The goal of the O, Miami poetry festival is to have each of Miami-Dade County’s 2.6 million residents encounter a poem during this coming April (the cruelest month). It is a lofty goal, to be sure, and to get the ball rolling the University of Wynwood, a fake university with the real mission of weaving contemporary poetry into the fabric of Miami’s everyday life, announced the Miami Poet Census yesterday. UW, which is producing the festival with Knight Foundation funding, wants all of the city’s poets — published or not — to give their names, email addresses, zip codes, and a snippet of verse that says something about them as versifiers. Earlier today I spoke to UW director Scott Cunningham about the O, Miami census and why poetry isn’t like a bowl of oatmeal, among other things.
In your TEDx Miami lecture, you called poetry useless (see below). If it is useless, then why does Miami need a poetry festival?
Even though poetry is useless, I think people still care about it. There’s a lot of things in our lives that are probably useless — practically speaking — that we care about anyway. I’ve been out there doing the poetry thing, planning events and talking about it, for a couple of years now, and pretty much everyone I talk to says something along the lines of, “Oh, I really like poetry. I used to write it, but I haven’t really kept up with it.” Most people have some experience with poetry that is important to them, but for whatever reason it’s been buried and placed in some compartment in their head, which is The Past. So we wanted to design a festival that was specifically catered to people who care about poetry but would probably not come to a poetry reading.
In organizing the festival, have you run into people with competing philosophies about poetry, people who don’t necessarily consider it useless or who don’t think it is meant for mass enjoyment?
Yes and no. Amongst the poets I know here in Miami, there’s definitely competing philosophies. Even here in the office, we argue all the time. I would love for more people to argue about poetry. That’s not the problem. I would love for someone to come along with a competing philosophy because that would mean someone else cares about it. What we’re battling is not aesthetics. It’s people not even thinking about it. It’s not that they are anti-poetry. It’s just not something they even think about, because you don’t encounter it in daily life like you do with film and music and especially art in Miami. These other art forms, you can’t avoid them. Poetry is kind of hidden. I believe it is there — that’s the whole point of this festival. We’re just trying to shed a light on it.
O, Miami will feature a lot of surprises and random acts of culture — along the lines of what you did at the Patti Smith reading. Do you think Miami needs to be taken by surprise in order to embrace poetry?
It’s only partly to do with Miami. I think I would follow this model almost anywhere, because I think people harbor pretty deep-seated misconceptions about poetry. They’ve acquired them in high school, where it was often presented like a bowl of oatmeal. You know, “This is really good for you and, whether you like it or not, you should eat it up.” I think poetry is actually a lot more dynamic than that, especially the contemporary poetry scene. I think people would be surprised with what was out there if they just encountered it. It’s an American thing, but with Miami specifically it’s not just literary events that have this problem. Sports teams have the problem of getting people to attend. The Heat get Lebron James, Wade, and Bosh, and the lower bowl is still half-empty on some nights because people buy season tickets and then they don’t show up. This is the kind of town we live in. People are fickle here in terms of an audience. There’s no way around it.
But you know Miami is definitely in flux. It is excited about becoming a cultural city. In some ways that’s what I think makes Miami better than a San Francisco or a New York or a Boston. I think people are more excited about new cultural events here than they would be elsewhere because they really are hungry for it. That’s been the most fun part about this whole process. Basically everyone I encounter — to a person — wants to help out, wants to spread the word, wants to get involved. I really can’t imagine that happening anywhere else.
What can you tell me about the structure of the festival?
It’s totally decentralized. There’s definitely no central clubhouse or anything like that. We’re going to try to reach existing audiences by putting poetry into the existing infrastructure of Miami. It’s basically finding ways to put it in front of people during occasions in which there would already be some kind of audience. So that means everything from putting poems in bus kiosks to you go to a restaurant and there’s a poem inside your menu or you go to Fairchild Garden and there’s this crazy long-haired poet sitting under a tree. We’re trying to reach 2.6 million people, so to do that you have to go to them. If were were producing events from April 1 to April 30, we would probably only reach a miniscule percentage of the county.
How are you going to keep track of how many people encounter a poem?
I’d love to be able to find some sort of metric to do it. If I did, I’d probably get hired by the government because I think it’s sort of impossible. There’s really no way of knowing how many people saw a bus kiosk — it’s pretty difficult to calculate. But I think we’ll know by the end how much impact it had by how much press it gets and how much buzz goes around. We’ll have a general sense of how successful we were.
What’s the concept behind the Poet Census?
We’re trying to figure out how many poets there are in Miami. And in the same way when you don’t participate in the government census, you’re sort of hurting yourself in that you’re keeping resources from being allocated to you. In the same way, I hope this census is a way for poets to emphasize how culturally important they are to Miami and what a strong group they are in terms of numbers and diversity and where they’re from. In practical terms, I think that could have an impact on cultural services in peoples’ neighborhoods. If I were going to open a bookstore and I saw that there was an unusual number of people who care about poetry in a particular neighborhood, it might make me look twice at it because the neighborhood is under-served. It’s almost identical to the government census in that regard.
But it’s also a fun thing to do, this project where we get people engaged in poetry and give them a chance to be recognized. That’s one of the things that is tough about being a poet sometimes: it can be extremely lonely and there is a lot of rejection. Even super successful poets — before they got name recognition, they got rejected all the time. So this is something where you’re basically instantly accepted regardless of your experience level with poetry or your age or your style. We’re not judging anyone. All we want to know is your name, your email address, roughly where you are from, and this representative verse that you hand in.
Do you have a verse or line of poetry that represents you?
Yeah, I probably do. I’d have to look in my archive of verse.
[Ed: Cunningham eventually emailed me with the following lines of verse from one of his own poems, "Stock Footage".]
The witness found in a nearby ditch
A man’s cheek shaved with a knife
What disturbs the boat’s thin wake
A rocking chair, as viewed by mice
Click HERE to take part in the Miami Poet Census. Follow, poet, follow right.