The Swamp at Miami Book Fair, a gathering place for ideas—and the wonderfully wacky

Miami Book Fair International photos by Michael D. Bolden on Flickr.

Even in the sprawling, something-for-everybody diversity of the Miami Book Fair, a pop-up lounge and outdoor space that offers not only books but also bocce, poetry accompanied by Miami-made “booty” tracks, a taste of a local brewery, and music performances, gets an “only-in-Miami” shrug and a nod. Welcome to The Swamp.

Set up on a parking lot at Miami Dade College’s downtown campus, The Swamp will host events daily from Nov. 15-22 during the fair. Sponsored by Knight Foundation, it is a spacious hangar-like performance space, with a stage, rows of seats, art-covered walls and an outdoor component, simply called The Porch (sponsored by The Miami Foundation and IKEA). The whole complex is as much a place to simply stop and catch your breath as it is an opportunity to sample ideas in a casual setting and a meeting point for both artists and community. In its inaugural run last year it quickly became a crowd favorite.

“The Swamp was something I wanted to do because I felt there were many people in South Florida that were creating art, storytelling, for which maybe we didn’t have a place, and I wanted to explore who they were and what they were doing,” says Lissette Mendez, director of programs for Miami Book Fair. And while “the entire book fair is about community building,” Mendez says she wanted “a place within the fair in which we have community building in a concentrated way. The Swamp is a meeting place but not just for people who come to the fair but also for all the different types of artists working in Miami or about Miami.”

This year’s program at The Swamp, a 2013 Knight Arts Challenge winner, includes poetry readings (“World’s Smallest Poetry Reading: An O, Miami Party,” a sui-generis, one-on-one reading, but also a trilingual reading in “Expats! Haitian Women Poets in Exile”); a sound and film installation; a multimedia panel on South Beach; a presentation by Artists in Residence in the Everglades; and, of course, music performances by signature, South Florida-rooted acts such as the Afro-Cuban funk-jazz-electronica Spam Allstars, the electro pop duo Afrobeta and the Afro-Cuban jazz-rock-fusion group Oriente.

“[The Swamp] is a place to exchange ideas. It’s not a manicured environment. It’s very organic, and at its essence it’s a unique space where art and conversations can occur,” says photojournalist Carl Juste, whose work will be shown on the walls of The Swamp. The photos and accompanying essays are excerpted from his upcoming book “Havana and Haiti: Two Cultures One Community.”

“Here [at The Swamp], they use visual arts as a draw, but also as a way to frame the conversation,” says Juste, who will be part of a panel comprising contributors to the book, such as author and MacArthur Fellow Edwidge Danticat, Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. and photographer C.W. Griffin on Saturday, Nov. 21. “At The Swamp you have people with different ideas than those that maybe you would hear at a book fair; you will be exposed to music in a different way, to visual arts in a different way. That’s what I love about it.”

The work of guitarist, deejay, producer and Knight Arts Challenge winner Andrew Yeomanson, aka DJ Le Spam, with his Spam Allstars offers a sonic narrative of Miami history, as their music sets South Florida’s cultural blends and clashes to a danceable groove. They will perform at The Swamp, Friday, Nov. 20.

 The group’s work, which in a given piece might zig and zag from jazz to Afro-Cuban rumba and from soul and rhythm and blues to Afro-pop and rock, can at times suggest sound theater, as Yeomanson uses bits of recorded speech from a wide variety of sources to frame his musical choices. It’s an approach that seems ready-made for a literary turn.

 “I used to find these records as schools used to throw away recordings of authors reading their own work,” explains Yeomanson, who’s also a record collector. “So I have a lot of vinyl [recordings] from different authors, anything from the Beat Generation to Dylan Thomas, and then I have other literary work on record [featuring] other people reading.”

“The Swamp is very laid-back,” says Yeomanson, who also appeared at The Swamp last year. “It’s a younger, hipper crowd so I can get a bit more experimental between songs.”

For Mendez, the work of Juste and Yeomanson are just two examples of the idea of “expanding the fair’s definition of storytelling.” As for the mixing and matching of the sublime and the absurd, or having the moving and profound followed by the certifiable wacky, well, that’s South Florida for you — without apologies.

“Even though I was born in Cuba I might as well be from here. I grew up here,” says Mendez. “I don’t reject the idea of lowbrow Florida or lowbrow Miami. I don’t ever want to go round saying, ‘Oh, my, no; that’s not me,’ because I have lived in all those different worlds, so I embrace it all — and why not? When you’re growing up, you want to reject all the things that you think are going to make you look less cool or less smart. But it comes to a point in your maturity, and I think in South Florida we are at that point, when you say, ‘Well, yeah. That’s me too.’”

Events take place daily at The Swamp during Miami Book Fair Nov. 15-22. For a complete schedule, visit

Fernando González is a Miami-based arts and culture writer. He can be reached via email at [email protected].