By Dan Grech
The invitation, in true P. Scott Cunningham style, was irresistible.
He’s throwing an “old-fashioned book party” in honor of poet Adrian Matejka, and you’re invited.
If you didn’t know Cunningham, you might read “old-fashioned” and think this was a poetry reading straight out of Downton Abbey, with cocktails served by coat-tailed waiters surrounded by leather-bound books. What Scott meant by “old-fashioned” was the opposite: hip, retro, and not to be missed.
Respond soon, Scott suggested in the invite. “The guest list is pretty tight.”
“The Big Book Party” last November did not disappoint. It was held in the backyard of a 1920s home near the Wynwood and Design districts that have driven Miami’s arts explosion.
Some of Miami’s top literary lights wandered under the tree canopy, munching on boxes of Cracker Jacks. They gathered around an outdoor boxing ring for the main event: Two professional boxers slugged it out, Scott and his fiancé read a poem they wrote together, then Matejka took the ring to read from The Big Smoke, his poetic dramatization of Jim Crow-era heavyweight champion Jack Johnson.
MacArthur “genius” grant winning poet Campbell McGrath, Scott’s teacher and mentor at FIU, marveled from the sidelines. “This is not something I taught him,” he said.
That night someone offered McGrath the perfect description of Cunningham’s body of work, which ranges from whimsical poetry journals to over-the-top literary events to a month-long poetry extravaganza every April called O, Miami: “Scott has the soul of a Broadway producer trapped in the body of a poet.”
The story of how P. Scott Cunningham, 35, went from FIU graduate student to Miami poetry impresario dates back to 2006, when Scott and some classmates from FIU’s Creative Writing MFA program met Campbell McGrath for beers on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach.
“As soon as we all sat down, Campbell, out of nowhere, declared that it was the first meeting of the ‘Miami Poetry Collective,’ ” Cunningham said. “By naming it, he gave us a kind of permission to go do stuff.”
Do stuff they did. The Miami Poetry Collective began setting up on street corners to write improvised poems-to-order on manual typewriters. They hawked a self-published zine of the Collective’s work for a few pennies. They hosted readings at bars and collaborated with anyone that was game.
In some ways, Cunningham has pursued the traditional route toward becoming a professional poet. He got his MFA. He’s landed a good two dozen poems in literary journals. He’s now looking for a publisher for his first book of poems.
But his grass-roots encounters from the Miami Poetry Collective – such as the time he was asked to write a personalized poem for a couple to read at their wedding – permanently altered the way Cunningham thought about his poetic project.
“What’s cooler? Getting published in a literary journal or writing something for two people that will be part of their lives forever?” Cunningham said. “It made me realize that trying to impress people who already love poetry is not important to me. We are creating a new audience.”
In 2008, Scott was nearing graduation, and as so often happens in Miami, members of the Collective began peeling off to pursue careers in writing or teaching in other cities.
“When I was graduating, I knew I wasn’t leaving Miami,” said Cunningham, who grew up in Boca Raton. “I really wanted to create the literary community that was in my head in Miami. I wanted to do things here that were community-based and that were right for Miami.”
Then Cunningham caught a break. Alberto Ibargüen, president of the Knight Foundation and a fellow alumnus of Wesleyan, had seen Cunningham selling poems around town and asked if he wanted to put together a poetry festival.
“My thought is we’d have readings by Seamus Heaney and get repetitive stress injury patting ourselves on the back,” Alberto Ibargüen said. “Scott said poetry is part of life and should be out in the community. I had a conventional notion, and he blew it up.”
That spark grew into O, Miami, a Knight-funded annual poetry festival held every April since 2011. It has the modest goal of exposing all 2.5 million people in Miami-Dade County to a poem during National Poetry Month.
O, Miami has featured its share of big names, such as actor-poet James Franco, singer-poet Patti Smith, and Obama inaugural poet Richard Blanco (also a graduate of the FIU MFA program). It’s sponsored crowd-sourced poetry contests with The Miami Herald and local NPR station WLRN. This year’s festival kicked off with readings from former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass and National Book Award-winner Nikky Finney. Click here for a full list of this year’s events.
But O, Miami distinguishes itself with the unconventional and the buzzworthy. Cunningham and his collaborators have sewn poems into thrift store threads, flown poetry banners behind planes, snuck poems onto drink coasters, and placed poetry parking tickets on cars. He rained poems written in vegetable ink on biodegradable paper from a helicopter. He even belted out poems using a bullhorn while driving a red convertible Lamborghini on Ocean Drive in South Beach.
“Scott capitalizes on the absurd flashy Miami image and projects it onto something that’s completely without flash,” said Arlo Haskell, incoming executive director of the Key West Literary Seminar. “Scott is a genius marketer. He makes poetry and literature fun, he makes it a collective experience.”
“Scott doesn’t believe that poetry is bound by the borders of the page it’s written on,” said Campbell McGrath. “Scott can write a traditional poem, but he’s also interested in what else it could be. He’s always pushing the boundaries.”
“Anyone selling poems for four cents on a street corner and shouting poems from a Lamborghini on Ocean Drive and dropping poems from the sky has a little bit of P.T. Barnum in them,” said Alberto Ibargüen. “But it’s all in the service of this cause, which is art and poetry.”
Cunningham said his mission is simple: “O, Miami has taught Miami that poetry is not dead. It’s a living genre, and it’s more dynamic than people give it credit for.”
Cunningham has these words tattooed in a cursive script on his arm. “I will die in Miami in the sun.”
They’re the opening lines of a poem by Miami-born Donald Justice, one of the poets that’s most influenced Cunningham.
Cunningham’s published poems evince a verbal flair and a wry humor. They can take a nostalgic tone. They reflect some of his obsessions, such as his ode to NBA basketball player Zydrunas Ilgauskas, or the series he’s written about composer Morton Feldman.
But he has yet to capture his greatest obsession and his muse on paper.
“I’ve really failed as a Miami poet so far, in my opinion,” he said. “I think of my own tiny Miami poems and I get depressed.”
“But here’s the thing,” he added. “Even though I grew up in Boca, so South Florida is in my DNA, I’ve only lived in Miami since 2005. So to me, my Miami-ness is still in formation. I still have time to write an epic about the Venetian Causeway.” ♦
Dan Grech (@dgrech) is a Media Innovation Fellow at the FIU School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He has worked at Marketplace, the Miami Herald and WLRN and has taught journalism at Princeton University and Columbia Journalism School.