Culture Compass

Lit Up: O’Miami Festival Spreads Poetry to Surprising Places

‘Twas six years ago didst O, Miami [] decree: unto ev’ry soul in these parts a poem shalt fall. The timespan to effect this grand scheme was a natural selection, April having been anointed National Poetry Month in 1996 when the Academy of American Poets took a page from the commemoration of historical accomplishments by blacks in February and women in March. Educational initiatives for all ages caught on around the globe, drawing overdue attention to a mode of expression under-appreciated by readers resistant to the linguistic charms and challenges inherent in this genre, whose advocates struggle to reclaim even a fraction of the popular esteem and economic clout afforded poets in centuries past.

Still a relative newcomer to the world’s largest literary celebration, O, Miami has set itself apart with an inclusive, unconventional approach to demystifying poetry that keeps expanding its presumed parameters to encompass an ever-widening range of forms, scribes and audiences. Director P. Scott Cunningham, the Boca Raton-bred poet, essayist and translator who founded the nonprofit O’Miami, continues to forge alliances with government agencies, private foundations and independent organizations serving diverse missions and populations. Annual open calls invite any individual or group to propose novel means for bringing verses to the masses and building bridges across divergent fields.

The latest crop of poetry-in-public-places initiatives are now rolling out on such unexpected surfaces as “Poo-etry” bags dispensed in dog-friendly spaces (the brainchild of Stephanie Cornejo of Miami-Dade Parks & Recreation); EASY tickets for rides on the Metro Rail and county buses (a collaboration with Joe Eisenberg and Miami-Dade Transit), and checkout lanes at select Sabor Tropical supermarkets stamped with concise verses about food (Alana Burman’s notion) in Spanish, Creole and English by elementary school students. Wordplay generated in The Sunroom, O, Miami’s ongoing workshops for 3rd- and 4th-graders at three schools in Liberty City, wraps around a “Wheels and Words” bus just unveiled by the Miami-Dade County Department of Transportation and Public Works. Students also share billing with professional authors at unusual sites like 13 Tom Thumb Gas Stations from the Keys to Broward where “Poems by the Gallon” are inked on nozzle attachments designed for advertising, primed by Sandra March to pump eloquent observations into drivers’ minds and tanks.

While first-time sponsors get with the program every season, longtime partners branch out with distinctive twists like Joachim Perez’s hangtags at several Miami Beach boutique hotels requesting “Poetry, Please” and proffering riffs by hometown poets Campbell McGrath, Maureen Seaton and Denise Duhamel on the “Do Not Disturb” and “Privacy, Please” signals guests typically dangle from doorknobs. A consistent hub for travelers attending O’ Miami every year, The Betsy [] hosts renowned authors year-round for readings and discussions that multiply during National Poetry Month. Official festival events on the premises include the enigmatically titled showcase “Instead of Bad News About a Person I Love” uniting three of Britain’s top young bards, Sam Riviere, Sophie Collins and Jack Underwood Thursday, April 13, 8-10 p.m.

Marquee speakers and master workshops are an essential component of all literary gatherings, yet those straightforward offerings can be overshadowed by O, Miami’s imaginative mashups. Standouts from several years ago that still resonate vividly were presented by the New World Symphony and Bas Fisher Invitational [], both premiering works by women this year. “Modern Muses” pairs new pieces by four international young composers with poems connecting varied traditions, from folk and classical to contemporary and improvisation, in an NWS concert at the co-working space CIC Miami [] on Wednesday, April 12, 7-8:30 p.m. The lyrics weave a narrative about exile, home and love that takes on another dimension with the debut of visual art from Miami’s Loren Moore (Miami) and Austin’s Roseminna Watson.

The artist-run nonprofit BFI stages Offerings III on Sunday, April 30, 7-8 pm, in the charged setting of Goulds Park Basketball Courts, marred by memories of tragic clashes that drive home the divisive issues of racial aggression, gun violence and woman’s work. These threads intersect in a site-specific performance by dancers Hattie Mae Williams and Loni Johnson, known to South Floridians as the OMM Sistas, in collaboration with New York-based interdisciplinary artist Jadele McPherson. Joining forces to enact rituals of movement, art and song at O’Miami’s ultimate engagement in 2017, the triumvirate will clear a path to reclaim this troubled territory as a sacred space and renew calls for change.

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