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A poem for Miami: At the heart of the city’s arts community

By Sandra Beasley,

Stepping into the chic, if minimalist, 400-square-foot space where I’ll live for the next few weeks, the first thing I notice are the windows: huge, multi-pane expanses that will welcome the Florida sun the next morning.

The second thing I notice is that the windows do not open. The third thing: no curtains.

“We’re going to get some blinds up,” LegalArt’s director promises. But the lack of fresh air is a permanent concession to humidity that could cripple the ventilation system. Besides, I realize, looking out my third-floor window at a parking lot where partygoers with glow sticks stumble out from the neighboring rave club, the air might not be so fresh on this block of North Miami Avenue.

I’ve driven down Interstate 95 from Washington to be the first writer-in-residence for LegalArt, a nonprofit that provides legal services, education and grant opportunities for artists. Its latest initiative is a complex of affordable live/work studios for visual artists; one studio is reserved for scholars, curators or writers such as myself. I plan to use this time to work on my third book of poetry. I’m looking forward to getting to know the other artists — on a beach, I hope, with mojito in hand, playing hooky from our studios. But because of their day jobs, most of my housemates are night owls. And I turn out to be the tired traveler, ready to crash at 11 p.m., just as they set up the Ping-Pong table.

I make a living on the road; in less than 12 months, I’ve put 30,000 miles on my car. Ceaseless trips have erased any construct I had of vacationing. I don’t pick a perfect time for the perfect weather in the perfect place. I say yes to any visiting professorship, any reading, or any residency whenever and wherever it is offered.This has landed me everywhere from Carbondale, Ill., to Fairfield, Conn. But sometimes I luck out and end up in a city that I’ve always wanted to see, such as Miami.

My family often vacationed in Florida when I was growing up, particularly while my father’s Army command was in Pensacola. Our destinations were quiet gulf towns — Destin, Fort Walton Beach, Sanibel Island, Fort Myers — with beautiful beaches and not much else. Miami became a glittering symbol of the exotic, the Other Florida.

But it turned out that my fantasy was implicitly seasonal. Every March, crowds gather in Little Havana for Carnaval and the Calle Ocho Festival. Every December, collectors and gallery owners sweep through for Art Basel. That’s the energy I had pictured. Instead, I wake to overcast midwinter mornings in a largely deserted downtown building with no view of the water. If I wanted to get lost in the dance clubs, they’d be just steps away. But as a poet, I’m not looking for Miami’s signature fashion or glitz. I want to understand this city’s outsiders, its artists, its cultural anchors.

After several restless days, I go in search. Instead of fixating on Miami as the Other Florida, I will discover the Other Miami. There is no festival going on to give me a neat itinerary. Yet some places are only truly experienced after the crowds have come and gone.

***

I always visit museums when feeling lost on a trip; museums offer an ordered, curated realm. So on my first open day, I head north to the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in the late afternoon to see fashion photographer Bruce Weber’s portraits of Little Haiti, one of several Miami neighborhoods fluctuating between cultural renaissance and random street crime.

I know Weber’s name only as a fashion photographer, so this range of intimate portraits stuns me. I take in scenes of solemn kids with schoolbooks or Haitian flags, of grandmothers dressed for worship, of protests inspired and families shaped by the detainment of relatives attempting to come to America.

In other towns I have visited, the contemporary art museum is ensconced in bustling street culture. Here, I step out to see a few edgy storefronts outnumbered by deserted hair studios. One place has its lights on: Luna Star Cafe.

Inside is a welcome surprise of warm yellow walls, a vibrant green bar and a disco ball overhead. Opened in 1996 by New York City transplant Alexis Sanfield, 49 — hoping for MOCA foot traffic that never came — Luna Star Cafe is a performance space that boasts a bottle selection that includes Florida’s own Holy Mackerel Golden Ale and Trappist Quadrupels from the Netherlands. Your drink might come to you in a stein, mason jar, champagne flute or hand-painted Happy Birthday mug .

Original art hangs alongside Warhol posters and an autographed headshot of Burt Reynolds. The stage’s rug proclaims Sheraton Hotel. The crowd, diverse in age and race, blends the styles of European grotto with pure North Miami. A man wears a black beret without irony. A woman wears a teal-and-sherbet-sequined jacket without shame.

Tonight’s musician, Malcolm Holcombe, fits right in among the eccentricity; meaning, he doesn’t fit in at all. Hailing from western North Carolina and having recorded his last album in Nashville, Holcombe’s guitar work infuses Appalachian roots with blues riffs.

“I kind of feel like I’m the edge of nowhere, in the middle of nothing,” he says to us, a rapt audience of 20 in a room that could seat 45. “And yet, I’m a star.”

Holcombe journeys down here in part because of his friendship with Sanfield. The wiry, gray-haired Sanfield is Luna Star’s host, chef and den mother. But she’s no softie. I will return here several times, and one night, when the noise from a city construction crew threatens to drown out a show, she storms out. The jackhammers soon cease.

“I can’t believe that,” says the performer. “What are those guys gonna do, take a little siesta out there?”

“You have to understand,” a man in the audience responds. “If not for Alexis, the cops of North Miami would have to pay for their coffee.”

As soon as Sanfield learns I’m a poet, she’s introducing me around and reeling off people to seek out. Everyone knows everyone here, from the high school math teacher to the guy whose band was on MTV. Not every place can cultivate this easy chemistry. I think of Washington’s Staccato, a now-closed club on 18th Street NW that I used to frequent when I first moved to the District in 2002. On the road, I’d forgotten how good it feels to be a regular.

***

Since poetry brought me down to Florida, I’m eager to investigate the Miami Poetry Collective, founded by poet and MacArthur Foundation “Genius Award” winner Campbell McGrath in 2008. It’s now chiefly run by Peter Borrebach, 29, who makes his first impression when he shows up to a LegalArt dinner party in a Hungry Tiger T-shirt and a brunette ’fro. When I ask about any events coming up, Pete gives me an address that, later that week, sends me venturing into Little Haiti — three-and-a-half square miles in the northeastern section of the city. I cruise past a tire shop, a fry shack, a furniture store. A neighborhood that felt impermeable as I viewed it through Bruce Weber’s lens turns out to be 10 minutes from where I’m staying. I park outside Sweat Records and go in.

I’m here tonight for Miami Squares: part game show, part performance art, all poetry. In a nod to “Hollywood Squares,” audience members use a tic-tac-toe board arrayed with images to assemble spontaneous haiku that are then judged by a Haiku “King” or “Queen” in the crowd. When the featured poets take over, all have brought original work but none is allowed to present his or her own poems. One intones, reading words he did not write, “From the sky right now, / Miami must look like this soup — / gray-green, / the glowing dome of a potato / poking up through the greasy fog, / the moon, half eaten on a distant platter.”

Miami Squares runs a tight, kinetic hour, then one of the hosts cues up Echo & the Bunnymen — the perfect nostalgic soundtrack for a group of lingering 30-somethings. Under the watchful eye of a glittered, charcoal portrait of Iggy Pop, people chat and paw through racks of vinyl and VHS tapes.

If Luna Star Cafe showed me how Miami welcomes vagabond artists, tonight is about celebrating the local. By the register there is what looks like a ballot box, wrapped in yarn and crowned with a wolf-dog in a snow globe. “Submit to Jai-Alai Magazine” reads a hand-lettered sign. The project is the brainchild of P. Scott Cunningham, 33. The same year of the Miami Poetry Collective’s conception, Cunningham founded a sister institution, the University of Wynwood, with the mission of cultivating the arts through such events as the O, Miami festival. Though the accredited institution is fictitious, the namesake neighborhood of Wynwood is an epicenter for local art. The “university’s” literary journal, Jai-Alai, debuted in 2011 with #10, and counts down with a new issue every six months; 2015’s issue, #1, will be its last. Writers submit via physical drop-boxes such as this one, ensuring an emphasis on talent within a 50-mile radius.

Cunningham invites me next door to Churchill’s Pub, a dingy tangle of half-finished walls, weathered pool tables and exposed amps. Churchill’s has held down Miami’s punk scene since 1979. “It’s folk night,” the bouncer warns us, rolling his eyes. Inside, we avoid the stage, where a girl in a cardigan sweater can be seen shaking a tambourine, and instead stand back by the bar with beers in hand.

The conversation is on recent news: overnight, a burned-out 650-pound grand piano has turned up on a Biscayne Bay sandbar, beached about 200 yards from a bunch of condominiums.

“As a statement, it’s interesting,” says Cunningham, a native of South Florida. “But as reality, it’s garbage in the bay.” The U.S. Coast Guard has announced it has no plans to move the piano unless it proves a hazard to boaters. Everyone agrees it’s nothing a local would do; instead it’s likely another carpetbagger, smugly critiquing the town’s reputation for wasteful extravagance.

When I ask Scott why he created the University of Wynwood, he says: “Sure, it’s an invention, but that’s appropriate. It’s all an invention. All the real estate of Florida is an invention.”

The Wynwood neighborhood, home to a cluster of galleries and design studios just north of crime-ridden Overtown, has become a buzzword for Miami art. But you can’t casually drop in any weekday. In what should be the heart of the district, you’ll find what look like blocks of windowless storage units and padlocked chop shops, with nothing but vibrant wall murals — from bright manga-style monsters to Shepard Fairey’s “Peace Woman” — to hint at a hidden world. The best time to go, I’m told, is for a Second Saturday Art Walk. That’s when the Miami Poetry Collective stages “Poem Depot,” a sidewalk pop-up. Passersby buy poems for a nominal fee, which are then composed impromptu on manual typewriters.

When I go to the art walk, I find no typewriters; the poets prove wary of the evening’s drizzle. But the rain does not dampen the mood of hundreds who come out to see the latest shows. Parents hoist kids up on their shoulders to watch an artist peel masking tape off his stenciled canvas. Later, I confess to Manny Prieres, 39, another LegalArt resident, that some of the work teetered between innovation and spectacle.

“It’s the food trucks,” he says, shaking his head. After more than a decade of feeling like a semi-private party, the art walks have rocketed to prominence in the past few years, thanks in part to combining forces with the Design District art walk. With public popularity has come commerce, and it’s a struggle to push the aesthetic envelope when your patrons are focused on Tornado Fries.

***

With each passing day, I feel more at ease in Miami. But this jigsaw puzzle is still missing some corner pieces. But everything has been a kind of performance: a concert, a reading, a gallery walk. I want to spend a day wandering where the bohemians eat and shop and hang out.

I head back to Sweat Records, figuring I’ll either find a thread to follow or else pick up a few $3 cassettes for my decade-old Mazda’s tape deck. A woman with bright red hair staffs the register: Lauren “Lolo” Reskin, 29, co-owner and lifelong Miami resident. Reskin opened Sweat Records in March 2005, then stubbornly reopened after Hurricane Wilma destroyed her building in October that year; the store is now in its third incarnation. Reskin hands me an invitation to the monthly waffle brunch scheduled for the next day: $6 per person, unlimited toppings, absolutely no dairy. “I’m vegan,” she explains, before adding, “and fascist.”

Afterward, I drive a few miles up Route 1 to Divine Trash. The interior is stylishly crowded, every inch of wall lined with racks of dresses and armoires of sweaters and scarves. A stack of business cards rests in the cleavage of a statuette. A love seat and maroon brocade chairs command the central floor, catty-cornered to a glass-and-bronze cherub table and a fireplace screen. Two women laugh and chat in this mock living room. I walk to the back and hunker down to look through a basket of vintage ties.

“Do you want a little pour?” I soon hear.

Less than five minutes after I’ve walked in, the proprietor is urging me — as well as a tall, slender blonde who just entered — to join her in a glass of wine with her friend. We make introductions. Donna Ashby-Clark has owned the building for a decade; her friend is opening a floral shop next door. Yeb Wiersma is a Dutch visual artist just arriving from Amsterdam.

“Hard to believe,” she says shyly, “a few hours ago I got off the plane, and now here I am.”

Ashby-Clark is proud of her shop. “When I moved in, this was a crackhouse,” she tells us. Now, the area has enough cachet to merit a nickname, “MiMo,” (a compression of “Miami Modern”). The 56-year-old helped rehabilitate this historic stretch — 50th Street to 77th Street, along Biscayne Boulevard — by standing up to squatters. “Crackheads upstairs, prostitutes,” she recalls. “I said, ‘There’s a new [expletive] on the corner. Where’s your operating permit?’ ”

As if on cue, a man in several layers of ratty clothing, holding an open container, approaches the open doorway. He mumbles a few pleasantries, looking to be invited in. Ashby-Clark is not having it.

“Now, I’m going to be a real sweetheart here,” she says, “but you need to understand — we are having a ladies’ moment. You should go for your sake, or else you’ll end up our victim.” We’ve been transformed from complete strangers into a band of maenads; just another Miami afternoon. When he drifts away, she gets up and locks the front door.

“Let me give you the whole Divine experience,” she says. She ushers us upstairs to show us her other tenant’s studio, then out back to the yard she rents out for parties. “Stay!” she insists. Seating us in a gazebo, she disappears for a moment to go open another bottle of wine.

Earlier, discussing our first impressions of Miami, Wiersma, 38, had admired “all this space to move around.” Now, she surveys the overgrown bushes of Ashby-Clark’s hard-won territory with wide eyes. “Everything in Amsterdam is so planned, so regimented.”

I remember what Cunningham said about real estate as a mode of invention. Little Haiti, Wynwood, MiMo — every newly titled neighborhood in this sprawling city is an attempt to match pace with those who claim and create its communities. I ask Wiersma where she’s off to after Florida. Back to the Netherlands? New York City? She hesitates.

“I think I’m going to stay,” she says. “For a while.” Within the week, I will spot her from a distance at Publix, buying groceries like any Miamian.

***

My path to Little Bohemia has led back to my own doorstep. When I first mention the Luna Star Cafe back at LegalArt, a housemate offers an approving nod. When I go to tape the flier for Sweat Records’ vegan waffle brunch to the community fridge, a copy is already there.

My last night in town, I catch a Miami Squares modeled after the game Clue, then come home to another midnight conversation with my housemate Manny. When he retreats to get back to his works on paper, I start to pack. It’s past 4 a.m., and I’ve changed into my pajamas when I hear a door click.

Looking down the hallway I see Tasha Lopez de Victoria, 28, returning from judging a dance contest. Her hair is dyed a lighter, more bubblegum shade than usual.

“You’re still up!” she says. Early in my time here, I’d sat with Tasha and her sister Monica, 31, coloring dollar bills. The bills were cashed from an unexpected windfall that, instead of spending, they gave away to friends and studio visitors, as one of the projects they’ve created under the name TM Sisters. They called it the “Abundance Project.” Another night, I’d helped them assemble wristwatches with novelty faces that had been ordered in bulk to be sold at an upcoming tennis tournament. Beyond these few conversations — one over a task to nourish the soul, the other over a gig to pay rent — our schedules never clicked.

We grab a candle, two cups and the Bordeaux I’ve opened, then creep up to the building’s unfinished fourth floor. The floor is plywood, the walls drywall, the ceiling seams brimming with pink foam. But up here you cannot see the glare of the Gold Rush strip club’s gaudy marquee. Instead, there is only a bright Miami moon, shining above the I-95 overpass. Dusty from months of construction, these windows are now a diary of late nights: handprints, equations and hearts cut into the grime.

“What’s your favorite word?” Tasha asks. She gestures to the windows.

I think for a moment. I step up. ARTICULATE, I scrawl, spanning two banks of panes. “What’s yours?” I ask.

She smiles and writes it out: BOOTY. Then we toast Miami, the other Miami, in the candle’s guttering light.

Sandra Beasley’s most recent book is a memoir, “Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales From an Allergic Life.” She can be reached at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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