Key West’s Poet Laureate Kirby Condon celebrates his 90th birthday in November. He’s seen and done a lot in those 90 years and remembers them all, including what brought him to Key West 55 years ago.
“Some friends and I were in Havana to ring in the New Year,” he said from his cottage’s book-crowded living room. “December, 1959, and Fidel Castro was ‘on his way’ to Havana. We were part of a mob of people who fled to Miami.”
When he arrived in Miami, some friends decided to visit Key West.
“Loved it on sight!” Kirby said. “My friend and I bought our first house. It was where the Banyan timeshare is now, on Whitehead Street.”
The down payment was $1,000 and the house cost $10,000.
Life before Key West included an all-expense paid trip to Europe.
“I spent most of WWII at Fort Smith in Arkansas,” Kirby laughed. “I got to France as part of an attack battalion. Fortunately, for me, the Germans kept retreating and I didn’t get to see a lot of action. Snipers mostly, but that was enough.”
Kirby admitted he wasn’t a good student in school, but decided to go to Columbia University in New York on the G.I. Bill. He graduated but never went for a master’s degree.
“College scared me,” he said. “Poetry challenged me and I’ve been writing since coming back from France.”
By 2004, Kirby estimates he has published 300 poems, some set to music.
“In the ’60s, I had 13 poems set to music and they were performed on Fire Island at a summer concert,” he said.
Kirby has a summer home on Fire Island in New York and his winter home in Key West.
“I can write anywhere,” he said. “It’s a process of love. I can spend two-to-three weeks on one poem. Sometimes I work it in my mind first, and then put it on paper. I often finish a poem and put it away for, maybe, two years. Forget about it. Bring it out after time passes and work on it some more before I feel it’s finished.”
In 1997, Kirby published a small, limited edition book with a few of his drawings, one musical score and a poem. The 300 signed, first editions, were published by Cycle Press of Brooklyn. The book contains one poem in four parts, examples of his drawings and a musical score he wrote entitled “Largo Sympatico,” dedicated to Joan Colby. The last page of the book contains a colorful watercolor he painted.
“I have been painting with ink and brush for a while,” Kirby said. “I had ink available to me in France, but not brush, so I began using my finger as a brush. Maybe they’re more sketches than paintings.”
Kirby admitted with a broad smile that he sometimes pushes himself to get involved in various art forms. As a new poem waits for rewriting as it rambles around in his head, he keeps absorbed in art, no matter what its form.
“In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s I did some sculptures using plumbing materials,” he said. “I wanted to keep my hand in all kinds of creativity.”
Kirby has done a collection of collages and enjoy the process, but doesn’t feel it is as creative as his poetry. He smiles, again, and says it always comes down to his poetry.
• Kirby Congdon is the featured speaker at the unveiling of the first poem etched in the pavement as part of the first Key West Sidewalk Poetry Project. It will be on Friday, April 25 at 4 p.m. in front of Capt. Tony’s in Key West.
• An exhibition of Kirby Congdon’s artwork will take place at Blue Heaven Restaurant, 729 Thomas St., Friday, May 2, 6 – 8 p.m., Saturday, May 3, 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. and Sunday, May 4, 6 – 8 p.m.
• Also at Blue Heaven, Kirby will be the featured poet at the Key West Poetry Guild’s monthly meeting on Sunday, May 4, 7 pm. He will read poem from his vast collection. For more information, call 908-591-5566.