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In Boozo Veritas #29

Writers in the Festival Mode

I am honored to welcome the brilliant and amazing poet Susan Lilley as guest blogger for this week’s In Boozo Veritas. While I’m braving the ice and snow up north in Indiana, she is down south in Key West no doubt having a remarkably different experience.

—Teege Braune

Special dispatch from Key West, Florida February, 2014

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Writers know better than to make a no-alcohol resolution on New Year’s Day. After all, the doldrums of January signal the beginning of literary festival season! Actually, it’s always lit fest season, but the period of January through March seems to have more than its share of workshops, residencies, seminars, and confabs of all kinds. As one who just survived a glorious week at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival, I can say with certainty that, if you imbibe at all regularly, there is absolutely no way to make it through these things without drinking.

A quick look at my Facebook feed in winter reveals glasses raised from the Key West Writing Seminars to MFA residencies in New England to Poetry Week in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. But what is the drink of choice for writers when away from home, wallowing in the in the blessed company of their own kind 24-7?

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My research has taken me from Hemingway’s mojitos at Captain Tony’s Saloon (the original Sloppy Joe’s) in Key West to martinis at the Blue Bar in the Algonquin Hotel in NYC, home of the famous round table where Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley once planned articles for a new magazine called The New Yorker. I have conducted scientific observations involving beer and Jagermeister at a bucolic artists colony in Vermont and endured the crappy bargain wine of late-night vagaries in10-day intensive MFA residences. Here is what I have learned:

The very most popular cocktail among writers in far-flung places is the FREE cocktail. Billy Collins says that “forthcoming” is a writer’s favorite word, but I would submit that no expression is more welcome to a writer than “open bar.” Alas, more often than not, writers are forced to curate their own swilling experiences. These circumstances thus divide us into a few major categories of preference.c

Wine.  Ahh, my personal favorite. Yes, it’s rather obvious, allusions to Bacchus unavoidable, but a majority of writers really do overwhelmingly prefer “a beaker full of the warm south” (thank you Mr. Keats) to all other drinks.

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Some writers bring their sommelier chops to festivals along with their verbal ones, and wow their friends and fans with their exquisite taste in the world of oenophilia. Most of us are not so organized, and must seek out local bargains to share in bleak dorm rooms, on residence porches, hotel balconies, even conference hallways. Self-made group retreats in equipped vacation mansions and more upscale festivals make it easier for a writer to tap into the never-ending river of wine. But we are good at making do, under almost any circumstances. I often claim that if a good chilled chardonnay stood available and we had no corkscrew, I could open the bottle with my vagina if need be. (Thank God I have never been tested on that one.)

Beer. Among younger writers, beer is a safe, democratic, and affordable choice. Beer has its own connoisseur contingent. After a long day of workshops or sweating over manuscripts, 20 and 30-somethings are drawn to a craft beer hall like hung-over hipsters to Starbucks. Beer-loving writers have their own continuum, from the IPA elitists to the purist lovers of a correctly drawn Guinness (the “blonde in the black dress”) to the PBR proles in the parking lot having their own party on the super-cheap. They’re all adorable. Beer comes in all languages and there is a golden nectar for everyone. Viva la cerveza!

Spirits. Quickly making strides on conference and festival drinking menus is good old distilled spirits. Vodka seems ahead of the pack, what with the restorative properties of a good Bloody Mary and the ascendency of the martini in recent years. Famed writer and traveler Bob Shacochis is known to bring his own favorite brand to writers’ gatherings, and he packs his own cut crystal glass to ensure a perfect vodka sipping experience even in the shabbiest motel. Veteran literary drinker Michael Smith of Berkeley, CA claims that vodka straight up with a twist is fine until the moment of “awkward writer overload” is reached. Then it’s time to reach for the scotch. Writer Lisa Lanser-Rose swears by the Millionaire’s Coffee served at O.C. White’s in St. Augustine, Florida; the five shots of whiskey put her into “a companionable spirit” while the caffeine allows her to stay chatty. Poet and frequenter of festivals Suzannah Gilman reports a new trend in shots of tequila before readings, surely to enliven the imagination in the listener. Fiction goddess Kelly Luce observes that since she moved to Texas, she’s noticed a whole lot of bourbon going on. Spirits are just bubbling up everywhere on the writing circuit. Which brings me to the phenomenon of …

Commemoration cocktails. Whether you are toasting the beloved memory of Frank McCourt with Jameson’s in the Hamptons or prayerfully imbibing a Graham Greene inspired concoction called “The Whiskey Priest” in Key West, drinking is even more fun when it has a hallowed purpose. I, for one, will try almost any cocktail known to be loved by a writer I revere. Just ask Jocelyn Bartkevicius about our evening with absinthe at the Eden Bar in Winter Park. Hey, if it was good enough for Oscar Wilde, right?

Most of us can relate to my pal and Massachusetts poet Ruth Foley as she confides that whenever she is with her writer friends in creative captivity for a week or so, she drinks more and sleeps less than any other time in the year. Well, as my Granny used to say, you can sleep when you’re dead. These are precious times of comraderie, productivity, and serious sipping.

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I haven’t even mentioned AWP, the biggest writers conference in the known universe, which looms ahead in March. Part family reunion and part literary Coachella, this 5-day megafest has been known to put even moderate drinkers on the liver-transplant list. And if, like me, you are not attending AWP this year, you might feel the need to hoist a few that week anyway, in solidarity.

This week in Key West, January’s writing seminars are but a liquor-scented memory in local watering holes. But I find there is nothing more perfect than a lovely gin Negroni served with some delicious poetry to conjure the festival spirit. Tomorrow, my solitary quest for this town’s perfect Papa Doble (rum, lime, grapefruit, and a few drops of cherry juice) goes on. I still have a couple of days.


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Susan Lilley at the Algonquin.

Susan Lilley (episodes 36, 82, 85) is the author of the poetry chapbooks Night Windows and Satellite Beach and blogs gloriously as one of the Gloria Sirens.