


KWLS Scholar Engel Inks 2-Book Deal

We are delighted to learn that Patricia Engel has signed a two-book deal with New York-based publishing house Grove/Atlantic. The winner of our 2009 Marianne Russo Scholarship, Engel tells us to look for Vida, her debut collection of short stories, in the Fall of 2010. A novel, as yet untitled, will follow. You can read Engel’s work online in Guernica, Slice, and Boston Review (here and here). Vida‘s title story, about a Colombian girl who is trafficked into prostitution in Miami, is in print in Harpur Palate 8.1. Check back here soon for a recording of Engel’s reading at our 28th Seminar.


Fresh Catch: from the Archives

We’ve been drifting over the archives this week and have hauled in a coolerful of keepers. The trophies are below, but make sure to visit our Flickr page for more of these unique images from the early years of the Key West Literary Seminar.


Thomas McGuane & James Merrill, ca. 1987

These studio portraits of novelist Thomas McGuane (left) and poet James Merrill (right) by an unidentified photographer were likely taken in January of 1987. According to Merrill’s wristwatch, his session took place at a quarter past one in the afternoon.


The trouble with Robert Frost & Wallace Stevens

“Robert Frost was on the beach this morning and is coming to dinner this evening.” So did Wallace Stevens write to his wife Elsie in February of 1935 from the Casa Marina, a hotel on the Atlantic Ocean where he spent part of each winter in Key West for nearly 20 years. Frost and Stevens today are broadly acknowledged as literary peers, but in 1935 the two poets’ reputations were leagues apart. Frost had won the Pulitzer Prize twice, while Stevens had published only a single volume, Harmonium, more than a decade earlier. While Stevens had earned the approval of influential readers including Poetry editor Harriet Monroe, Frost was not among them, once complaining that he didn’t like Stevens’s work "because it purports to make me think.”