Poetry Paella on South Beach
by Chauncey Mabe
A Delicious end to Miami’s National Poetry Month in Miami
Almost nothing went as planned for Poetry Paella, the annual event that closes out National Poetry Month at The Betsy Hotel (thebetsyhotel.com). Torrential rains forced the occasion indoors. Featured poet Gerald Stern, the 90-year-old living godfather of American poetry, could not attend. And yet the evening was a resounding success. It’s been that kind of year for O, Miami and The Betsy – South Beach, partners in the by now nationally famous regional celebration of all things poetical each April.
Pablo Cartaya, Betsy’s Manager of Literary Programs (quite possible the only person with that job title in the country), opened the evening by quoting the hotel’s motto: “Creativity takes courage.” It’s a line written by Matisse that sums up the hotel’s commitment to all things artistic, and was worn on many lapels by night’s end, as that pin and refreshments were free and flowing for attendees.
The evening’s first bit of small daring, a reading by, Carlos Pintado, a Cuban-American poet who read his poems in Spanish, without translation. But it was a fitting addition to a month that featured numerous gestures across Miami’s language divide that both O, Miami and The Betsy are committed to traversing and connecting. In any case, even this monolingual English speaker could feel the rhythm in Pintado’s verses, and his humble enthusiasm for being on the bill with more prominent poets was charming and infectious.
While Stern bowed out of the event a few weeks earlier after a fall interrupted his plans, his poetry was recited by admirers like FIU’s Campbell McGrath and O, Miami’s Scott Cunningham who read poems by the American master throughout the evening, and they shared stories. Also on hand, Stern’s wife, Anne Marie Macari, a distinguished poet in her own right, who read from her new collection, Red Deer.“ “Miami is the place to be now, and Gerry is devastated he couldn’t come,” she said. “He said, ‘It’s too bad we have to cancel.’ And I said, ‘No, I’m going.’” Anne Marie was also a visiting writer in Betsy’s Writer’s Room for a few days on either side of the reading.
Another headliner was Major Jackson, an award-winning African-American poet. He read poems powerful and tender. He praised Stern (“a modern Whitman”) as one of his avatars. “I shouldn’t read from my first book, because most of it is cribbed from Gerry,” he joked. He too praised the Betsy and O Miami. “During Poetry Month, this feels like the spiritual center of the poetry world. I want to thank my friends in Miami for what they stand for…”
The Betsy’s Poetry Paella’s 2015 reading and feeding was moved to the lobby of the Carlton Hotel, due to undergo extensive remodeling in a few weeks that will join it to The Betsy. It suddenly seemed appropriate that this would be the last event in the old Carlton, as this will be a public convening space even in its new incarnation. “It’s been another great year for us and for O, Miami. We’re proud to say we were into poetry in Miami even before it was cool, “ said Deborah Briggs, who runs Betsy’s arts programs and is the daughter of mid-century poet Hyam Plutzik whose work was recited and then performed in a musical setting by singers from Florida Grand Opera.
Cunningham added his voice to the praise heaped on The Betsy, a key partner in his powerful poetry program for six years now. “We do events all over Miami-Dade, but the Betsy feels like home, thanks to all of our friends here,” he said. “Our goal was to reach everyone in the county with a poem during April. I think we’ve just about gotten to all 2.5 million people.”
Guest Blogger, Chauncey Mabe is a seasoned journalist with a 20-year legacy of exemplary literary criticism for South Florida’s Sun Sentinel. This Spring, with funding from The John S. and James L Knight Foundation, The Betsy-South Beach has engaged Mabe in a project to document literary programs from the inside out – sharing the creative viewpoints and talents of wide-ranging writers who connect with Miami’s literary community through residencies in The Betsy’s Writers Room (betsywritersroom.com) during March, April, and May, 2015
O, Miami is a Knight Foundation-funded poetry festival, with a mission to reach every single person in Miami-Dade County with a poem during the month of April (National Poetry Month). Poetry Paella is one of O, Miami’s culminating events, held each year at The Betsy Hotel, co-presented this year with The Academy of American Poets and The Plutzik Poetry Series at the University of Rochester.
The Betsy-South Beach, named by CNN as one of the world’s leading Literary Hotels, has been O, Miami’s host hotel since the Festival’s founding in 2009. All of O, Miami’s visiting poets are hosted in The Betsy Writer’s Room, and many events are held at the Hotel. For more information: (betsywritersroom.com).