O, Miami Expands Into Publishing With Jai-Alai Books

P. Scott Cunningham is a familiar face on the Miami arts scene. The founder of O, Miami has done something that might seem nearly impossible: turned Miami into a poetry town. But Cunningham wants even more from the Magic City. He wants a "whole different level of engagement with literature in Miami," he says, "to make it part of our identity."

It was with that in mind that Cunningham started Jai-Alai Books, an indie press designed to capture the spirit of the city.

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Cunningham initially wanted to do a series of bilingual poetry books, where English and Spanish translations would appear in the same book. "I wanted a balance of authors between North and South America," Cunningham says, "an ongoing conversation between two continents." The original vision for Jai-Alai was somewhat based on New Directions' Pearls books, slim volumes easily recognized by their striking geometric covers. Cunningham "imagined the books would have a uniform look" so that readers could follow the series along and "get interested in poetry."

But when Cunningham found a designer, his vision unexpectedly changed. He was introduced to Seth Labenz, now Jai-Alai Books' creative director, while looking "for a gun for hire."

"I immediately hit it off with Seth," Cunningham says. "As soon as we started working together, it was clear that the press would be a collaboration, not just my thing."

It was then that Jai-Alai Books moved away from his initial plans to publish poetry books exclusively. The press' first book, Tiffany Noe's Forager: A Subjective Guide to Miami's Edible Plants, published last year, is anything but a poetry book. Noe, an urban farmer, outlines "tips, histories, advice, and warnings" on foraging for Miami's edible plants.

Cunningham says he knew Noe's book would be Jai-Alai's debut publication the minute he saw it. "This book is very much about Miami. It had it in spades."

But Jai-Alai was essentially running on a wing and a prayer -- Cunningham says they had absolutely no money. So they did what many Miami creatives do: They went looking for a grant.

They were recently awarded a 2014 Knight Arts Challenge grant, which will allow them to expand their operations and publish more books.

"Now that we have the money," Cunningham says, "[we're] trying to plan out what our next projects are going to be." Jai-Alai is actively looking for book projects and is beginning to open the submission process.

It's an interesting time to launch an indie press, because the health of the book publishing industry isn't exactly strong. Though Cunningham acknowledges that publishing's situation is "dramatic," he says it's "not dire."

"I don't believe that the format is dead, just the imagination," he says. And while he acknowledges it's a risk, it's one he definitely thinks is worth taking. That's in part because, even in its infancy, Jai-Alai has gotten "an incredible response from people in Miami," but also because Cunningham seems to like a challenge.

"I would be more excited if publishing really was dead," he laughs. "I would be the guy to keep it on life support."

But ultimately, Jai-Alai is a kind of extension of O, Miami, a way to continue cultivating Miami's literary culture, another way to create a bridge between it and "the rest of society." And Cunningham says that establishing a press is another way to create an entrenched literary culture, but it's just the beginning and not the end.

"Five years from now, there could be ten other literary presses in Miami," he says. "That's what's going to create a culture."

Cunningham points to Art Basel as an example of "cultivating a culture." "Think of how ingrained Art Basel is," Cunningham says. "Even if it packed up and moved out of town, we'd still have the week of celebrations and the gallery shows without the festivals."

But selling literature might take a bit more work, work that -- as the head of O, Miami -- Cunningham is familiar with. Given the poetry festival's penchant for Miami-appropriate spectacle (i.e., shouting poetry from a Ferrari and hosting James Franco), Jai-Alai Books might seem like a quiet, serious undertaking. But maybe that's part of the plan.

"Miami is a town that keeps turning the volume up until the speakers blow," Cunningham says. "There's no leveling off. We need to do so the same thing with books."

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Stassa Edwards
Contact: Stassa Edwards