The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Dec 13, 2010

Patti Smith Interrupts Her Own Poetic Tribute at Miami Book Fair

Posted by P. Scott Cunningham

By P. Scott Cunningham/ Founder O,Miami

On Nov. 19th, I was introducing Patti Smith at the Miami Book Fair when I was unexpectedly interrupted by…Patti Smith.

The crowd saw her first—she’d walked on stage behind me—and some people began cheering as soon as they saw her long hair and cowboy boots. Others looked as confused as I was. At this point, I was barely half-way through my introduction. Should I leave? Finish what I’d prepared? I had no idea what to do.

Mitchell Kaplan had asked me to introduce Patti because this April I’m directing a brand-new poetry festival called O, Miami. The project is funded by Knight Foundation and designed in the spirit of Patti’s interdisciplinary career. Mixing poetry-in-public places with traditional readings, O, Miami will attempt to deliver a poem to every single resident of Miami-Dade County during the month of April 2011.

So my job was to announce the festival, and then announce Patti. When my project manager, Peter Borrebach, and I planned the announcement, we decided to do something that paid homage to Patti’s influence on the design of O, Miami, and over the course of three weeks, we recruited 100 people to secretly plant themselves in the audience in order to stand and read an Arthur Rimbaud poem at the end of my intro. All 100 people were ready to go. We’d hired a film crew to capture the moment, but here was Patti Smith, already on stage.

Sensing my hesitation, she whispered to me, “You can keep going,” and then went and sat in the first row. After announcing my intention to pay homage to Patti’s poetic roots, I began reading Rimbaud’s “Vowels.” To my delight, my fellow participants began standing and joining in as we’d rehearsed it: just a few at first, and then in larger and larger bunches.

When it was over, people were cheering but I had no idea how Patti had received our gesture. Like the rock legend she is, Patti immediately launched into her performance.

Reading short passages from her National Book Award-winning memoir Just Kids interspersed with acoustic songs, Patti communicated the full range of her artistic abilities to the crowd, in addition to recreating a life the rest of us can only dream about.

Her words brought legends like Allen Ginsberg, Richard Hell, and of course, Robert Mapplethorpe back to life, as she seamlessly wove her miniature narratives into a larger lyrical thread.

And just when I thought she would finish without acknowledging O, Miami’s poetic homage, she brought it up while introducing her final number, an a capella rendition of “Because the Night.”

“That was really cool,” she said about our Random Act of Culture®. “I’d never seen anything like that. It was fitting for the subtext of our Rimbaudian evening.”

Then, with her left boot, she began tapping out the rhythm of “Because the Night” and instantly reminding us why we’d come.

We sang. We cried. We hugged. (Some of us, I heard later, even made out.) No one left without feeling they’d just witnessed something inexpressively beautiful.

O, Miami indeed.

P. Scott Cunningham is the founder and director of O, Miami: A country-wide poetry festival debuting in April 2011, thanks to support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. For more, visit


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