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O, Miami's Poetry in the Park Mixes the Personal and Public

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Poetry in the Park, the crown jewel of O, Miami, is back at SoundScape Park for its second year bringing the masses the written word. This year, the unintentional theme of the event seems to examine the intimate versus the public.

Attendees will be surrounded by poetry, including “O, Hi There,” a project created by Reading Queer. The project will put folks up close and personal with poets and their work thanks to the idea of “cruising culture.”

José A. Villar-Portela, the programming director of Reading Queer, explained more about how cruising culture served as inspiration for “O, Hi There.” “The project itself takes cruising, which is a longstanding…mostly queer tradition of using public spaces in order to cruise for sex…walking up and down a street, looking for sex in public,” he says.

Looking back to cruising culture is a way for Reading Queer to take a look at what could be in the future for queer politics. [T]hat moment of queer history, this moment of pre-AIDS sexuality before the recoil effect AIDS had on queer exploration and sexuality—that moment’s important to us,” he said. “It signals the future of the queer politics we’d like to see. One that isn’t knocking on the door of heteronormativity asking to be let in, but is more concerned with [the idea of] now that we’ve been cast out, what can we make new? What else can we imagine is possible?”

The cruising inspiration also seemed like a good way to interject poetry at a very personal level. “We’ve [used] that dynamic of a public sex encounter, which is paradoxical. It’s an intimate encounter in a public space,” says Villar-Portela. “We were interested in that because Poetry in the Park is such a public engagement with poetry, which is unusual…[P]art of the success of O, Miami has been bringing poetry outside of that [collegiate, stuffy] space. We were interested in seeing how we could create an intimate encounter with poetry in what is otherwise a very public encounter with the genre. For us, the perfect model for that is cruising in the sense that people will engage these…poems from local poets on a very personal basis.”
Throughout the day, performers affiliated with Reading Queer will solicit parkgoers to listen to poems specifically recorded for the event by the poets themselves. The solicitation not only exposes regular Joes and Janes to poetry on an intimate level, but it also introduces them to the wide range of poets that live in Miami.  

Villar-Portela says that the “O, Hi There” provides the counterpoint to the very public readings occurring during Poetry in the Park. “What’s the closest you can get to a poem other than having the poet there approach you[?]” he said “…We thought the closest you can get is to have people engage with a poem on a one-on-one level. At the moment they’re being cruised, this audience member will have sole and exclusive access to this poet and this poem.”

As alluded to by Villar-Portela, “O, Hi There” is acting as a counterbalance to the highlight of the night, the Wallcast presentation featuring former Poet Laureate Kay Ryan and 2013 Beatrice Hawley Award winner Jamaal May reading their work on the New World Symphony’s 7,000 square foot wall.

P. Scott Cunningham, the director of O, Miami, said the two were chosen because of their unique similarities and differences. Again, it’s a focus of counterbalances. “For me, what I love about [Ryan’s] work is that she writes these incredibly compressed poems. They have no ‘I’ in them,” he said. “…It’s sort of like if you found them in the desert, carved in marble. [You’d say] ‘Here’s the truth of the world; I found it on these tablets.’ That’s what they feel like to me.” Cunningham also called Ryan “one of the wisest poets” and “one of the best five American poets alive right now.” Ryan, said Cunningham, is “able to talk about big subjects without losing the personality… she never sounds grandiose. To be able to do that and not sound grandiose is really impressive.”

“Jamaal is a much younger poet,” he said of May. “[H]e’s from Detroit, he has one book out, he’s still sort of emerging…He writes much more talkative poems that are also intellectual, but you feel the propulsive [quality] of his brain working through the poem, really creating a lot of energy and forward momentum in the poem so that the ideas and the words are accelerating[.]” Both poets, though, are able to transport the listener into their thought processes. “They’re both very cerebral,” said Cunningham. “They’re both really, really smart poets who know how to say really smart things in a way that you feel like you’re in their heads.”

The difference in approach and styles is something that Cunningham hopes will bring passers-by into the park to listen. “I want to pick [readers] for…that random person who’s walking by to be like, ‘Who is that person?’…I love that you can pull in the random person,” he said when discussing how the event’s openness allows both parkgoers and bystanders to take in a poetry reading. “…[E]ven if they listen to one poem, it’s so cool for people who are just walking by to be able to experience that.” 

Even though the event is taking place in an open space, the reading itself still feels like an intimate reading. Cunningham said some of why O, Miami is so successful is because “it’s environment [of SoundScape Park] combined with the intimacy of a poetry reading.” Usually, poetry readings are in small spaces with great acoustics, he said. “The sound system at New World is so insanely good [that] you get that level of intimacy that you would get in a very small space with great acoustics, but you also get that feeling of being outdoors in a big crowd,” he said. “The combination of those two things at once is rare.”

Poems are the order of the day at Poetry in the Park, but there will also be music performance by the SPAM All-Stars featuring string musicians from the Sam Hyken Orchestra and an MDC Live Arts performance of Acoustic Bicycle featuring musician and composer Taylor Ho Bynum and a group of Peddling Poets showcasing a fusion of poetry and music. Of course, there will be even more poetry on hand with featured poets Michele Jessica Fievre, Adrian Castro, Jen Karetnick, Geoffrey Philp, and Michael Hettich.

Poetry in the Park takes place Apr. 12 between 4 p.m. and 9 p.m, with the Wallcast poetry reading occurring at 7:45 p.m. The event is free to the public; visit omiami.org. 

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