It’s a spring evening at Cafe Hey. The Rocky theme is blaring, and two 20-something competitors make their big entrance. One is a woman in Day of the Dead makeup and the other is a man in Mexican wrestling gear.
After introductions, they square off for battle. Their arena: one small table. Their weapons: two vintage typewriters.
Emcee Cole Bellamy, a creative writing professor at St. Leo University and a writing coach for Tampa Free Skool, gives the competitors a prompt from Moby Dick, randomly choosing a word from the text such as “ivory,” “czar” or “formless” that they’ll be required to use.
The competitors swat sheets of paper to and fro in a ritualistic gesture of bravado, insert them and begin typing furiously. Their objective is to write the most impressive prose or verse in under five minutes. Beer-induced heckling continues through the evening as subsequent contestants, some in costume, others in street clothes, and a few with good luck charms, face off in elimination rounds until a champion is named.
The zany, combative writing competition known as Lucha Libro originated in Peru and now alternates monthly between St. Pete and Tampa, the only American cities hosting it other than Austin. Keep St. Pete Lit, a local literary organization formed by writer Maureen McDole, co-hosts the Pinellas installments at popular hangouts like the Bends. The typewriting rasslers invade the Gulfport Art Village at 7 p.m. on Aug. 16.
Word-centric themed events, storytelling open mics, and other offbeat lit-themed parties are energizing the literary scene in Tampa Bay, while also providing barflies a witty respite from their watering-hole routines.
Other metros have been hosting word-centric events for decades. New York’s famous storytelling night “The Moth” launched in 1997 and went on to spawn its own radio show. Portland Monthly publishes a “Guide to Storytelling Nights in Portland” (portlandmonthlymag.com) and the Arizona Storytellers Project puts people in touch with a variety of themed nights in the Phoenix and Scottsdale area. Boise has “Story Story Nights,” there’s a “Homie Storytelling Night” in Los Angeles, and Toronto has been flocking to “1,001 Friday Nights” since 1978.
In one of the most popular such events, “Mortified” (seen in a recent movie and on cable TV), participants read angsty missives from their youth. It’s been the rage of hipster meccas across the U.S., and Tampa’s own adolescent throwback, “Teenage Wasteland: Smells Like Teen Spirit,” has been a big hit, too. The most recent installment, hosted by Heather Jones, drew an all-ages crowd to the vinyl-filled Planet Retro music store in downtown St. Pete, with performances by local bands GlowLow, Y Los Dos Pistoles and Permanent Makeup, readings from journals and high school musings, and a show-and-tell of old photos and memorabilia. Writer and musician Shae Krispinsky read a gushing, appropriately verbose homage to Ayn Rand. Yours truly read a correspondence about a lip-sync contest, which debated the virtues of Wall of Voodoo vs. Scritti Politti.
Including bands, visual art or other genres has become a vital component of local literary theme nights. Bellamy says he wants to work with galleries and music venues. “I’m very interested in the crossover possibilities,” he shared during Get Lit, a new word-nerd game night hosted by Keep St. Pete Lit on July 6 at The Amsterdam. Bellamy, McDole and several others played games like Taboo and Smart Mouth.
In an email, Bellamy elaborated on why such events are gaining ground.
“I think the rise of the local literary culture is a bit of a rejection of the glossy manufactured narratives of mass media culture,” he wrote. “A good story or poem is a hand-made thing, it may not appeal to a wide audience, but it carries the personality and soul of its creator, and that can be infinitely more surprising and deeply satisfying than any big summer blockbuster film. Mainly though, the writing that’s being done right here in Tampa Bay, right now, is just really, really good.”
One group that has long bucked the elbow-patched stereotype of literary gatherings is the chock-full-of-scholars YellowJacket Press, beginning its 10th year as a self-supporting, all-volunteer, non-profit poetry press. The organization will host a number of events throughout the year to celebrate its big decade, including a fundraiser to produce an anthology of Florida poets. In September, they will host a reading with the winners of the Chapbook Contest for Florida Poets (Heather Sellers and runner-up Melissa Fair) and the winner of the Peter Meinke Prize, to be announced next month.
“We make our own rules, and everything we do is about creating community between poets and audiences,” says YJP’s founder, Gianna Russo. “We exist because Florida poets are writing remarkable poems and the poetry-lovers who serve on our board devote their time, energy, talent and enthusiasm to sharing the love.”
Another energetic organizer in the scene is Meredith Myers, aka The Stand-Up Librarian. In addition to eliciting hearty laughs with comic routines steeped in geeky author references, she’s a regular at the Antiquarian Book Fair and has emceed events like the James Joyce-inspired “Bloomsday” on June 16th and the lit comedy homage “Broad Comedy.”
For “Bloomsday,” Myers read 786 pages of Ulysses in just three weeks, assembled 18 well-known locals to read from the 18 episodes, and divided up the parts they would read. She got a beer sponsor — Guinness, of course — and some red wine, too.
Among the wordy event nights are several that launched earlier this decade, like the first ride of Mitzi Gordon’s Bluebird Books Bus, which also features custom, type-written verse from Captive Poet David Durney.
Durney shared a couple of his most memorable moments, creating impromptu poetry at the Book Bus' events:
"In Safety Harbor just this year a young man of about 13 asked me to type some song lyrics for his girlfriend. He was so enamored with the bus, the typewriter, and the whole experience; it was refreshing to be a part of that. A second memorable moment would be the gentleman who prompted a porm with 'orange and onion', partially to attempt to thwart me, and in part out of curiosity. The poem was mediocre, but he seemed to enjoy it."
Durney's companion in literacy, Gordon, has made it her mission to promote book culture as a pastime for modern young people who are hungry for something a little more substantial than the 140 characters in a tweet. She has set up The Two Story Foundation to be an umbrella source for all of her worthwhile endeavors.
In addition to Gordon's converted school bus, which continues to host giveaways, live readings, typewriter poetry, artist resource libraries, zines and other printed materials, her Open Book Exchange, a series of free leave-a-book, take-a-book boxes in public spaces, continues to slowly grow and, most recently, she has launched the READ Movement, a sticker campaign using Jay Giroux’s illustration created in 2005, inspired by his work with artist Shepard Fairey (OBEY) during a week-long postering mission throughout Tampa, which coincided with the Beautiful Losers exhibit at the USF Contemporary Art Museum. (Order stickers and see examples at readmovement.com.)
Vessel Collective’s geographically enhanced “Travelogues”; CL’s very own “Story Time” event series; and Tiffany Razzano’s Wordier Than Thou series, which (like Story Time’s preference for prose over verse, epitomized in the tagline “Prose Before Bro’s”) capitalizes on the age-old tradition of storytelling.
Razzano, the editor of CL’s website CLGBT, came up with Wordier Than Thou in May 2012. “There were plenty of spoken word, poetry and music open mics out there, but nothing that catered to fiction writers, essayists, storytellers,” Razzano explained. “I’m a journalist, and also write personal essays. So I wanted to create a space for these longer forms of writing, where people come ready to really listen to these lengthier works. Poetry and spoken word tend to be shorter and require a little bit less of an attention span.”
Razzano is also about to launch a new major annual event: Florida Bookstore Day. “One afternoon in March, I was running errands in downtown St. Pete and passed Daddy Kool Records,” Razzano recalls. “I made a mental note to look up the date for Record Store Day when I got home. A few minutes later, I passed Wilson’s Book World and it just clicked: Why was there no Bookstore Day?”
Taking its inspiration from Record Store Day, the event (funded by a grant from Awesome Tampa Bay) will celebrate and promote indie bookstores and used book shops throughout Florida while bringing together the literary community in each city. It’s set for Saturday, Nov. 15.
“So far we have about 35 stores on board and I have more to call. So I expect that number to grow. Each store will host a literary event that day. In our area, I have a number of bookstores involved: Haslam’s, Inkwood, Back in the Day, Mojo Books & Records, Wilson’s, Old Tampa Book Company and more.”
Razzano adds that she’s going to commission an artist to design posters inspired by five famous Florida books or well-known books by Florida authors. The limited-edition prints will be available for purchase at the bookstores on Nov. 15. “I’m still looking for an artist and haven’t finalized the books yet, but I’m really excited about this plan,” Razzano says.
As if all that weren’t enough, Razzano has set up an after-party on the 15th at the Venture Compound featuring food trucks, the Bluebird Books Bus, information tables, Great Literature Mad Libs, a Lucha Libro match, Pin the Drink on the Famous Author, raffles, readings and more. Barley Mow Brewing Company is providing the beer for the evening.
Razzano also participates in Tampa Zine Fest, an annual blowout of DIY publications, music and art. She set up a table at the event organized by scene stalwart Philip Bloom and Tampa Free Skool. The 2014 event, held Saturday in the new Underground venue on Second Avenue in Ybor City, offered more variety with its visual art (some favorites included works by Daniela Mora and Gigi Lage) plus hands-on activities, demos, presentations and live music.
Further proof that the sun is shining on literary doings in the Sunshine State: A new nine-day event called the SunLit Festival, organized by T. Allan Smith, essayist, former newspaper editor and owner of the Olde Florida Company. “Designed by, for and about lovers of the exquisitely written word,” the festival will take place March 7-15, 2015.
SunLit is already making its influence known. Along with the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair, it’s one of the sponsors of Florida Bookstore Day.