Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Campbell McGrath - Miami Beach, FL

Campbell and I are standing in front of his gorgeous garden home plugged serenely in a bucolic neighborhood in Miami Beach. He shows me two trees in his front yard, both planted and grown by him over the past ten years. One is a Royal Palm that is as big around as two bulldogs and must approach 40 feet. It started as a stalk, not even waist high. The other palm is a little shorter, but thicker, and grown from a coconut that Campbell stuck in the ground ten years ago. I could maybe hit a golf ball over it if I had a full case of Red Bull. I wonder if it takes any particular skill to grow palms like this, but don't want to ask. Perhaps all it takes is sandy soil and the ever present humidity that makes even a cool morning like this feel sticky.

We go in Campbell's bright yellow home - under a pretty arch, scooting past his sons' skateboards - and sit in the front room, the outside air wafting in through two elephant-eye-high gated windows that are open to the street.

Campbell's a Chicago transplant, but he's fully at home in Florida now after a decade. He's happy to call himself an urban poet, and his work has long explored the commercial landscape of America, the strip malls and convenience stores that are undeniable cultural and physical landmarks.

We talk about South Florida, a region that Campbell says is distincly Latin, not like the American South at all. He's interested in it and his bilingual students who come to him with a dense melange of cultures. Campbell tells me that Florida's culture is something he went in search of when he first moved here, but he found it missing. It's as if the place developed and grew without a record being made of its spurts.

When we finish, we go stand outside and Campbell points out some other trees opposite his house, 90 years old, original residents of the neighborhood. He asks about our plans, which include a brief vacation from the trip - a two night stay down in Key West - and we say goodbye.