P. Scott Cunningham is the cofounder and director of O, Miami, a countywide poetry festival, and the author of Chapbook of Poems for Morton Feldman (Floating Wolf Quarterly, 2011). His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Harvard Review, Court Green, Pool, PANK, The McSweeney’s Joke Book of Book Jokes (Vintage, 2008), Abe’s Penny, and elsewhere. Named one of Fast Company’s 51 “Brilliant Urbanites” for 2011, he is the founder of the faux institution University of Wynwood, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing contemporary literature in Miami, Florida. His website is p-s-c.tumblr.com.
I moved to Miami in 2005 to get my MFA at Florida International University and was not prepared for how different Miami is from other cities I’ve lived in (i.e., San Francisco, Boston, and New York). Public transportation seemed spotty. Used-book stores, reading series, and local independent publishing ventures were impossible to find. Some days, the ocean spilled over into the streets, and the news was full of stories such as “Python Dies Trying to Swallow Alligator.”
“Now” and “Then” are not native states of mind for Miamians. We’re always looking to the future here, optimistic that everything will be different in five or ten years. The dark side to that attitude can get really dark: pedestrian-hostile urban design, pointless clusters of condo buildings, horrible bottlenecks on the highways, a lack of services for the needy, and de rigueur ostentation. But the bright side is that Miami’s optimism, coupled with its unique geography, has, over the course of its one-hundred-plus years, made it like nowhere else in America…or rather North America.
A little over half of Miami-Dade county’s 2.5 million people list a language other than English as their native tongue. Obviously, Spanish is dominant (over a third of our population identifies as Cuban), but even among Spanish speakers are groups who can barely understand one another. “Miami Spanish” is actually its own designation—an outgrowth of Cuban Spanish, which is one of the more difficult accents to parse out. I’ve taken five years of Spanish, and I lived in Mexico for a month during college; the first time I tried to order coffee at a Cuban walk-up window, the clerks had no idea what I was saying to them.
In the last ten years other immigrant populations have begun to establish their own footholds. Haitians now make up 5 percent of the county. Dominicans and Hondurans are also a sizable chunk. You can hear Portuguese in many neighborhoods now, and the influence of Hugo Chavez has driven thousands of Venezuelans to relocate to South Florida. (The town of Westin—just northwest of Miami—is affectionately referred to as Westinzuela.) On South Beach, you’re just as likely to bump into a European as you are an American.
A period of cultural enlightenment has also been taking place since 2003 or so, when Art Basel set up camp in Miami Beach for an annual fair. Since then, we’ve witnessed the completion of the Frank Gehry–designed New World Center; the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County; the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center; the Herzog & de Meuron–designed 1111 Lincoln Road; the revitalization of neighborhoods like Wynwood and the Design District; and the expansion of the city’s best independent bookstore, Books & Books; as well as the groundbreaking of the new Miami Art Museum (also designed by Herzog & de Meuron). The rise of the Knight Arts Challenge, a yearly contest created by the Knight Foundation for artists and arts organizations, has injected five million dollars into the cultural community, spurring new projects like the Miami-centric Borscht Film Festival, the artist-run publishing imprint [NAME] Publications, and a free opera series.
The literary tradition here isn’t Dublin-esque, but it’s also not barren either. Robert Frost and Donald Justice both wrote and taught at the University of Miami, and since the fifties the city has been home to many exiled Cuban writers, including Reinaldo Arenas, Angel Cuadra, and Ricardo Pau-Llosa. Thanks mostly to the Miami Herald, a number of writers have cut their teeth here as reporters: Carl Hiaasen, Elmore Leonard, Edna Buchanan, Steve Almond, Ben Greenman, and Dave Barry, to name a few. Other fiction writers and poets—Charles Willeford, Russell Banks, Thomas Harris, Chase Twichell, and Tom Healy among them—have found in Miami the perfect place to get some writing done. In the last several years, a new crop of writers, including Edwidge Danticat, Patricia Engel, Karen Russell, Jennine Capó Crucet, Emma Trelles, and Richard Blanco, has emerged and have rooted the city in their work.
Miami’s still a work-in-progress, but that’s why I ended up staying here. In literary Miami, every new building, business, festival, reading series, author, and reader matters. Most of us are on a first-name basis, and there’s a culture of mutual support that supersedes individual differences. Conversely, the city feels indomitable to me as a poet, a subject matter that escapes any attempt to crystalize its essence. What is Miami? Depends who’s asking. As Donald Justice said about his birthplace, “There was no history, there were only the storms.”
To call Books & Books a “bookstore” is a bit of a misnomer; it’s a Miami institution. Books & Books has four local locations, but for writers the main hangout is the original store in Coral Gables (265 Aragon Avenue), which has a beautiful courtyard in the center, perfect for losing several hours. Writers make up most of the staff, and they host on average more than one event a night. The store at 927 Lincoln Road, which has a popular sidewalk café, hosts readings too and specializes in art books. Owner Mitchell Kaplan—“Mitch,” as he’s known to pretty much everybody—was recently given a lifetime achievement nod from the National Book Foundation for his work as founder of the central literary event of the year, the Miami Book Fair.
Located in a nondescript concrete building on Calle Ocho, the main thoroughfare in Little Havana, Librería & Distribuidora Universal (3090 SW Eighth Street) is a Spanish-language bookstore that’s also the home of Ediciones Universal, the leading ex-pat Cuban publishing house. The store itself is amazing. Besides the occasional Dick Cheney biography (Cuban politics tend to swing right), its focus is purely literary. I’ve found hardcover, dual-language editions of Neruda from the 1970s next to rare literary journals from South America. It houses an incredible selection for such a small place.
Named for and run by Haitian poet Jan Mapou, Libreri Mapou (5919 NE Second Avenue) is the meeting place for authors from the Haitian diaspora in Miami. It’s also close to the Little Haiti Cultural Center (212–260 NE 59 Terrace)—which puts on all kinds of events, including workshops, lectures, and concerts—and Churchill’s Pub.
Founded by collector Mitchell Wolfson Jr., the Wolfsonian–Florida International University (1001 Washington Avenue) in Miami Beach—a museum and research center focusing on design, primarily North American and European artifacts from 1885 to 1945—is home to the Dynamo, a shop and café designed to resemble a private library. It’s a good place to get an espresso and flip through something on the Futurists or the Lettrists, and if you’re lucky, you’ll run into the museum’s associate curator, poet Matthew Abess, who is a former protégé of Kenny Goldsmith at the University of Pennsylvania. Besides his work at the museum, he also organizes readings, lectures, and film screenings around town, the common thread of which is a mach-speed commentary on some kind of avant-garde you never knew existed.
Another art institution with a bookstore worth visiting is the Rubell Family Collection/Contemporary Arts Foundation (95 NW Twenty-Ninth Street). Housed in a former Drug Enforcement Agency warehouse, the Rubell collection is one of the world’s largest, privately owned contemporary art collections and is open to the public most days of the week. The bookstore focuses on the artists whose work is owned by the foundation, but since it seems to own something by everyone, it’s a treasure trove for the art inclined or anyone who wants to get lost in a Vito Acconci text.
I don’t spend much time in Coconut Grove, a vibrant neighborhood in South Miami, but when I do, I always get a milkshake from Johnny Rockets and then stop into the Bookstore in the Grove (3399 Virginia Street). It’s locally owned and operated and has a good café with comfortable seating. My only complaint is that the book selection is a little light on literature (and especially light on poetry), but any quibble with a bookstore these days is a small one.
Besides being a great place to pick up a five-dollar chair, Douglas Gardens Thrift Store (5713 NW Twenty-Seventh Avenue) also has a respectable stack of used books—not a ton of which are literary, but I’ve found some gems over the years, including a 1978 guide to Israeli foreign policy and a high school literary magazine from the sixties.
In 2010 Gean Moreno and I founded Jai-Alai Magazine as a forum for an exchange among Miami artists and writers and the literary community at large. The magazine itself is part of a larger initiative called University of Wynwood—a fake school with the goal of fomenting literary life in Miami. Its first incarnation was the University of Wynwood Visiting Poets Series, which began in 2009 and has hosted John D’Agata, Zachary Schomburg, Joanna Klink, Ed Skoog, and Stacey Lynn Brown, among others. In an effort to engage different local audiences, the series shifts venues regularly. University of Wynwood also has an internship program for high school, undergraduate, and graduate students.
The End/Spring Break is a nomadic event series run by artists Domingo Castillo, Kiwi Farah, and Patti Hernandez, who collaborate widely with other artists in order to produce an incredibly diverse and prolific set of programming: lectures, readings, workshops, and film series. Their best literary event is an occasional workshop called the Free School for Writing, curated by artist-writer Denise Delgado. The name says it all: The workshops are free and led by volunteers, who design their own curriculums. Delgado, who until recently was a curator for the county’s Main Library (101 West Flagler Street), has also hosted zine-making initiatives and other projects that put artists and writers into the same room.
For the last nine years Tigertail Productions has published Tigertail: A South Florida Poetry Annual. Each edition has a different editor, theme, and cover designed by a local artist. Past themes have included a focus on Brazilian poetry, flash fiction, and an historical look at the Miami Poetry Collective, a group founded by poet Campbell McGrath that puts on events and readings. Tigertail, founded over thirty years ago by Mary Luft, also produces music and dance at places like the Adrienne Arsht Center (1300 Biscayne Boulevard) and the Miami Light Project.
The University of Miami recently started a reading series called USpeak that combines student readings with local authors such as Geoffrey Philip, Neil de la Flor, and Adrian Castro. Curated by MFA director M. Evelina Galang, USpeak has been a much-needed addition to the local scene, which generally lacks funded reading series. The readings are held at the Richter Library (1300 Memorial Drive) whose special collections are a great resource for writers. If you go, ask for curator Cristina Favretto, who is a big fan of contemporary poetry and an old friend of Pulitzer Prize winner Rae Armantrout.
Florida International University runs a reading series at the Biscayne Bay Campus called Writers on the Bay. Held every Thursday night, the series has featured authors such as Dean Young, Pat Conroy, and Major Jackson in recent years.
The man who is often described as the heart and soul of Miami’s spoken-word community, Will “Da Real One” Bell, was murdered in front of his own venue, the Literary Café and Poetry Lounge, in North Miami in 2010. The café closed soon after, but the local scene has survived and is still going strong. The most famous spoken-word series, known for booking national names and drawing out the best local talent, is the Bohemia Room, a spoken-night hosted by Ingrid B’s (B-Side Entertainment) on Wednesdays. The most recent one was held at Crescendos Piano Bar (113 Lincoln Road), but the location changes occasionally.
Conferences and Festivals
Easily the most important event on the year’s schedule, the Miami Book Fair International began in 1984 and has since grown into one of the biggest and best fairs in the country, with everyone from Patti Smith to Marie Ponsot to Padma Lakshmi coming to town. MFA students often volunteer and organize their own readings in the tent city that dots Miami Dade College’s downtown Wolfson campus where the book fair is held. Magazines like Granta and McSweeney’s throw informal parties at local bars (though not at good local bars—seriously, you guys should give us a shout; we’ll steer you right!). For eight days everything is right with the world.
This year poet Peter Borrebach and I partnered with the Knight Foundation to create O, Miami, an annual countywide poetry festival. The goal of the festival is for every single person in Miami-Dade County to encounter a poem during the month of April. During the inaugural run, we produced forty-five events and twenty-six projects, all of them designed to weave poetry into the fabric of the city’s existing infrastructure and cultural life via traditional readings mixed with innovative poetry-in-public-places projects. Guests included poets such as Anne Carson, W. S. Merwin, Tracy K. Smith, and Raúl Zurita; dancers Jonah Bokaer and Rashaun Mitchell; rappers Kool Moe Dee and Monie Love; and actor James Franco. Artist Agustina Woodgate sewed poems into people’s clothing, and airplanes flew banners printed with lines by Octavio Paz over Miami Beach. The project is annual and will return in April 2012 with another month of multidisciplinary readings, cross-genre events, and outreach projects.
Art Basel Miami Beach is the largest art fair in the western hemisphere, bringing about thirty thousand visitors to Miami for four days every December. Every major gallery in the world displays art we writers can’t afford, so the real appeal is the activity that arrives with the fair. Around twenty other ancillary (read: less expensive) fairs like NADA, Scope, and Pulse nest beneath the dragon’s wing, and I’ve found that a decent amount of literature is represented too, whether through do-it-yourself zines, pop-up bookstores (DesignMiami/ always has one), or text- and performance-based work. The hardest part is finding information about exactly what’s going on, though Miami Art Guide is a good place to start.
Produced by the Center@MDC—the literary organization that produces the Miami Book Fair—the Writers Institute is an annual four-day conference held every May that features poetry, fiction, and nonfiction workshops taught by visiting writers such as Carolyn Forché, Kevin Young, and Rick Bragg. Located at Miami Dade College (300 NE Second Avenue), the conference offers a rare combo of resonable cost and high-quality programming. The Center@MDC also sponsors a One Book, One Community program; evening writing classes; and Miami’s branch of the City of Refuge program, which provides two-year residencies for writers whose work has been suppressed in their home countries.
The Key West Literary Seminar, entering its twenty-ninth year, is one of the best seminars in the country and always worth the three-and-a-half hour drive south. Every year has a different theme—food writing, formal poetry, and “literature of the future” are the most recent ones—which focuses the panels and readings that take place in the beautiful San Carlos Institute, a historic building right in the middle of Duval Street. The lineup is always off the charts—in January George Saunders, Jonathan Lethem, Colson Whitehead, Joyce Carol Oates, James Tate, Gary Shteyngart, Michael Cunningham, and Margaret Atwood will be there—and a few days in Key West isn’t a bad way to spend time either.
Founded by Sarah Lawrence MFA grad and local businessman Miles Coon, the Palm Beach Poetry Festival features six days of poetry workshops with nightly readings open to the public. Located an hour north of Miami at the Old School Square Cultural Arts Center (51 North Swinton Avenue, Delray Beach), a national historic site, the festival draws both local and national attendees due to its guest poets—such as C. K. Williams, Galway Kinnell, Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, and Sharon Olds—and the familial atmosphere fostered by Miles and his wife, Mimi.
Directed by Tom DeMarchi, who teaches English at Florida Gulf Coast University, the Sanibel Island Writers Conference hosts writers at all stages of their careers every fall for workshops in poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and screenwriting at BIG ARTS (900 Dunlop Road) and the Sanibel Public Library (770 Dunlop Road) on Sanibel Island. I’ve never been but have heard that the vibe is familial. The lineup of workshop teachers is impressively diverse—this year, for instance, it included singer-songwriter Henry Rollins, singer-songwriter Dan Bern, and filmmaker John Sayles.
Venues and Landmarks
Wynwood is an old industrial neighborhood that’s slowly being transformed into a hub for galleries, restaurants, and bars. Many fine establishments are located there, but for writers, the most important one is Lester’s (2519 NW Second Avenue), owned and operated by artist Daniel Milewski. Even though it just opened this year, Lester’s has already established itself as a hub for smart events. (The premier event was a talk by Phong Buoy, publisher of the Brooklyn Rail.) A visual artist with a sense of humor, Milewski devotes one entire wall to an array of pictures of men with moustaches; the opposite wall is a mini-library with the most recent issues of journals such as n+1, Three Penny Review, Monocle, and Lapham’s Quarterly. Lester’s serves espresso, wine, beer, and free Wi-Fi Tuesday through Saturday.
The Sackner Archive for Concrete and Visual Poetry is one of those places you have to be invited to, but I’d be remiss not to include it because if you do get the chance to go, you’ll never forget it. Marvin and Ruth Sackner have perhaps the world’s preeminent collection of concrete and visual poetry, which is housed inside their condo overlooking Biscayne Bay. There’s typewriter work by Carl Andre, special editions of John Ashbery’s books, and more amazing text-based work than you could ever imagine exists. To say it’s a magical place is a massive understatement.
Centro Cultural Español (1490 Biscayne Boulevard) is the local arm of the Spanish Ministry of Culture and has deep connections with all of the most respected Spanish-language publishers. Over the years, the staff has built up a nice little library in its headquarters in Coral Gables. They also routinely bring leading European authors into town for talks, which are usually in Spanish.
A quaint little place across from the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, the Luna Star Cafe (775 NE 125th Street) has been hosting various kinds of reading series—most of them student initiated—for a long time. Owner Alexis Sanfield keeps a great stock of craft beer, and the place is the perfect size and set-up for an intimate reading.
Next@19th (137 NE Nineteenth Street), whose mission is to “engage South Florida’s diverse community in fresh culture, learning, and spiritual experience through a Jewish lens,” is the cultural outreach wing of Temple Israel. Director Jenni Person has a special interest in poetry and curates a reading series called CHAIku for local writers. All the events are open to the public.
À la the Moth in New York City, Lip Service is a monthly reading series that features eight eight-minute true stories, sometimes organized around themes such as money or religion. Lip Service used to be held predominantly at Books & Books but is now moving around so check its website or sign up for its newsletter for up-to-date information.
Stiltsville is an abandoned village of houses off the coast of Miami that are…wait for it…built on stilts. Managed by the National Park Service, Stiltsville has hosted readings—for which guests are ferried out to one of the houses—by local authors such as author Les Standiford, author of Bringing Adam Home (Ecco, 2002), and poet Campbell McGrath, author of Seven Notebooks (Ecco, 2008), and it always seems to find its way into Miami-based novels. Recently, novelist Susanna Daniel named her entire book after it.
Churchill’s Pub (5501 NE Second Avenue), located in the heart of Little Haiti, is the only real local rock venue in town and as such, serves as a touchstone for the under-forty set. The place is dark and grimy, but also sports a truly excellent sound system, writer-friendly drink prices, and open mikes, usually on Mondays.
Sweat Records (5505 NE Second Avenue) is currently adjacent to Churchill’s but word on the street is that it’s moving soon. Owned and operated by DJ Lauren “Lolo” Reskin, Sweat sells books as well as records and hosts all kinds of events on its small stage, including readings. The events listing on its website is the de facto place for knowing what else is going on in town too.
Despite being small and decidedly avant-garde, Miami Light Project (404 NW Twenty-Sixth Street) is one of the most established production companies in the area, and under the guidance of artistic director Elizabeth Boone, it has recently moved into a brand-new space all its own in Wynwood. Modern dance and theater is its focus, but Boone’s aesthetic is as wide ranging as it is astute—and I find much of her programming is literary in nature, whether it features a witty solo performer like Reggie Watts, a spoken-word artist like Teo Castellanos, or the Miami Project Hip-Hop.
The inspiration for Donald Justice’s poem “A Winter Ode to the Old Men of Lummus Park, Miami, Florida” Lummus Park (Tenth Street and Ocean Drive) in Miami Beach is not to be confused with a similarly named park on Miami Beach (though that one is nice too). This one is much older (1909) and houses the relocated structural remains of Fort Dallas, the first Miami settlement. It’s a good place to watch the Miami River and write, and it’s close to Garcia’s (398 NW North River Drive), one of the best joints in town for a whole fried fish.
Finally, here’s a quick list of important art-world venues that have hosted readings or lectures in the past and are worth keeping tabs on.
Bas Fisher Invitational (180 NE Thirty-Ninth Street, Suite 210) is a tiny exhibition space run by artists Naomi Fisher and Jim Drain, who are avid readers and open to hosting writers; they recently hosted a workshop by poet Dennis Hinrichsen.
Gallery Diet (174 NW Twenty-Third Street) is the brainchild of Nina Johnson-Milewski. Poet Zachary Schomburg gave a reading there in 2010.
Locust Projects (155 NE Thirty-Eighth Street, Suite 100) is a nonprofit exhibition space that usually programs innovative lectures around their shows. Essayist John D’Agata read there last year.
Nektar De Stagni Shop (155 NE Thirty-Eighth Street) is the commercial space for designer Nektar De Stagni and her partner, artist Martin Opel. The shop is typically dominated by design, but the couple has a habit of transforming it into something more like a cultural laboratory. Last year they got twenty or so locals to turn it into a pop-up DIY book and record store that sold poetry, seven-inch vinyl, and one-line “compliments” like “I like your unibrow” tucked into brown envelopes.
Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami (770 NE 125th Street) is one of two principal public institutions for contemporary art. In the past two years, it's hosted text-heavy artists like Cory Arcangel, Ryan Trecartin, and the French collective Claire Fontaine. Are any of these artists writers per se? No, but their use of language is just as rigorous.
Miami Art Museum (101 West Flagler Street) has just broken ground on a brand-new building on Biscayne Bay that is designed by super architects Herzog & de Meuron. Like the Museum of Contemporary Art, the majority of the guest lectures and performances are contemporary visual artists, but some, like Richard Tuttle, might as well be writers, and others, like painter Enrique Martínez Celaya, are heavily influenced by literature in their work. Miami Art Museum also hosts a series of talks at Books & Books specifically about art-related literature.
Dorsch Gallery (151 NW Twenty-Fourth Street) is owned by Brook Dorsch, who is a known poetry lover. He was the first gallerist to move to the now bustling Wynwood neighborhood, and he’s hosted panels on the local cultural scene as well as poetry readings with Miamians Richard Blanco and Jennifer Bartman.
De La Cruz Collection (23 NE Forty-First Street) just moved into a beautiful building with three-story-high windows and a back garden in the Design District. The collection has a small library that visitors can access, and it’s committed to programming lectures and performances.
The Margulies Collection at the Warehouse (591 NW Twenty-Seventh Street) is the home for the private collection of Martin Margulies. His wife, Constance, is the poetry lover though. She runs a women’s shelter in Liberty City called Lotus House and often displays in the warehouse the poetry the women write. Her yearly benefit for the shelter—the Wynwood Art Fair—has featured poems sewn into clothing on the spot and a “typewriter machine” for people to write their own poems.
Let’s face it, most writers drink, and Miami is a great drinking town, as long as you know where to go. (Because if you don’t, you’ll likely end up with a fourteen-dollar mojito in your hand. I ordered a gin and tonic in a hotel bar once and the check came back for thirty-six dollars. And it was the well gin. I am not making this up.) The secret to drinking in Miami is two-fold: One, there’s a free event with a liquor sponsor every night in this town if you know where to look. Second, go to dive bars. While every other city in America is obsessed with crafted cocktails, Miami still specializes in $1.50 pints of Miller Lite. Here’s a quick guide:
Mike’s at Venetian (555 NE Fifteenth Street) is an Irish pub hidden on the ninth floor of a condo building.
Round Table (11205 NW Seventh Avenue) is a speakeasy in North Miami that has no windows.
Billy’s Pub Too (732 NE 125th Street, North Miami) has a lot of pool tables and you can smoke inside.
Abbey Brewing Co. (1115 Sixteenth Street), a dive with craft beer on tap, is tucked away behind posh Lincoln Road on Miami Beach.
Mac’s Club Deuce (222 Fourteenth Street), the oldest bar in Miami Beach, is right off one of the fancier parts of Collins Avenue, yet it still manages to be sketchy. It’s also across the street from La Sandwicherie, an all-night French sandwich counter that rules. All in all, a deadly combo.
Ted’s Hideaway (124 Second Street) is the other Miami Beach dive.
Seven Seas (2200 SW Fifty-Seventh Avenue) features karaoke on Thursday nights!
Fox’s Sherron Inn (6030 South Dixie Highway) is a little bit too classy to be a dive, but classy in a 1940s kind of way. You can get your “Don Draper reading Meditations in an Emergency” on here.
Pub One (207 NE First Street) is the downtown version of the Deuce—no frills, just a bar and jukebox.
Happy Stork (1872 Seventy-Ninth Street Causeway) is as divey as they come. It’s actually inside a liquor store, just in case you want to take anything home.
My friend Ruba Katrib likes to say that Miami is a place “to get things done,” and I think that’s a good rule of thumb for writers thinking about visiting or moving here. This city is hungry for culture, so if you’ve got some hustle, you can make almost any kind of event or project happen. And, using this guide as a starting point, you won’t have a hard time finding friendly people to help you. So if you’re interested in helping to found the next great (and maybe first great multilingual) American literary city, come on down. The water’s warm.
Credit: Nina Goffi