O, Miami Poetry Festival set to slam the streets of Miami

03/30/2014 12:00 AM

03/30/2014 7:48 AM

Miami, get your best words ready. Poetry is about to bloom again, in the park, on the wall, in the photo booth, at the bar — and other unexpected places.

April marks the start of the O, Miami Poetry Festival, which means a whole lot of people will be trying hard to make you encounter a poem as you go about your day (or night). It may come in the form of a lottery ticket or a selfie. One way or another, you will participate.

Sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and in its third year, the festival is now an annual event, which organizers hope will help it grow.

“Obviously it’s more work,” says founder P. Scott Cunningham, who’s also the creator of the nonprofit arts organization University of Wynwood. “But we realized for it to be something people look forward to on the cultural calender, it had to happen every year. ... Just to establish poetry as one of the things people are thinking about in Miami is a big step.”

And think about it you will. You have no choice. There’s no escaping the diabolical reach of O, Miami, which has flown lines of poetry over the beach, sewn poems into thrift-store clothing and asked people stuck in line at the DMV to read poetry on camera.

This year, José Martí — not the real one, though that would be amazing — will ride down Calle Ocho on a white horse distributing roses and poems. The Edgewater Poetry & Athletics Club, a two-story house on Biscayne Boulevard, will act as a hub for literary gatherings, readings, yoga, meditation, pick-up basketball and zine fairs. A literary pub crawl will begin at The Betsy Hotel and wind through the streets of South Beach to Club Deuce. Designated drivers are a good idea.

Alcohol is a minor theme; Charles Bukowski would approve. As part of this year’s Poet-in-Residence program, Gramp’s Bar in Wynwood will host 30 one-day residencies in which Miami poets get the last stool at the end of the bar, where they can perch, ruminate and write poems on cocktail napkins. For each poem, the writer gets a beer (designated drivers aren’t a bad idea here, either). The public is welcome — encouraged, even — to interact.

“It’s another way of breaking down that fourth wall between poets and the world,” Cunningham says.

For Poetry in the Park, the festival partners with New World Symphony and the city of Miami Beach for a free, live poetry reading in Soundscape Park. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass and National Book Award-winner Nikky Finney will be projected reading their works at the first poetry Wallcast. There will also be music, games and other performances.

Perhaps watching poets read aloud will inspire audiences to try Poetry Karaoke, created by Annik Adey-Babinski, a Florida International University student. At Poetry Karaoke, ambitious fans can read works by popular authors — among them Shakespeare, Pablo Neruda, Shel Silverstein, Denise Duhamel and Richard Blanco — with the words projected on a screen for them, just like in karaoke.

“My goal is to help people who don’t read poetry feel more comfortable reading poetry,” says Adey-Babinski. “I feel like poetry has been marginalized in the general culture. It’s something that’s thought of as elitist or ivory tower. This is an important way of showing people there’s a lot of spirit and joy in poetry. It’s not just for someone studying for a PhD.”

That concept of poetry-for-the-people will continue at SPEAKtacular, at which young poets from the Jason Taylor Foundation’s Omari Hardwick bluapplePoetry Network will perform amid musicians, dancers and visual artists, everyone creating together.

The performance showcases the idea of community in the arts, says Darius Daughtry, who organized SPEAKtacular with Ashley M. Jones. (Both are — you guessed it — poets.)

“O, Miami helps bring this work of the people back to the people that it’s made for,” Daughtry says. “We’re taking it away from academia and putting it in our students’ hands and giving them a voice to show that yeah, this is something that matters to us.”

So yes. In a community where the arts are blooming like roses (which are red) and violets (which are blue), O, Miami is eager to engage the populace. But it also has another goal in mind: establishing new grounds for putting Miami on the cultural map.

“It’s one piece of making Miami a culturally viable place in our eyes but also in the eyes of everyone else,” says Willie Avendano, an artist and programmer who created “Self-itry,” a D.I.Y. photo booth you may see around town that takes your picture and spits it out with a poem superimposed on it, based on questions you answer Buzzfeed-style. “I grew up here and lived in New York for five years. When I came back, it was a different place. ... It’s inspiring to see all these different opportunities, different foundations supporting the betterment of culture. It’s exciting.”

Hopefully, the festival “becomes commonplace, like ‘The book fair’s coming up’ or ‘Art Basel is coming up,’ ” Cunningham says. “That’s the first step, and we’re doing that. I think we’ve done things that successfully reach people who aren’t going to PAMM or the Arsht Center, people outside that cultural life. When the festival’s doing that on a regular basis, that’s when I’m going to feel excited.”

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