When the stated goal is to deliver a poem to the more than 2.6 million residents of Miami-Dade County, politely inviting people to readings and hoping for the best is not a promising option.

So O, Miami, the annual festival celebrating National Poetry Month that begins today, did the next reasonable thing: it took to skywriting, putting fake parking tickets with poems in car windshields, holding a “Poetry Is Dead” parade, having poems sneakily sown into thrift store clothing and more.

In fact, it also enlisted the help of the locals, enticing them with poetry writing contests, where submissions had to include the line “That’s So Miami.”

We couldn´t resist.

In its short history, O, Miami, founded in 2011 with principal funding from Knight Foundation, has not only managed to put poetry all around in Miami, but with it, for a few weeks a year, making the exceptional an everyday occurrence.

“We want that the people’s interaction with the festival to be joyous and fun,” said O, Miami founder and director P. Scott Cunningham. “Something that interrupts their day in a positive way.”

Taking poetry out of the reading room to the streets and directly into people’s lives “was part of the idea from the beginning,” said Cunningham. “We know that awareness of contemporary poetry in general is pretty low. And we knew we had to change the perception of poetry, and for that, we needed to meet people half way and maybe even stick it in people’s faces a little bit. So we’ve always looked for things that were fun projects that people would enjoy when they came across them. We’ll try anything.”

As for the efforts to demystify poetry and invite people to participate and write, it’s the corollary of Cunningham’s deeply held belief of “poetry as a democratic art form.”

“Anyone can do it. We even had someone come up in 2013 who was actually illiterate,” he recalls. “She couldn’t read or write, but she wrote poems in her head and recited them to herself and people she knew. So I really believe anyone can participate in this art form. There are no financial barriers to participate in it. Obviously, some people are better at it than others, but anybody can do it.”

This year’s festival include readings by Campbell McGrath, Daisy Fried, and Julie Marie Wade (‘Under the Influence,’ on April 4) and workshops about poetry texting and poetry reviewing. But it also feature events such as “The ´biggest´ poetry reading in the world” (April 12) announced in tongue-in-cheek, carnival barker style.“Well, the biggest poetry reading in the world is actually probably in Medellin, Colombia,” concedes Cunningham, not entirely repentant. “They have an amazing poetry festival in the summer and thousands and thousands of people go to these readings. But hey, it’s a Wallcast on the 7,000 square foot wall of the New World Symphony. People can come, set up the blanket and watch this live, amazing reading in HD projection and HD sound. That counts.”

There is also an “Ode to Your Zip Code” poetry contest, a collaboration with WLRN (winners to be read at Vizcaya Museum & Gardens on April 29); and the improbable “Murinal,” a project by which poems are installed on urinals across Miami.

The full schedule is posted on the O, Miami events page.

Poetry meets theater

The festival also includes two intriguing theatrical experiences with a poetic twist.

The Chicago-based shadow puppetry ensemble Manual Cinema will offer a world premiere of “My Soul’s Shadow,” an exploration of Spanish poet Federico García Lorca’s work at an indoor/outdoor warehouse space in the Little River neighborhood on April 23-25.

“It‘s very interdisciplinary work. The best we have come up with to describe it is cinematic show puppetry,” explains Sarah Fornace, the group’s choreographer, performer and narrative theorist. “The experience of watching one of our shows is like seeing a silent, animated movie being put together live in front of your eyes. The visuals are all created on overhead projectors. So shot by shot and frame by frame we animate them, trying to get to working at the speed of frame. And there’s also actors working on shadow silhouette. Then, at the same time, there’s live original music and also sound design.”

Meanwhile Knights Arts Challenge winner Micro Teatro, will feature “Plays on Verse,” works inspired by poetry and written by South Florida playwrights, on Wednesdays and Thursdays throughout the month of April.

“Every month long ‘season’ of Micro Teatro has a theme. In April it’s ‘Verso a Verso,’ in Spanish and ‘Plays on Verse,’ in English. There are plays that allude to Shakespeare like a ‘Macbeth the Sequel: A Hollywood Tragedy,’ or a ‘Lorca v. Shakespeare,’ for example,” said Francisco Tardio, director of the Centro Cultural Español. “This collaboration with O, Miami, in Spanish and English, is a way for us to celebrate our third anniversary and a strong push for our programming in English.”

For Cunningham, it all comes back to immersing people in the pleasure of poetry.

“There’s a quote from a letter by John Keats in which he explains poetry,” Cunningham said. “He says ‘A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore; it’s to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water.’ It’s about that pleasurable first contact you have with an art form — even before you can understand it.

April 2015 Knight Foundation Blog