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Brett Sokol

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    The following is Part 3 of O, Miami: How a festival infused a city with poetry, an in-depth look at the unorthodox event. Click here for Part 1 and Part 2.  The Ferrari said it all. If you were looking to make a dramatic statement that O, Miami was a very different kind of poetry festival — irreverent, playfully subversive, and not least, steeped in the often blindingly over-the-top spirit of South Florida — what better way than to put one of your featured poets behind the wheel of a gleaming red convertible Ferrari, hand him a bullhorn, and then have him literally proclaim his poems to the streets? RELATED LINKS Interactive Report: knightarts.org/omiami Downloadable Report: O, Miami Report PDF   “I appreciate the typical wine-and-cheese poetry reading, but that’s so stale,” explains Dave Landsberger, the Ferrari-driving poet in question. “Let the younger poets do younger, weirder things. Let the older poets do the more reverent things. There’s a place for both — and that’s why O, Miami was such a success.” Landsberger certainly did his part to make a splash for the festival’s April 2011 debut, drawing a crowd as he double-parked his rented Ferrari alongside Lincoln Road, reading out one of his own poems, but only allowing himself to bask briefly in the resulting applause — he spotted a curious police officer approaching. From there he roared up to an impromptu reading in the parking lot of a North Miami Beach Wal-Mart, and then back to the drive-through window of a Biscayne Boulevard fast-food restaurant — where he made a new poetry devotee out of a Checkers employee with a performance of Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” “Victory!” he laughs. Though family commitments forced Landsberger, a 2010 MFA graduate of Florida International University, to return to his native Chicago, he is scheming for a way to relocate to the sub-tropics – and not just to escape the snow.
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    The following is Part 2 of O, Miami: How a festival infused a city with poetry. Click here for Part 1 or Part 3.  “We wanted to saturate the city with poetry, to create moments of rupture in someone’s day.” That's how P. Scott Cunningham explained the charged mission of his O, Miami poetry festival. For its month-long debut in April 2011, the ambitious goal was nothing less than introducing every single one of greater Miami’s 2.5 million residents to a poem. RELATED LINKS Interactive Report: knightarts.org/omiami Downloadable Report: O, Miami Report PDF   “We didn’t want to just rally the existing audience,” Cunningham says. “That would be unsatisfying.” Moreover, with a grant from Knight Foundation in hand, Cunningham wanted to fully embrace Knight’s ethos of “recontextualizing art for a new audience.” Of course, finding a new local audience for poetry wasn’t simply an option — it was a necessity. Miami’s die-hard poetry crowd was far too small to support a traditionally-modeled festival. “The poetry world has expanded dramatically, but it’s still a closed circuit,” observes Billy Collins, a former U.S. poet laureate and arguably the most commercially successful poet writing today. “If you go to a hip art gallery show, most of the people there aren’t painters — they’re people who dig art.” By way of contrast, he invokes New Jersey’s bi-annual Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. In terms of sheer crowd size, he continues, it’s a success. “But even at the Dodge, where 20,000 people attend, I’d suggest that over 18,000 are either poets or wannabe poets. If you went to the opera and everyone in the audience was dressed up as Brunhilda, or if you went to the ballet and everyone in the audience had their tutus on, that’s the real trouble with American poetry.” Which begs the question: Given poetry’s hermetically-sealed state, why even bother funding a full-fledged Miami poetry festival? Why not simply add a few more poets to the already-established annual Miami Book Fair? Those are fighting words for Cunningham.  “Poetry matters now more than ever,” he insists. “We live in a world that is hyper-saturated with text. It’s all around you, all the time, whether it’s being online, using Twitter, or sending a text message.
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                                    The following is Part 2 of O, Miami: How a festival infused a city with poetry. Click here for Part 1 and Part 3. “We wanted to saturate the city with poetry, to create...
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    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? RELATED LINKS Interactive Report: knightarts.org/omiami Downloadable Report: O, Miami Report PDF   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?