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O, Miami founder P. Scott Cunningham breaks down this year’s festival

Posted By Fernando Gonzalez
April 3, 2019 at 2:19 PM

Since 2011, every April in Miami-Dade County has brought findings of poems sown in thrift-store clothing and on windshields via fake parking tickets. Poems have been painted on the roofs of buildings in order to be read from airplanes and written in the sky for those looking up from the ground. They have been sneakily placed in Google searches and in the humble wrappings of pastelitos. It’s all because of O, Miami, the annual festival celebrating National Poetry Month.

If the event’s mission is “for every single person in Miami-Dade County to encounter a poem during the month of April,” passing out invitations to readings just won’t do.

“We knew that to change the perception of poetry, we needed to meet people halfway and maybe even stick it in people’s faces a little bit,” poet P. Scott Cunningham, O Miami’s founder and director, once explained. “So we’ve always looked for things that were fun projects that people would enjoy when they came across them. We’ll try anything, just to change the audience even if for a second. You never know who could be watching or would be inspired by that.”

This year, along with workshops (including “Poetry & Yoga” and “Micro Memoir”) and serious readings, O, Miami offers the chance to wander into a Poetry Pajama Party at the Miami Beach Botanical Garden, check out a live poet at the Miami Dade Public Library or attend a sui generis softball game pitting the Young Viejos versus the Old Poets.

In fact, you may not need to go looking for the poetry. The poetry may just find you. 

Cunningham recently spoke to Artburst about poetry as a tool, as a fun thing to enjoy and even as a way to look at borders and who is crossing where.

Few probably predicted when it started that a poetry festival would not only succeed in Miami, but grow. Hats off. What is the secret sauce? 

Yeah, it surprised me, as well. Now, I think [the “secret sauce”] is that we always want the projects and the events to be joyful. And I say “joy,” not “humor,” because we hope it doesn’t lose any bit of seriousness. Obviously, the silly events are silly [chuckles]. But some [events] are tackling pretty serious subjects or at least [themes] adjacent to those subjects. But even with those, if the point of encounter isn’t joyful, then it’s not really meeting the mission of encouraging positive encounters for people. 

We’ve been living with rap, hip-hop culture and a revalued place of language for three decades. What impact has this had in bridging poetry and popular culture? 

In a lot of ways, it’s maybe the biggest factor [in bringing young audiences to poetry]. For years, the news from the NEA was that poetry was in decline. And all of those statistics finally were reversed when they released their new data last year. And also there was a huge uptick in poetry readership — and it was mostly young people and people of color that caused the statistics to reverse. There are so many young poets — and in my opinion many of the best young poets writing right now — who came to poetry either with hip-hop or through hip-hop. It was all in the atmosphere that they were breathing. If you’re under 40, you grew up with hip-hop. You can’t really underestimate its influence. 

I’ll give you a perfect example: One poet who’s coming to the festival this year — who’s reading on April 19 — is José Olivarez, from Chicago, who basically came to poetry through spoken word. That was the community that introduced him to poetry and that honed his skills and began his education. And in Chicago ,there are a lot of rappers and DJs who are doing spoken word, as well, so that whole community is one community. He’s someone who might win a Pulitzer or a Nobel Prize one day. He’s that talented. 

For all the goofy, funny events on the program, on the home page of OMiami.org, there’s a quite serious and moving statement: “We believe this process of uncovering poetry is also the process of attacking inequality, as one of the roots of inequality is an inability of the people in power to see the worth in the communities around them, and we hope our projects enact that belief.” Can you elaborate? 

First of all, poetry is not some sort of magic pill to cure inequality, and O, Miami on its own it is not going to do that. You can’t just write a poem and expect the world to get better. But I think that it’s important for us, since the name the organization is O, Miami, to try to address all of Miami and not just some of it or the parts of it that we prefer to look at. We are serious about that and give visibility and attention to every part of Miami. I think Miami does a disservice [to itself] in how it broadcasts itself to the world, because it’s typically only showing you two or three neighborhoods and saying, “This is Miami,” and it’s not. It’s a very small percentage of Miami. We try to counteract that by, essentially, not doing that. It’s one small thing, but change happens through a lot of things happening simultaneously. 

Could you pick an event in the program that you’re looking forward to this year? 

Actually two events that are right next to each other. One is the reading on April 19 with José Olivarez, Natalie Scenters-Zapico and Raymond Antrobus. All three of them are fantastic. And then, the next morning we are inviting anyone who wants to come to meet us around sunrise on Miami Beach. We’re going to do this thing called The Beach Is a Border Walk, a project created by Sandra Marsh, a Spanish artist. The idea is to draw attention to the fact of a beach as a border and not just a place where you sit and relax. So anyone who comes will be given flip-flops, and each pair of flip-flops has a poem on the bottom. As we walk in the sand, we’ll be writing these poems in the sand and at the same time calling attention to immigration and migration, which are obviously important issues to talk about right now. 

For the full schedule of O, Miami events, go to OMiami.org.

Photo: During the 2019 O, Miami poetry festival, poems will appear on produce throughout Miami-Dade County as part of a “fruit sticker bombing” project called “Chiquita Poemas.” Photo courtesy Gesi Schilling.

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