By Hannah Caddell
"To have great poets, there must be great audiences too." Walt Whitman
P. Scott Cunningham arrived at McColl Center before we added Art + Innovation to our name, though the title of Innovator certainly applies to our first Knight Foundation Writer-in-Residence. He spent his time in our bell tower studio with a “pick your poem” activity leaned against the wall and a typewriter centered on his desk. It was June of 2011, right after the inaugural O, Miami Poetry Festival.
The goal of O, Miami, as Cunningham wrote in his original Knight Foundation grant proposal, has been to literally take poetry to the people – every person in Miami-Dade County, to be specific. It’s an ambitious goal.
“We always try to punch above our weight,” Cunningham declares, explaining the fighter-like quality of the festival’s identity.
FROM CHARLOTTE TO MIAMI
O, Miami events take poetry out of its traditional academic setting and hallowed lecture halls, where this art form becomes more accessible and more fitting to Miami itself. It’s also part of Cunningham’s ethos. He employed the technique during his residency at McColl Center as well.
Not satisfied with just holding a reading at our church-turned-arts-center, he mixed music into the experience. His “Side Two: A Live Mixtape” blended a reading of his poems with songs, featuring the likes of MF DOOM and Cat Power, and was one of our highest attended events that summer. Creative events like Cunningham’s “Side Two: A Live Mixtape” at McColl Center are what O, Miami thrives on.
"BRINGING PEOPLE TO THE POETRY"
Four years into the annual poetry festival and I think it’s safe to say that the festival is, indeed, bringing poetry to the masses. There have been poems sewn into tags of shirts sold at second hand stores, an event featured in The Guardian in the festival’s first year.
Last year’s Ode to the Code project asked Miami-Dade residents to write a haiku about their locale whose syllables were determined by the numbers in their zip code.
There have been poems spoken while the Merce Cunningham Dance Company pirouetted and while the New World Symphony’s strings echoed. There have even been poems read by celebrities, including the penultimate creative question mark, James Franco.
When asked if he felt the festival had achieved the goal of making poetry interdisciplinary, Cunningham carefully corrected me, “We haven’t made poetry anything. Poetry was already interdisciplinary. We just try to shine a spotlight on all its amazing qualities.”
It is in spotlighting these unique collaborations where O, Miami has drawn art lovers and poetry newcomers alike. Combined with a PR push, O, Miami had 15% more attendees this year, as well as a distinctly new kind of attendee.
“A segment of the audience was clearly testing us out,” says Cunningham. “You could see it in their faces that going to O, Miami was outside their comfort zone.”
O, Miami is not only bringing poetry to the people, it is also bringing people to the poetry.
THE POET + THE COMMUNITY
So how does one reconcile working as a poet and serving as the administrator of a poetry festival?
“Personally, I like having the balance between the individual work and the community work,” Cunningham explains. “There are ideas that I feel like I can’t express except through the structure of the festival and there are ideas that only come through poems.”
His writing takes a back seat during the festival, but when O, Miami ends he is able to again pick up his pen. His writing endeavors are the work of an individual taking part in an “entire community seeking its identity,” as were the ancient epic poems of The Iliad, Gilgamesh, and Beowulf. Poetry is a reflection of humanity’s yearning for something greater than ourselves, an attempt to puzzle through our existence. Cunningham elaborates, “That’s how I see O, Miami, as an occasion for us to think formally about who we are.”
Though Cunningham misses McColl Center’s bell tower studio, these days he writes his poems by hand, reveling in the creative space that is a French bakery, cliché fully acknowledged, his ballads fueled by too much coffee. He saves the typewriters in his possession - like the one on his desk that I envied in the bell tower at McColl Center - for performances.
His recitations of “Side Two: A Live Mixtape” at McColl Center had me scrambling for a pen to jot down a line from one of Cunningham’s love poems of a sort: “Despite what you’ve been told, falling in love / requires speaking.”
O, Miami seems to be one of Cunningham’s celebratory love poems – verses written to praise the city Cunningham grew up just outside of, the city that he now works to elevate with his craft and the craft of his compatriots in rhyme.
Cunningham’s thoughts on Miami and their acceptance of their eponym, O, Miami?
“I feel lucky to live in a place where my fellow citizens believe in my art form. The people here are used to poetry being huge, mysterious, and important."
©2017 McColl Center
for Art + Innovation