Neil de la Flor, a local Miami poet, is intent on an ambitious quest, to start an annual literary festival called Reading Queer and establish Miami as a center for queer literature. The inaugural festival will take place August 30th, but leading up to the festival and running through early September, Reading Queer is also holding a series of panel discussions called Queer Depots and creative workshops. The inaugural Queer Depot featured a discussion on “creativity and queerness” moderated by writers Julie Marie Wade and Maureen Seaton. Gulf Stream Magazine’s Social Media Director, Jan Becker, recently interviewed de la Flor by email about the evolution of queer culture in Miami and the challenges of launching a literary festival. You can find more information about Reading Queer and their mission at readingqueer.org
JB: Hi, Neil. First, thank you for agreeing to interview with Gulf Stream Magazine. You are currently a poet, professor, a photographer, you blog about art events for The Knight Foundation, and to add to that already long list, you have taken on the challenge of directing and organizing a literary festival called Reading Queer, in Miami, a city that is known for its art scene and for its queer community. In the past few years, Miami’s culture and the presence of a queer community have been evolving. My perception is that areas that were once teeming with queer-friendly nightclubs, like South Beach, are changing. Many of the nightclubs have closed. Many members of the queer community have closed up shop and moved north to the Fort Lauderdale/Wilton Manors area. Can you talk about the evolution of queer culture in Miami in the past few years? How does that compare with changes on a national level? What you hope to accomplish with Reading Queer?
ND: I’m gonna resort to my cheat sheet: Reading Queer seeks to provide the queer community with a platform for self-exploration and self-expression and reveal how creative writing can be used as a medium to improve, empower and enrich the creative lives of the queer community through the act & the art of creative writing.
I grew up in South Florida. I’ve seen lots of change, especially in Greater Miami. I moved to South Beach in 1992 at a time when South Beach was essentially an open air crack den where humans would congregate, masturbate, meditate, party, have sex and do drugs in Flamingo Park, Meridian Avenue, the Euclid oval or anywhere on South Beach. South Beach back then was truly Miami’s vice (I apologize for the cliché.) Lincoln Road was the best place to be because no one was there. Hippies played guitars around the water fountain in front of World Resources. It was like Times Square pre-Giuliani, sans the big lights. The tourists who trot their way up and down Lincoln Road today would probably be shocked.
In the 90’s there were just a few artist studios, Gertrude’s (a coffee shop), Kremlin (a gay bar), the Bee Hive (a dive bar), Grannyfeelgoods and a few funky stores that are long gone. And that’s just Lincoln Road. No one ever ventured South of 5th Street. Wynwood is where one would go to buy sewing machines and notions for the fashion industry. Now it’s the center for world famous graffiti artists and Panther Coffee.
Hmmm, my point: the evolution of Miami is queer. And that’s awesome!
On a national level, I think the same thing is going on, but I’m not an expert on the queer diaspora. All I know is that I want our voices to be heard and to demystify the myths that stifle the queer community. Also, I want to disarm the negative connotations attached to the word “queer” so that all humans learn to tap into the creative power inherent in thinking queer.
JB: One of Reading Queer’s goals is to establish Miami as a center for queer writing. Why Miami?
ND: Miami is my home. I have nowhere else to go.
JB: One of the aims of Reading Queer is to encourage people to find a personal definition for “queer.” How do you define “queer” for yourself? Have you seen that definition evolve? In what way?
ND: I’m going to paraphrase Julie Marie Wade and Maureen Seaton and add my three-cents: queer is a creative energy-potential and an energy-dial in everyone that we can turn up or down. It has been ruthlessly ripped out and/or suppressed in most of us as we grew up, through the education system, within our families, but I believe everyone has the potential to be queer again. That’s what Reading Queer is for—to highlight the creative power of queer.
JB: Deficits in our national and local economies in the past few years have resulted in major cuts to funding for the arts, especially in public schools. In a city like Miami, where things like public libraries are subject to closures, it would seem counter-intuitive to attempt a project like Reading Queer. Can you tell us about the partnerships Reading Queer has made with businesses and philanthropical organizations like The Knight Foundation? What advice would you give to someone who is looking to organize writing events in communities?
ND: 1. RQ is a small-scale project with lofty goals. That, for me, is essential: we’re not too big to fail. 2. We’re methodically building relationships with local foundations such as The Knight Foundation and The GLBT Community Projects Fund at The Miami Foundation, which is a partnership with the National Gay & Lesbian Task force. We’re also working closely with local business and organizations from The Betsy Hotel-Sobe and The Stonewall National Museum and Archive. 3. Without sounding like a circus ringleader, I think it’s important to entertain people, connect with them, and show them the value and the fun inherent in creative writing. There’s nothing worse than leaving an event bored out of your mind. I want to laugh, cry and learn something new about myself and the world at every event I attend. 4. Finding funds is fun, because I get the chance to communicate the mission of Reading Queer.
JB: Reading Queer has been very proactive in encouraging participation from writers who may not self-identify as “queer.” How does this inclusivity impact Reading Queer? How would you characterize the response to Reading Queer from writers who might self-identify as “straight?”
ND: Going to reference to my queer mash-up above: we’re all queer. We all have that queer potential in us, an energy potential, a dial—and I’m not talking about sex or sexuality. You can’t turn yourself on to someone you’re not attracted to, but you can amp up your creative life by breaking molds that hold us in place. Queer breaks molds. It’s a creative force within all of us that alters our perception of ourselves and the world. It’s a force that allows us to view the world differently, to conceive of new ideas and recognize the value and potential in those ideas. That famous cliché ‘thinking out of the box’ is the embodiment of queer because we have to take ourselves outside of our cage to see a potential in the world that had never been thought of before. We need more of this in the world!
JB: How has Reading Queer influenced your own writing ?
ND: I don’t know. I don’t really measure my writing. I write two articles every week for my job as a performing arts journalist. I don’t write ‘creatively’ weekly, but all writing is creative, so that’s a lie. I’ll be attending our RQ Writing Academy, which launches in May, so I’m hoping to get even more writing done this year.
JB: You have published three volumes of collaborative poetry, two with Maureen Seaton, and one with Kristen Snodgrass. In addition, you have published individual volumes of poetry. Writing is often considered an isolated business–just the writer and his or her blank page. How has the collaborative process influenced your aims beyond filling the page?
ND: All writing is community. When I work with others, I feel connected, alive, significant, creative, energized, realized, and happy. I want others to feel this, because it influences those solitary moments when I write alone. It helps counter-balance my introverted nature, which no one seems to believe, and opens me up to ways of thinking, ways of writing I wouldn’t have considered before. Collaboration keeps it real. That’s not to say writing alone has no value. It’s just that when I work with another writer or group of writers, I recognize the value of writing. I also want the community to recognize this value.
JB: What’s next for you?
ND: Sweet & Salty potato chips for my hunger. Aspirin for my headache. Launching the Reading Queer Writing Academy this May. Preparing scheduling and marketing materials for the eight workshops scheduled for the Academy. Preparing for the Reading Queer Festival later on this year, which will feature poet L. Lamar Wilson and a choir. (More details coming soon.) My long board.