Aesthetic Drift #18 by Freesia McKee
When you move to a new city and tell strangers that you’re a poet, brace yourself for reactions like, “Do you actually make money?” and “I don’t really get poetry.” But when you tell strangers in Miami that you’re a poet, they tend to say, “Have you heard of O, Miami? Wait till April.”
O, Miami is a colossus of poetry in South Florida, famous for its unusual methods of getting verse into the hands of every Miamian during National Poetry Month. One of their many programs this year is “A Room of One’s Own: A Teeny Tiny Poetry Residency.”
A different poet took residence each day for a week in the Bridge Tender House, a windowed kiosk built in 1939 which stands in front of the Wolfsonian Museum on South Beach. Originally used as an office for bridge operators, the Tender House was moved to this stretch of sidewalk in the 1980s.
For our residencies, the museum staff outfitted the place like a 1940’s office with old photos, a vintage LIFE Magazine, wooden shelves, and all sorts of fun objects for poets to play with like fancy paper, sharp pencils, a Roget’s Thesaurus, and a typewriter. Poets were encouraged to write any kind of poems in any style. Ideally, we’d also interact with the steady stream of pedestrians.
Since my residency fell on Friday the 13th, I’d decided to hand out GOOD OMENS. I enlisted the help of my girlfriend Jade to distribute the omens and play a little live music.
Here’s what threw a wrench into the works: struggling with a cold, I completely lost my voice on the 12th. I would need to distribute the omens without speaking.
The Tender House was full of creative energy. In addition to the vintage setup, the windows were filled with the poems of previous residents. They each took a different approach, some writing on envelopes, some using the typewriter. I felt at home.
We got right to work. Not knowing how many Miamians would need an omen that day, I’d prepared some beforehand, which we painter-taped to the outside of the house. With the windows open, Jade started playing her saxophone and I sat in front of the typewriter to write fresh omens for the luck-hungry public.
The foot traffic in South Beach is perfect for a project like this. Someone walks by every four or five seconds. We ignored those who were engrossed in technology and focused on people who had the capacity to receive.
Someone who took an omen asked if he could write one about “Trumpski,” but we said that sounded more like a bad omen, not a good one. Another group, interested in the sax, told us they felt like they were in New Orleans. We handed them omens. They didn’t seem particularly interested, but graciously accepted them anyway.
We distributed omens to tourists, locals, security guards, runners, dog walkers, fellow poets, beach-goers, people carrying many bags, friends, museum staff, and several sets of parents and children.
We communicated through the universal language of poetry in many dialects: French, Spanish, English, and rough hand signals. Jade did most of the talking. After heavily medicating myself with copious amounts of slippery elm tea, I even got my voice back (a little).
One person said that Friday the 13th was her late mother’s favorite day. She lifted her good omen to us as if to “cheers” and said, “This is for her.”
Another told us about his “death app,” which reminds you five times a day to contemplate death. He said, “When you’re mad or jealous of someone, think about where they’ll be in 300 years. They’ll be dust. You’ll be dust, too! None of it matters! It’s great!” He showed us the most recent reminder, a Philip Larkin quote. Jade and I dually noted that we want to look into getting this app for ourselves.
We handed out close to 100 good omens. Before we left, we taped several unclaimed omens to the windows. Should you find yourself walking in South Beach over the next few weeks, I invite you to take a look.
When I was a kid, I dreamed of having a booth similar to Lucy’s “Psychiatric Help, 5 Cents” in Peanuts, except instead of therapy, I’d be giving the public “Information.” Who knew that all I had to do was become a poet?
I love the delicious possibility in public writing projects. Community poetics explodes the notion of creative writing as a solitary act. It’s always good for writers to meet our readers face-to-face, and projects like O, Miami’s afford us the opportunity to think outside the bookstore, bar, or art gallery. Poetry readers and writers are everywhere. Should we be so lucky to encounter each other on the sidewalk.
Thank you to all the poets of the week for filling the Tender House with creative energy. Special thanks to Heather Cook, the Wolfsonian, O, Miami, and to Jade. Your support of poetry is a good omen for all of us. To learn more about O, Miami, visit http://www.omiami.org/.
Freesia McKee is author of the chapbook How Distant the City (Headmistress Press, 2017). Her words have appeared in cream city review, The Feminist Wire, Painted Bride Quarterly, Gertrude, Huffington Post, and Sundress Press’s anthology Political Punch: Contemporary Poems on the Politics of Identity. Freesia lives in North Miami.