O Me, O Miami: Expanding the Literary Culture of a Region One Poem at a Time

Imagine you had a goal for every person in your city to encounter a poem all in one month. Where would you start?

First, you might choose April, since that’s National Poetry Month, and chances are some of your fellow residents might stumble upon a poem or two on their own. Next, you might plan a public festival where people could gather to read and listen to poetry. You might also come up with other creative ways for people to engage with poetry just to expand the reach even further, like suggesting they send secret poems, encoded in Braille, to their friends around the community. Then, of course, you could lead workshops in underfunded schools and detention centers, and maybe even paint poems on the tops of buildings.

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Wait, what? Poems on the tops of buildings?

See, this goal to provide a poetry encounter for an entire city isn’t just a theoretical pipe dream. It’s the mission of O, Miami, a south Florida-based non-profit organization funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which is attempting to expand the literary culture of Miami-Dade County one person, and one poem, at a time.

Of course, I didn’t just dream up that list of ideas above, either. O, Miami, which began in 2011, actually offered each of those projects as a way to build and engage the literary community in their area. Their flagship event is the annual O, Miami Poetry Festival hosted each April and featuring poetry-in-public-places projects, along with cross-genre events that help “expand the definition of a poem.”

The festival isn’t just a one-weekend affair. Rather, events are offered throughout the month and are scattered geographically throughout Miami-Dade County. Each year during April, local poets and artists propose special poetry projects to help get poetry into the hands of more residents. The Secret Sonnets project, where people actually sent poems encoded in Braille to their friends, was the brainchild of Emily Nostro, an instructor for the blind, who also saw a way to welcome Miami’s blind residents into the literary community. In 2014, artist Agustina Woodgate designed scratch-off lottery tickets featuring an original poem by Mary Ruefle, and 2,500 were distributed around the community. Another year, Poet Tom Healy got an “O” tattooed on his arm while he gave a public reading on stage.
While O, Miami started as an annual festival, the founders soon formed an entire organization committed to offering other events and programs to promote poetry year-round. One of those programs is The Sunroom, which sends paid poets into parts of the community devoid of “high-quality creative writing instruction.” Workshops are offered in elementary schools and correctional facilities to help foster a love for reading and writing, but also to offer creative expression to those who might otherwise not be heard.

The poetry produced through Sunroom doesn’t remain in the classroom or the cellblock, though. Students’ and inmates’ work is collected in chapbooks and presented in creative ways during the annual O, Miami Poetry Festival. For the 2016 festival, two students’ poems were painted on the tops of buildings with more than 300 gallons of white and red paint. Fly into the Miami International Airport on one of the more than 650 flights that pass over the buildings, and you’ll see Nieema Marshall’s (3rd grade) and Tywon Williams’ (4th grade) words painted in giant letters on the top level of an FIU Honors College parking garage and on the roof of the MANA Wynwood event center.

O, Miami offers several other programs, including a regional publishing imprint, Jai-Alai Books, which produces 3-5 titles a year on topics related to Miami’s readership, history, and identity; a limited-edition, biannual poetry journal, Jai-Alai Magazine, which began in 2011 with Issue #10 and will end in 2016 with Issue #1; and the annual Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize, co-sponsored with Cave Canem, which seeks to publish one outstanding chapbook manuscript by a black poet per year.

This September, O, Miami will host a celebration of one of Miami’s native sons, poet Donald Justice, a 1979 Pulitzer Prize winner for his Selected Poems. In addition to events around Miami, the organization is building an online archive of creative responses to Donald Justice’s life and work, including video and audio recordings of people reading his poems; imitations of his poems; translations of his poems into other languages (especially Spanish, Creole, and Portuguese); anecdotes about his life; curricula based on his poetry; illustrations or other visual art inspired by him; musical compositions based on his poetry; etc. Submissions to the project are being accepted through September 15, and are free and open to anyone (not just residents of Miami-Dade County).

Imagine you had a goal for every person in your city to encounter a poem all in one month. Where would you start?

I’d start with O, Miami. For them, not even the sky’s the limit.

Originally published at Tweetspeak Poetry on September 1, 2016.

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Charity Singleton Craig

Charity Singleton Craig is a writer, author, and speaker, helping readers grow in their faith and experience true hope in the middle of life’s joys and sorrows. She is the author of My Year in Words: what I learned from choosing one word a week for one year and coauthor of On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life That Lasts.