If someone told you there was a lot of poetry in Miami, you might think it’s how kids are referring to Molly these days. But this city has a dirty little secret: an active, vibrant literary community.
And the shining star of that community is the month-long poetry festival O, Miami, which just kicked off its fifth year with a “Poetry Boat Cruise” up the Miami River, with stops to read original verses inspired by local landmarks such as the historic Fort Dallas and the enormous yacht of billionaire Miami transplant Mark Cuban.
O, Miami has made the city richer in ways that Art Basel never did, giving residents of a place often associated with drugs and parties a safe, smart and hilarious entry point into the world of poetry. Even The New York Times is talking about it. Now that’s money.
Miami has P.Scott Cunningham to thank for that. Cunningham, who is known around town as a passionate advocate for Miami’s intellectual crowd (last summer, he wrote an epic Twitter rebuttal to a Times essay that accused the city as shallow), founded O, Miami and serves as its director. As the name suggests, it’s an unapologetic love letter to Miami with a simple goal: to deliver a poem to every single resident in Miami-Dade County in the month of April. That’s 2.6 million people. Straightforward enough, right?
But how these poems are “delivered” is anything but. You might end up finding a poem on a street sign, or tugged by a plane in the sky, or sewn into your clothing, or recited from a convertible ferrari—or quite literally drinking next to you at a bar. O, Miami is dedicated not only to “advancing literary culture in Miami” but also to “democratizing” it, so the group focuses on touching the areas of the city that are usually ignored by literary types. One year, poems filled the public bus system in English, Spanish, and Creole.
Part of what motivated Cunningham to start the festival was to change the audience for poetry. It’s too often focused on an insular and elite community, he says. He wants to change people’s perception of what poetry can be, breathing new life into a medium that is not usually associated with our generation. The unconventional nature of the festival has been a welcome surprise for those attending, but even more so for the poets, who are used to attending very traditional poetry readings.
“One of my missions with the festival is to make the festival itself be really open. I think it has to have that sense of humor about itself and that sense of play and joy and fun and not take itself to seriously, otherwise people aren’t going to feel welcome.” – P.Scott Cunningham
Exactly how does poetry take over Miami? Let us count (some of) the ways:
And that’s just a small sampling of all the crazy and innovative ways that O, Miami has made poetry the cool thing to do in Miami. Poets from all over the world have traveled to Miami to be a part of it. Even James Franco! More importantly, however, they have managed to make locals feel like they play an active role in the festival. For example, the group has asked people to submit their own poems inspired by their zip codes, where the words on every line correspond to a number in your zip code.
O, Miami 2015 kicked off on Wednesday with the poetry boat cruise, which of course included free beer, music, and an extra dose of humor. The rest of the month will include puppet shows, poems in urinals, an 80s night and so much more. Check out a full list of events here.
It’s easy to think that the digital age isn’t meant for more subtle art forms like poetry, due to short attention spans and an obsession with technology. But O, Miami proves that poetry has evolved with the times because in the end it stems from a basic human desire to play with our language.
Like Cunningham says, poetry is stronger than ever: “As long as we are talking and writing, no matter how we are doing it, people are always going to want to play with the language—and that turns into poetry.”
All photos by Gesi Schilling.