Poet's Notebook: For Ybor

click to enlarge Poet's Notebook: For Ybor - jeanne meinke
jeanne meinke
Poet's Notebook: For Ybor

They let women work
in the factories
at the hardest job:
Stripping the brittle stems
from tobacco leaves because
our fingers were nimble
and we’d take less pay...
Bending over the long bench
we smiled to ourselves
because we were helping
the children grow free...
and in the end
what do we love?
Freedom Family

The above poem is engraved on a chair at the 13th Street and 7th Avenue trolley stop in Ybor City. (In Jeanne’s drawing, you can see the engraved plaques at the tops of the chairs.) Poet Sylvia Curbelo and I were commissioned to write short poems about Ybor’s female cigar makers, to be fastened onto bronze replicas of their chairs and scattered around trolley stops in English, Italian, and Spanish. It’s a sort of street-level art, like historic drinking fountains in a park, or murals on an alley wall, maybe hard to find but fun when you see it. Jeanne and I once walked around New York looking for Keith Haring’s surreal public art, one of which is in the Men’s Room at an LBGT Community Center in Greenwich Village.

In what would have been more noticeable, a while back St. Pete hired artists Carol Mickett and Bob Stackhouse to design lovely and functional bus stops along Central Avenue, and we’re very disappointed that this seems to have been derailed. The Mickett/Stackhouse duo is justifiably famous, and would have been another international feather in the city’s art cap, like Chihuly and Dalí. In a civilized world — in any world — art should play a central role in the ordinary lives of its citizens. Many of the pleasures of touring Europe are found not just in Paris, London, or Rome, but in the towns, villages and hamlets, with charming and even stunning fountains, statues, churches, and cafés. In Neuchâtel, Switzerland, the trolleys, like Ybor’s, were picturesque, and the stops (from the train station and around the town) were at lively destinations — markets, bistros, schools, theaters, museums, pools, and ice rinks.

Ybor City reminds us of Europe in general, not just Cuba and Spain. Its rich history, integrated architecture, ethnic restaurants, and high-spirited night life drew us over the bay right away when we arrived here in 1966. The appeal was similar to those other risqué evening playgrounds like Paris’s Montmartre, London’s Soho, New York’s Greenwich Village, New Orleans's Bourbon Street, and Florida’s own Key West. These towns and districts are like living works of art, offering strings of surprises popping off like Chinese firecrackers. What defines a place as “arty” is always an overall effect brought on by a multitude of stimuli.

Our first real encounter with Ybor was through music and poetry. I gave a reading in one of the nightclubs — I forget the name — alternating with a small and lively band. I soon found myself sitting at the bar with the talented young pianist and band leader, Paul Wilborn. In the years to come, he became Tampa’s “Art Czar” under Mayor Pam Ioro, and then later moved to St. Pete to become Palladium Paul. He and his wife, singer/actress Eugenie Bondurant (Tigris in the latest Hunger Games), are now our neighbors in South St. Pete.

I’m grateful to be connected with Ybor. I enjoyed writing about those cigar-making women getting through their long days by listening to the lectores. In producing a democratic ideal — a disciplined, intelligent, and informed working class — this had to be better than what we find on TV today.

One last thing, a little embarrassing, but to my ear the end of my poem sounds more dramatic in Italian than English:

ed alla fine

che cosa amiamo?
Libertà Famiglia

—Both quotes from “Women at Work” (“La Donne al Lavoro”) by Peter Meinke (2000) 

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