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Miami poet's words reside in Charlotte

by Michael J. Solender

Miami poet's words reside in Charlotte

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Picture by Premeaux Studio

August 12, 2011

My three-flight climb up the back stairway at the McColl Center for Visual Art brought me only part of the way to P. Scott Cunningham’s Bell Tower studio. Next I needed to navigate an additional half flight and extension, directly above mixed media artist Erika Diamond’s space, to meet the McColl Center’s inaugural Knight Writer-in-Residence.

I found him surrounded by a mid-morning stream of sunlight casting a bright glow into his sparse workspace. But the sunglasses-worthy glare was hardly the most illuminating presence in the room - my extended conversation with Cunningham was both engaging and enlightening, and provided me with a glimpse into the life of the prolific and seemingly indefatigable literary artist.

Cunningham’s residence at the McColl Center is made possible by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. He was identified by the foundation as a poet and organizer that could contribute to the mix of artists at the McColl Center. Ce Scott, creative director at both the McColl Center and the Harvey B.Gantt Center for African-American Culture, said the McColl Center was excited to add literary artists to their residency program.

“Having a literary artist is another way for us to engage with the community,” Ms. Scott said. “A poet in residence allows for a different type of conversation to occur and provides for unique collaborations with other artists-in-residence and new ways to interact with the public.”

Cunningham comes to Charlotte on the heels of some ambitious poetry-related projects he started in his hometown of Miami, Fla. There Cunningham founded the University of Wynwood, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing contemporary literature in the region.

While the name conjures up images of a tree-lined, sprawling academic campus, it is really a whimsical tongue-in-cheek homage to the growing arts district in Miami Beach where Cunningham and like-minded colleagues often are found gallery hopping or deep in conversation at a local pub.

“The idea for a fake university came to me after completing my master’s degree in creative writing at Florida International University in 2008,” Cunningham said. “I was anxious about losing touch with the built-in sense of community that graduate school provided in terms of class events, readings, and the camaraderie of classmates. There was nothing in the ‘real world’ that approximated that environment so I set out to establish something that could take its place.”

Along with his contemporaries, Cunningham used University of Wynwood as a platform to launch a series of lit and open mic readings, and intellectual exchanges hosted at various venues throughout Miami. Collaboration was the key to the university’s success; Cunningham partnered with galleries, libraries, and various other community groups to help people realize the power of poetry in their everyday lives.

One of the most audacious and wildly popular events in which Cunningham has participated is a monthly Poem Depot, he said. Created by a group he helped found called the Miami Poetry Collective, the Depot brings together Cunningham and up to ten other poets who set up shop along the street during a monthly ‘Art Walk’ street art festival.

“We have folding tables and manual typewriters and for $2 we create poems on the spot for people based upon a notion or idea that they suggest,” Cunningham said. The popularity of the impromptu art form exceeded his wildest expectations, he said.

In perhaps the most ambitious of his undertakings, this past spring Cunningham served as Director of O, Miami, a county-wide poetry festival held in April. The goal of the project was for every person in Miami-Dade County to encounter a poem at some point during the month. After more than a year of planning, O, Miami (the name is a mode of address and intended to underscore the evocative nature of poetry) offered more than 43 events in 30 days.

“Coming to Charlotte is perfect timing after O, Miami,” Cunningham said. “This summer is a good time for me to refocus on my work, studies, and take advantage of the incredible opportunity to collaborate with the artists and staff at the McColl.”

Cunningham came to the McColl Center with two primary personal goals:

“First, I wanted to complete a deep study of two poets I find inspiring: Miami poet Donald Justice, and one of his favorite poets, Wallace Stevens,” he said.

“Simultaneously I’m working on a manuscript to submit for publication. The organizing principle of the collection is my obsession with the composer Morton Feldman who alternatively serves as voice, subject matter, teacher, and excuse with this work. I know I’ll be finished when each poem can be removed from the context of the others and stand on its own,” he said.

Those who were lucky enough to catch Cunningham’s public reading, “Poet on a Hot Tin Roof,” at the McColl Center in late June heard Feldman references - and then some - in Cunningham’s symphonic rant that ran close to an hour. A wicked spring thunderstorm prevented him from taking his place atop the McColl roof for an outdoor read, but his performance from the third floor loft to the 100-plus crowd below was no less impressive and very warmly received.

“Many people are under the impression that poetry died 100 years ago,” he said. “Nothing could be further from the truth. We are entering a period where poetry is incredibly relevant. We live in a world where we are saturated with text - especially short form text. Poetry is an art form that pushes language into new places. The structure of poetry is limitless; I see so many opportunities."



Cunningham next will perform his work in a more traditional reading Friday evening, Aug. 19,  in an event billed as: “Side Two: A Live Mix Tape.” He will alternate between reading original poems and playing tracks from his iTunes library that informed the poems’ creation. Between readings and tracks, he will discuss the structural, tonal and thematic connections and disconnections he sees between the two art forms.

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