We are honored and excited to announce this year’s recipients of the Emerging Writer Awards, which recognize emerging writers who possess exceptional talent and demonstrate potential for lasting literary careers. The winners will join us in Key West for the 2023 Seminar and Workshops.

The Cecelia Joyce Johnson Award for a short story goes to Nayereh Doosti; the Scotti Merrill Award for poetry goes to Amanda Hawkins; and the Marianne Russo Award for a novel-in-progress goes to Lisa Lee.

A jury made up of past award winners, KWLS board members and staff, and trusted readers reviewed hundreds of entries this year over the course of multiple rounds. The quality of the manuscripts submitted was extremely high this year and we had some difficult decisions to make.

Congratulations to Nayereh, Amanda, and Lisa, and thank you to everyone who applied!

CECELIA JOYCE JOHNSON AWARD
for a short story

Nayereh Doosti is a writer and translator from Shiraz and Booshehr, Iran, and elsewhere. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Amherst College and an MFA degree in fiction from Boston University.

The final judge of this award was Cecelia Joyce Johnson. She wrote: “Skillful prose in which the focal point of the story being about the little one is not lost, while at the same time the author brings to life multiple characters and we are given the opportunity to experience them in their simple, everyday life.

In successive vignettes, the author bridges the gap between what could be considered foreign to some and creates a commonality that we all share. The story of “The Little One” gradually builds to a moving and meaningful denouement, which is quite philosophical, yet satisfyingly direct.”

SCOTTI MERRILL AWARD
for poetry—selected by Billy Collins

Amanda Hawkins holds an MFA degree in creative writing from the University of California, Davis, and a master’s degree in theological studies from Regent College in Vancouver, Canada. They are a three-time nominee for the Pushcart Prize, winner of the Editors’ Prize in poetry at the Florida Review, and listed as honorable mention, semi-finalist, and finalist for various other contests and awards.

Hawkins is a Tin House and Bread Loaf Scholar and has been awarded fellowships from Writing by Writers, Kentucky Women Writers Conference, Key West Literary Seminar, and Napa Valley Writers’ Conference. Their work has been published or is forthcoming in the MothBoston ReviewCincinnati ReviewMassachusetts ReviewOrionTerrain; and Tin House, among others. They live in Northern California.

The final judge, Billy Collins, wrote: “For me, the best of these poems move hypnotically inside a limited vocabulary, weaving words in the repetitive warp-and-woof madness of Gertrude Stein. Both “The Music of the Line” and “Image” are transgressive beauties, each powerful enough to detonate any so-called writing workshop. The serious presence of this poet is to be noted.”

MARIANNE RUSSO AWARD
for a novel-in-progress

Lisa Lee was awarded an Emerging Writer Fellowship from the Center for Fiction, and her novel excerpt “Paradise Cove” won a Pushcart Prize. She has received other fellowships and awards from Kundiman, Millay Arts, Hedgebrook, Tin House, Jentel Artist Residency, the Korea Foundation, and elsewhere.

Her work has appeared in PloughsharesVIDA Review, North American ReviewSycamore ReviewGulf CoastTusculum ReviewReed MagazineNew World Writing Quarterly, and elsewhere. Her essay about racial invisibility and erasure in the writing workshop was featured on Bitch Media’s feminism pop culture podcast Popaganda, on the episode “Writing About Race.” Lee holds a doctorate degree in creative writing and literature from the University of Southern California.

The final judges Peyton Evans and Carol Balick wrote: “Reading this was an utter delight. Wonderfully drawn characters. Insight into the Korean-American experience. Relevant to today’s awareness of racism. We want to read this novel when it is completed!”

Winners of the Emerging Writer Awards receive full tuition to the Seminar and Writers’ Workshop Program, round-trip airfare, full lodging support, a $500 honorarium, and the opportunity to appear on stage during the Seminar. We will begin accepting submissions for EWA 2024 in March 2022.

We are thrilled to recognize a group of individuals who are making positive impacts on readers in their communities. We’re delighted to offer these talented educators and librarians full scholarships to our 40th annual Seminar, “Singing America: A Celebration of Black Literature.” We hope and believe that participation in our vibrant literary community inspires fresh engagement with literature in schools and libraries around the country.

Thank you to all who applied, and congratulations to this year’s outstanding teacher librarian scholarship recipients!

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Celine Aenlle-Rocha is a lecturer in undergraduate writing at Columbia University where she earned an MFA degree in creative writing. Her pedagogy is shaped by linguistic and racial justice, combining her dedication to engaging students with critical texts that reflect the world we live in with her determination to create a collaborative space where students can learn and grow on their own terms.

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Sarah Chaves is a Portuguese-American educator and writer based in Boston. She has served Revere High School for more than a decade, teaching freshman English Language Arts and drama electives such as Theater Arts and Playwriting. She is excited to take on her newest role as a restorative practices interventionist where she’ll be able to provide struggling students the space and support they need to succeed.

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Celeste McNeil Clark is a founding teacher of KIPP STRIVE Academy in Atlanta, where she currently serves as literacy coordinator, coaching teachers and conducting literacy initiatives. From orchestrating poetry slams, publishing student work in collaboration with local writers, coaching the school’s Reading Bowl team, and teaching creative writing in a coal bin basement turned writer’s vault, she has enjoyed fifteen years with hundreds of amazing young scholars.

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Natasha Drax is a media librarian for the Long Beach Public Library in New York. She strives to inspire everyone with her love of literacy, and she aims to engage in meaningful dialogue to make the world a better place, one day at a time. She enjoys reading debut novels and short story collections from the Caribbean diaspora.

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Isabel M. Duque has worked in education for fifteen years—as a research librarian (both academic and public) and as a teacher in Miami-Dade County public schools (English literature and creative writing). Her library programming strives to create a holding place for students and faculty to practice creative pedagogy and to build inclusive narratives in higher education in the shape of themed dialogue circles, poetry workshops, yoga, and the Human Library.

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Jina DuVernay is a proud librarian. She actively contributes to a number of committees and initiatives that help advance the profession, especially as it relates to African Americans. She strives to positively impact her community with her work. She is currently a full-time doctoral student in humanities at Clark Atlanta University.

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Aaisha Haykal is manager of archival services at the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture. In her work, she assures the repository accessions materials fit their collection development goals of promoting Black Lowcountry community history and preserving the history and records of Black communities. She also instructs students about how archival records can be used to research underrepresented histories.

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Kathie Klarreich has focused on the power of the written word in various ways for more than thirty-five years. She is a career journalist and founder and executive director of Exchange for Change, a nonprofit organization that teaches writing to inmates at Florida state prisons and Miami-Dade County jails. Her current work has allowed more than 2,000 incarcerated students to improve their writing skills, allowing their voices to reach the free world.

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Sheri Lutz is a seventh grade teacher at Horace O’Bryant School in Key West, Florida. Originally from Pennsylvania, she has been teaching literature and English language arts for thirteen years and has reached a diverse population of students. She is passionate about setting her students up for success so they can become the best versions of themselves as possible.

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Brande N. McCleese is an English professor dedicated to improving the literary imprint of the historically black college and university (HBCU) where she teaches. She is responsible for relaunching the university’s literary magazine and is faculty editor for that and the student-led newspaper. She can be found around campus recruiting students for both publications and working to re-establish a blog for the English department.

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Vida Owusu-Boateng is an assistant professor in the Division of Arts and Letters at Governors State University where she teaches World/Postcolonial Literature with an emphasis on anglophone, Black, and African diasporic literature. She is actively involved in developing a Black Studies program in her division. Her main research interest is twentieth- and twenty-first-century African and African diasporic literature.

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Casey Petty is a middle school social studies teacher from Medford, Oregon, who strives to create a classroom environment of high rigor and engagement where all students belong. At Kids Unlimited Academy, he empowers his students to reach their full potential through opportunities to read, think, write, and discuss ideas and perspectives they can resonate with or grow from.

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Jessica Porter loves being the media and educational technology instructor at Woodland Elementary School in Sandy Springs, Georgia. She believes stories are the best way to cultivate empathy and inspire positive change because we all have the power to impact the world through the stories we share and the words we choose to hear. It is her hope to use the power of representation through shared stories as a catalyst for change within her community.

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Ashley Rose is a Haitian-American multi-disciplinary artist from Boston. She serves as a race and restorative justice specialist at Suffolk University where she utilizes circle practice, writing, and courageous conversations to eliminate inequities within the university and surrounding community. She will take her experiences at the Seminar back to the university to support its Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Initiative.

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Tenley Sablatzky has been the medical librarian for the Undergraduate Medical Academy at Prairie View University since 2020. Prior to that appointment, she interned at the Raymond W. Fox Law Library at the Kalamazoo Public Library and the library at Air Zoo Aerospace and Science Museum while completing her Master of Library and Information Science degree at Wayne State University.

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Lola Shelton-Council is interim library executive director for Live Oak Public Libraries, a system of sixteen branches serving three counties headquartered in Savannah, Georgia. She has more than twenty years experience in library management at a variety of locations, including Trails Regional Library in Missouri, the Public Library Albuquerque and Bernalillo County in New Mexico, Cecil County Public Library in Maryland, and Christina School District in Delaware.

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Jen Stastny has taught ninth through twelfth-grade English, Holocaust literature, and International Baccalaureate Literature at Omaha Central High School since 1998. She is a codirector of the Nebraska Writing Project and facilitates the Nebraska Warrior Writers workshop for veterans and military personnel in Omaha. She believes people should have the opportunity to read books that speak to them.

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Kristin Taylor began her teaching career in Connecticut public schools in 1997. She moved to Los Angeles in 2005 and has taught English and journalism for seventeen years at the Archer School for Girls. She serves as the national Scholastic Press Rights Director for the Journalism Education Association (JEA). She can often be found standing on a soapbox denouncing censorship and defending students’ rights to read, report, and write about the breadth of the human experience.

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Shaelan Turnipseed is the literacy coach at Merriam Cherry Street Elementary School in Panama City, Florida. Her goal for the community is to promote high expectations for all students through the implementation of twenty-first century skills that will prepare them for the future. She believes every child deserves the opportunity to demonstrate mastery through academics and character education by engaging with high quality texts and instruction.

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Raysa Villalona is an ESL teacher in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York City, where she spends her days teaching, interpreting, and translating. She’s an avid reader and has been journaling since before she knew how to write. She is passionate about her girlhood spent in Washington Heights and is working on a collection of essays.

Billy Collins. Photo by Mark Hedden.

By Gina Elia

On Sunday afternoon at the public session of this year’s Key West Literary Seminar, two-time U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, connecting to this year’s theme of Desire, was quick to point out that he is not a sexy writer, nor does he focus on romance. Yet with his trademark understatement, the poems he read aloud exuded a steamy sensuality. Passion, his poems suggested, is best expressed through evasion, leveraging images and textures to dance around desire, rather than stating it explicitly.  

His poem “Searching” describes a narrator who has stayed up late poring over texts about Barcelona, not out of interest in the city, but out of love for one of its inhabitants, an albino gorilla named Snowflake. 

In “Taking off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes,” the speaker describes peeling clothing off the nineteenth-century poet in obsessive detail, from her “tippet made of tulle” to the “mother-of-pearl buttons down the back” to the “clips, clasps, and moorings, / catches, straps, and whalebone stays” of her undergarments. 

In “Victoria’s Secret,” with equally rapt attention to the technicalities of garments, he  juxtaposes the supposedly sensuous expressions of Victoria’s Secret catalog models with overly detailed descriptions of their skimpy garb: “Go ahead, her expression tells me, / take off my satin charmeuse gown / with a sheer, jacquard bodice / decorated with a touch of shimmering Lurex.” Collins purposely kills any potential for desire with our ad-driven culture’s insistence on overstimulating potential buyers with objects for sale—while winkingly building a bond with the listener. 

Desire is big and unruly and messy, Collins’ entire reading seemed to say, and less is more when trying to encapsulate it in words. Suggestion, rather than definition, trusts readers to fill in the gaps. In that, we find satisfaction. 

Gina Elia is a high school Chinese teacher in the greater Miami region. She has published several freelance articles in publications including SupChina and Taiwan’s CommonWealth.

Deesha Philyaw. Photo by Michael Blades.

By Jennifer Tianen

Deesha Philyaw, a self-proclaimed daughter of Florida, grew up in Jacksonville as a member of Generation X. On Sunday morning, she took to the stage in Key West to read from her debut story collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. Its nine stories follow four generations of Black women bound by double standards, and the church’s expectations of what makes for a “good woman.” Philyaw has been invited by several Black women pastors to speak to book clubs around the country and noted that her work had been well received by church folks. 

From “Eula,” her story of Eula and Colletta, she recounted two best friends in their thirties still looking for the “perfect” husbands they had dreamed about since high school. Plot twist: Each year on New Year’s Eve, the two women rent a hotel room and spend the night making love, never to speak of it again the rest of the year. 

From “How to Make Love to a Physicist,” a love story between an art teacher and a physicist, Philyaw shared, “How do you make love to a physicist? When he unbuttons your blouse and asks, ‘Are we going to be the type of people who sit around talking about Rumi and black holes, or are we going to get naked?’, you answer, ‘Both.’” In the Q&A session that followed her talk, Philyaw revealed that this story was inspired by a real-life but unrequited attraction Philyaw had to a physicist. She interviewed him about black holes and reconciling his religious upbringing with scientific work. 

An audience member responded to a story excerpt including this line—“I don’t care why your wife won’t fuck you properly”—by asking if Philyaw’s parents had read her work. Poignantly, she explained that her mother passed away in 2005 at the age of 52 due to breast cancer. After losing her mother, “the love of her life,” Philyaw left the church, finding it only to be a series of rituals. Since the pandemic, Philyaw now finds a measure of peace in African diasporic religious practices.

Having been raised by her mother and her grandmother, both of whom are deceased, she believes that she cannot afford to squander the time she has. She takes a “zero fucks approach” to her writing and believes it is a privilege to write what she wants to write. Writing is play, experimentation, and the process of discovering, she said. She is determined not to be daunted by any kind of literary gatekeeping. Her mother and grandmother, Philyaw notes, spent their lives in servitude to other people, including her. She writes in their memory and honor.

Jennifer Tianen (McQuillan) is a veteran English teacher and Literary Gardener at West Bloomfield High School in West Bloomfield, MI. She uses plants significant to authors and their works to help bring literature to life for her students and the community around her.

KWLS at Key West Amphitheater. Photo by Nick Doll.

By Ali Banach

The question of firsts has reverberated among authors this weekend. The importance of firsts comes up often in stories about sexual desire: first kiss, loss of virginity, coming out, sexual awakening. During her conversation with Jami Attenberg, Judy Blume brought up a question she had previously been asked: “Who was your first lover?” To which she recalls responding, “Me.” 

This question was adopted by Eileen Myles in their dialogue with Jericho Brown. Brown responded with the name of a boy he met in college. “I would literally break out in hives,” he said of this first love. Myles responded, firmly, that their own first lover was the fictional character Peter Pan.

As a first-time attendee, I have been thinking a lot about firsts over the past couple of days. This is my first time visiting Key West, my first time at the Key West Literary Seminar. As a young person—a college undergrad—at the Seminar, I understand that I am witnessing a gathering with a storied tradition. 

An attendee sitting behind me remarks to the person in the next seat, “I’m assuming you’ve been here before.” Yes, ten times. “I think this will be my 28th.” I turned 23 two weeks ago. 

To be in college is to be surrounded by young people at all times. There is a language that forms between youth, derived from intense Internet use and shared references and spaces. However for most of the seminar, I turned off my phone and listened to people older than I am speak precisely about sex, desire, longing, firsts, and God.

For a seminar on Desire, I was surprised at the frequency and intensity of religious discussion. Maybe this indicates a generational division; I first understood sexual desire through the Internet rather than the Church. When I think about desire, my mind does not jump to God, but each author, in their own way, spoke to the inextricability of spiritual and erotic desire. These modes of wanting are sometimes in tension, sometimes aligned, but always rubbing up against each other.

In conversation with Jami Attenberg, Deesha Philyaw said, “The Church is obsessed with sex.” Obsession is, of course, the most intense form of Desire. Philyaw expands the definition of the desired here to things prohibited, feared, obstructed.

In a similar vein, Lauren Groff discusses her obsession with religion as a child of parents from Amish and Mennonite backgrounds. Fervency became translated, she explains, into literature. This translation makes sense to me, as we all convene to think about language and stories, to listen in for what might pique our own fervency. I begin to understand the tents of the Seminar as a type of church where we gather, young and old, to ritualize the celebration of reading and writing toward, away from, and around our own desires.

Ali Banach is a writer from Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.

Robert D. Richardson, 1934–2020. Photo by Curt Richter, 2009.

The Key West literary community lost one of its most brilliant and beloved members with the death of Robert D. Richardson last week. He was 86.

Richardson was a celebrated historian whose books included biographies of Ralph Waldo Emerson (The Mind on Fire), Henry David Thoreau (The Life of the Mind) and William James (In the Maelstrom of American Modernism). His honors included the Francis Parkman Prize and the Bancroft Prize, perhaps the two most prestigious awards in the field of American history.

Bob was a steady and reliable friend of the Seminar, full of good advice and goodness of heart. He served on our board of directors from 2001-2009, and our honorary board since that time. He had a special interest in supporting young and emerging writers and was a strong advocate for our scholarship program and our 2008 “New Voices” seminar.

In Emerson, Thoreau, and James, Richardson took on subjects viewed by many as the founding fathers of American intellectual life, and ones who have been extensively studied by historians for over 100 years. But Richardson’s approach was utterly new. In addition to their own writings, Richardson endeavored to read every single thing that Emerson, James, and Thoreau read — every book, every pamphlet, every article and essay. Richardson’s aim was what he called the “intellectual biography,” a work that would chart the development of the writer’s mind.

The results are thrilling. Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda called Richardson’s Emerson biography “one of those exciting books that flash bolts of lightning across an entire intellectual era and up and down modern history.” Irish novelist and Booker Prize winner John Banville said Richardson’s works belong “among the glories of contemporary literature.”

While Richardson’s scholarly mastery of his subjects is impressive, it was his ability to provide the reader with a visceral experience of their lives that astonishes his readers. Richardson, who was married to novelist Annie Dillard, with whom he lived in Key West on Margaret Street, had a novelist’s sense of pacing, structure, and humor. “The past can be understood only if we imagine each moment of it as present, with ourselves as the actors in it,” he wrote.

He credited Dillard with helping to activate his writing process. “I learned from her that you have to go all out, every day, every piece. Hold nothing back. The well will refill.”

In an interview in 2013, I asked Bob what it was about Emerson, Thoreau, and James that sustained his attention over decades of research and writing. His answers point to a belief in the essential value of the American experiment, and the ever-more-urgent imperative to balance personal interests with the collective good:

“Emerson is for me the best describer of real individualism, the best explainer of why we can and must trust our best selves,” Bob remarked. But instead of the so-called rugged individualism adopted by some as a political philosophy, Bob emphasized something infinitely more humane and well-suited to our times. “In their pluralism, in their respect for mind, those three are voices for democratic individualism. Each voice counts. Every voice counts.”

Bob’s voice will continue to comfort, guide, and enlighten us through his books. But we will miss his presence and his friendship a great deal.

 

(—Arlo Haskell, June 23, 2020)

 


Related resources:

read:Concord Is Where You Are Right Now“: a conversation with Robert D. Richardson (2012)

listen: “The Work of a Biographer”; Robert D. Richardson in conversation with Brenda Wineapple, James Atlas, and Judith Thurman (2013).

watch:Biography and Fiction”; Robert D. Richardson (2013)

 

 

David Wolkowsky at Ballast Key in 1994. Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders for L’Uomo Vogue.

Key West lost one of its defining figures with the death of David Wolkowsky on Sunday, September 23, 2018. He was 99.

Wolkowsky was a member of the Key West Literary Seminar board of directors from 1988-1991 and a member of its honorary board since 1992. But his impact on Key West and its literary and cultural scene was far greater than these official contributions. Among other things, Wolkowsky was a legendary host and matchmaker without peer, who brought an astonishing assortment of writers, artists, and “interesting people” together in the subtropical island city where his grandfather had arrived as a penniless immigrant following Key West’s great fire of 1886.

Wolkowsky’s annual writers’ party, held during the seminar each January, was a glittering affair at the penthouse apartment Wolkowsky built atop his father’s former Duval Street department store. A guest list of renowned writers mixed with celebrated artists, filmmakers, politicians, and A-listers from around the world, along with the local bartenders, tradespeople, fishermen, and friends for whom it was the most coveted social occasion of the year. Even more coveted was an invitation to Ballast Key, Wolkowsky’s private island, where he hosted friends in the heart of the 200,000-acre marine wilderness known as the Key West National Wildlife Refuge, far from the bustle and noise of the downtown district whose once-dusty streets he had known since childhood in the 1920s.

I was lucky to know Wolkowsky and count him as a friend throughout my adult life. From the moment I met him, in the winter of 2001-02, I was charmed by his unique combination of refined elegance and deep informality. I had returned to the Florida Keys that December after graduating from college and was drifting about, with vague ambitions of being a writer and an even vaguer idea of how to earn a living. My mom, who had known Wolkowsky from her time as director of the Seminar, suggested I call him and ask if he was looking for any help. I looked him up in the phone book and placed a call.

“Hello, Mr. Wolkowsky?,” I said, nervously.

“Call me David,” he said, deeply familiar and kind before even knowing who I was. “Who is this?” he asked, brusquely now.

“Hi, David, this is Arlo Haskell, I’m Monica Haskell’s son.”

“Arlo,” I was struck again by his familiar tone, and his distinctive, almost Mid-American accent, whose type I’d only heard in movies. “Yes, I was hoping you might call. How are you?”

I offered a brief recent history: graduated college, home again, looking for work. I told him my mom had said he might be looking for someone.

“She did?” David asked, seeming surprised. “Well, yes, I might. How would you like to come over for lunch on Friday?”

“Um, sure,” I said, “that’d be great.”

“Let’s say one o’clock, then, at my house. O.K.? Ten-fourteen Flagler.”

“O.K., great. One o’clock—” the phone clicked as David hung up—“on Friday. Thanks, David.”

I called him David ever after.

David's father and grandather, Isaac and Abraham Wolkowsky, ran a men's clothing store around the turn of the century. It appears at right in Mario Sanchez's "Old Island Days No. 23, 'Golden Era,'" shown here at David's home. Photo by Michael Adno.

Arriving for lunch that Friday, I entered the property through an ornate set of teak doors, removed from a Thai temple during the early 1980s, when David had been a partner in Kavanaugh’s furniture store, whose dusty storerooms full of strange, large, and wonderful eastern relics, I used to love to wander. Directly through these doors, which were set in the concrete block wall that hid his grounds from the passing public, was a swimming pool the size of which I’d only seen in hotels. On the left of the pool was a grand-seeming house, whose interior could partly be seen through the wall of sliding glass doors that fronted the pool.

No one answered when I knocked and called out, but the front door was standing open so I walked in. A single large room, with two sides of sliding glass and a high, vaulted ceiling, from which slowly whirring fans descended. The fans hanging through such volumes of space drew your eyes up, as in a cathedral, to the little windowed cupola that formed the apex of the room, where every surface seemed to overflow with fascinating items. On top of the grand piano were black-and-white photographs of Tennessee Williams, drinking and laughing in a Key West garden along with some glamorous-looking women and other men. Upon the table, a mound of reading material: the New York Times lay open, rifled through and obviously well-read, and dozens of books ranging from large-format coffee-table art books to biographies of historical figures. A striking wooden sculpture by the local artist Duke Rood—the vertical figure of a man descending headfirst—was situated among flowering orchids on a table at the center of the room, giving the impression that he he was diving, or had fallen, from a perch in that airy cupola. A drawing, signed “Picasso,” was on the back wall, near the porch, obviously neglected. There were a few Russian-constructivist-ish collages, and, scattered about, several of the colorful painted wood reliefs created by Mario Sanchez, a folk artist of rare talent and humor who had chronicled the Key West of David’s boyhood.

I found David in the middle of all this, sitting and talking on a white couch with his friend Tom Schmidt, who owned one of David’s favorite restaurants, the Rooftop Café. The three of us exchanged pleasantries and I noticed another man standing in the entryway to the kitchen, who seemed to be a little older than I was. He was dressed in white tennis shorts and a polo shirt, with white tennis shoes, white gardening gloves, and sunglasses, and he stood quietly in place, with his head and its artfully disheveled afro pitched slightly down.

“Arlo, this is Zach,” Zach raised his head and smiled beatifically, showing a mouthful of crooked teeth, two plated in gold. “He helps out here,” David said.

“Hi Zach.”

“Hello,” Zach said, and he seemed to float away on the word, smiling at some memory, of what I didn’t know.

“Perhaps you could give Zach a hand in the kitchen,” David suggested.

“Sure,” I said.

“Let me show you.”

I followed David into the kitchen and watched as he opened the refrigerator. Zach remained in his original position.

“We’re just going to have a little salad,” said David, “I buy this salmon salad from Publix, and here’s Boston lettuce. I like just a scoop of the salmon on a bed of lettuce, with a little olive oil. There will be three of us.”

“Sure, David. No problem.” As David left the kitchen, I saw my lunch invitation transform into an audition for a job I wasn’t sure I wanted.

“Zach, where are the plates?” I asked. “In the cabinet,” he said, indicating the corner, and smiled again, without moving from the spot where I’d first seen him.

I prepared, quickly and artfully, in the fashion of the restaurant line cook I had been off-and-on through college, three simple salad plates, drizzled with olive oil, topped with ground pepper, and garnished with a lemon slice. David stepped back into the kitchen at this moment.

“Arlo? Join us in the other room, won’t you?”

It was a test, I suppose, and everything seemed like a test for a while, but eventually I guess I passed, as that shift in the kitchen marked the beginning of my employment as David’s roaming man Friday and caretaker of his various properties.

Ballast Key, roughly nine miles west of Key West in the Key West Wildlife Refuge.

During the year I worked for David, my duties tracked his interests and eccentricities, mapping a social tableau that spanned from high to low. At night, I was his driver, delivering dinner guests that included U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and John Hersey’s widow Barbara Hersey, to whom David was deeply devoted, to and from dinner at the Rooftop Café. In the early morning, I accompanied him to Simonton Beach, where a group of homeless men slept in the shadows of the Pier House, the fashionable resort David had developed in the 1960s. At that first lunch with David, I had told him about my experience as a stonemason in upstate New York, and without exactly telling me, David had decided that I would build a stone retaining wall at Ballast Key, where storms and shifting tides had eaten away at the beach where his dear departed friend John Malcolm Brinnin had once sat and read the New York Times while the Gulf of Mexico lapped at his feet. There was plenty of limestone surrounding the island, David pointed out to me on my first visit there, and indeed there was. The fact that it was underwater at all but the lowest tide, and would require a great deal of hard labor to extract, went unmentioned.

David’s methods were inscrutable, but somehow, among the tall grasses of the sea oats and empty vodka bottles at Simonton Beach, offering $5 an hour plus room and board on his private island, he always found one or two men who said they were willing to put in a few good days’ work. In the afternoon, I ferried men whose names were Miles and Popeye, and whose weathered skin and full beards made them look older than they were, aboard the smaller of David’s two boats, which pitched and rolled uncomfortably in the current-driven chop of Northwest Channel, out to Ballast Key, where we established a work camp. Against the incoming tide and in the blazing sun, they worked with heavy iron bars to break jagged slabs of limestone from the shallow waters that surrounded the island and carry them in overloaded wheelbarrows to the beach where I was building the wall, piece by piece. Lunch was hot dogs and potato chips, the same again for dinner. Who knows what the men thought after the sun went down and they found themselves alone on this otherwise deserted island—a millionaire’s paradise and private retreat, or something wild and forbidding? Ballast Key always seemed a bit of both, and while Miles and Popeye returned for multiple engagements, it wasn’t for everyone. One morning, I found Rudy, a gentle, bearded man who lived as a hermit in the Maine woods in the summer, and in the Key West cemetery in the winter, desperate to “escape,” as he put it, holding a cardboard sign that read “Key West, Please!” as he waved frantically at passing boats. “I can’t take it anymore,” he told me, obviously shaken. I told him that everything would be ok, he was under no obligation to stay, and I took him back to Key West. I would see Rudy around town occasionally in the years that followed. Although the island’s black and glittering night had terrified him, he apparently remained charmed by the man who had brought him there. “How’s David?” he would ask me, and you could tell that part of him wished he could return to the island.

On the weekends, as my retaining wall slowly came together, I began ferrying more illustrious guests to Ballast Key, a Vanderbilt here, a Rockefeller there, and the ever-growing cast of dazzling writers among whom David always seemed most at home. Driving the 27’ Boston Whaler that David reserved for guests, I delivered Robert Stone to the island one evening as darkness fell, leaving him there, alone, to work on completing the manuscript that became the novel Bay of Souls. While navigating the shallow expanse of water known as “the lakes” that separates Northwest Channel from Ballast Key, I was introduced to Laurent de Brunhoff, co-creator of the Babar series of storybooks I had known as a child, and his brilliant wife, the writer Phyllis Rose, who would later help edit my first book. I met famed writer Judy Blume and her husband George Cooper, another couple David recruited to Key West and who in turn created its only independent cinema and its leading bookstore. I talked with Renata Adler, whose thick braid of white hair swayed in the heavy wind generated by the boat’s forward motion. I met Bill Wright, a writer whose charm at times rivaled David’s and whose friendship with him then spanned nearly forty years. So many people whose names and backgrounds dazzled me, either immediately or only when I eventually realized who they were, years later—guests from London, New York, South Africa, Paris, Rome. An endless, rotating cast of fascinating writers, shouting literary references and friendly gossip over the roar of the twin outboard motors, with David occupying the co-captain’s chair and smiling on at the scene he had designed and casted. At the island, David served them hot dogs and potato chips for lunch too.

David with his friend Sarah Benson, during a 2012 party at his penthouse above Duval Street. Photo by Nick Doll.

David loved people and conversation and he had a gift for making his friends feel wanted. When David phoned to invite you over for lunch, there was often no need to check your schedule. He meant lunch today, and that you should arrive within the next fifteen minutes if possible. When I could, I dropped everything to join him. When I had something that seemed more pressing, I declined and regretted missing the opportunity. I regret those missed opportunities still.

Once, in September of 2008, David phoned to invite me over as Key West was being lashed by the winds and rain of Hurricane Ike, which was churning along the southern coast of Cuba. A mandatory evacuation order was in effect, but when I arrived I found the house on Flagler un-boarded, and David the picture of ease, chatting leisurely on the phone with Bill Wright, who, since our first meeting at Ballast Key years earlier, had also taken me under his wing, surely with David’s encouragement. I followed David into the kitchen, where he removed two salads from the refrigerator that had been prepared earlier—Boston lettuce and Florida avocados, seasoned with olive oil, salt, and pepper. After we ate the salads, David prepared lamb chops on a George Foreman grill—they charred and filled the air with rich aroma as succulent juices sizzled on the electric heating element. David cooked them to perfection on the unlikely surface, utterly delicious. For dessert, David warmed two slices of pumpkin pie in the oven and served them with vanilla ice cream.

After lunch, David said he wanted to see the island—not “the island,” as he always called Ballast Key, but the one whose ascendant place in the national consciousness had led to his popular nickname in the press, “Mr. Key West.” We climbed into the car as the rain drove down and David, who had just turned 90, got behind the wheel. He drove to a house he was renovating on Von Phister Street, where we took advantage of a brief break in the rain to have a look inside. The new roof and windows were holding up nicely in the storm; there were no leaks and it was utterly quiet inside, without even the hum of electricity. Ike was his father’s name and I think the hurricane had made David nostalgic—for the man whose death had brought him back to Key West over a half-century ago (a 1962 obituary said Ike had “a strong sense for the absurd or ridiculous”), and for a Key West that he felt, at times, was changing from authentic to commodity.

“You used to meet them all the time,” David said, “newcomers, writers, interesting people. But no one comes anymore.”

After surveying the rising waters on Eaton Street, David drove me back to my house on Love Lane. I’d been fascinated by the twists and turns of our conversation, and all the bits of Key West history he had revealed, and I asked if I could do a formal interview with him at some point.

“I’ll be happy to help,” he said, “but I’m rather overexposed already. At first you know it’s fun, and everybody likes a little acclaim, but after a while it starts to upset the neighbors.”

As the years went by, David’s oldest friends seemed to pass away one by one. Some time after Bill Wright died in 2016, David told me that he had never expected to live so long. It was lonely, at times. I could see that. Arriving at a friend’s party, filled with people, he joined me on a couch at the edge of the crowd and surveyed the room. “Who are these people?” he asked. But of course everyone knew who he was, and soon his many admirers were crowding around, patiently waiting their turn to share time—that ineffably precious resource—with David.

Photo by Michael Adno.

David introduced me to and made me welcome in the fascinating world that was his. He opened doors that have helped define my life and career. Through it all, he kept me laughing with his inimitable sense of humor, by turns cryptic, campy, wry, self-effacing, and bold. Over the past two years, with David occasionally having difficulty talking, a flurry of handwritten notes came in place of the usual phone calls. On my 38th birthday, a postcard from Ballast Key, showing a small boat at rest on a pile of jagged limestone—“I still remember the Ballast Key stone wall of Arlo”—a teasing joke, since Hurricane Ike had largely destroyed the wall I built and shifted John Malcolm’s beach yet again. Another postcard arrived soon after I took over the directorship of the Seminar, one that showed David at the beginning of the construction of the Pier House, standing in shorts and a t-shirt with the old Tony’s Fish Market hoisted high on blocks—“Arlo, it’s so great to have you where you belong. So hello, Dolly.” David even started emailing, surely one of the very few times someone opened a Gmail account at the age of 96. A stream of jokes and references followed from his iPad. There was a YouTube clip of Marlene Dietrich in concert, a selfie of David with someone’s dog in the driver’s seat of his vintage Excalibur (this to congratulate me for a talk I had given, saying “you don’t need a pup to charm an audience”), a simple photo of flowers on a table in that cathedral-like living room of his, and another selfie with his old friend, Mickey Wolfson, whose illustrious family history in Key West tracked David’s to the 1880s. “Wolf wolf,” he typed, and I could almost hear him laughing.

When I published a book last year that explores the roots of Key West’s Jewish community and the role played by David’s grandfather in its founding, David took on a new role as my biggest fan. “You have recreated Key West — a pioneer feast,” he wrote. “Even Tennessee Williams would be proud.” He bought dozens, maybe more than a hundred copies, throwing them over fences into the yards of his friends like a newspaper delivery boy. “Meanwhile I have raided Books & Books of Arlo,” he wrote me last winter, “not because I’m in it, but because I am not in it enough.”

David and I at a yard sale in 2013 — he ended up with the hat. Photo by Ashley Kamen.

Key West will go on, and David’s vision for it will continue to inspire me to work toward a more interesting island. But there will never be enough David here again. I will miss him a great deal.

One more memory. When Ashley and I were planning for our wedding in the spring of 2012, we knew exactly where we wanted to throw the party. There are a lot of beautiful old homes and gardens and venues in Key West, but there was only one place that, when you were there, you reliably felt that you didn’t want to be anywhere else, and you didn’t want the night to ever end.

“David’s penthouse,” Ashley said.

“But it’s David’s penthouse,” I said. I couldn’t imagine that our party could happen in a place that was so thoroughly David. And I couldn’t imagine asking him for something so personal. During the year I worked for David, there was an expression, a single word, actually, that he would deploy if you asked a question that was too personal, or if you said something within the hearing of someone who shouldn’t hear what you were saying.

“Seven,” David would say. And, only the very first time he said it, by way of explanation, “that’s a seven. Seven means don’t.”

I was sure that asking David if we could throw a party at the penthouse was a seven. But Ashley convinced me, and I picked up the phone.

“Hello,” David said.

“Hi David, it’s Arlo. Ashley and I are planning our wedding for the spring. We’re going to get married at the end of White Street Pier, and we’re looking for a place to hold the reception.”

“O.K.” he said, and paused.

“We thought of the penthouse. And we were wondering, I don’t know if you ever, if you would ever consider renting it to—”

“I wouldn’t,” David replied sharply. I knew it. It was too personal, too private a thing to ask. I felt my cheeks flush as I struggled to think of how to continue the conversation.

“O.K.,” I said. “I thought so. I just thought I’d ask—”

“I wouldn’t rent it,” he said now. “But I’d like for you and Ashley to have your wedding and spend the night there. As my guests. Of course.”

A toast to David on our wedding night, 2012. Photo by Nick Doll.

Friends and relatives from around the country flew in to join us and dozens of local friends “on the roof” at David’s penthouse. It rained all day, but the clouds broke before the ceremony to reveal a dazzling sunset. As we arrived at the party, stars were visible above the glow of Duval Street. David stayed home at Flagler Avenue that night, but his gift was all around us. Out-of-town guests were in awe—this is Key West? Where are we? Key West friends felt the same. They’d only ever heard of this place, and now they knew why. The handful of mutual friends of David’s and ours that attended, including a number of the writers I’d first met on the boat rides to Ballast Key, seemed impressed and proud. They had known me when. Now here I was with Ashley on our wedding night, a night that only David could have made possible, filled with the glamour that only David possessed.

I phoned David the next day to say thank you. “Don’t mention it,” he interrupted, as I tried to find the words to tell him how much it had all meant to us. “Let’s have lunch sometime soon.”

 

 

Arlo Haskell is executive director of the Key West Literary Seminar and author of The Jews of Key West: Smugglers, Cigar Makers, and Revolutionaries (1823-1969).

 

More about David Wolkowsky:

In 1986, the Fourth Annual Key West Literary Seminar was devoted entirely to the playwright Tennessee Williams. “Tennessee Williams in Key West” brought a number of Williams’s friends and associates to Key West, including publisher James Laughlin and playwright James Leo Herlihy. In preparation for his panel, “The Playwright as Poet,” John Malcolm Brinnin drafted a five-page manuscript on Williams. In the text, Brinnin recalls the first time he met Williams in Greenwich Village and likens the young playwright to a “shy child.” He then delves into what made Williams a “man who spoke from, and to, a broad seam of modern consciousness,” which Brinnin finds established Williams as a poet as much as he was a playwright.

Hope everyone is having a wonderful summer! We are happy to share this news with you about all the successes in our alumni community.

Soon you’ll be hearing about some changes in the look and content of this newsletter, which we hope will make it easier to navigate.

FEATURED ACHIEVEMENTS
Patricia Engel’s novel Infinite Country has been chosen as a 2023 NEA “Big Reads” selection. It’s about a teenage daughter who tries to make her way from Bogotá, Colombia, to the U.S., and her mother and siblings who seek safety and opportunity in New Jersey amidst fears that they will be deported like her father. All members of the family hold on to hope, their culture, each other, and the dream of a better life. (Emerging Writer Award winner 2009)
Andrea Rinard won the University of South Florida Anspaugh Award for Excellence in Fiction; the Florida Authors and Publishers Scholarship Award; and the Florida Bibliophile Society Scholarship Award.

Her recent publications include the short story “Entropy” in Rowan Glassworks (nominated for Best of the Net); “Murmurations” in Every Day Fiction; and “Delayed Combustion” in Sledgehammer. More info here. (Emerging Writer Award winner 2020/ Teacher & Librarian Scholarship 2019)

Rebecca Bruff‘s 2019 novel, Trouble the Water, based on the life of unsung hero Robert Smalls, was adapted for stage by Theatricum Botanicum in California and is premiering this July. It is directed by Gerald C. Rivers, who narrated the audio. (Kate Moses 2017)

POETRY

Abby Caplin‘s recently published chapbook, A Doctor Only Pretends, garnered a
review by the poet Matthew Lippman in Tikkun Magazine. An interview in which she mentions KWLS, and her poems, are available on Flapper Press. Abby was also interviewed by Jonathan Marx at Go To Health Media about her book and her work as a physician(Billy Collins 2020)Alice Duggan‘s poem “I Stand on the X” will be published by Water-Stone Review, Hamline University, this fall. Poems that have been/ will be published include “Birthday the Eighty-Seventh” in Nassau Review, “There Will Not Be a Short Service” in Poet Lore and “Racquetball” in the Under Review. (Billy Collins 2019)Jeremy Freedman‘s chapbook, Douchebag Sonnets was published in February, and comprises thirty-five sonnets, plus drawings. (Gregory Pardlo 2018/ Rowan Ricardo Phillips 2017)Brooke Herter James‘s poetry chapbook, Bramble, is being published by Finishing Line Press in October. (Billy Collins 2020)Ellen Birkett Morris‘s latest chapbook Abide is out from Seven Kitchens Press. (Billy Collins 2010)Sharon Robino-West‘s poem “Cayo Hueso,” which celebrates Key West, is being published in the Peregrine Journal in October. (Beth Nguyen 2022)Recent work by Bruce Robinson appears or is forthcoming in Tar River Poetry, Peregrine, MantisTipton Poetry Journal, and the Loud Coffee Press Flower-Shaped Bullet anthology. The upcoming Loud Coffee Press publication has a direct connection to a prompt given in this January’s Key West workshop. (Ishion Hutchinson 2022/ Gregory Pardlo 2020 & 2019/ Billy Collins 2018)

Laura Villareal‘s debut poetry book, Girl’s Guide to Leavingpublished by University of Wisconsin Press, was released in April. (Teacher & Librarian Scholarship 2018)

NOVELS & COLLECTIONS
Abigail Cutter‘s first novel, Long Shadowswas recently published by She Writes Press. It’s the story of Tom Smiley, a ghost in his deserted home, who can’t shed his revulsion for his role in the Confederate defense of slavery and finds an unexpected ally when a contemporary couple moves in. A riveting read, rich in historic detail and moral complexity,” says Geraldine Brooks, KWLS presenter and NYT bestselling author. (Porter Shreve 2022/ Claire Messud 2020)

George Guida‘s ninth book, a novel, Posts from Suburbia, will be published by Encircle Publications in 2022. More information here. (Rowan Ricardo Phillips 2018)

Mandy Miller‘s second legal thriller Friday Night in the Glades was recently published. KWLS faculty and award winning author John Dufresne calls it “a compelling, eager, and fearless novel which will remind you of why you started reading stories in the first place.”  (Joyce Maynard 2022/ John Dufresne 2019)

Bonnie Morrissey‘s book Intimacy in Emptiness: An Evolution of Embodied Consciousness will be published by Inner Traditions in September. Co-authored with Janet Adler and Paula Sager, this collection of essays illuminates the 50-year arc of a contemporary contemplative practice, the Discipline of Authentic Movement. (Jane Hirshfield 2015)

SHORT FICTION & ARTICLES

Chase Burke‘s short story “Another Opening” was published in April by the online journal Joyland. In an unexpected coincidence, 2023 faculty and former EWA winner Dantiel W. Moniz picked up Chase’s story and worked with him on preparing it for publication. (Emerging Writer Award winner/ Claire Messud 2020)

Maija Rhee Devine’s family story was recently featured in The Smithsonian Folk Life Magazine. Jane Chu, the 11th chairperson of the National Endowment for the Arts, worked with Maija to produce this story, which the Smithsonian then included in its e-blast for the Summer Folk Festival. (Gregory Pardlo 2020/ Kevin Young 2019/ Billy Collins 2017)

Pamela Gay‘s flash fiction “Going to Die” was recently published in The Bangor Literary Journal. More info on this and her memoir here. (Dani Shapiro 2017)

Michelle C. McAdams‘s short story, “Safety and Other Impossibilities” has been published in the current issue of december magazine (vol. 33.1). More info here. (Lauren Groff 2020)

A selection from Marilyn Moriarty‘s memoir, A Beautiful Mess: Paris, 1945, was published in War, Literature and the Arts. More info here. Her short story, “The Ass of Otranto,” is forthcoming in the anthology Animals Among Us 3 from Ashland Creek Press. (David Treuer 2022)

AWARDS & MISCELLANEOUS
Evelyn Krieger’s essay “In the Driver’s Seat” won 2nd place in the 2022 Tucson Literary Festival Awards. (Workshop Fellowship Award/ David Treuer 2022)

Annie Klier Newcomer was recently nominated for a Pushcart award through The Writers’ Colony Publication, ECHO for Prose. She won a $200 stipend for a poem on ecology, “The Broken Plate” through the 2022 Johnson County Public Library writing competition. (Billy Collins 2020)

Steve Paul‘s biography Literary Alchemist: The Writing Life of Evan S. Connell won the Bernard J. Brommel Biography and Memoir Award (for 2021) from the Society of Midland Authors. He also recently published an essay on the poetry of William Stafford in the Friends of William Stafford Newsletter. (Gregory Pardlo 2020).

Vicki Riley’s story collection Cayo Hueso: Literary Writings and Artwork From Key West  was the 2021 Royal Palm Literary Awards First Runner up for the Published Book of the Year. It won an honorable mention in the 2022 Eric Hoffer Short Story Collection Award, and a bronze Living Now Award from IBPA. In the 2022 IPPY Next Generation Indie Book awards, it garnered a Finalist Medal-Novella, Finalist Medal-Short Story Collection, and tied for First Place in Regional Medal-Southeast Fiction. (Paulette Alden 2015/ Lee Smith 2012)

Katrin Schumann’s bestselling novel, The Forgotten Hours, was optioned for development into a limited series by Shespun Productions. Olivia Silver, writer-director of Arcadia staring John Hawkes, is writing the pilot. (KWLS Program Coordinator)

Cynthia Simmons‘s novel, Wrong Kind of Paper, described as “part thriller, part romance and part media commentary,” was nominated by her publisher for the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in fiction. You can contact her at cindy.simmons@comcast.net(Workshop Fellowship Award/ Myung-Ok Lee 2017)

Support local and independent booksellers and KWLS alumni. Follow links to purchase books listed here from Books & Books @ The Studios of Key West. Use code KWLS22 at checkout for a 20% discount.
Photo courtesy Florida Keys Public Libraries: Betty Suarez's third grade class, Reynolds Elementary School, 1965-66. Gift Lisa Suarez.
Photo courtesy Florida Keys Public Libraries: Betty Suarez's third grade class, Reynolds Elementary School, 1965-66. Gift Lisa Suarez.

While summer is fast approaching, we’re eagerly looking ahead to the winter when we’ll be launching the 40th annual Seminar and Workshop Program. Our big news is that we’ll be running the Seminar and Workshops concurrently. Also, the Seminar will take place at the Coffee Butler Amphitheater — a spectacular outdoor venue in the award-winning Truman Waterfront area.

Here is the latest news from our alumni community. As Albert Einstein said, “Creativity is contagious – pass it on.” We hope you’ll find this news as inspiring as we do.

Support local & independent booksellers! Purchase any book highlighted here from Books & Books @ The Studios of Key West and get a 20% discount. Use code “KWLS22” at checkout.

featured achievements

Nishanth Injam has secured a two book deal, in a pre-empt, from Pantheon. His debut short story collection, The Best Possible Experience, follows characters in contemporary India and its diaspora and the people and places they call home. His novel, Endless, is about a family in Telangana, India, and explores the themes of addiction, caretaking, betrayal, forgiveness, and the limitations of love. (Laura van den Berg 2022/ Emerging Writer Award winner 2021)

Sarah Cypher‘s debut novel, The Skin and its Girl, sold at auction to Ballantine books for publication in April 2023. It’s the story of a girl born with cobalt-blue skin to a Palestinian-American family on the night their ancestral soap factory in Nablus is destroyed in an air strike.

Sarah’s story “Abu Hani’s Middle Eastern Foods and Gifts” was published in the current issue of New Ohio Review(Diana Abu-Jaber 2016)

Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s novel The Evening Hero, will be published in May by Simon & Schuster. It is currently Goodreads’ #1 Most anticipated literary fiction title. Toggling between the past and the present, Korea and America, the novel is a sweeping, moving, darkly comic novel about a man looking back at his life and asking big questions about what is lost and what is gained when immigrants leave home for new shores.(Workshop faculty 2017/ Writer in Residence 2016)

Diana Abu-Jaber’s newest novel, Fencing with the King, was just released. The book follows Amani, an American writer, as she accompanies her father to a duel with the King of Jordan. Amani has a secret letter from a grandmother she never knew and she is on a mission to learn what’s kept her father from his homeland for 35 years. “A rare pleasure. Abu-Jaber’s rich characters live and breathe around you, and her nuance and wit bring the largest themes to irresistible, present life,” says bestselling author Claire Messud. (Writer in Residence 2019 & 2018/ Workshop faculty 2016)

poetry

Ginny Connors‘s latest collection of poetry, Without Goodbyes: From Puritan Deerfield to Mohawk Kahnawake, was published by Turning Point in December 2021. The book looks at a historic event through the perspective of poetry, attempting to get to the emotional heart of the story. Watch the book trailer(Dara Weir 2019)

Vicky Lettmann recently published a collection of poems titled Listening to Chopin Late at Night(Gregory Pardlo 2019/ Dani Shapiro 2017/ Jane Hirshfield 2015)

Annie Klier Newcomer‘s poetry chapbook, Comets: Relationships That Wander, was published by Finishing Line Press in February. (Billy Collins 2020)

Elaine Alarcon Totten‘s workshop (called the Cigar Factory Poets and launched after her workshop experience in Key West) had poems published in Pandemic Puzzle Poems by Blue Light Press. (Jennine Capó Crucet 2017 / Billy Collins 2020)

Micah Zevin published his first book of poetry, Metal, Heavy (Olena Jennings), during the pandemic. (Jane Hirshfield 2015)

novels & collections

Maryka Biaggio’s novel The Point of Vanishing was recently published by Sunbury Press. It’s based on the true story of child prodigy author Barbara Follett, who disappeared in 1939. (Alan Cheuse 2009)

Pamela Braswell was interviewed on Legal Link podcast in February about her book Rising from Rape: A Memoir of Survival and Justice(Susan Shreve 2016)

Robert Granader‘s short stories, collected in his book Writing in the Q, were published in various literary journals during the pandemic and sprung from a need to say something during this period when schools closed, kids moved back home, offices went empty, and Starbucks delivered coffee at the curb. (Jennine Capó Crucet 2017)

Kristine Simelda‘s latest novel, Rise Up, Sista, a fifty-year saga that chronicles turbulent times for women in the music industry in the U.K. and Jamaica, was released in November by TouchPoint Press. (Naomi Jackson 2018/ Workshop Fellowship Award 2018)

Cynthia Simmons was interviewed on public radio station WPSU about her novel Wrong Kind of Paper, which came out last year from Sunbury Press. The host described it as “part thriller, part romance, and part media commentary.” (Marie Myung-Ok Lee 2017/ Workshop Fellowship Award 2017)

The audiobook for Jodi Weiss‘s novel, From Comfortable Distances, went live in January, narrated by Molly Secours. (Lee Smith 2015/ Susan Shreve 2014/ Porter Shreve 2011)

short fiction & articles

Daniel Levin Becker’s What’s Good: Notes on Rap and Language, a collection of short, interwoven critical essays, was released in February by City Lights. The New York Times called it “an often hilarious, surprisingly moving, and always joyful paean to rap’s relationship to words.” (Writer in Residence 2020)

Adela Brito‘s short story “Babalú Blessings” was recently published in Litbreak Magazine(Naomi Jackson 2018/ Workshop Fellowship Award 2018)

Alicia Eler’s first book, The Selfie Generation, received a shout-out in Men’s Health UK. As the visual art critic/reporter at the Minneapolis StarTribune, she was invited to participate in Hyperallergic‘s special Sunday edition “Critics on Pandemic TV,” for which she wrote the essay “Being a Queer WOC in the Art World, as Seen on TV.” (Writer in Residence 2022)

Pamela Gay‘s flash fiction piece “Space: A Long Story Short” was published in Midway Journal in October. (Dani Shapiro 2017/ Antonya Nelson 2016/ Madeleine Blais 2014)

Aaron Hamburger has a new short story “Simple Past Present Perfect” in the spring issue of the Massachusetts Review(Writer in Residence 2018)

Evelyn Krieger‘s essay “Losing My Words” was published in the new anthology Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grieving, Loss and Healing. (David Treuer 2022/ Workshop Fellowship Award 2022)

nonfiction

Laura Albritton‘s Historic Lighthouses of the Florida Keys, co-authored with Keys historian Jerry Wilkinson, was released by Arcadia Publishing in November. Laura’s documentary short film Adventures in History, which she produced and wrote, will be screened at the Georgia Shorts Film Festival in Atlanta in May. (Writer in Residence 2017 & 2019)

awards & miscellaneous

Ashley Bidwell will be a keynote speaker at the 2022 National Cognitively Guided Instruction (CGI) Conference in Orlando, and her writing will be turned into a presentation inspiring and educating an audience of math researchers and enthusiasts. (Teacher & Librarian Scholarship 2020)

Aurora Dominguez won Teacher of the Year for the 2022 school year at Boca High School. She is slated to attend Oxford University to study English Literature for three weeks this summer, and was one of 50 teachers chosen in the U.S. to visit Disney’s Imagination Campus in late May. (Teacher & Librarian Scholarship 2019)

Janice Gary recently presented “Finding Your Voice,” the inaugural workshop of “The New 40,” a yearlong writing mentorship program for Jewish women over forty from Lilith magazine. (Emily Raboteau 2019/ Paulette Alden 2015 & 2014)

Maija Makinen‘s short story collection, The Ghosts of Other Immigrants, has won the New American Fiction Prize and will come out in 2023 from New American Press. A short story with the same title is included in Short, Vigorous Roots, an anthology of migrant writing from Ooligan Press that was released in March. Maija is currently in residence at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, New Mexico. (Emily Raboteau 2019)

We love hearing from KWLS alumni! Keep us up to date by sending your latest news to programs@kwls.org.

Lisa Consiglio and Colum McCann. Photo by Mark Hedden.

By Reisa Plyler

On a breezy Saturday afternoon, Narrative 4 cofounders Lisa Consiglio and Colum McCann introduced the “global, non-profit organization using stories and storytelling to effect change … to inculcate the idea of radical empathy … where young people tell each other stories, and tell them back to each other in first-person.” Originally scheduled as a breakout session for Key West Literary Seminar Teacher and Librarian Scholarship recipients, the pair took to the main stage to enlighten the larger crowd about their mission to bring students, teachers, and artists “into the fold.” 

On an earlier panel at the Desire-themed seminar, author Joyce Maynard unpacked the nearly universal desire to “be known.” Meanwhile, Consiglio said that many youth believe they simply have no stories to tell. Devoid of the realization of one’s story, how can a young soul, even on the most basic of levels, experience the feeling of being heard? Of being known? Through Narrative 4, young people—often lost and lonely—discover their voices. As they dig deep to unearth their stories, ultimately hearing them shared on a global platform, they begin to experience what it is to be known, increasing a sense of belonging.

Consiglio—the “brains and the brawn” of the organization, in McCann’s words—exudes contagious enthusiasm for watching the spark come alive in the eyes of teenagers. The pair described the brain as being “like a circus” when telling our own scattered story, but when telling someone else’s story, lighting up with meaning “like a pinball machine.” 

“Increasingly we are being dehumanized,” McCann said, by not sharing our stories. Our dichotomous technological obsession renders individuals endlessly accessible, yet at the same time, less adept at the art of meaningful human connection. Narrative 4 changes this dynamic. McCann summed up the program’s urgency by quoting Edward Abbey: “Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.” It is critical that we nurture this empathetic craft of story-sharing among our youth, who can spread this spirit of lasting connection.

McCann described one otherwise unlikely Narrative 4 partnership between students in the Bronx and Appalachian Kentucky: “urban versus rural … blue versus red.” He has observed “borders dissolving … as students see the humanity in each other.” For example, young New Yorkers have come to understand that some Appalachian students use guns not for violence, but to provide food for a family which otherwise may not eat.

Consiglio’s five-year goal is for Narrative 4 to be a worldwide mandatory curriculum, as it is in Ireland. (The organization’s developing digital platform translates into eighteen languages.) McCann adds, “The absolute heroes are the teachers” who can help “increase the lungs of the world through the very fine act of personal storytelling.” And what richer legacy can we leave to future generations than fulfilling the primal desire for deep human connection?

Reisa Plyler teaches AP Literature & Composition in Miami, Florida. She is currently working on her first novel.

Lisa Consiglio, Narrative 4

By Roger C. Kostmayer

The 2022 Key West Literary Seminar was a success and there are too many who deserve kudos to name. One unusual session was about Narrative 4 (N4), an unusual nonprofit that started in one Colorado public school and rapidly grew to a global organization promoting what’s called “story exchange.” N4 consists of artists, writers, educators, and lots of young people. Their exercise begins with “My name is …” and ends with significant change in the participants’ empathy.

Essentially N4 is a personal story exchange and role play that expands understanding and empathy among diverse — and often opposite — participants. Diverse means different racially, economically, religiously, politically, in gender, sexual orientation, geographically, and/or personality.

Each individual tells their partner their own personal (and often painful) story, one that in some ways defines them. Their partner, participant two, then tells their own story back. Next, each one must tell the OTHER’s story from the inside, using the other’s name and identity as the story teller. Thus, each participant tells two stories, their own and their partner’s, which may be why this two-plus-two exercise is called Narrative 4.

What happens when both young and old human beings do this is they realize that they matter, that their stories matter, that their lives matter — and so do the stories of others who are very different.

The ultimate goal, I believe, is for this simple, honest sharing of stories to improve empathy and humanity in every town and community. And it already seems to be working around the globe: on four continents, in sixteen countries, within eighteen of our United States, and among thousands of diverse participants.

Any honest effort to increase listening, empathy, and understanding of those we think are different sounds promising to me.

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