You might cringe at the thought of poetry, imagining smoky obscurity, impenetrable reasoning, and nonsensical utterances. But poetry is actually one of the most accessible kinds of art, says P. Scott Cunningham, the founder of O, Miami Poetry Festival and the author of the poetry book Ya Te Veo, released March 1.
“One cool thing about poetry is that everyone implicitly understands how to do it... There’s no financial overhead. If you can think, you can write a poem. It’s so easily accessible to everyone, which is why it’s so powerful,” he says.
O, Miami, in its seventh year, runs throughout April. Planned events and projects take place every day, from the first to the last day of the month. “The goal of the festival is for every single person in Miami-Dade County to encounter a poem in the month of April,” Cunningham says.
But this year’s festival faced challenges that no previous ones had encountered. O, Miami's office in downtown Miami was severely damaged during Hurricane Irma. “We were there for four years. A window broke... then the winds were inside and we were in trouble... We lost a lot of stuff, but the biggest thing we lost was time. It was bad luck. I guess Irma hates poetry,” he chuckles.
But the storm didn't stop the momentum of O, Miami. The team has already put together more than 30 events, including a collaboration with the Frost Museum of Science and the Library of Congress in which animations set to excerpts of poems from poet laureate Tracy K. Smith will play at the Frost’s planetarium between shows. Another project for this year’s festival is a retro-style interactive collaboration with NYC creative duo Saint Flashlight. Modeled after John Giorno’s 1968 Dial-a-Poem, the project will hang flyers with phone-number tearaways around Miami. When you call the various numbers, you can hear recordings of eight lost poems.
This year’s O, Miami will also include the festival’s first comic book workshop, a Persian poetry walk, a deep listening meditation, and the “Check Out a Poet” program in collaboration with the Miami-Dade Public Library, where you can rent a live poet to recite verse, answer questions, or chat with you.
Cunningham has kept the inspiration behind O, Miami alive through the spirit of collaboration. “I grew up in South Florida and moved away because I hated South Florida growing up... Then a weird twist of things happened and I ended up back in Miami," he says. "I started to get involved because I didn’t want to be one of those people who complained about a place and just dismissed it out of hand when they didn’t know anything about it." Soon he was smitten with his hometown. "I founded O, Miami when I was super-pro-Miami. The festival is a reflection of this attitude: Hey, everyone matters. Everyone deserves to participate in the cultural life of the city.
“How I maintained [O, Miami] is through that collaboration. It’s not just us coming up with ideas and inflicting them on an audience. More and more of the festival has been curated by Miami itself. We had a call for submissions in the fall, and we got around 300 this year, the most we have ever gotten," he explains. "That’s the fun part, working with different individual artists and organizations to create something that isn’t just speaking to Miami but actually created by Miami.”
Leading up to April, Cunningham is knee-deep in poetry. He will read from his new poetry book, Ya Te Veo, at Books & Books March 18. The book, published by University of Arkansas Press, is part of the prestigious Miller Williams Poetry Series, which is edited by former poet laureate Billy Collins. The title, Ya Te Veo, which translates to “I See You,” is taken from the name of a human-eating plant in J.W. Buel’s 1887 illustrated history, Sea and Land.
“The title, Ya Te Veo, comes from a tree that eats people. It’s obviously not real. A British guy went to Madagascar and claimed he found this tree. It got picked up by a newspaper and circulated. The book is about the difference between the self we present to the world and the self we feel in the interior,” Cunningham says.
“It started as a book-length study of the composer Morton Feldman, which could not be more obscure. Poetry already has a small reading audience, and then [I was] writing about literally the most difficult classical composer of the 20th Century," Cunningham wryly points out.
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But he soon realized his work wasn't as opaque as it might seem. "As I wrote more and more of the book, [I found] I wasn’t really writing poems about Feldman, but he was a way for me to write about myself without declaring it as such [because] I was never good at confessional style poetry... I think the book is a lot about figuring out who you are, and I do that by trying to write through the personas of a bunch of different people. I hope people can connect with it and they find something they resonate with themselves within it."
After all, he says, "[poetry] is all about connection.”
P. Scott Cunningham: Ya Te Veo. 4 p.m. Sunday, March 18, at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables; 305-442-4408; booksandbooks.com. Admission is free.
O, Miami Poetry Festival. Throughout April at various venues around Miami; omiami.org.