In 2012, we were learning "Gangnam Style" and fuming over Mitt Romney's "binders full of women." In the midst of that madness — on public buses, restaurant menus, beach advertising banners, and blasting out of cruising Ferraris — Miami had poems. And for the last seven Aprils, O, Miami Poetry Festival has attempted to create encounters between every Miami resident and a form of poetry during National Poetry Month.
According to P. Scott Cunningham, O, Miami's founder, the festival has evolved over the last eight years as it's gotten closer to achieving its goal. As more people ran into or willingly sought out O, Miami's events, organizers learned how to charm, surprise, and engage people.
"If we’re asking you to come to something — and in this day and age, asking someone to leave their house or apartment is a big thing — we want to be involved in it and we want to make sure it’s something that feels like O, Miami," Cunningham says.
And while that means straying from traditional poetry, sometimes to the point that people might not even recognize it as such, there's still a poetic core to the festival.
"Not everything has to have a reading," Cunningham explains, "but everything has to have the intimacy that poetry makes when it’s working."
Building intimacy with a city like Miami isn't easy. It's the kind of place where you're more likely to get a heavily doctored selfie than a portrait of the human soul. So maybe the festival gets a little flashy sometimes, as with the large sculpture being erected in the middle of Robert Is Here April 3, or a campaign to get Drake to tweet a poem before April 30. But a huge part of the vetting process for O, Miami events
"There’s always a point where we think we know it all," Cunningham says. "And then we realize, no, we don’t know everything. But it’s the not knowing that’s the fun part. There is so much to [Miami]... it’s an onion with an infinite amount of layers and we’ll never get to the center of it."
As the festival has matured and seen more of the city, its relationship to it, like any relationship, has become more intimate. Miami reveals more and more of itself to Cunningham and O, Miami organizers, bringing forth narratives both surprising and poignant. A dinner with poet Ishion Hutchinson at Naomi's Garden Kitchen & Lounge will explore the intersections and traditions of Indo-Caribbean cuisine on April 20. Early in the morning on the same day, a beach walk with poem-embossed sandals will implicate Miami's beaches as national borders subject to the same scrutiny and complication as land-based ones.
Along with the new territory being explored, projects from previous years are returning. You may be annoyed and/or delighted to find that the parking ticket on your car is actually a poem, or challenge yourself to write an ode to your zip code. Workshops are also a growing festival feature, covering genres from memoir and hybrid prose to plants and journal-making.
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"Whenever we’ve done a little special workshop where people can explore their artistic selves in different ways, people have always told us, ‘Hey, do more of that,’" Cunningham says. "I think that goes back to that intimacy idea — we’re not hitting huge numbers of people when we’re doing that stuff, but when people go through an experience like that they really value it."
If you're new to Miami, perhaps you'll show up for O, Miami this year hoping to get retweeted by Drake. But stick around and you may find the opportunity to discover neighborhoods, cultures and subcultures, histories, and tenderness you haven't seen before. Because even as the poetry festival approaches a decade of yearly programming, it keeps finding ways to get closer to Miami.
"One of the questions I get asked a lot is, ‘What are you looking forward to this year?’" Cunningham says. "When it’s all over, when I look back,
O, Miami Poetry Festival. Throughout April at various venues around Miami; omiami.org.