By Mark Hedden

Most American literary events don’t start out with a rendition of the Cuban National Anthem, but the Key West Literary Seminar is held in the historic San Carlos Institute, which was founded in 1871 and is most famous for being a venue for the Cuban political hero and martyr José Martí — so beloved that in modern times he is claimed by the communists, the anti-communists, and those in between.

Rafael Penalver, president of the San Carlos, points out in his opening remarks that while Marti was a revolutionary he was simultaneously a poet, so it is appropriate that for so many years (15) it has been the home to this annual celebratory and sometimes contentious discussion of literature and freedom of expression.

After Penalver’s remarks the American national anthem is played and pretty much everyone sings. When the Cuban national anthem starts the singing stops, as most in the room don’t know the words or even if there are any.

The anthem is a march, full of brass and pomp. Many are a little unsure of how to react at first. Their eyes begin to wander the room and to notice the 30-foot-high red velvet stage curtain, the faces and backs of the heads of the writers and readers around them, the high vaulted arc of the ceiling ceiling, the gracefully curved railing of the balcony, the lighting rigs and the fresh paint and the plaster filligree.
And then the music ends rather abruptly, without a big finish, leaving many in the crowd a little surprised.

The same thing happens every year — a continuum of the unexpected, and not a bad way to start such an event.

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