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Annual O, Miami poetry festival spreading the word

As part of last year’s O, Miami festival, Jose Marti (or at least local actor Ivan Lopez as the Cuban hero) rode a white horse down Eighth Street in Miami handing out white roses and stopping to recite poetry along the way.
As part of last year’s O, Miami festival, Jose Marti (or at least local actor Ivan Lopez as the Cuban hero) rode a white horse down Eighth Street in Miami handing out white roses and stopping to recite poetry along the way.

This year’s O, Miami takes the road less traveled — or at least it will try to.

Starting with a boat trip down the Miami River on Wednesday, with forays into Little Haiti, the far reaches of Kendall and out onto Biscayne Bay, the poetry festival — now in its fourth year — is working even harder to complete its mission: to help everyone in Miami encounter a poem in April.

“We’re always trying to reach areas traditionally under served,” says P. Scott Cunningham, founder of the monthlong event that runs in conjunction with National Poetry Month. “We did a study last year ... and we used that data and our own data to see where we’ve done poetry projects in public places. We look at that and say, ‘Where are the holes? How do we hit this zip code?’”

O, Miami will rear its lyrical head in popular cultural areas, too, of course, with such events as readings by Kay Ryan and Jamaal May at Poetry in the Park at New World Symphony and Soundscape Park in Miami Beach April 12 and the April 30 closing night event Piano Slam 7, which pairs classical musicians, hip hop and youth poets at the Adrienne Arsht Center.

But as always, O, Miami revels in the offbeat. Writing workshops by land (Miami Beach and Kendall) and by sea (Biscayne Bay). A poetry texting workshop. A dog-friendly version of Bookleggers’ mobile book exchange called Dogleggers, at which your pet can score a bandana with an Emily Dickinson verse on it. An open-mic night on the important subject of chocolate. A musical/dance/poetry performance based on Muhammad Ali’s years in Miami. Shows by the Chicago-based Manual Cinema, which blends shadow puppetry and the works of Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca (one of Cunningham’s most anticipated events). Murinals, which are exactly what you think they are: urinals enlivened by artwork (sadly, a male-only project — or maybe, considering the restroom habits of many guys, that’s not so sad, after all).

Former Rolling Stone writer Nathan Deuel author of Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East, says such unconventional concepts are what made him want to be part of this year’s festival.

“The idea you could sew poems on a T-shirt [at a thrift shop] or hire a skywriter to write poems or have a guy on a white horse with a megaphone going down the street was so great to me,” he says. “It’s making poetry tactile and part of our lives.”

Deuel, who grew up near the Falls and took public transportation every day to Design and Architecture High School, will lead two walking writing workshops, one through the trendy streets of South Beach, another along the roads of ... Kendall?

Yes. Kendall.

“My early idea of how to be a literary citizen of a city came from passing through as a walker or user of transport. I learned the beauty and practice of noticing all the things you won’t notice if you’re driving past at 80 miles an hour,” he says. “Kendall is sort of this punchline. When I was growing up anyone from Kendall was sort of ashamed of it. But maybe we’ll see half a dozen things that add up to a story we can all write together. ... There are only two kinds of stories: Our hero goes on an adventure or a stranger comes to town. We are the heroes proceeding through the strange land of Kendall. Maybe we’ll see an alligator in a canal. Maybe lightning will flash over the Everglades. Maybe some gang guys drive by in a dropped Honda Accord and throw soda cans at us.”

Poet Michael Hettich, author of Systems of Vanishing, will lead a potentially wetter workshop: He’ll paddle with writers out on Biscayne Bay via kayak.

“I’ve done a lot of workshops where we hike or sit outside someplace,” he says. “I thought it would be perfect to do while kayaking. There’s a physical response to the water, very much related to the response we feel when we walk. It’s related to the cadence and rhythm we use when we work on poems — we listen so carefully to the physical information our bodies are giving us.”

Ana Maria Caballero’s Poetry Parlor requires a bit more stealth. She’ll sneak poetry in English, Spanish and Creole into magazines at beauty parlors in Key Biscayne, Coconut Grove and Little Haiti.

“I was thinking about places where you’re captive,” she says. “The idea is for someone getting their hair done to encounter it and hopefully read it. I picked poetry that’s very accessible, not what you were forced to read in high school.”

Her plan fits nicely with one of O, Miami’s biggest aims: to remind people that poetry is there for all of us.

“To have poems on the sides of buses, on the tails of the airplanes that go up and down the beach, all of that goes to making art general,” says Alberto Ibargüen, president and CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the primary sponsor of O, Miami. “Poetry shouldn’t be viewed as some esoteric activity that only happens in a classroom or happens with some sort of super intellectual understanding. Poetry is the expression of feelings that all of us have. It should be available to everybody.

“The arts help us to connect with each other; it’s a critically important part of creating community. We took as a goal making art general, something everyone would experience, so that we become accustomed to this being part of the Miami experience.”

Agreeing that O, Miami helps bring the community together, Cunningham adds that the events are most successful the more the community participates.

“O, Miami works best when we throw it open,” he says. “We solicit projects, and people come up with insanely awesome ideas. It makes it so much more fun, and the impact is so much greater.”

So maybe next year O, Miami will make it to a truly remote and nonpoetic part of the county — say, the Palmetto Expressway?

“Curses are also a form of poetry,” Cunningham says, laughing.

If you go

O, Miami runs Wednesday through April 30 with various events and projects throughout the month. Visit omiami.org for a full schedule.

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