Interview

“Miami Hates You”

P. Scott Cunningham on launching a publishing imprint, what a Basque sport has to do with books, and why nothing in Miami is ever settled.

P. Scott Cunningham is nothing if not ambitious. The mission of the O, Miami Poetry Festival that he and his organization—also called O, Miami—put on each year is for every person in Miami–Dade County to encounter a poem during the month of April. The festival has featured such projects as distributing 2,500 scratch-off lottery tickets designed by the artist Augustina Woodgate around an original poem by Mary Ruefle, and having poet Dave Landsberger drive a Ferrari 360 Modena Spider around the city for a day reading poems through a megaphone. In 2011, Fast Company named Cunningham one of 51 “brilliant urbanites who are helping to build the cities of America’s future.”

In 2014, O, Miami launched Jai-Alai Books, a publishing imprint designed to create a literary voice for Miami. If its first two poetry collections, Last Night I Dreamt I Was a DJ by Frank Baez and Suicide by Jaguar by Landsberger, are any indication, Jai-Alai seems poised to show how, in an increasingly globalized world, one effective way to be international is to be local (at least in certain diverse cities): to allow for a cosmopolitanism that’s idiosyncratic, surprising, and sincere. In late January, when he was already gearing up for this year’s O, Miami festival, Cunningham answered some questions via email, including what a Basque sport has to do with books and why a healthy publishing scene is key to the artistic health of a community. The following is an edited version of our email exchange.

Instead of facts about Jai-Alai Books’ beginnings, the Origins page on your website is a micro-essay illustrated with black-and-white photographs about the sport of jai alai and its connection to Miami, ending with the question “What does this have to do with publishing?” and the answer “Well, everything.” The subtlety and argument by implication there are admirable and poetic unto themselves, but can you say more about the press’s origins—how you came to found it and why?

First and foremost, I’ve wanted to make books for a very long time. I love them, and I have great respect for the craft and history that goes into it. Our organization mostly produces events in order to build literary culture and community in Miami. I’ve been doing that for seven years now, and in that time, I haven’t encountered a single Miami-based literary press publishing books in English. There have been some in the region’s history, and there is a great zine culture, but there’s no Graywolf, no Akashic, not even a Black Ocean. Luckily, around the time we were formulating the press, a lot of other book projects started to crop up here, and I think a real community is starting to form, which is part of our goal.

Which brings me to the name. We wanted a name that said “Miami” without saying “Miami,” and we love that jai alai, which is difficult to spell and not correctly pronounced (“hi-li”) according to any recognizable English-language guideline, is kind of a poem in and of itself.

Plus, the sport is very tied to Miami’s history. Jai alai, which some people may know from Mad Men, is a Basque sport brought to the United States in the early part of the 20th century and then really pushed as a potentially mainstream phenomenon in the postwar years. If you look at the history of jai alai in the U.S., it matches up pretty neatly with the history of domestic paperback books. As the publishing market was exploding in the ’50s and ’60s via this new format, you also had this weird sport from Spain spreading to various parts of the U.S., and mostly to Florida, where you had a booming elderly population that loved to gamble. Jai alai was great at convincing people who bet on horse racing to also come over to the fronton. The betting system is virtually identical, plus it happens indoors, which is preferable in the summer. Then a few bad things happened: the players went on strike, organized crime got involved, Miami turned upside down in the ’80s, and it all went south. The audience dried up, and these thousand-seat venues that used to be packed were virtually empty.

The only reason it still exists is that Florida passed a law in 2003 allowing table gambling only on sites where there were preexisting parimutuel games (i.e., dog tracks and jai alai frontons), making jai alai essentially the “nonprofit” of the sports world. At Casino Miami Jai Alai, the jai alai matches lose almost a million dollars a year, but the casino makes more than a million dollars a year to cover for it. Since the existence of the latter is dependent upon the former, you have this weird marriage of a very ritualistic and ornate sport that requires an enormous amount of square footage supporting, and supported by, a small collection of poker tables and digital slot machines. One of the other Florida frontons actually got in trouble for embracing the charade and hiring two guys to play jai alai against each other behind a curtain, just to meet the letter of the law and operate a casino. Doesn’t that kind of sound like modern publishing?

All the best imprints that publish poetry are nonprofits or adjuncts of bigger houses. Poetry survives by being “literature,” aka something worth saving, its existence subsidized by textbooks, self-help, vampires, etc. Jai alai, like poetry, insists on retaining outdated methods (both the ball and the basket must be handmade), and no matter how many people show up, the game has a thrilling beauty to it.

“Scott
P. Scott Cunningham

 

You mention that you hadn’t encountered literary presses putting out work in English, and that’s one of the aspects that intrigued me about the first two poetry collections Jai-Alai has released. For one thing, both Dave Landsberger’s Suicide by Jaguar and Frank Baez’s Last Night I Dreamt I Was a DJ were brilliant and a delight to read. For another, both were published in back-to-back double editions where if you read the book one way, it’s in Spanish and if you read it the other, it’s in English. How did Jai-Alai decide to release them in this bilingual format—as opposed to, say, just publishing them in one language or the other, or perhaps publishing the translations on facing pages?

In Miami, neither English nor Spanish is the dominant language. One is not the default, and, to me, translation on facing pages implies a base language, a norm. We wanted anyone who picked it up to feel like the book was created for her. If you pick up Dave’s book in Spanish, for instance, it’s not just the poems that are in Spanish but the front matter as well. In every way, each book is two books from two different continents smashed together.

We definitely won’t do every book like this, not even every poetry book. For one, it creates a lot of challenges. (Where do you put the ISBN?) And part of the fun of it was that the form seemed to fit the occasion of us publishing these two poets—one Latin American, one North American—simultaneously. Two years ago, my plan for the press was to only publish poets in tandem, one Spanish-language, one English-language, and make it a series. But I realized in the end that I’m not interested in making the world fit into one narrow idea. It’s much more fun to approach each project as a whole new challenge and an opportunity to rethink everything.

While we’re on the subject, can you say a bit about how you select manuscripts? In addition to the poetry books, you’ve also released Forager: A Subjective Guide to Miami’s Edible Plants. What kind of range is Jai-Alai going for?

Jai-Alai will publish in all different genres. Of any potential book, the press’s creative director, Seth Labenz, and I ask, “Does it challenge us and get us excited?” Then we ask ourselves, “How will Miami readers respond?” Genre doesn’t enter into it. Both of us love all types of books, and we don’t want to have any other agenda in advance. We’re going to start accepting submissions at some point in 2015. It’s important to me that anyone can pitch us a book or a book project. We’ll give preference to Miamians, but Miami’s only the inspiration for what we do. We won’t let it limit us.

You mention that you’ve been doing events in Miami for about seven years. How and why did you begin your O, Miami work? How you have seen both it and the city of Miami evolve—for better or for worse—over the course of those years?

I was about to graduate from the MFA program at FIU, and I was a little anxious about leaving the community of the program. Having been out of school for a while before I went back, I know how isolated you can be as a writer when you don’t have a built-in community. While I was finishing up my thesis in 2008, I started hosting a few small events—readings and lectures mostly—with locals. At the same time, a few of us, including Dave Landsberger, started Poem Depot, our version of selling poems on the street with manual typewriters. I remember spending so much time revising and mailing out poems (in envelopes!) to literary journals and not getting much response, whereas every time we did Poem Depot I was meeting and interacting with readers. It started to make me think that perhaps literary journals weren’t the only places I could exist as a poet. It also brought me into contact with a lot of people who clearly appreciated poetry, but did so completely outside of the modern academic and publishing context. Based on the success of what we had been doing, the Knight Foundation let me pitch them on doing a whole festival. Miami was going through a moment of cultural transformation at the time. Art Basel Miami Beach had been around just long enough to become a sensation, and I wanted to do something that spoke specifically to Miami as a place and that reached a general audience, aka people without MFAs. In retrospect, the timing was really lucky. Miami in the new century has been an absolutely ideal place to launch an overly ambitious cultural project.

I was fascinated/semi-appalled by Pamela Druckerman’s New York Times opinion piece last summer called “Miami Grows Up. A Little,” which seemed able to muster only the faintest of praise for your current and her former metropolis. Then I was heartened to see your series of pointed yet reasonable tweets in response. (My favorite one: “Since when is sentimentality about one’s city a sign of immaturity? No one is sentimental about Paris, huh?”) As someone who loves but is not (I hope) sentimental about my own city, Chicago, I want to ask why you’ve made Miami your home and why you think raising its cultural profile is such a valuable and necessary thing to do.

Druckerman made a couple of good points, first and foremost that there is a gigantic wealth gap in this city that is unsustainable, but that was buried beneath a pretty sloppy approach that didn’t acknowledge any of the complexity of the cultural scene here. Dave Landsberger has a poem I love called “Miami Hates You.” This city’s indifference or even anger toward newcomers is a sentiment I’ve heard a lot from people moving here from places like New York, D.C., Chicago, Portland, and San Francisco, which are all cities that want you to be able to navigate them upon first visit. Miami isn’t like that at all. It’s been rebuilt and redesigned so many times, without any logical rubric, that sometimes it feels like a giant escape-room game without any clues. For instance, before World War II, the neighborhood of Overtown was the Black Paris, full of jazz clubs and literary salons. It was an incredibly well-functioning and sophisticated place. Then we plowed Interstate 95 through the middle and destroyed it. We do things like this all the time. We are a town of crooks, dreamers, and screw-ups, but at least nothing is ever settled and it’s never boring. For instance, there’s zero malaise in Miami like I’ve witnessed in other cities I’ve spend significant time in. No one in Miami ever says, “Oh man, you should have been here five years ago! This place is dead now.”

In terms of getting your books out of Miami and into the hands of readers, Jai-Alai does not sell its books on Amazon. You say on the site, “We don’t feel that, at this particular time, Amazon is the right partner for us,” and apologize for any inconvenience. Why did you decide not to go with Amazon, and are you confident in your ability to sell your books without their storefront?

Before we launched, everyone who knew anything about publishing told us, “Distribution is really hard,” so we put as much thought into that as any other aspect of the bookmaking. Amazon obviously has an incredible reach. However you feel about them as a company, you have to admit that they get the most number of objects to the most number of people the fastest. The idea that we could get our books to a larger audience easily and quickly is appealing to me, but I just decided that their system isn’t for us. This realization started with me wondering why distribution was always couched as a problem. Like, if distribution is the real meat of the publishing business, why would we export it to a multinational corporation that doesn’t know who we are? I would never dream of exporting any other aspect of the bookmaking, so why am I considering it for what is perhaps the most important part of the entire venture? That’s when we stopped thinking of shipping as a problem and started thinking of it as part of our creative process, something that could be part of the reading experience, and we started to build it out, piece by piece. Melody Santiago, our operations director, worked with our creative director, Seth, to design the packaging to be beautiful and personal. I wrote a manifesto and we printed it on packaging tape, so that as soon as you get the box, before you’ve even opened it, you’re already reading something. If you think about it, the transaction of the box arriving is the only truly intimate contact we’ll have with some customers. That’s our moment to show them how much we care about what we do, and how much we care about them. Why waste that? Now shipping is something that gets us as excited as the book design or the editorial meetings. Jai-Alai Books is heaven to us. We don’t want any single part of it to feel less imaginative than any other.

Originally Published: February 25th, 2015

Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. She teaches English and creative writing at DePaul University and is...

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  1. February 28, 2015
     Juneper

    Profound. So admirable. Your heart
    and undertakings,be blessed...

  2. February 28, 2015
     Angela McEwan

    So glad Jai Alai is active in Miami.
    La Moderna Poesía did not seem
    to be doing much.
    Suerte!
    Angela McEwan