Rhonda Saunders wrote an ode to her zip code, 33040. Key West, Fla.
Since asking for submissions at the beginning of April, more than 1,000 people have responded, writing verse about home, or place, or the glitter of real Miami (“Miami, you are life,” one poem sings. “But you are also really mean and always overpriced.”)
The poems span from the poignant and sweet to the hilarious and outrageous — “O, Boca Raton, the rat’s mouth,” one muses in its opening — and the poets themselves span the length of Florida, from the panhandle to the shores of Miami.
“You can figure out people’s zip codes from what their poem is,” said Alicia Zuckerman, editorial director at WLRN. “It’s fun to see people kind of get excited about poetry, to see their minds ignite around writing poems.”
This roar of excitement is part of the mission of the O, Miami Poetry Festival: to bring a poem to every one of Miami-Dade County’s 2.6 million residents. That requires some ingenuity.
In addition to the zip-code contest, P. Scott Cunningham, the festival’s founder and director had a plan: Put poetry in unexpected places where “people would encounter it and see it and have a quiet experience with it.” That includes hiding poems in public urinals (really). Artist Ian Thomas is painting words in gold leaf — in a process very similar to “illuminating Bibles” he said — in public restrooms throughout Miami.
Just recently, Thomas adorned a urinal with “my dear Friday,” an Elizabeth Bishop verse, in a bathroom at the Vagabond Hotel.
“I really hope that it’s a conversation starter,” Thomas said of his “murinals.” “Even an internal conversation where it kind of throws someone off, even if it’s accepted as the experience of peeing on something that’s gold leaf. And that being a poem.”
With funding from the Knight Foundation, the festival goes beyond the typical schedule of readings, lectures and workshops to create more unusual poetry experiences.
Since its founding in 2011, the festival has brought skywritten poems, poems sewn inside thrift store clothes tags and more to the people of Miami, those who would never attend a poetry reading, however cleverly it is advertised.
You can call it public poetry. Or poetry evangelism. Or performance art.
Some people are even calling it “poetry bombing” — a name that, Cunningham says, “caught on against our wishes.”
Cunningham describes these poetry-in-plain-sight events — take the poetry tags, for example, a few verses sewn inside a blouse — as “moments of intimacy,” or “a quiet one-on-one experience with one reader.”
So yes, you run the risk that no one will see it. But for Cunningham, the risk is worth it.
He remembers falling in love with the New York subways’ Poetry in Motion program, and being inspired by one moment when he was brainstorming for O, Miami.
“I saw this poem one day, and I couldn’t get it out of my head,” he said. “It was such a strangely intimate experience to be on the subway, which is not really an intimate place, and then having this experience when I was looking up and reading this thing and for lack of a better term, having a moment with it.”
He (intentionally) hasn’t read the poem (“Hunger,” by Billy Collins) again since.
“In my mind it’s so perfect,” he said. “It’s part of that experience.”