Dead (and Not-So-Dead) Poets Society

Professor Maurice O’Sullivan is on a mission to bring Florida poetry, new and old, back to life.

“Six Other Rivers Discovered by the French.” Plate IIII. From Theodor de Bry’s Grand Voyages, which contained the earliest known European images of Native Americans in what is now Florida. “Six Other Rivers Discovered by the French.” Plate IIII. From Theodor de Bry’s Grand Voyages, which contained the earliest known European images of Native Americans in what is now Florida.

Florida’s first poem—or, at least, the earliest English-language poem ever located—was written in 1564. Given all that’s transpired since in this state, it’s perhaps fitting that it was, well, a drinking song, titled “Have You Not Hard of Floryda?”

“Have you not hard of Floryda / A countree far by west? / Where savage pepell planted are / By nature and be hest, / Who in the mold find glysterynge gold / And yt for tryfels sell: / With hy!”

A year later, a French-speaking Protestant minister, was less enthralled by what would later be known as the Sunshine State. After the failure of a Huguenot colony near Jacksonville, he wrote that he returned “dry and arid and worn out by rot.”

Unlikely as it may seem, Florida has one of the oldest and deepest bodies of literature in the United States, dating back to even before Europeans settled Jamestown. Kenneth Curry Professor of English Maurice O’Sullivan is on a mission to bring the state’s considerable bounty of poetry to light.

He’s been on this quest for the past 15 years, ever since he put together an anthology of the state’s poetry. But with this year marking the state’s quincentennial—Ponce de Leon first landed here in 1513—he wanted to do something else, something that might recognize the state’s poetic history.

Thus birthed the Florida Poets Project, and its spawn, a book and a DVD named for that first Florida poem, Have You Not Hard of Floryda?

Working with documentarian Bill Dudley and a grant from the Central Florida English-Speaking Union, O’Sullivan spent two years traversing the state, spending his weekends in Key West and Tampa and Tallahassee and Miami interviewing notable poets, having them read not only their own work but also the work of a predecessor. The DVD features 28 eight-to-15-minute vignettes with poets—in total, about four hours of material—usually filmed wherever they compose their work.

O’Sullivan was well versed in Florida poetry from the outset, but he did find some things that surprised him—the vitality of poetry in different corners of the state, for instance, as well as the quality of some younger writers he got to know. The work is remarkably diverse, too: there’s a cowboy poet, an Indian poet laureate, and a slam poet among the contributors, not to mention the inestimable Peter Meinke, considered the dean of Florida poetry.

“Everyone we spoke with had a string of people they wanted us to speak with,” O’Sullivan says. “It was like one of those rumor games.”

So much so, in fact, that he’s considering putting together a second volume featuring a new batch of poets.

The first volume has already seen its share of accolades. In January, the Florida Historical Society awarded O’Sullivan the 2012 David C. Brotemarkle Award for the year’s outstanding creative contribution to Florida’s history. And he and supporters have also worked to prod legislators to change the way Florida designates its poet laureates. Heretofore, the unpaid position was a lifetime appointment, which means Florida has only had three since creation of the laureate about a century ago. The most recent poet laureate, former Florida Atlantic University Professor Edmund Skellings, held the post from 1980 until his death last year; however, for health reasons he’s been unable to do much work promoting the state’s poetic legacy. There’s now a bill circulating in the Florida Legislature to declare a new poet laureate every four years.