German philosopher Georg Hegel thought that poetry was art’s “highest phase,” just one tick above music. Despite (and partly because of) this and other lofty assertions, many people consider poetry inaccessible, insular, and the last thing on their mind when they think of entertainment. And you can’t really blame them. Many poets write with other poets in mind and purposefully misrepresent their subjects and ideas and feelings in an attempt to wriggle out of the reader’s attempt to “make sense” of what they read. While poetry rests on an open-endedness that can make it difficult, it’s the interpretive spaciousness that makes it joyful, euphoric, and increasingly important. And chances are, everyone has a poet or verse with which they can spiritually convene.
P. Scott Cunningham threw the first O, Miami poetry festival in April of 2011. Determined to have a literary festival in a city that, from a certain vantage point, seems lacking in literary consequence, the goal of O, Miami was to expose all 2.5 million residents to a poem. With the backing of the Knight Foundation, they put poems on nearly 800 buses, attached them to aerial banners, dropped them from helicopters, and hosted unstuffy readings with the likes of James Franco.
By combining these interdisciplinary events with some of biggest names you’ve never heard of from the poetry world, O, Miami activated a locally dormant culture and got writers and readers excited about this city’s ripeness for poetic picking. An increasing number of poets are coming out of the swamp and forming a community, and for this year’s O, Miami festival, there is special focus on getting greater local participation. This Wednesday, Cunningham will host an information session at Lester’s for how people can get involved in readings, submitting work, and assisting with the festival. We spoke with him about the session and about how O, Miami is a different sort of poetry festival — fitting since Miami is a different sort of city.
For the first O, Miami, there were some bona-fide, institutional heavy hitters (such as Billy Collins, the lauded US poet laureate and Anne Carson, a Guggenheim fellow and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient) giving readings alongside hip hop MC Kool Moe Dee and James Franco. Who’s coming this year?
The names people might know from outside poetry-land are Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth-fame and Megan Amram, who has a pretty sizable Twitter following and currently works as a writer on NBC’s Parks & Recreation. People who watched Obama’s Inauguration this January will recognize Richard Blanco, who is a Miami poet but now lives in Maine. We’re also bringing back two Merce Cunningham dancers from 2011, Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Reiner, who will be debuting a new work at Bas Fisher Invitational, and we’re bringing down the artist Duke Syder to create a pop-up tattoo parlour.
One of the fun parts of the festival is introducing the Miami audience to poets they probably haven’t heard of, especially young poets. People I’m excited about introducing to Miami this year are Eduardo C. Corral, whose debut book Slow Lightning won the 2011 Yale Younger Poets Prize and is one of my favorite first books from the last decade; Natalie Diaz, a Native American poet and former point guard for Old Dominion’s Final Four women’s basketball team; and Frank Baez, a Dominican poet and the headliner of a band called El Hermancito.
How are you getting Miamians involved in this year’s O, Miami?
The big thing we’re doing this year is a project with WLRN-Miami Herald News in which we’re going to publish the first-ever “Poetry Guide to South Florida.” From mid-March through the end of April, we’ll be asking South Floridians to write original poems describing local places that are meaningful to them, and then we’ll read the best ones on the air and publish them in an actual book. I’m looking forward to poems about the urinals at Churchill’s, the bottom of the Miami River, Monday Night at King of Diamonds, or whatever other places are important to you.
How have you seen the local poetry community (in terms of both readers and writers) change since the first O, Miami?
The Knight Foundation is definitely the most notable difference in the literary community. Thanks to the Arts Challenge, people feel like they can propose a project and get it off the ground. Beyond that, I have no evidence that O, Miami is the engine for anything, but since the 2011 festival, I’ve definitely met more writers who are getting, or want to get, active in creating a literary community here. That could just be a function of more people knowing who we are, but it doesn’t matter to me. More = merrier, and diversity is healthy. Just the other day someone emailed me to tell me about a collective of writers they created that’s over 50 people now and I’d never heard of any of them. That’s the kind of pleasant surprise I never got pre-O, Miami.
Another good sign is projects like Bookleggers, which makes book-trading into a fun event and highlights, in my opinion, the cultural value of physical books. Then there’s our partner The Betsy South Beach, which has built a writer’s residency into the hotel called The Writer’s Room. They’re doing so many things year round that bring writers and readers together. Years from now, we’re going to look back at The Betsy the same way we look at the Chelsea Hotel. Finally, on a national level, there’s one thing I know was a direct result of O, Miami. NPR took our “Herald Bloom” project from 2011 and turned it into “NewsPoet” a monthly project where they have poets versify the news.
Ultimately though, I don’t care so much if O, Miami is credited as inspiring anything, just as long as we’re part of a larger movement towards poetry becoming an activity that people feel empowered to participate in, sort of like singing. Not everyone can be Pavarotti, but everyone can have fun at karaoke night.
O, Miami can be likened to Art Basel in a way: it’s brought national attention to Miami’s “cultural scene” and has propelled local writers forward. Tell me why you think the festival is important in regards to connecting writers and readers from Miami to those from elsewhere.
From the beginning, Knight Foundation and I looked at ABMB as a model, especially how every cultural organization seems to own their own little piece of it. I’ve always liked the “off-site” aspects of ABMB best, the little projects that happen on street corners or in otherwise empty buildings. That kind of temporary place-making is very poetic to me and very important in terms of re-imagining our city. I don’t usually attach the moniker “Poetry Festival” to the “O, Miami” logo because I see the festival as more about Miami than poetry. Yes, poetry is the lens, but the important thing the festival does is to make us all look more closely at where we live. What is great about Miami? What sucks about Miami? Poetry is a great way to interrogate our surroundings and ask bigger questions than “Should I avoid 395 right now?”
It’s funny. The first question I always get asked when talk to turns to the next “O, Miami” is “Who are you bringing?” I mean, it’s poetry! Who can I possibly bring that you’ll have heard of? But part of getting Miami to take something seriously means bringing in recognizable talent from elsewhere. We didn’t necessarily think of ourselves as an art town before the Swiss arrived, and we probably won’t think of ourselves as a poetry town until The New York Times says so. That’s just the reality of living in a tourist zone. So bringing down people like W.S. Merwin and Thurston Moore is always partly about getting Miamians to say, “Oh, hey! This is worth paying attention to!” Hearing world-class performers read or dance or sing is essential to cultural vitality, but for me, the joy and impact of the festival comes from the user-generated content. O, Miami is first and foremost about giving locals agency to express themselves. I’m fortunate that Knight Foundation has a similar vision for how art can inhabit every aspect of public life, and when I tell them things like, “I’m going to have an artist sew poems into strangers’ clothing” [artist Augustina Woodgate did this for the first O, Miami] they get as excited as I do.
Have studies been done to show just how many people were exposed to poetry at the first O, Miami?
Knight did an entire study on the first festival, and it’s really thorough. Brett Sokol led the investigation, and it reads like a New Yorker profile. Not everything he found was positive, mind you. There’s definitely some criticism in there that I’ve tried to make constructive. In the short term though, it’s kind of impossible to measure the impact. For example, we put poems on 751 buses in 2011. Yes, the County “counts” the number of impressions those ads generate, but I don’t trust that kind of math. How could we possibly know how many of those impressions turned into actual readers of the poem? And how many of those took the poem to heart? There’s no way to know, and so the mission of reaching everyone is a leap of faith for me, one that’s based on my own experience.
How did you personally get involved in poetry?
In the late ’90s I was on the NYC subway and I read a portion of Billy Collins’s poem “Hunger” that was displayed as part of Poetry Society of America’s “Poetry in Motion” campaign. I did not write poetry at the time, and I had never for one second considered becoming a poet. But the lines stayed with me, and I later bought a book by Collins and he turned into the “gateway drug” that led me into contemporary poetry. So I know just glancing at a poem can have a deep effect on someone, and through the festival I try to create as many chances as possible for someone else to have an experience like that.
What can people expect from the session you’re hosting at Lester’s?
The purpose of the info session at Lester’s is to outline some of the opportunities for involvement at this year’s festival, as well as to give people a sense of the schedule (which isn’t published just yet). WLRN-Miami Herald News will be there to talk about our partnership, and there will be beer and wine for sale, and I’ll try to answer as many questions as I can and not sound like an idiot.
The info session will be held 8 p.m. Wednesday at Lester’s (2519 N.W. Second Ave., Miami). For more information, call 305-456-1784.
–By Rob Goyanes