O, Miami: How a festival infused a city with poetry

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O, Miami: How a festival infused a city with poetry, an in depth report on the inaugural festival  The following is Part 1 of O, Miami: How a festival infused a city with poetry. Click here for Part 2 and Part 3.

“There’s a line from James Joyce which always stays with me,” explains Alberto Ibargüen, president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. It’s a snippet he reminds himself of whenever a sea of incoming data and policy papers begins to blur Knight’s central mission of promoting “informed and engaged” communities.

“Yes, the newspapers were right: Snow was general that day in Ireland,” Ibargüen recites, quoting from Joyce’s 1914 short story The Dead, in which a surprise blanket of white suddenly seems both otherworldly and as ubiquitous as the air itself. And the line’s present-day significance?

“I want people to say art was general in Miami.”

Ten years ago, such a wish would likely have inspired a round of snickers — not least from Miamians themselves. South Florida was internationally renowned for a host of dubious accomplishments — from surreal political scandals to a louche nightlife. But a thriving arts scene?

Indeed, for decades it seemed like Miami just couldn’t catch a break. Artists Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude certainly captured the public imagination for a moment in 1983 with their Surrounded Islands – encircling eleven Biscayne Bay islands with over six miles of hot-pink fabric. Yet that delightful rupture with reality was soon overshadowed by the return of Miami’s status as a city with one of the highest murder rates in the country: It was Scarface which symbolized Miami in the popular imagination, not free-thinking artistes.

In the nineties it was the renaissance of South Beach from an Art Deco slum into “Soho by the Sea,” which grabbed headlines. But amidst all the flashbulb-lit partying, it was hard to tell what truly meaningful cultural activities were unfolding. Meanwhile, across the Bay, a new wave of Cuban-exiles staked their own cultural claims on the city. But those efforts often became painfully entangled with political tensions over supposed affinities with the Castro regime across the Florida Straits.

That same two-steps-forward, one-step-back spirit held sway over Miami’s established cultural organizations. The Miami City Ballet and the New World Symphony both offered stellar performances, but also seemed like the city’s best kept secrets. True, the Miami Book Fair grew in size, scope, and stature — but its success only threw the surrounding terrain into stark relief: Tens of thousands turned out for the Book Fair each November, so where were these enthused intellectuals the rest of the year?

Within the visual arts community, the mood was particularly beleaguered. Despite some outstanding exhibitions, the two major museums — the Miami Art Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art — struggled to build permanent collections and faithful audiences. And regardless of their talent, artists found it nearly impossible to earn a living from their art. Instead, they were forced to either land teaching jobs or leave town for economically greener pastures.

Then in December 2002 came Art Basel Miami Beach, the sprawling American offshoot of its Swiss-based art fair parent, and an annual event which quickly became an essential visit for art aficionados around the globe.

In the decade since Basel’s arrival, Miami has evolved from an art world backwater into the “next” art city, surpassing Chicago as the most exciting hotbed between Los Angeles and New York.

Sparked by Basel’s spotlight, early supporters such as Paul and Estelle Berg, Irma and Norman Braman, Rosa and Carlos de la Cruz, Martin Margulies, Craig Robins, and Mera and Don Rubell, were all joined by an expanded base of global collectors — actively buying the work of emerging Miami artists while financially supporting the scene-at-large. These days, Miami artists are not only sinking roots — they’re being joined by New York transplants looking to kickstart their own careers.

However, as important as these newfound opportunities for artists are (not to mention the millions of dollars pumped into the city’s hotels, restaurants, and overall infrastructure come Basel-time), there have been equally monumental ripples beyond the art world. Miamians of all strata have begun looking at their city in an entirely new light — and they love what they see: A burg where creative ferment is the new normal.

Scott Cunningham

P. Scott Cunningham

“Art Basel acted as a fulcrum to grab people’s attention,” observes Campbell McGrath, a Miami Beach-based poet, MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant winner, and professor of English at Florida International University. “There’s this huge grass-roots energy now.” McGrath has watched several of his students attempt to harness and focus that energy — including P. Scott Cunningham .

A Boca Raton native, Cunningham says when he left for college in Connecticut in 1996, he had no intention of ever returning to South Florida: “I could never have lived in the Miami of 1996 — it felt so far away from everything.” When he returned in 2003, kicking and screaming, and only to accommodate his then-girlfriend’s career, he was amazed to see how drastically the post-Basel cultural landscape had shifted. “You want to be proud of things happening in your city,” he says — and what was unfolding in Miami was not only something he could take pride in, it was a milieu he wanted to be a part of. Cunningham’s romantic relationship only lasted a few months, but he decided to stick around.

After receiving his MFA from FIU in 2008, Cunningham launched his own poetry-focused faux-school, the University of Wynwood, which stages colorfully offbeat events in the geographic heart of Miami’s art scene, reflecting Cunningham’s desire to take contemporary poetry far from its academic comfort zone.

What he eventually envisioned moved dramatically beyond the University of Wynwood’s playfully unorthodox readings. Spurred on by a Knight Foundation arts grant, Cunningham brainstormed a project which would not only be a “world-class” event in itself, but transformational for Miami writ large. His idea? O, Miami — a poetry festival as wry in tone and all encompassing in scope as its very name, one which would attempt to, with a nod to Joyce, make poetry general throughout the city.

“O, Miami will change Miami’s attitude toward poetry,” Cunningham wrote in a Knight grant proposal.

“We will reposition poetry as an interdisciplinary field with relevance to mainstream culture. The project is crucial because the city, despite all the excellent work it’s done so far, still needs to shake its identity as a place where world-class cultural events don’t occur on a regular basis. By being at the forefront of this new event, Miami will take a leadership role in the poetry world, which will have a positive and reverberating effect on every aspect of our cultural life.”

A grandiose notion? Did the local literati — even sympathetic ones — really think Miami could grab the poetry world by the lapels of its tweed blazer and steer it in a fresh direction? Cunningham counters with a chuckle, “I can do things here that haven’t been done. It might be easier in Los Angeles or San Francisco — the audience and infrastructure would already be waiting for it. But it wouldn’t feel as exciting or necessary.”

This report on the O, Miami poetry festival is part of Knight Foundation’s Reporter Analysis Series. It was written by Brett Sokol, the arts editor at Ocean Drive magazine. His writing on Miami’s cultural scene has also appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine and Slate. Judy J. Miller, who oversaw Pulitzer Prize winning coverage while serving as managing editor of The Miami Herald, edited the report. For more on Knight Foundation, visit, and for more on the festival, visit