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How the O, Miami Poetry Festival has become a loudspeaker for what locals love about the city

Pj Poets
Chantal Lawrie
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On April 2, at Miami Beach Botanical Garden, O, Miami hosts an open mic for children of all ages to recite poetry in their pajamas.

When Scott Cunningham launched the O, Miami festival 11 years ago, he didn't think people would care about poetry in the same way he did.

Miami proved him wrong.

"Doing a festival here, honestly, is actually pretty easy," Cunningham said. "You don't really have to deliver poems to Miamians. They already have them. You just have to create instances where the poetry can arise."

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Miami gives off a rhythm and sound all its own, formed from decades of Caribbean and Latin American cultures tumbling and intersecting into each other.

In 2011, Cunningham founded the month-long festival with the goal of exposing as many people to poetry through various workshops, educational programs and public art pieces.

Poetry is best experienced at a person's own pace and own volition, he said. While riding the New York subway in the 90s, Cunningham saw a poem that left a lasting impression on him. Now he's hoping to create the same opportunities for people to stumble upon prose throughout the city.

"I'm always surprised by how hard it has been for me to find someone who doesn't have a connection with [poetry]," he said. "[The festival] really taught me that poetry really is everywhere, and it belongs to all of us, and it can't be contained inside of a college or inside of a literary journal or any of those things."

The festival organizers have paved an entry point into poetry by partnering with local creatives to develop programming that combines poetry with different fields ranging from cooking, sewing and cryptocurrency.

Sopa de Letras_LilyMora_141.jpg
O'Miami
In this Spanish language workshop, "Sopa de Letras," participants create a collective poem while they cook a soup together. Guests share recipes that they have learned from loved ones. / En este taller los participantes crearán un poema colectivo mientras cocinamos una sopa juntos. Compartiremos en círculo, recetas que hemos aprendido de nuestras familias y amigos

Ingrid Schindall runs a fine art printmaking studio and has been partnering with O, Miami for years.

"I think that one of the things that can be really difficult with poetry or really any type of art form is like, where do you even start?" Schindall said.

"My main belief about Miami is that you'll never understand all of it, you know? And that's one of the things I love about it."
Scott Cunningham, Founder of the O, Miami Poetry Festival

This year, she led a workshop that allows participants to use ocean water to craft handmade paper out of their written poetry. The goal is to help provoke self-reflection of South Florida's relationship with its waterways, all while writing poetry on Miami Beach.

"And I think that's one of the things that's so fantastic about Miami is that you are really able to kind of get a taste of a lot of different things that are happening in contemporary poetry, as well as kind of seeing the ways in which poetry can affect people's lives."

Everyone's an Island_VanessaDiaz7737.jpg
Vanessa Diaz
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O'Miami
Everyone’s an Island: On April 9, people took a self-guided hidden history tour of the Venetian Islands can either be walked, biked, or driven. After attendees finished the route, we’ll meet at Belle Isle park for a poetry reading.

O, Miami also offers educational programs throughout the year by sending poets straight to the classroom.

Arsimmer McCoy has spent years teaching alliteration, rhymes and metaphors from kindergartners to high schoolers for O, Miami. She said it's a chance to inject creativity and create a space for students to freely express themselves.

"O, Miami doesn't say it outright, but they're really good at [...] helping people to understand like poetry is impactful. It's important, it's necessary," McCoy said.

Colony Theatre
Chantal Lawrie/Chantal Lawrie
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People pass by the Colony Theater on Lincoln Road where a poem by 5th grader Gabriela is featured on the building's marquee during the 2022 O'Miami Poetry Festival.

Festival organizers later collect poems from students during the year and feature them in public art projects all over the city. They can be seen on walls, festival tote bags and even on tubs of ice cream.

"All children need to feel empowered and need to understand the power of their voice," she said.

2022 O, Miami chaise lounge on beach_ VanessaDiaz.jpg
Vanessa Diaz
/
O'Miami
A person sits on a chaise lounge on the beach with a 2022 O'Miami Poetry Festival tote bag.