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.
“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.