2020 Production Diary: Looking for the Gulf Motel

“Poetry is evocative, ethereal, emotional, transportive, but right now, poetry for me is a traffic jam on Florida’s Route 1.”

Producer Cathleen O’Connell
Close-up of a Miami Beach hotel with a blue sky backdrop.

A year ago, Poetry in America producer Cathleen O’Connell wrote a brief travelogue on her experience in Florida filming “Looking for the Gulf Motel,” an episode that was seasons away (double entendre). Now, it’s autumn again, the motels have lost their luster, and this season 3 episode shines like a diamond in the editing room. So we’re revisiting Cathleen’s piece, which finds poetry even in the logistics of our show’s production… following a Miami traffic jam toward the emotional heart of Blanco’s poem.

Communications Intern, Gideon Leek

Travelogue: Looking for the Gulf Motel

By Producer Cathleen O’Connell

I’m in a rented minivan driving down Biscayne Boulevard in Miami literally looking for The Gulf Motel. Poetry is evocative, ethereal, emotional, transportive, but right now, poetry for me is a traffic jam on Florida’s Route 1. I’m with our film crew, shooting footage for an upcoming episode of Poetry In America devoted to Richard Blanco’s poem “Looking For The Gulf Motel.” The irony of our very literal task today—to film a brick and mortar avatar of the poem’s symbolic heart—seems decidedly unpoetic at this moment, given honking cars, 90-degree heat, and the race against time to catch our flight back to Boston.

We pull over every few blocks to point our camera lens at the architecture of yesteryear’s vacation palaces—Atomic Age wedding cakes with names like the Vagabond, the Seven Seas, the Shalimar. As we weave in and out of traffic, filming a roofline here, a neon sign there, a teal blue railing set against an aquamarine sky, I think about the poem “Looking For The Gulf Motel,” an ode to memory and loss, joy and sadness, nostalgia and the cold light of day. To pass the time (TV production, while sounding glamorous, involves a lot of passing of time), the crew talks about our own “Gulf Motels”—those pristine castles of childhood memory, before world-weary adult cares became manifest, and where warm summer afternoons seem never-ending.

My own Gulf Motel was the annual county fair in Maine. My brothers and I waited all summer for this event, anticipating it with a fervor akin to Christmas morning, hoarding our weekly allowances, saving a year’s worth of wrinkled dollars that aunts and grandmas had pressed into birthday cards—to spend it all in one riotous day of carnival rides fueled by fried onion rings mounded on cardboard plates. For that day, my brothers and I were midway millionaires, handing over hard won quarters with abandon to carnies, playing game after game of ring toss for the chance to win a neon stuffed animal. When sun set and the lights of the ferris wheel flickered on, our parents bundled us into the back seat of our station wagon, where my brothers and I quickly fell asleep, sticky and exhausted, clasping our plastic consolation prizes…

But today, there are flights to catch, emails to answer, and our crew heads to the airport having never quite found the Gulf Motel.