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April 18, 2018

Teen Board Member Rachel D. Interviews Author Scott Cunningham About His Poetry Festival, O, Miami


Scott Cunningham, whose book of poems, YA TE VEO: Poems (University of Arkansas Press), was part of the 2018 Miller Williams Poetry Prize series, has established himself not only as a champion of literature, but as an advocate for the advancement and promotion of Miami’s diverse culture throughout South Florida. His poetry festival, O, Miami, has captured the attention of local and non-local organizations looking to support his initiative. Teen Board member Rachel D. wanted to learn more about the man behind O, Miami --- Miami’s most prolific poetry festival --- and learn what it takes to go from poetry aficionado to major influencer. Read her interview with Scott below.

Rachel D.: Teenreads is all about connecting young adults to literature. When you were a young adult, what kind of literature did you enjoy reading? Are there any standout titles that shaped you? If so, how?

Scott Cunningham: My favorite book when I was in high school was ALL THE KING’S MEN by Robert Penn Warren. I used to re-read it in English class when I was supposed to be learning about some other book. Even though ALL THE KING’S MEN is a novel the prose is very lyrical, and there are sections that seem, in retrospect, more like poems than fiction. I also found myself skipping around in whatever gigantic Norton anthology we were given for that year because apparently I needed my reading to be unassigned! Through doing that, I memorized W.H. Auden's "As I Walked Out One Evening" and Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach." Despite the fact that I was memorizing poems on my own, I had zero designs on being a poet, but I guess those experiences ended up shaping me later, since I am now a poet.

RD: You have been wildly successful with the creation of O, Miami. In fact, you’ve been called the “P.T. Barnum” of poetry by Knight Foundation CEO Alberto Ibargüen. Like Barnum, do you hope to bring O, Miami around the country, or do you want to focus this festival in Miami?

SC: I'm just focused on Miami. This place is large enough and strange enough that we'll never really understand it, so to me, Miami is simultaneously all the festival needs and more than the festival could ever hope to address. That said, I've really enjoyed partnering with non-local organizations. O, Miami is part of a nationwide group called the Poetry Coalition, and through that, a lot of us poetry organizers have gotten to share ideas and programming. To have O, Miami at once fully rooted in the city of its name, but also part of a larger community is the arrangement that makes the most sense to me.

RD: Planning such a large event must take more planning and determination than most people think. What is some advice you would give to those thinking of getting involved in this side of the publishing/book world?

SC: Do something and do it on the scale that you're capable of doing it. It might not seem this way, but the people who run major publishing houses and produce major festivals look at young people doing stuff with no money and for a small audience with utter envy. The larger you get, the more intimacy you tend to lose with the people you're reaching and with the things you're creating. Enjoy being small and focused and scrappy and passionate. We talk constantly about getting smaller. We once produced a reading called The World's Smallest Poetry Reading, which was a tent that only one person could enter at a time. Inside was a poet, and he or she read a poem just for you. What's better than that?

RD: You also had a hand in creating Jai-Alai books, a subsidiary of O, Miami. What prompted you to do so?

SC: I love books, and my partners in the press, Melody Santiago Cummings and Seth Labenz, do, too. I could say more, but that's really the extent of it. We love the process of making books, and we love Miami.

RD: You’ve previously said that O, Miami is a reflection of Miami. You’ve shown this to be true not only by letting locals submit poetry to O, Miami but also through Jai-Alai books, where locals can send their manuscripts through your website. What was the inspiration behind creating a space for locals to share their work?

SC: The mission of O, Miami is for every single person to encounter a poem. We realized pretty quickly that the most effective way for the festival to be representative of Miami was to let Miamians co-create it. Every fall we do a call for ideas, and out of those, we select the ones that we believe will be most effective in meeting the mission. We also do various calls for poems, most of which are thematically tied to Miami, and once the festival starts, there are always myriad ways to participate that go beyond simply attending an event. Giving up creative control has led to many of the best projects and events we've done. We organize the festival this way because it's the most effective way to do it. As for the press, I recently had to shut off the open submission portal because we're so behind on our existing projects. Everyone at the press, including me, is a volunteer, so things happen slowly. We hope to start accepting submissions again soon.

RD: You actually majored in theology at Wesleyan University. Are there any similarities between studying verse and theology? What prompted the change in focus from religion to poetry?

SC: Technically, I was a religious studies major, which is different from theology. I was interested in studying people, and religion seemed like a good avenue to do that, since it's something billions of people throughout history have cared about a great deal. As such, poetry and religion have a very intertwined relationship. Many "canonical" poems, both in America and in other cultures, double as religious texts. Personally, I'm not religious in any institutional sense. I don't worship any god, and I don't belong to any formal church. Poetry allows me to participate in something like a religious group, but one in which, if the group is doing its work properly, everyone disagrees with everyone else, and there's no one true name for god, nor any agreed upon concept of what god is or looks like. I think religion and poetry both work most effectively when they're asking questions, not doling out opinions and doctrines. Our natural state as humans is ignorance, so I'm against any structure that pretends to have definitive answers. What makes poetry great is that it makes that ignorance pleasurable.

RD: Throughout your career, you’ve focused on poetry. Why did you choose prose over other mediums of the written word?

SC: I didn't choose poetry; it chose me. I wanted to direct movies or write novels or play baseball. I've fought becoming a poet every step of the way, even now. I think that resisting the call is part of it, though. It's a very unforgiving thing to do, writing poems. When I hear people profess to unabashedly love being a poet, I feel like either they're lying or they don't take it as seriously as the rest of us or they have some really dark, difficult days ahead of them. Which is not to say that being a poet means being sad or melancholic. Not at all. Writing poems is a joyful experience for me. But it's very hard to do well and it requires levels of concentration and honesty that are difficult to sustain. And I'm not even that good at it! I can only imagine what it feels like for someone like Kay Ryan or Frank Bidart or Terrance Hayes.

RD: You have a new book out, YA TE VEO, that is based on an illustration of the Ya Te Veo tree you saw in a book about cryptobotany. How does one turn an illustration to poetry? What were you ultimately trying to convey through this poetry book?

SC: Writing about a drawing or a song or a story is fun for me. I really like to use poems as a way to get inside of another work of art. In this case, the drawing is of a tree that eats people. It's not a real tree; somebody made up the story, but that allowed me to then make up a story that got inside the mind of the tree. I liked the idea of writing a nature poem in which nature wasn't our friend. Then YA TE VEO became the name for the whole book because I thought it drew attention to an idea that runs through a lot of the poems: that the self we present to the world is not necessarily the self that we are inside, and how that gap can be the cause of joy and pain both.