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The City and the Writer: In Miami with P. Scott Cunningham

By Nathalie Handal

Author Photo: Christina Frigo

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.                              
 —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Miami as you feel/see it?

The default mood Miami is always set to is “extreme optimism.” Even among those of us who acknowledge Miami’s very serious issues (inequality, transportation, flooding), there is a faith that a new generation of local leaders will address these issues.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

I don’t think I’m the right person to provide a heartbreaking memory that will be representative of this city. Just last night, we had another teenager die in a drive-by shooting. Whatever heartbreak I’ve experienced is a luxury compared to what a lot of people in this city struggle with.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

That there’s so little decent breakfast food. 

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Who is really from Miami? It’s actually a difficult way to categorize our literary life. And honestly, I don’t really like nailing down who is “from” Miami and who isn’t because I think you start getting into thorny territory about who belongs where pretty quickly. That said, among people who were born here or spend or have spent significant time in Miami (which is a huge category, far too many to name), the ones whose work has inspired me the most are Lorenzo García Vega, Donald Justice, Jennine Capó Crucet, Legna Rodríguez Iglesias, Campbell McGrath, Diana Abu-Jabar, and Russell Banks.

Is there a place here you return to often?

There’s a French café called Buena Vista Deli where I am frequently mistaken for furniture. 

Is there an iconic literary place we should know? 

The original Books & Books in Coral Gables. It’s the Alpha and Omega of literature in Miami. 

Are their hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Miami is one hidden city after another, but recently, the one I’ve been fascinated with is Hialeah, which has to have the highest concentration of zany small businesses anywhere in the world. I had lunch there the other day, and a resident told me about a guy who drives around in a station wagon full of puppets. At stoplights, he’ll pull out one of the puppets and do a little show for whoever is next to him. These kinds of weird miracles are pretty common in Miami.

Where does passion live here?

As long as you’re not stuck on someone’s yacht, you probably won’t miss it. People are not shy here. 

What is the title of one of your works about Miami and what inspired it exactly?

“Ya Te Veo” is a poem I wrote that is based on a myth about a plant in South America that eats people. My friend Nathaniel Sandler, a local writer who specializes in the weird and unconventional, showed me an illustration of the Ya Te Veo tree in a book on cryptobotany. He now accuses me of stealing the subject matter from him, which is already a very “Miami” kind of situation, but also, the idea that nature might, and perhaps should, take revenge on us is, I think, a rational response to living in a place where an unfortunate number of people have little or no regard for the environment. (Note: Nathaniel’s not actually mad at me.)  

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Miami does an outside exist?”

The strength of Miami is its fluidity of borders, not only in geographic terms but also in terms of its culture. Things change here. That’s what makes the city so exciting and what keeps me believing in its future. 


P. Scott Cunningham is the Director of the O, Miami Poetry Festival and Jai-Alai Books. His poems, essays, and translations have appeared in Harvard Review, The Awl, A Public Space, RHINO, Los Angeles Review of Books, Tupelo Quarterly, Monocle, and The Guardian, among others. A graduate of Wesleyan University, he lives in Miami with his wife Christina.

Published Apr 20, 2016   Copyright 2016 Nathalie Handal

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