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O, Miami's P. Scott Cunningham Talks Poetry, Roast Pork, and Nazis

​P. Scott Cunningham is the founder of the University of Wynwood and, with a little help from his friends, is launching the first-annual O, Miami poetry festival this month. O, Miami's goal is simple: to poetry bomb the entirety of Miami-Dade county's roughly 2.5 million inhabitants every day for the month of April.
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The poetry mayhem kicks off this Friday with "Eating Your Words." The event will serve up a traditional Cuban buffet including roast pork, seafood paella, rice, beans, manduros and other treats while featuring a reading by award winning poet Tracy K. Smith. Lechon and a poetry recital from a diverse talent like Tracy K. Smith by the bay? O, yes!  We spoke with Scott and got the scoop on O, Miami.

New Times: What sparked the idea for O Miami?

P. Scott Cunningham: My professor from grad school, Campbell McGrath, had the idea to do a poetry festival in Miami years ago. We'd talked about it informally once or twice, but the idea really got going when Alberto Ibargüen, President of Knight Foundation, who made all of this possible, got involved. He had just been to the Dodge Festival in Newark and he came back and asked me why weren't we, the University of Wynwood, doing something similar in Miami? And I didn't have a good answer as to why not. From there we started to brainstorm: what would a Miami poetry festival look like? By which I think we immediately understood--it wouldn't look like a poetry festival from anywhere else. After we pitched the idea, Knight got fully behind it immediately.

What is the ultimate objective of O Miami?

For every single person in Miami-Dade County to encounter a poem during the month of April 2011. So 30 days to get a poem in front of roughly 2.5 million people. I have no idea whether we can do it, but with 34 events, 23 projects, and four languages, I think we have a decent shot. All things considered, it's probably more likely than the Dolphins winning the Super Bowl next year, unfortunately.

Why does poetry matter?

Everything we think and do is subject to language. There's no politics without language, no sports, no Internet. But language isn't a fixed entity. It's incredibly fluid. That's why Shakespeare's plays are difficult to understand at first, and why your grandmother can't understand a single thing Lil Wayne says. We like to pretend that the purpose of language is communication, but if so, shouldn't we have regulated it better by now? People, i.e. Nazis, have tried, but it's an impossible goal. People naturally stretch language past itself. We make up nicknames for each other. We take perfectly good words and shorten them or otherwise alter them to make them new. We invert syntax. We even pronounce things differently. And this is the root of poetry, which is this playfulness raised to the level of art. So it matters because it's part of who we are and it's pleasurable.

The other reason is that poetry is also where we explore the meaning of things that exist outside of language. Which is sort of counter-intuitive, especially given what I just said about poetry as play. If poetry is where language is the strangest, where we take our natural inclination to shape words to its extreme, how can it also be the place where things like meaning and truth are parsed? I can't answer that, but I know it's true. I believe that without poetry we can't understand ourselves. On a phenomenological level--to use my grad school reading list for once in my life-- without poetry, we don't exist.

What are some of the more creative ways you plan on getting poetry out to the masses this month?

Former New Times freelancer Dave Landsberger is renting a convertible Ferrari to drive around Miami Beach and read poetry out of a bullhorn. He has a Kickstarter for this project, and if you don't help him fund it, you're pretty much a fan of Britto and Rex Ryan and all the other sworn enemies of Miami.

Also, thanks to Miami-Dade County and the Poetry Society of America. we're putting poems on buses in English, Spanish, and Creole. And in nature. Both the Everglades Naitonal Park and Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens have sponsored efforts to display poems for visitors.

But my favorite is probably that we've rented space on those banners behind airplanes that fly up and down Miami Beach, and we're going to be putting short excerpts from classic poems on them. One is from "The Archaic Torso of Apollo" by the German poet Rilke, and the line just says, "You must change your life." I hope this message really hits home for all the people who cut me off on their way to the beach. 

This is kind of a huge undertaking.

Have you ever heard that clip of Christian Bale chewing out a gaffer on set? It's pretty much just like that.

No, really, man, it's boring. It's just a ton of emails and phone calls. The fun part is meeting and collaborating with great people all over Miami. I feel really lucky that we're doing this in a town where everyone has been so supportive and cooperative.

O, Miami's kicks off this Friday with Eating Our Words at Boater's Grill (1200 Crandon Blvd., Key Biscayne; 305-361-0080) Festivities start at 7:00 p.m. Admission is $30 ($20 for students). Visit omiami.org for reservations. 

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