Alchemy in Orlando

Poetry is revealed, not written. I always wince when I’m described (or when I wind up describing myself) as someone who ‘writes poems’. I write words, but poetry is a process. It’s why some poets speak of ‘making’ or ‘composing’. As an enterprise, it is also mysterious. I cannot control what a new poem is about. Each one comes with its own agenda, a business that I may not, at first, even understand. And perhaps it is my duty, as a poet, to begin things with a degree of ignorance.

When I accepted the role of writer-in-residence at Kerouac House, what I knew about Florida amounted to very little. I sat down and made a list: hurricanes; Disney; Hart Crane hurled himself overboard there (never to be seen again). At a stretch I could recall the Floridian moon that Bishop wrote of as “coarse-meshed”. I pictured a blue plate above my grandma’s mantle with a lady in a bathing suit and the caption, “the sun always shines in Florida”. It was a bare list, though I signed my name anyway to a three-month stay at the bungalow in Downtown Orlando where in 1957 Jack Kerouac had lived with his mother Gabrielle.

A writing residency abroad can be a strange thing, not least because it’s the opposite of a holiday; residencies involve lots of work and some periods of isolation; the writer-in-residence is not quite at ‘home’ and not quite ‘away’. In my poems, I am exploring what it means to ‘long’ and to ‘belong.’ Therefore, I have come to think of residencies as worthwhile. For me, the question of whether to commit to one or not boils down to this: what can I write away that I can’t write at home? What can I see there that I can’t see at home?

I arrived in Orlando during a heat wave in September 2014. Of what I first saw, I best remember the highways lined with signage, the palm trees, the buildings with glass skins that seemed to disappear into a deep blue polaroid sky. In the centre of the city was a fountain with three tiers of psychedelic water and on the lake around it were white swans floating at one end and black swans at the other. I remember how I held my breath as I turned into my new neighbourhood and saw the Spanish moss hanging like lanterns from the trees. From the car, I marvelled at a golden rain-tree - the boughs heaving with peach blossom.

On that first evening I stood outside Kerouac House and looked up and down Clouser Avenue at the bungalows painted cream, lemon and powder blue – all with cute porches and laced windows. I had come from Ireland where already the light was fading. Something about the sun-filled Floridian avenue was pretty, almost beyond belief. Not a window was open. Not a door ajar in the heat. Later I would try to lift the sash window in my new bedroom, without success. A neighbour explained that in these houses all the windows were sealed. He would come to know me eventually as “the girl with the open doors”, as I soon traded the air-conditioned breeze for a warm but fresh air that curled in one end of the house and out the other. I spent many hours on the front porch fanning myself or out back on the same steps where Kerouac had once posed for a photograph with a bunch of oranges in his lap.

Kerouac House, Orlando 

Kerouac House, Orlando 

Inside, Kerouac House is furnished with retro items and dark woods. It seems both shallow and obvious, but what a living space looks like matters to my poems. I like being surrounded by aged objects, as if their stories add weight to mine. In a tiled white kitchen, I never feel quite right. In a tiled white kitchen, I never write poems. Many times, I placed my fingers on the keys of the Underwood typewriter that had once belonged to Jack, noticing the worn and blackened vowels. In his old room, I spent most hours at a window overlooking a giant oak. Hung across the window was an old Venetian blind and when the light fell over my writing desk it was dappled with leaf-shaped shadows. I wrote until it was late and liked to break at midnight for a walk around the lakes. Nowhere before had I seen bars of city neon shimmering on still water.

In Orlando I mainly met prose writers, and some poets. I attended recitals that were more playful and engaged with the physical environment than recitals I’d been to elsewhere. I began a process of writing that felt less self-conscious and formal. I began personal essays, blogs, and pieces of text shaped by narrative. In my practice, a new spirit of experimentation was emerging. In my poetry, a new kookiness was entering. I had spent six long months that same year brooding on a hill in Germany and now the Floridian landscape with all of its thunderstorms, cattle and orange groves was flooding in. The poems I worked on at Kerouac House have in them a sense of reprieve and relief.

Of the excursions I took, the one most special was a visit to Cassadaga, a town only populated by people who claim to have psychic powers. It has been nicknamed ‘the psychic capital of the world’. I found myself there, one Saturday night over Hallowe’en, sitting in a circle with a group of strangers. It was my first séance. I joined my hands to their hands and listened. Here people saw what seemed impossible to see in their ordinary lives – departed children and lovers. I was being guided, I was told, by a spirit man from the ‘other’ world who had lived once on my father’s side. Truly, I saw only how the candle flickered in the small, dark room, but something about the experience resonated with me. Some part of the inquiry went deep into my bones, and I came away knowing something more and something less about the pursuit, beyond poetry, of alchemy.

Did I feel any spirits present at Kerouac House? Not exactly, though I did pause many times in the back room at a portrait of Jack with darkly hooded eyes and a tussled fringe. In Dharma Bums (a book he wrote in Kerouac House, over eleven days and nights), he asks “Who were all these strange ghosts rooted to the silly little adventure of earth with me? And who was I?”  I was reading my way through Jack’s shelf but also felt compelled to consider who he was as a person. I became specifically interested in his intense connection with his mother, his exchanges with his girlfriend of that time, Joyce Johnson, and his difficult relationship with his daughter Jan. In so many people, he inspired (and still inspires) a type of hero-worship. Fans or self-declared ‘pilgrims’ arrived irregularly at my door, usually on weekends. From New York, Utah, Wisconsin, they came just to see ‘Jack’s House’ (or as I by now mischievously called it ‘Jack’s Ma’s House’). I watched, as like me, they pressed their fingers into the old Underwood typewriter keys.

Jack Kerouac at his typewriter

Jack Kerouac at his typewriter

At Kerouac House I was under no obligation to accept social invitations, but I was soon a willing participant in the local literary scene. Orlandians are gregarious by nature and great conversationalists. I was wooed. I read poems in a Mayan garden. I met with the junior school (where I was asked by an eight year old if I could write a poem about being saved by God). I gave classes, workshops, talks. At the local university I drew a map of Northern Ireland, and we spoke of borders, separation, cultural differences. It was a treat to hear, for the first time, pieces by Heaney, Jennifer Johnston and others from my part of the world, read back to me by students in a beautiful, lazy Floridian drawl.

Through this engagement with the community, I had the opportunity to ask questions too: what, for example, shapes the writing of people who live in Orlando? I met young writers graduating from MFA programs (with massive debt), writers also working as teachers, and older writers who remembered Orlando before the theme parks. Many referred me to the work of local writer Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston, who died in 1960, aged sixty nine, had lived locally in Eatonville Florida, one of the first “all-Black towns in the US”. A new friend printed me a copy of Hurston’s essay "How It Feels To Be Coloured Me”. We spoke about the nature and art of division. At the same time (and as I lamented the daily challenge of getting around Orlando without a car) many of these same people admitted to never having used the public transport, for vague reasons that sounded to me like fear. I took a public bus one afternoon from Wekiva Springs to the city centre and wondered if what people might be ‘afraid’ of is poverty, African Americans with name-badges on their shirts going to or from their low-paid work.

All this had some indirect effect on my writing. More directly, Kerouac House had the effect of re-engaging me with rural landscapes, playfulness and the poetry to be found outside my head. Somehow, the spirit of Old Florida had charmed a natural curiosity back into my writing. With all this time and space, I was alerted to what I want more of as a writer; more seeking, more finding, more patience. It deepened the idea for me that the moments most important to poetry are rare, but they are worth holding out for. In my three months of living in Orlando, I visited not one theme park, choosing instead to let what I hoped would be my ‘definitive Orlando experience’ emerge spontaneously.

A few days before my return to Ireland, this happened: I was invited to spend Thanksgiving dinner at a cattle ranch owned by a friend’s father. The father was a cowboy, an old Florida ‘cracker’ who, married at eighteen, had spent his whole life on the ranch. He was keen to walk me in and out of cornfields as he named the animals by breed and weight. He showed me his two favourite horses shining and quiet in the stables, and in a shed out back the honey-like syrup he made in giant vats. The labels on bottles read Jan & Alberts original sugar cane syrup. After dinner, he shared his family album, pointing to a portrait of his own Native American grandmother. She had a long sallow face and coal black eyes.

My recent attempts to contact the local Seminole tribe, living now mostly on reservations, had come to nothing. I had given up on making any meaningful connection there. When I look back now on the moment when the Florida cowboy held the portrait towards me between his large white hands, I recognise some alchemy of my experiences. It was the moment at which all things beautiful and complex about Orlando converged - a moment of seeing. Today, on my writing desk in Ireland sits a treasured photograph: the octogenarian cowboy on his ranch, looking out over a cornfield, the curve of his Stetson hat rising to the edge of the Florida sun. 

The writer is indebted to the Board of Directors at Kerouac House, and to local friends in Orlando including Kim, Gen & Caitlin. Thanks too to Arts Council Ireland for their support. Kerouac House is now open until March 2015 for applications at and Annemarie Ni Churreain's work and biography can be read here.