The Farrar, Straus and Giroux Poetry Blog

April 03, 2011

A Q&A with O, Miami Director, P. Scott Cunningham

This year, in celebration of National Poetry Month, Miami Dade County is being bombarded with poetry, thanks to the O, Miami poetry festival. The goal of O, Miami is to expose every individual, a whole 2.5 million, to a poem. The festivities began on Friday and will continue on throughout the month. We got the chance to speak with the director of the festival, P. Scott Cunningham, about his hopes for the festival and their initiatives and events.  //Angie Venezia

Exposing all of Miami's 2.5 million citizens to poetry within one month sounds like a daunting task. Will you tell us a bit about the initiatives your program is taking to accomplish this goal?

All of our events and projects are designed to reach beyond Miami's usual poetry audience, which, as you can imagine, is somewhere south of 2.5 million. For instance, we've partnered with the The Miami Herald to create a fictional spokesperson named "Herald Bloom" who will be writing daily poems that recapitulate local news stories. "Herald" will also post condensed versions of these on Twitter @heraldbloom. We're also sponsoring a project with a local thrift store to sew "poetry labels"--created by the artist Augustina Woodgate--into random items of clothing; hiring ad space to fly short bits of verse behind airplanes up and down Miami Beach; holding a poetry contest in the prisons, etc.

Our events are also designed to push toward a new audience. James Franco is reading inside the Frank Gehry-designed New World Center on Miami Beach; the guitarist from Broken Social Scene, Andrew Whiteman, is doing an interdisciplinary performance with a local DJ using poetry; and we've partnered with New York magazine's Abe's Penny to do an interactive photography and text exhibit.

In total, there are around thirty-five events, twenty-five projects, and just over fifty participating poets, and with everything we planned, we asked, "What's the non-poetry audience for this?"

Do you think this will be an annual event during poetry month? Would you like to see other cities adopt similar programs?

I hope it will be an annual event. I have a five-year plan for the festival, in which each year we change the theme in order to experiment with literary programming in different ways. (The goal of pushing contemporary poetry toward new audiences will always be a central feature, however.)

And yes! I'd love to see O, Cleveland, or O, Schenectady. To be fair, though, I think a lot of cities have accomplished many of the aspects of our programming. I don't see any of the individual components of O, Miami as that novel--in fact, we designed the festival by looking all over the world for models and programs that we thought were exciting. So if anything sets us apart it's the scope of the project or the fact that we're trying it in Miami, which is not exactly a poetry town. That aspect is exciting most of the time, but other times it feels like being responsible for a surfing competition in Antarctica.

It sounds like many of your events incorporate other forms of art in addition to poetry, like the collaboration between Anne Carson and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. What inspired that pairing?

We can't take credit for the genius of that pairing. Anne is just an amazingly astute artist, and I think in Rashaun Mitchell and Jonah Bokaer she saw two people who were pushing their genres in the same way she does. Both pieces--Nox and Stacks--have been performed before, but each will be reimagined to fit the space in which they'll be performed, the Moore Building in Miami's Design District. It was built in the 1920's as a furniture factory and has a very industrial feel to it, but it also contains a site-specific sculpture by Zaha Hadid in the central atrium. As soon as Rashaun and Jonah entered the space, I could see their eyes scanning through the possibilities. They've each taken their work and adapted it to the constraints of the building, and watching the process in action, it felt very much like how a poet adapts her aesthetic to a new form. Which is to say, without knowing exactly how this all came about, I totally understand why they connect with one another.

Your bilingual programming and events on translation are a great way to engage residents of Miami for whom English is a second language. Can you tell us a bit about these intiatives? Are many local Miami poets engaged in these events?

One of the things that made me want to start writing poetry  was getting caught up in a Poetry in Motion placard on the New York City subway in the 1990s, so we've partnered with Poetry Society of America to bring that program to all 741 of Miami's buses. A lot of that ridership speaks Spanish or Creole as a first-language, so we're presenting the poem, "In the Library" by Charles Simic, in those languages as well as English.

Several events are being presented in Spanish and English, with that exchange being a central feature. Forrest Gander and Victor Rodríguez-Núñez (Cuba) will be reading side by side, moving fluidly between English and Spanish. Raúl Zurita (Chile) will read with a translator. Carla Faesler (Mexico) will reading with a translator, followed by W. S. Merwin reading translations of Neruda and García Lorca. We're also bringing in Fernanda Laguna and Cecilia Pavón, two poets from Buenos Aires, who will be joined by their translator, Stuart Krimko. Laguna and Pavón will also give a talk at MOCA North Miami as part of a series the museum is doing on artist-run exhibition spaces in Latin America.

Locally, we're having the Cuban-born poet Angel Cuadra read alongside his young translator, a Miami poet named Jessica Machado. Emma Trelles, another local poet who frequently responds to the play of language in Miami, is also participating.

It seems like there is so little support for poetry in many parts of the country these days, but hearing about a program like O, Miami is incredibly reassuring. How did this program come about?

Ironically, out of Miami's lack of cultural life. About five years ago, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which is based in Miami, initiated a program called Knight Arts in order to bolster the city's cultural life. The purpose was (and is) to fund ideas, rather than organizations. This strategy leveled the playing field for funding, allowing individuals and small collectives without a 501(c)(3) designation to compete for real funding, all based on the potential impact of their projects. Around the same time I was running a lecture series called the University of Wynwood and writing poetry on the street for money with the Miami Poetry Collective. Knight took an interest in what we were up to, and I proposed a Visiting Poet Series to them. After that took off, we came back to them with the idea for O, Miami. They liked the mission and the overly-ambitious scope of it and immediately got behind it one hundred percent. I have no other foundation to compare them to, but it's hard for me to imagine another organization that's less risk-adverse than Knight. I mean, the largest event I'd planned before O, Miami was a Zachary Schomberg reading that drew forty people; the morning of that event I was stressed out because I needed to find ten extra chairs. It's crazy, really. I feel like a kid who caught a ball in the stands and got signed to the Yankees the next day.

If the program succeeds in reaching its goal, do you think that it will have a long-term effect on the presence of poetry in Miami Dade County?

As long as a critical mass of people get excited about the project, I think it will have that effect even if we don't achieve the goal (of all 2.5 million people seeing a poem). Miami has no real "poetic" identity as a city, which I see as an incredible opportunity. By way of comparison, when Art Basel came to Miami Beach in 2002, the same was said about the art scene. Of course, the scene's still small here, but in just those eight years it's developed an identity and a core community of participants: artists, collectors, galleries, exhibition spaces, etc. Hardly a weekend goes by now that there's not a new opening, or a DIY project, or some lecture happening in a living room. I'm hoping we can do the same for poetry--be that anchor that makes all else possible.



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