Posted April 6, 2021
By CAROLENE KURIEN
Every April, poetry appears in Miami-Dade County in the most unsuspecting of places: coat tags, gas station handles, urinals and school buses.
Some call it magic, some say it’s the ghost of Pablo Neruda himself, but Miami-Dade residents know it’s the work of O, Miami Poetry Festival, an annual, month-long festival in Miami-Dade.
O, Miami strives to have every person in Miami-Dade encounter a poem between April 1 and April 30.
This goal is achieved through a variety of creative projects and events, like placing poetry “parking tickets” under windshield wipers or having barbershop patrons read poems out loud in exchange for free haircuts.
Each year of the festival brings something new and exciting, but 2021 is particularly special as it marks O, Miami’s 10th anniversary.
P. Scott Cunningham, founder and executive director of O, Miami, reminisced about the festival’s journey over the past 10 years.
“I’m still kind of like, in shock by what was accomplished,” said Cunningham. “I’ve definitely had many moments where I’ve realized that it’s bigger than I ever intended it to be, which is another version of saying it doesn’t belong to me anymore, which is the joy of it.”
Melody Santiago Cummings, director of Development and Communications at O, Miami, echoed Cunningham’s sentiments.
“I’ve had a lot of moments that I’m like oh my god, this is incredible. I feel so privileged to be here, let alone have played a role in the creation of this moment,” said Cummings.
Normally, it would be safe to assume that after 10 years, O, Miami would have a huge celebration in honor of its major milestone. But, as Cummings stated, the pandemic has put a damper on any large, celebratory events the festival would have planned.
“If you had asked me three years ago, even two years ago, I’d be like ‘hey, it’s gonna be a blast.’ I would have easily, easily been like ‘alright, this is my year, I’m gonna get a t-shirt cannon.’ We would have probably done something silly and big,” said Cummings.
Though there may not be any t-shirt cannons in the works, Cunningham made it clear that there are still exciting events planned for the month.
One such event is called Poems at The Underline, where O, Miami partnered with The Underline to display poems written by Miami residents on a large LED screen in downtown Brickell. From April 23-25, Miamians can visit the Sound Stage at The Underline’s Promenade between 8 and 10 p.m. to read their fellow community members’ poems.
The reading of the last issue of Jai-Alai Magazine, O, Miami’s literary magazine, is another event that both Cunningham and Cummings expressed their excitement for.
Cunningham created Jai-Alai with the intention that the magazine would “go extinct”’ after ten issues.
“That was originally just like a comment on literary magazines in general — like, you know, they all die. So, let’s embrace that, let’s not run from it,” said Cunningham.
April 30 will mark the end of the magazine’s run and will also be O, Miami’s last festival event for the year. The final issue of Jai-Alai will feature 31 poems by elementary school children from O, Miami’s partner schools. These poems will be accompanied by an additional 31 poems written by professional poets in response to a specific child’s poem.
These professionals include prominent poets in the field of contemporary poetry, like Kevin Young, Ross Gay, Lillian Yvonne Bertram, and Jaswinder Bolina, a professor of poetry at the University of Miami.
“It was so funny ‘cause when Scott [Cunningham] invited me [to write], there was a line in the email that said, ‘try not to be dunked on by one of the kids,’ and sure enough, I got this third grader’s poem, and it was so good. It was such a perfect, pithy, little poem. I wrote [Cunningham] back, and I’m like, ‘I’m getting dunked on,’” said Bolina.
Bolina is not the only one who expressed his awe for children’s work.
“I would 1,000 times, 1,000 times over, rather have youth poets than willingly go to an evening poetry reading with seasoned adults that have maybe like, three books out. Like great, those events have to happen, that matters, and that’s the big world for a lot of people, but the real good stuff to me is the kids and those unexpected encounters,” said Cummings.
Unexpected encounters with poetry is what O, Miami is all about, as Christell Victoria Roach, a graduate student in poetry at the University of Miami, can attest.
Roach is a longtime Miami-Dade resident whose writing journey started in high school, the same year as the first O, Miami festival.
“I think that, especially like, starting out as a writer at the same time as this festival, they really got me into thinking about poetry as more than just an English class,” said Roach.
Roach especially admires the zip ode, a five-line, original poetry form invented by O, Miami and the public radio station WLRN. The zip ode challenges Miami-Dade residents to write a poem about their zip code, in which the numbers of their zip code determine the number of words in each line of the five-line poem.
“At my school one time, we did the zip code poems. I remember submitting that and that was one of my first publishings,” said Roach.
To Roach, the zip odes represent O, Miami’s appreciation of all the little pockets of Miami, all the neighborhoods and towns that typically go unnoticed.
“[It’s] almost like the whole No Child Left Behind. Like, No Miamian Left Behind-type attitude,” said Roach.
“No Miamian Left Behind” is an accurate description of O, Miami’s dedication to the Miami-Dade community. In fact, Cummings was brought on board to the O, Miami team eight years ago not because she had a background in poetry or creative writing, but because she had what was arguably an even bigger asset: a knowledge of the Miami community.
“[My] most prominent skill was that I understood Miami and spoke the language of Miami, and so I think that made me the ideal candidate,” said Cummings.
Over and over, the O, Miami team reiterates that its intention is not to bring poetry to Miami, but to emphasize the poetry that is already there.
“You don’t need to deliver poetry to Miami; it already exists out there. And the festival is really a poetry discovery system, or a way to create a platform for existing poetries to sort of come to the surface,” said Cunningham.
Allowing poetry to come to the surface is what makes O, Miami’s projects and events approachable. As Bolina stated, there are two worlds of poetry historically: the “academic, page poetry,” and the “performance, stage poetry.”
According to Bolina, what’s special about O, Miami is that it does not create a competition between the two worlds—it allows poetry to simply exist, without any explanation or division.
“It’s sort of taken poetry and made it feel like it’s just something that’s a part of your world, you know, like a street sign. And it’s just right,” said Bolina.
Throughout all of O, Miami’s endeavors, Cunningham wants to make one thing clear: the O, Miami team puts their whole hearts into the creation of the festival and hopes that others can share in their love for poetry and the Miami-Dade community.
“We have a lot of joy in making it, and I think that’s the heart of it, is that it’s a joyful experience for us, and that’s what we hope comes across for sure.”
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