When you first go to the website for the University of Wynwood in Miami, you might mistake it for an actual academic institution, if you’re not paying close attention. Look, there is a list with the school’s mission, its faculty numbers, tuition rate, even its mascot. Except—the listed number of faculty: zero. Students: zero. Tuition: Free. Mascot: The Lady Python—which actually does have a story behind it, involving snakes and the rambling logic of the University of Wynwood’s founder, P. Scott Cunningham. Who is, in fact, a real person.
The stated mission, in fact, illuminates the real thrust of the University of Wynwood: to “curate an imaginary Miami,” a Miami that is what its inhabitants would like it to be. “Miami is in a sense always the imaginary Miami,” Scott told me when I met him during SOTRU’s reporting trip there this year. “It’s always the Miami of the future. Miami is always about imagining itself and what it could be, as [opposed] to what it used to be.” I got this sense, too, traveling around the city, talking to the wide sampling of people that SOTRU always encounters during production: this is a city that is relentlessly forward-looking—sometimes to its detriment. Development seems not to be an “if” in this city, but a “when,” regardless of what treasured history might be in its path. But the upside of that attitude is that this is a prime place to experiment. “There’s this sense that we can always be better than what we are,” Scott says, “we could always start a new project; we can totally reinvent ourselves and become this completely new city, which is what to me makes it really exciting to live here.”
It also makes it really exciting to start a fictional university here, with an aim as ephemeral as its mission indicates: to make Miami a more poetic place. Scott and his partner in many of the University’s endeavors, Pete Borrebach, are both poets who met while getting their creative writing MFAs at an actual academic institution, Florida International University. That program seems to have bred a longing for community involvement in many of the young writers it’s trained; Scott, Pete and a group of fellow students also started the Miami Poetry Collective, whose Poem Depots literally brought poetry to the streets, with members selling poetry written-on-demand. The University of Wynwood also came out of a desire to “have poets be civic people,” as Scott says, and a sense that a literary community might come out of the woodwork in Miami, if writers had something—even a fictional something—to rally around. And, lest you think that these young men are all fancy ideas and no action, just check out what they spent their April doing.
The University of Wynwood’s largest endeavor to date was “O, Miami,” a county-wide poetry festival that lasted the entire month, with a goal of having every single person in Miami-Dade County encounter a poem during April. Funded by a generous grant from the Knight Foundation, O Miami was unlike any poetry festival you’ve ever heard of. Yes, there were readings—oodles of them—and poets pontificating on their craft. But there were also “Poem Drops,” in which poems fell from the skies on unsuspecting residents in neighborhoods like Coral Gables and Little Haiti. Or a partnership with a local artist, Agustina Woodgate, to do a project called “Poetry Tags.” “We gave her a bunch of labels with lines of poetry on them,” Scott says, “and she went around Miami throughout the month clandestinely sewing those labels into random items of clothing in thrift stores.” You can watch a video of that here:
They bought advertising space on airplane banners, but not to draw crowds to a reading. A line from Rilke, instead– “You Must Change Your Life”– rippled across the heavens above Miami during April, as did “Naciste para vivir en una isla” (roughly “You were born to live on an island”) from Octavio Paz, which Scott says flew over beachgoers every weekend during the month. (And for a video about that one, check here. )
While Scott says they’re not sure they actually made their goal of reaching each individual in the county, they certainly broadened poetry’s usual audience in Miami, through unconventional efforts like those above. And they’re ambitious about the future: “Moving forward,” Scott says, “we’d like to make deeper in-roads into populations that we only scratched the surface of: the prison system, schools, women’s shelters, [the neighborhoods of] Overtown, Hialeah, Homestead, Sweetwater, etc… [This] was really only an opening salvo.”
And that’s the great thing about the imaginary—whether it’s a university or an entire city: it’s totally up to you, to create at will… Which reminds me of something Pete said, back during our trip to Miami, that “a poem only exists when it’s being read out loud or if it’s being read from the page by a reader. And in the same way, University of Wynwood, without a building, without any faculty, we’re really our audience and our participants.” So a poetry festival can exist, too, sewn into the hemlines of secondhand clothes and written across the sky. “Whenever the University of Wynwood happens,” Scott says, “it’s only happening in that moment and it’s disappearing back into the ether of Miami.”