life, poetry, Uncategorized, writers, writing

Reflecting on Lisbon: Community Lessons

Lisbon statue 1I recently spent 16 days in the city of Lisbon, Portugal as part of the Disquiet International Literary Program. Having had enough time to process everything I encountered there, I’ve come to some conclusions. There’s a lot that towns and cities can learn from looking at the Lisbon model. I’d like to highlight a few of the things that Lisbon is doing right, and offer some possible applications for other cities in the process:

  1. Art and History are everywhere. No matter where you go in the city of Lisbon, there’s a reminder that it is filled with the ghosts of great figures. From statues in central plazas to museums throughout the city, Lisbon is constantly telling visitors that its past is worth exploring. In addition, the beautiful tiles that accentuate buildings and make up the myriad sidewalks add to the city’s aesthetics and artistry. Tile is nearly synonymous with Lisbon, and its artisans use this medium incredibly.
  2. Guests are received warmly, and are therefore eager to return. My wife and boys and I had a local family we didn’t even know help us with our heavy luggage all the way from the metro station to our apartment (a long and mostly uphill hike). This family asked nothing in return, and offered us their phone number should we need other help while in the city. Residents: Doing your part to make out-of-towners feel welcome will produce returns! The warmth of Lisbonites in nearly every venue made the city hospitable, a home away from home.
  3. Lisbon capitalizes on its celebrities. Every city has a few key figures who have done well in a variety of areas — whether they’re Olympic athletes, known scholars or authors, or other headline-makers, “celebrities” come in a variety of forms. For Lisbon, writers like Fernando Pessoa, Luis Vaz de Camoes, and other literary minds comprise the majority of their well-known figures. In small towns like the one where I was brought up, Tom McEwen (a sports columnist), Dr. Leffy Carlton (a noted physician), and Myrtie Strickland (a lifelong local educator) were considered “celebrities.” Giving these people their place in the sun, much like Lisbon does with Pessoa and Camoes, establishes a sense of local pride and accomplishment.
  4. Not only are bookstores not dead, they are vital to a thriving community culture. Bookstores, or Livrarias as they are known in Portuguese, are instrumental in stimulating and nurturing the intellectual life of Lisbon. They are also ubiquitous. No matter what street you’re on, you’re within walking distance of a bookstore there. Most evenings, you can find a reading, an author event, a book signing, or another similar engagement taking place at one or more of the livrarias. The oldest bookstore in the world, now known as Bertrand, is also found in Lisbon, and its history contributes to the city’s overall sense of modern antiquity.
  5. Having a community trademark helps perpetuate an image. For Lisbon, the aforementioned tiles are its signature. For smaller cities, maybe it’s a natural feature like lakes, certain plants, or mountains. But no matter what a place chooses for its associated image, it’s important for leaders to brand their location using what it’s known for best. Even if you’re “the caladium capital of the world” like Lake Placid, Florida, or “the city of oaks and azaleas” like nearby Bartow, every place has something special to claim.

    Certainly, there are other things that Lisbon does right. In our little apartment every evening, we could hear music from the local plazas wafting in through our open windows. Sometimes, there was big-band era brass, while other nights gave us Fado (the “Portuguese Blues,” as some incorrectly call it). Occasionally, an Avett-Brothers-style folk band singing in Portuguese would lend us their talents. But no matter the type of music, it was a comfort. Even without air conditioning, our little rental place was inviting and cool each night, thanks in part to the sounds of local musicians.

    I suppose some of Lisbon’s success would be hard to imitate elsewhere. But every city, every town, every area has its own fair share of history, beauty, and culture to share with others. In the end, that sharing attracts visitors, and municipalities could do far worse than to follow the example set by Lisbon.

poetry, Uncategorized

The Culture of Complaint: Image Killer

oldpersoncomplainingIf you read this blog with regularity, you know I recently returned from Amherst, Massachusetts, where I attended a writing conference and explored literary landmarks around New England. I am also a student of municipalities that encourage and invite tourism, however, and Amherst, despite being small and comparatively out of the way, was doing a number of things to make their town tourist-friendly to folks like me:

1.) The public library celebrates renowned local authors and artists. In fact, the whole third floor of Jones Library is devoted to historical artifacts and volumes regarding Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. Also, local landmarks have significance to the artistic and literary history of Amherst.

2.) The area’s history is celebrated with events, as well, and there appears to be good community involvement which has been stimulated through the use of various media.

3.) Churches and civic groups are partners in the arts.

4.) Colleges in Amherst offer their space as venues for arts-related and literary events, even if the organizers are unrelated to the colleges.

I was favorably impressed by all these details, and thought I would bring them back to my city as suggestions for implementation. After all, Winter Haven is a city on the grow, and with a renewed focus on the arts and tourism, all of these Amherst traits seemed worthy of emulation.

Why, then, don’t I plan to return to Amherst anytime soon? The answer lies in people. Everywhere I went, from the Stop N Shop and Big Y grocery stores to the corner diner, people were complaining. Conversation in the diner was dominated by older men bemoaning a new red light that had been installed. Younger women in the grocery store aisles were whining about their toddlers’ behaviors. Cashiers never smiled, and transacted business without pleasantries. It seemed to me, an outsider, like Amherst was a miserable place to be a local. I stopped in at Friendly’s, New England’s version of Steak N Shake, and nobody, not even the servers, made the restaurant live up to its name. Maybe the city was just having a bad week, but it was enough to sour my perception as a visitor.

Granted, I’m a little spoiled on hospitality. Here in my part of the country, “service with a smile” isn’t just a catchphrase, it’s an overall attitude. Some days, that smile might be forced, but there never seems to be a time when merchants aren’t glad to see you. Publix serves as a national example of what grocery stores should emulate, mostly because of their kind and responsive customer service. Likewise, local chatter at our diners and coffee shops usually consists of a healthy mixture of politics, business, family life, and current events — and most of the time, those conversations, even contentious ones, are cordial.

There are those who would accuse my people of being disingenuous. They might claim that we hide our anger, frustration, or dismay behind stereotypical southern “sunnyness.” But the truth is, no matter how bad the world might be, whether a new red light, an unruly child, or a hard day at work has flustered us, most of us can still muster up kindness for others. It’s what people here do, and it’s one reason why I stay.

The great irony of this post, perhaps, is that it falls into the category of “complaining about complaining.” I get that. But perhaps this post is also demonstrative of attitude infectiousness: pessimism yields more pessimism, yes, but the opposite is also true. Come to Winter Haven sometime and find out for yourself. I’m off to Richard’s Fine Coffees.

poetry, Uncategorized

Advancing the Literary Arts, One Step at a Time

hiker

My family and I attended the Central Avenue Arts Festival downtown today. The booths were plentiful and colorful, with media ranging from stained glass to metal, oil-on-canvas to photography. All were dazzlingly amazing. The weather was breezy, and displays included pottery making (my two sons got to make pinch pots) and an entire “kids’ corner” devoted to letting children make and do.¬†

Amid these other booths, there was one gentleman attempting to sell his self-published children’s books. They were on display, and people were occasionally stopping by, flipping pages and admiring them. But in comparison to the other booths, the lone book vendor lacked the sparkle and flair that other artists generated with their wares.

Certainly it wasn’t the author’s fault — his medium was simply more “subdued” than the flashier arts around him. Sometimes those of us in the literary realm find ourselves struggling with this same perception: Why should patrons trouble their minds with words when a picture will provide instant gratification? Understandably, the average consumer wants to be aesthetically pleased. Poetry appeals to all of the senses, but the reader has to work to receive its pleasure. Paintings, sculptures, or photographs, while potentially meaning-heavy, can be appreciated even by those who aren’t seeking an artist’s purpose or vision. To delve into language, however, requires cognitive investment. And so the struggle continues: How do writers (and poets especially) reach a want-it-now, get-it-now society?

One way is to increase awareness. When people know authors and poets, they are more likely to direct their attention toward the written word. ¬†Every city, town, and county has someone pursuing the writing life, and some are better known than others. About two years ago, I posted an interview I had with Mildred Greear, a North Georgia poet whose work is known regionally, and who was a friend to Byron Herbert Reese, a well-known poet of historic import. The folks in Mildred’s part of the world love her work and support it, not because they are among the literati or the poetry elite, but because, well…it’s Mildred. And to support poetry is to support her and everything she represents: a distinct geography, history, and set of ideals rolled into one. In an age where many are crying for audiences to “separate the work from the artist” and similar notions, people near Sautee-Nacoochee, GA are doing the opposite, and it works. One great ambassador for verse can make all the difference. Some of the customers who have bought Mildred’s work might not even read poems, but they see her volumes as a near-biblical necessity. If you’re living there, you need some Greear poetry on the family bookshelf.

Mildred Greear
Mildred Greear

My hope as a younger, still-emerging poet is to serve as that same kind of ambassador. Rather than being the “quiet booth” in the arts community, I hope that my literary contributions (large and small alike) help make my community a better place in much the same way Mildred’s efforts have. The more people understand the vitality of poetry and other literary arts, the more a culture thrives. And with that thriving culture, communities build understanding and mutual respect, as well.

If you support writers and artists, especially in your community, please allow me to thank you. Likewise, if you haven’t seen what kinds of creative minds are at work in your part of the world, I encourage you to do so. Attend gallery openings, public readings, book signings, and the range of other available cultural outlets that your town or city has to offer. And if you don’t find any, make one of your own — it may feel like you’re the lone voice in the wilderness, but as any good Bible scholar can tell you, those lone voices are often the most relevant. It may sound trite, but you really can make an impact for good.