O, Miami 2016 Brings Poetry to the Magic City

In a poetry class, Liberty City third-grader Jane wrote this seemingly simple haiku:

I am walking

and my hair


"You can tell she's thinking all the time," her poetry teacher and creator of the poetry project Sunroom, Laurel Nakanishi, says of her student. "I got this whole view into her world, into the cliques and drama of fourth-graders."

As Jane transitioned into fourth grade, she began to write at home and bring in her poetry, composed of impressive, lyrical descriptions such as those in "The Soft-Coated Orange Lemon":

The soft-coated orange lemon

dressed up like the hot burning sun

with bumps and gold holes

with a little green dot

that looks like a little flower

and feels like the most softest baby

in the world and smells

like the delicious mango.

"It's funny, but I've seen multiple friends become poets as they go to O, Miami events."

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Last year, after Nakanishi came up with the idea for Sunroom, she submitted it to the annual poetry festival O, Miami. She hoped to provide students like Jane with the opportunity to explore their creativity and intellect. And indeed she won a residency to get the project started.

O, Miami was created by former New Times writer and editor P. Scott Cunningham in 2011. Its mission: Allow every single person in Miami-Dade County to encounter a poem in April, National Poetry Month. This year, the festival will present events and projects for 30 days. Among them are Shadows of Home, where New World Symphony fellow Hannah Nicholas will create new works based on poems for an intimate crowd, and Current, a guided underwater poetry meditation experience at the Standard Hotel led by artist Jillian Mayer.

The Sunroom is one of the projects O, Miami chose to produce in perpetuity. The program employs a professional poet to instruct children as they transition from third to fourth grade at two Liberty City schools. It has become a permanent fixture in the community and has expanded to include a detention center. So far, Nakanishi has held all five residencies, which is like teaching five semesters. She's training two new poets to take her place at Orchard Villa and Poinciana Park elementary schools.

After two years of running the festival in a more conventional matter, Cunningham began asking the community for their ideas for potential poetic endeavors starting in 2013. He employed a crowdsourcing model like the one popularized by SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk to create the Hyperloop, a high-speed train-in-a-tube. Musk engaged thousands of people to get involved with his idea; they, in turn, became shareholders.

It's a very clever way to capture and grow an audience. "If we're serious about reaching everyone in the county, we need to have strategies for accomplishing that," Cunningham says. Of course, he and his cohorts have been creating partnerships for years, but they were a limited "circle of cultural producers."

A call for submissions from the community brought in a whopping 116 proposals. "Each project is a really different journey, as you can imagine," Cunningham says. Along with "trusted collaborators," 41 events and 26 projects were chosen to be hosted by O, Miami in 2016. Working with community leaders throughout Miami-Dade County made this the most geographically diverse O, Miami yet.

"People in Miami are supercreative," Cunningham adds. "Every year, they come up with amazing ideas we've never thought of. If we're trying to make a festival that's reflective of Miami, it needs to spring from Miami itself."

One project submitted for 2016 is Bedside Meter, by poet and attorney Quinn Smith. O, Miami approved his creative way to deliver poems to people in hospitals and access a demographic that wouldn't otherwise be able to engage much with the outside world. Smith takes small groups of volunteers to visit long-term rehab patients at Jackson Memorial Hospital to talk about their lives and create poems from their commentary.

"For years, I've been doing something like this at parties, dinners, and get-togethers," Smith says. "I visited a friend at the hospital recently and thought it would be cool to leave a poem, to give the patient a gift... What else could I possibly do when I'm not a doctor?"

Crowdsourced projects such as Smith's allow people to deepen and personalize each interaction.

"We wanted to make a poetry festival for people who would never come to a poetry festival," Cunningham states.

Bedside Meter and the Sunroom do just that. "When we started, we thought we were bringing this art form to a wider group of people, but actually, the journey of the festival has been the opposite: People have brought poetry to us and to each other," he observes.

Bringing all of these disparate voices together has changed the creator's own perspective on poetry. "What professional poets write is quite often beautiful and necessary, but it's only a very small segment of what constitutes poetry as a whole. We want to keep growing the festival as a collective endeavor and an expression of Miami's imagination."

Smith believes this crowdsourcing really gives the people what they want. "When the community submits ideas, they get excited and spread the word," he says. "It's funny, but I've seen multiple friends become poets as they go to O, Miami events."

Some of the projects even overlap. Students from the Sunroom will work with Poetry Rx, putting their words into prescriptions to be distributed at a poetry health fair at Jackson. Artist and 2015 Miami New Times MasterMind grant winner Randy Burman created Poems to the Sky, featuring the same students' poems painted in ten-foot-tall letters on commercial rooftops — a project that will be documented with drones.

Other crowdsourced undertakings to keep an eye out for during this year's festival include the very literal Poetry in Your Fortune Cookies, by sometimes Miami New Times writer Benjy Caplan. It features lines from Frank O'Hara's poem "Lines for the Fortune Cookies" that will be randomly mixed in with regular fortune cookies in Chinese delivery orders placed through the Delivery Dudes service.

The Rising Waters Poetry Flotilla was crafted by the author of the bilingual poetry collection The Same River Twice, Mario Ariza, to remind us that climate change is real. Those who participate will ride through Miami's waterways while being offered readings of ecologically themed poems and music. The event will take place at Matheson Hammock Park at 11 a.m. April 10.

All of these ideas represent the many minds of Miami. As the city engages with poetry, the festival strengthens like a furious (but much more eloquent) Hulk. O, Miami is able to remain relevant and popular by turning to those it serves and asking, "What do you care about?" This year's festival is certain to answer that question.

As Lamont, one of the fourth-graders benefiting from the Sunroom, tells O, Miami: "We get to, like, show what we're really thinking about." In those few words, Lamont gives a truly fitting description of the purpose of poetry.

O, Miami
April 1 through 30 at various locations. Visit for full details.

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Liz Tracy has written for publications such as the New York Times, the Atlantic, Refinery29, W, Glamour, and, of course, Miami New Times. She was New Times Broward-Palm Beach's music editor for three years. Now she plays one mean monster with her 2-year-old son and obsessively watches British mysteries.
Contact: Liz Tracy