Knight Blog

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

Building a better poetry festival

March 21, 2013, 7:08 a.m., Posted by Brett Sokol

The following is Part 2 of O, Miami: How a festival infused a city with poetry. Click here for Part 1 or Part 3

“We wanted to saturate the city with poetry, to create moments of rupture in someone’s day.”

That's how P. Scott Cunningham explained the charged mission of his O, Miami poetry festival. For its month-long debut in April 2011, the ambitious goal was nothing less than introducing every single one of greater Miami’s 2.5 million residents to a poem.


Interactive Report:

Downloadable Report:
O, Miami Report PDF

“We didn’t want to just rally the existing audience,” Cunningham says. “That would be unsatisfying.” Moreover, with a grant from Knight Foundation in hand, Cunningham wanted to fully embrace Knight’s ethos of “recontextualizing art for a new audience.” Of course, finding a new local audience for poetry wasn’t simply an option — it was a necessity. Miami’s die-hard poetry crowd was far too small to support a traditionally-modeled festival.

“The poetry world has expanded dramatically, but it’s still a closed circuit,” observes Billy Collins, a former U.S. poet laureate and arguably the most commercially successful poet writing today. “If you go to a hip art gallery show, most of the people there aren’t painters — they’re people who dig art.” By way of contrast, he invokes New Jersey’s bi-annual Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. In terms of sheer crowd size, he continues, it’s a success. “But even at the Dodge, where 20,000 people attend, I’d suggest that over 18,000 are either poets or wannabe poets. If you went to the opera and everyone in the audience was dressed up as Brunhilda, or if you went to the ballet and everyone in the audience had their tutus on, that’s the real trouble with American poetry.”

Which begs the question: Given poetry’s hermetically-sealed state, why even bother funding a full-fledged Miami poetry festival? Why not simply add a few more poets to the already-established annual Miami Book Fair? Those are fighting words for Cunningham.

 “Poetry matters now more than ever,” he insists. “We live in a world that is hyper-saturated with text. It’s all around you, all the time, whether it’s being online, using Twitter, or sending a text message.

O, Miami: How a festival infused a city with poetry

March 20, 2013, 7:41 a.m., Posted by Brett Sokol

The following is Part 1 of O, Miami: How a festival infused a city with poetry. Click here for Part 2 and Part 3.

“There’s a line from James Joyce which always stays with me,” explains Alberto Ibargüen, president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. It’s a snippet he reminds himself of whenever a sea of incoming data and policy papers begins to blur Knight’s central mission of promoting “informed and engaged” communities.

“Yes, the newspapers were right: Snow was general that day in Ireland,” Ibargüen recites, quoting from Joyce’s 1914 short story The Dead, in which a surprise blanket of white suddenly seems both otherworldly and as ubiquitous as the air itself. And the line’s present-day significance?

“I want people to say art was general in Miami.”

Ten years ago, such a wish would likely have inspired a round of snickers — not least from Miamians themselves. South Florida was internationally renowned for a host of dubious accomplishments — from surreal political scandals to a louche nightlife. But a thriving arts scene?


Interactive Report:

Downloadable Report:
O, Miami Report PDF

Indeed, for decades it seemed like Miami just couldn’t catch a break. Artists Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude certainly captured the public imagination for a moment in 1983 with their Surrounded Islands – encircling eleven Biscayne Bay islands with over six miles of hot-pink fabric. Yet that delightful rupture with reality was soon overshadowed by the return of Miami’s status as a city with one of the highest murder rates in the country: It was Scarface which symbolized Miami in the popular imagination, not free-thinking artistes.

In the nineties it was the renaissance of South Beach from an Art Deco slum into “Soho by the Sea,” which grabbed headlines. But amidst all the flashbulb-lit partying, it was hard to tell what truly meaningful cultural activities were unfolding. Meanwhile, across the Bay, a new wave of Cuban-exiles staked their own cultural claims on the city. But those efforts often became painfully entangled with political tensions over supposed affinities with the Castro regime across the Florida Straits.

That same two-steps-forward, one-step-back spirit held sway over Miami’s established cultural organizations. The Miami City Ballet and the New World Symphony both offered stellar performances, but also seemed like the city’s best kept secrets. True, the Miami Book Fair grew in size, scope, and stature — but its success only threw the surrounding terrain into stark relief: Tens of thousands turned out for the Book Fair each November, so where were these enthused intellectuals the rest of the year?

Bringing art to people: 8 ways a cultural event can transcend genre, geography and demographics

March 19, 2013, 10:30 a.m., Posted by Scott Cunningham

By P. Scott Cunningham, founder, O, Miami Festival

Three years ago, I and a group of friends started to dream up what a lot of people considered impossible: a festival that would bring poetry to all 2.6 million residents of Greater Miami.

At that time, Miami’s cultural scene was exploding. Art Basel was in full force, and we wanted to do a festival that was the opposite of the “pipe-and-blazer” readings that most people associate with poetry. We wanted to do a festival that reflected Miami’s diversity and personality.


Interactive Report:

Downloadable Report:
O, Miami Report PDF

Knight Foundation had just finished the first round of its famous “Random Acts of Culture” and we liked how those events turned everyday events into cultural occasions. What if did something like that? What if we did it every day for a month?

And that’s how O, Miami was born. In the poetry festival’s first year, we did 45 events and 19 projects in a 30-day span, and almost none of them had a recognizable headliner. (You can get a taste for it in a new report being published this week.)

As we head into our second full incarnation of the festival on April 1, we wanted to share a few of the things we learned about engaging new audiences and creating a cultural event that transcends geography, genre, and demographics.

1. The Internet is your friend, if you let it be: By the “Internet” I don’t mean your festival’s website; I’m referring to how festivals utilize the content they create. Archiving your events is nice, but no one wants to watch a static video of a performance. All it does is remind the viewer that he or she wasn’t there. Think about what travels on the web: short videos that are entertaining and self-explanatory. As we’re planning the actual events for O, Miami, we treat web-only content as its own event that we budget for just like any other. For example, in 2011 we did a project with an artist named Agustina Woodgate in which she went into Miami thrift stores and sewed poems into random items of clothing. The video we made from that project, below, got picked up by The Guardian  and Time Magazine  and communicates the spirit of the festival in a way we could never explain in an interview.