Transcript: Pleasant Surprises, Not Pleasant Surprises — Melody Santiago Cummings, Ep: 14
Kristen: I'm Kristen Soller and you're tuning into Kidnapped For Dinner: conversations with creatives about the disorienting moments, fears and failures in the creative process and the very missteps to success.
Tonight, we're welcoming the lovely Melody Santiago Cummings who has over 10 years of experience in art administration, business development, community organizing, event planning and publishing under her belt.
She is the Operations Manager for O, Miami - a non-profit organization dedicated to building literary arts and culture in Miami, Florida. O, Miami programming includes an annual month-long poetry festival, a publishing imprint, and a poets-in-schools residency among others that expand access to poetry. Melody also serves as Managing Director for Jai-Alai Books, O, Miami's independent publishing arm.
Melody, welcome to the show.
Melody: Hi. Thank you for having me.
Kristen: I want to clear this question up before I really begin my questions: Tell me about the goats.
Melody: Oh my god. So, somehow goats keep finding themselves or finding their way to me. I don't have goats. But in the past six months, I've had a few pretty amazing goat moments.
We were at a - through O, Miami we did a teaching institute at Felix Varela High School down in West Kendall and the school's amazing, they have this farm care veterinary program and our second day there, where we had maybe like 65 teachers and the Poetry Foundation and maybe like 12 teaching instructors, a student just mentioned, "Oh, my goat gave birth. Do you want to see my goat?"
And then everything completely shut down - I don't care who's here, what's going on, let me meet this one-day baby goat. And so, a bunch of us teachers and facilitators just like snuck out of these series of workshops and spent 40 minutes with a day old baby goat that smelled like a barn but also like heaven at the same time and had a crispy little umbilical cord and I loved it and I have pictures of me almost to the verge of weeping.
And then two, no three weeks ago, we did a poetry workshop with Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Treatment Center with some patients and some recovered cancer survivors. I invited my aunt who brought her two daughters and they just acquired two tiny baby goats. And so that was a total derailment, too, going through maybe like 40 goat pictures just oo-ing and ah-ing and now I get tagged in goat stuff on social media.
At one point, it's gonna happen - we're going to have a goatetry festival instead of a poetry festival. So, that's my goat thing. I want more of them in my life - at least, baby goats, not like an aggressive threatening adult goat.
Kristen: Can I throw out a suggestion of goats and yoga and poetry?
Melody: Yes. Yes. I mean, if someone has a goat yoga event happening in South Florida, I can easily bring some poetry. Just let me get them baby goats.
Kristen: All right. Well, so I know your background - you have a BFA in photography and mixed media from Massachusetts College of Fine Art and then spent a few years doing recruitment for Miami International University of Art and Design, as well as the Farwell Group and then found yourself at University of Wynwood, now known as O, Miami, I believe in 2014-2013?
Kristen: So, is it safe to assume that you didn't always imagine yourself in a kind of operations/project management role?
Melody: I don't really know if that was the master plan, but I always wanted to kind of use my skill sets and just have an opportunity to meet amazing people and be involved in large-scale things and have, you know, kind of like a toe in the creative world and like a toe in the real world, I guess out of this upbringing that you need to have a head in business and the real world. You know, my parents were always like La La Land: this was this thing that was like a threat that I lived in or I would easily go to.
But I think the lines kind of blur now a little bit between artist, planner, community organizer, arts administration. You need to have a sense of working larger scale, but you can still be creative. So, I think I'm in that little Venn diagram of both.
Kristen: A lot of overlap. What led you into your role with O, Miami?
Melody: Well, I joined in 2013, right before the second or the third festival — because it was a little mini festival in 2012 — but I came right on board right before my first festival in 2013.
And I was previously working for a for-profit, real university. And then I discovered this thing, this entity called University of Wynwood that was like a fake university run by a non-profit. I was like - Oh my god, this seems like it might neutralize my career, being, you know, part of this slog that is these for-profit schools and not that necessarily I felt like I had to make a significant shift but something was really drawing me.
I was kind of feeling a moment of: do I go to grad school? Like, that itch where you're not sure and where it's like do I make art, do I support the arts? And then this opportunity came up where it was kind of like a hybrid — it was like grassroots community organizing, it was in a creative field, it was in poetry, but it was also much more than that.
So, it was like, dive right in, let's do this thing. So yeah, it's been my fifth festival, my fifth year with O, Miami.
Melody: Thank you.
Kristen: It takes a lot of open-mindedness too to kind of, you know, join an organization that's still budding because you could have easily just said, "Eh, that's not for me. It's not established. I want to make art or I want to work for XYZ."
Melody: I was so drawn to how sort of mysterious it was and even now, I think some people consider or sort of are maybe mistaken that O, Miami, or University of Wynwood, but mainly O, Miami is this institution and other people realize that it isn't. It's kind of still this scrappy, gritty, little thing, but I was just so drawn by the potential and all of the misconceptions and at the very beginning there was this lore and all these mythologies of University Wynwood and that it was founded by the founder of Wynwood that was Tobias Rodriguez Wynwood and there's this whole legend and I was like, "I don't know what's going on, but I am so in." And I think the sort of elasticity of this thing has always attracted me.
Kristen: The name also kind of subverts, you know, the idea of this university, institution that is so typically respected and I think that's why some people are drawn to university jobs that this is a big name —
Melody: — this little gravitas.
Kristen: Right, exactly.
Melody: I mean this organization is still University of Wynwood, it's our legal entity. My email is that, my business cards, when I find them...
And I could tell really quickly when I'm cold emailing or someone hasn't met me when they think I'm an institution because they'll see University of Wynwood. I have to be like, "Skrrrt. It's just me. I'm e-mailing you from a phone. [laughter] I'm a vulnerable person and we don't have any money." So yeah, there's this sort of stigma, this aura that kind of carries with it. And even the name, "O, Miami" that is also sort of like mysterious and amusing and confusing, at the same time.
Kristen: People are like, "Let me talk to your registrar, right now."
And then your voice is on the other line, again.
Melody: I'm like, "No, that was me. Hi."
Kristen: [laughter] So, I pulled this little nugget from an old blog I found —
Melody: Oh, yeah!
Kristen: — that you kept.
Melody: I had a blog when I was like suffering in Corporate America.
Kristen: You needed an outlet!
Melody: I did!
Kristen: I used to have a Xanga [laughter] and an Open Diary.
Melody: Oh my God! So, you know, you know...
Kristen: I know what that feels like.
Melody: Dude, the Internet changed my life at that time. I had what I call "Websties, " like I made lifelong, really devoted friends from the web. We've met each other, we've been to each other's weddings, just because I had a terrible nine-to-five sort of corporate wear-pantyhose-ponytail-job and on the sly I had this like secret life as a blogger.
So now, what are you going to bring up to like completely embarrass me, because also early OTS Internet and the way we view things: totally cringe-worthy.
Kristen: No, I thoroughly enjoyed your blog and not in a mocking way.
Melody: How do I - I want to close this out. Damn you, Blogger. [laughter]
Kristen: It says, "This ambitious project is a culmination of all my interests and time spent admiring Dutch still-life paintings, curiosities and crappy taxidermy. I'll keep posting as it progresses. The studio setup is like riding a bike. It was bumpy and awkward at first, but I'm really excited to be on the ride."
So, I think you're writing about your thesis.
Melody: Hm, my God - yeah when I was like, maybe I want to go to grad school? What is this hole I have?
Kristen: Do you still make Fine Art?
Melody: Not really. No. No, and I don't even think I really like the term "Fine Art." It was always this sort of kitschy, commercial, hyper-precious thing. Never like, "Oh, I'm going to call this thing Fine Art." Even with a fine art degree, I was like [grumble].
Kristen: Right, there's always a hesitation to kind of label that work that is so personal.
Melody: I feel like it was crafting.
Kristen: Yeah. I saw a lot of interesting photos too, I think you had a post with hair. It was a very hair-themed post.
Melody: It kinda like, it devolved, it became me posting pictures of my dog doing other things. Recreating other people's artwork with like putting my dog in it.
Kristen: It was pre-Instagram account, for dogs, pre-MySpace account, Facebook account —
Melody: Totally. Pre-Instagram. Like, if Instagram existed at that time, I would have just been thumb-scrolling for hours at my dumb desk, but I was like really kind of super good at fake-working. I could maximize 30% of my time at work and then spend the rest on this like, you know, blogosphere with all my web friends and you keep this like - devote this energy to just now you're like, "All right, I'm going to double tap this picture, even though it's that's not that good, but I'm gonna support you girl." But you do that back then in the blogger days.
And so it sidetracked. I had a second blog called Fake Working with like —
Kristen: — I didn't see that one. [laughter]
Melody: Because we were like, "We're gonna get in trouble." [laughter] And then me and this other equally overworked Corporate America creative genius brain, not that I'm saying I'm too, but she was. She and I started fake-working and it was just a blog about how to fake work and pictures of people hating themselves at their desk —
Kristen: You need to resurrect this blog.
Melody: It was fun.
Kristen: But, don't they say it's not how much you work. But, I'm butchering the phrase. It's not about how much you work, but just working smart.
Melody: That's what I was doing. I was working smarter, not harder. I think a lot of corporate America, and it's just my opinion, but I think a lot of it you have to have so many employees. You have to create this large infrastructure that's like scaffolding of staff because people only give so much of a crap. So you're getting super brilliant people that are like, "Here's 40% of my energy and the rest, I'm just going to phone it in."
Whereas, in this cultural environment, this non-profit grassroots environment, you're literally giving your blood, sweat and tears and I could not phone in O, Miami, I'm like run ragged because you have such a sense of accomplishment and ownership and you're it. It's like you, and if you're lucky, three other people if that's a robust team.
Um, so it's this huge shift. I was part of this larger corporate thing that I was like, "Oh, yeah. I'm here. I brushed my teeth...Be thankful."
Kristen: —"I clocked in."
Kristen: So amidst all of that and even in your work today, do you still think about making work or pursuing those projects?
Melody: Yeah, I mean there's a huge part of me that - I mean, you're always challenging yourself that you're like, "Am I doing enough? Do I see my parents enough? Am I investing enough in my creative input? I feel super thankful that I have a job that I can stretch pretty much every creative muscle and challenge myself, but I still have these outlets. I knit and I keep myself busy. I could be doing more. I should be reading more like I have this tall stack of my books, you know, my nightstand is just like a dusty bookshelf.
So, I feel like even the reason I went to art school in the first place was to sort of satisfy an itch or this part of me that I felt never really was as present in high school and I never had ambitions to be a gallery supported artist. That just didn't do it for me. So, I don't feel like I'm without, by any means. My creative and sweat equity is all over this festival.
Kristen: Yeah, I think it's sometimes if you have this expectation that you're going to become this creative individual everything else might feel like it's pulling you away from that but it's hard also when you're in a job that's not typically defined as creative per se, you know, you're not only brush, you're not holding a pen. It's hard to say, "Yeah. I'm a creative person." But it's that, you know, being a creative is such a broad thing.
Melody: Yeah, I mean, that's why I think in like 2005 - er, 2007, I was like, "I need to have this outlet and support other amazing creative things that I'm seeing." And back when FFFFound was, you know, a thing, it's just like seeing and cataloging these things and I don't even have the time to keep track now because this time of year I'm so spent, so I don't seek that really purposeful art, creative blogosphere. I have to dedicate time to the studio, like back then I had a studio in a defunct church and I do not feel like I need that at all now.
Kristen: So, I know it can also be easy to find the artist's hand in a work. How might somebody characterize your work as an operations manager?
Melody: Well, I think what I can say that you see my fingerprints on the festival — it's anything that's like hyper Miami. My poetry IQ is not that high. I have always had a relationship with poetry. I have loved it. I think there's this magic and this mystery and this no rules attitude to poetry that I've always been drawn to but you can't quiz me on contemporary poetry. You can't quiz me really on anything. I'm not that person that's like, "Oh, have you seen this new title from so-and-so."
But my Miami IQ is very high, being a native and just being completely fascinated with this place. So there's like this heavy hand in some of the projects that I play, like for instance, this year, we've got a partnership with Flanigan's, which to me is such a Florida Institution. You know, there's very few places that the logo is as iconic as Flanagan's. And so I work with the team and the group of outside artists and collaborators and together, I can sort of weld these things and one of my sort of favorite things to do is just meet new people and just collect and gather friends. And so just like, "I got a guy! I have a guy for that. Like, I got a guy from Flanigan's!" That is just so satisfying to me.
So, you see my work or sort of my hand in nearly every aspect of the festival. Granted, it's a tiny org. It's P. Scott Cunningham, who's the Founder and Executive Director, myself, full-time, got an amazing team of part-time volunteers: we've got Courtney Levine and we've got Michael Martin, we've got Zain Aslam. We've got awesome people, but really, this full time is just Scott and I.
So we're just constantly trying to make each other laugh and work this thing this nebulus experiment. So, I can't even be like, "Oh, this is my part." It's just like, literally, my fingerprints are on everything.
Kristen: And maybe things with dogs.
Melody: Well, yeah. All right. Well, [laughter] any time that there is a "where's the poetry moment?" that's kind of me. So, if we can be surrounded by dogs, goats — you know, shout out to anyone again who has local goats and you want to like bring poetry [laughter] — let me know. I think a lot of the events that I will play a heavier hand are sort of experiential and definitely not like these more static poetry readings. Those have to happen, but that isn't my thing so much.
Kristen: Yeah, that's a little outdated, too.
Melody: Yeah, I mean those will happen forever. They're important.
But, I know putting poetry at a gas station — we this partnership with Tom Thumb gas station. We've got talkers, which is an industry term by the way about Nelson. Uh, we'll talk is it have poems written by Miami natives writers children? that's like where you kind of see my spark and I get to like really pull deep into my network like my parents know the family behind the Tom Thumb grocery or you know, Tom them food stores. So I'm like dad [laughter] hey, um, so it's this thing that I feel a tremendous sense of joy and satisfaction that I'm like, oh that happened because I had a contact I have a guy
Kristen: Right, you really have these deep roots here. So, you moved away to go to school. Did you imagine coming back to Miami?
Melody: No, no, so I saw so many people who were natives here and everyone says when they left, it was the worst. But I mean, I graduated in '01 and I lived down south, like down in Pinecrest, that was very Suburban, very secluded. You were going to the Falls and you were going to Sunset Place and everything was really far and it wasn't a city. It just didn't seem like that was it for me. And so I would always complain I was like, "[Sigh] this place is the worst." And so I could not wait to get out. I could not wait to go to art school and see the world or whatever you feel at that, you know, 17,18, that is not your community. Everything else is better. And I honestly did not anticipate coming back. I had this maybe like Felicity-esque vision that I would move to New York after going to art school and make it.
And then the draw called me back and my parents being here and I think also maybe because I met my now husband then who was like, "Oh, I hate Miami and the place is terrible." And I was like, "Well, we're moving back."
Kristen: — "prove you wrong."
Melody: — exactly. And it's honestly, I think the best decision I've made. I think Miami's kind of like my superpower. I don't know, maybe I could have a career where I have a guy in any city, but I think there's this weirdness, this lawlessness, this like frontierland of you can kind of get anything done, ask for forgiveness later situation that really works for me. It's not necessarily reputation-based. It's like, all right, just do it.
Kristen: It also sounds like a very symbiotic relationship, you know, you are giving a lot to Miami, Miami gives a lot to you and however much you put into it is going to come back.
Melody: I love this place. It's weird and I get it and people are like, "Oh, no, no this sucks and that sucks and there's no transit." I'm like, "Agree. Yes, I concur." But the hopefulness and that like it will get better and just wait and not the like it's-over-you-missed-your-time move. We keep thinking this Renaissance is gonna happen and this shift and —
Kristen: — it's happening now.
Melody: It's 100%, but that's always different for every person. You hear people that graduated in 2014, they're like, "Oh, you know, it wasn't like this when I moved back."
I'm like, "[sigh] It's just progressively getting better and you know, worse at the same time [laughter]."
Kristen: The Paradox of Miami...
Kristen: You had mentioned that you and Scott like to make each other laugh. How would you describe your dynamic with him? And the rest of the team in the org?
Melody: We have a great Dynamic. I mean honestly if I'm not having a good time, I'm questioning everything. I'm like, "This must be fun, this is supposed to be satisfying." So, there's a lot of positivity and it really, truly feels like family and I think anyone that has really been directly involved and embedded in the organization can say that it's this inclusive thing.
O, Miami isn't any one person. Scott's the figurehead and he's the founder, but I think it's slowly creeping away from, "Oh, it's this person. It's this entity." It's like if you can contribute a project, if you participate in one of the poetry contests, if you attend and you know, get involved and volunteer - you are O, Miami. It's this thing. Since the festival is not rooted in a place and isn't necessarily rooted in time other than the month of April, it's such a wide net that we cast, like I send people out and you are O, Miami.
So, the group dynamic is like we're all really appreciative that we're working together and that we get that this is a moment in time. I sound ridiculous, but I pinched myself. I'm like, "How is this real?" I feel like a unicorn that I'm kind of in this dreamy arts administration, sort of hybrid position that I get paid and I'm constantly being pushed and challenged. Oh, there's definitely been some major moments of challenge and difficulty than and it like is, you know, bolstered with severely intense love and appreciation from the whole group. So there's this balance. I mean, we just we have such a good time together.
Kristen: So, speaking of this idea of family, you had mentioned, when we met up before the show, that in 2017, during the festival there was this particularly challenging time for the org when P. Scott Cunningham was in the ICU for most of that month.
Can you tell us a little bit about that and maybe how that affected that dynamic?
Melody: Oh, yeah. It was so intense. I feel like I've talked about it so much, but the feeling is still pretty raw. We now joke about it, we're like, "Oh, haha, that time you almost died." But it was super unexpected.
So, last O, Miami, right at the beginning of the month, he got really ill. No one exactly knew what it was, but he was in the ICU and everything shifted. This scrappy little org, that's like two, three, four, five people that really kind of pour their all into April, we all just laser-focused, like what's going on with our friend, and we were in the hospital.
But the show must go on and you've got these commitments and you've got these media interviews and opportunities and you've got a wait list of people in Eventbrite coming to the next event. So, I had to immediately pivot. I think it was like the third or the fourth of April, but you're just sort of in this ambitious thing that we've created in this month. You're running on adrenaline, you're running on lots of caffeine in the morning, sparkling water in the afternoon and then wine as soon as you get to the event. So you're just, you know, you like all the stimulants, and then on top of this it's the anxiety of what is this? What's going on? And the realization we're all really fragile and don't push yourself to the point of almost dying. This is not worth it.
And so he was hospitalized and I then had to step it up and I always kind of felt like well, you know, the festival is mine and but he's you know, he's the talking head and he's the guy that everybody knows and then I just had to sort of stand in and thank God, I mean the team is amazing and Scott's wife Christine is amazing.
We were all filling in every little hole, every gap that we could. And it was a wake-up moment for me in the sense of, wow, I realized how much he does that I am not even aware of and it was like, "Crap. That has to happen," and then simultaneously how much I do that I can continue to do on top of this. And I think we were all so nervous and my team like super stepped it up, like no one wanted to disappoint me. There was this sense of, "Do it for Scott," and then also, "Do it for Melody, don't make her freak out like —"
Kristen: — describe that shift.
Melody: There was this sense of, you know, everyone just got it done. Everyone just got it done and you didn't sweat the small stuff also because it's not worth dying over. Like, "Oh, we forgot the bin of tote bags? Oh, well." "Oh, we brought 50 surveys not a hundred?" Shrug it off.
And I think it for me was this moment of like, I really kind of felt like, "Oh whoa, I'm pretty capable, even with my flaws, my vulnerabilities, my typos in my emails." I'm not a poet — although, poet's I will say have like really terrible communications skills —
Kristen: — it's that mystery.
Melody: Yeah, but it really was an opportunity to kind of see how community-oriented this thing was. It wasn't about any one person.
Scott being in the ICU for like 10-11 days, the festival kept on moving and it propelled and I put my pants on and I showed up and I was like, "Huh, women are pretty powerful," and everyone around, you know, I was like really impressed while simultaneously being cautious to not overwork myself. I was like, "Am I going to get that? Is that going to happen to me?"
I think that's forever changed me, that I don't fetishize being busy like, "Oh, how you doing?" "I'm really busy." Like no, I want to be healthy. I want to be healthy, like "TCB," you know, but nuh-uh.
Kristen: Were you doubting, before that, your capabilities?
Melody: I mean maybe not necessarily my capabilities, but I kind of was like, "Oh that's what - well, you do that. I don't do that. I didn't found this thing. This isn't the organization I would —"
Kristen: That sense of ownership is different.
Melody: Yeah, a little bit and then, you know again, I can't take full ownership because everyone stepped up. Like no one was like, "No, I can't today." Everyone's like, "Got it, done. I'm there."
But it was an eye-opener for me, for sure. That if I can deal with this gauntlet on top of being on my own, worried about my friend, also managing the website - like just little annoying things that you kind of have to do on a day-to-day basis for you know, make up for two people's administrative time.
Yeah, I think I kind of like, I brushed off my shoulder a little bit in May. You know, like it felt good. And so I was very very optimistic going into this year. It was like as long as we have two of us still standing we are gonna crush this thing.
Kristen: And it seems like it kind of tested that outer limit of that strong network that you guys have in the community.
Melody: Totally, and before I don't think I've done maybe one TV interview but he went in the hospital like a Tuesday and then Wednesday I had to do a TV interview and I was like, [deep breath]. And it was fine. You know, I didn't die at the end, like you feel like, "Ok, accomplished that. Next."
Kristen: And how, I guess how did you carry out your role differently kind of being put in that position?
Melody: I think I really I kind of blacked out a lot of the details of that because it's a lot, it's overwhelming, like it's 40-plus events, like 20-something projects. It's a slog. But I think I tried to be a little bit more decisive with my time and realized like, you know, you can't do it all and so like trying to front load as much as possible.
Whereas like I guess in previous years, I was kind of like, "Well, I'm a cog, like I'm an essential, fabulous, but I'm a cog. And last year and this year too, I'm just like, "No, you know, like I am this thing."
Kristen: And I think when you're intimately involved with how an organization runs, it's very easy to or there's a tendency for work to really consume you.
Did you feel like that before last year's kind of event?
Melody: Um, yeah. I mean, it's such an ambitious attempt. We in this festival, just specifically speaking of April, will try to condense what a normal-sized rational nonprofit would do programmatically in a full year's calendar - we do in 30 days. Granted with the support of other institutional partners, artist groups, students, etc.
But it's so widespread and sort of indescribable that you're kind of like, "All right, let's go." And so I think I always felt a sense of like, "Yeah, this is it. This is as much as you can do, like no one can," you don't know how busy I am kind of thing. People are like, "Oh, my inbox is full." Like, "No, mine." And I was like, "No, it's not - it's just just thing. I'll never get on top of it." And I think that's the fun part of the challenge. It's like the mission is so simple - reach all 2.6 million people. It's like, all right you get it in one sentence, but that is such an undoable task, just impossible task that you're always kind of running in place and you're always challenged and it's like how close can you get to not getting it?
So, you're like - I don't think you'll ever feel accomplished or ever like [sigh], clean little boxes, all filled in.
Kristen: I don't imagine anybody's going to come up to you like, "Melody. You didn't answer all 500 emails. How dare you? Yeah, you had a typo in your signature...
Kristen: ...That might be a little [laughter] questionable...I misspelled my name...
Melody: People do...you know, like not really I think, but people do like or just sort of like a snide little thing and I'm like, "Hey, I wrote this under-caffeinated with my thumbs..."
Kristen: You gotta be human and in your interactions at the end of the day.
Melody: I think you can get away with a lot because it's poetry, you know —
Kristen: — that was a poetic license.
Melody: I'm not curing world hunger. We're just like facilitating the cultural scene, like come on. Uh, yeah, I think that there's an understanding that it is like, everyone's trying their best .
Kristen: And it also seems, I mean, you can spend months planning for for this big event, but you know once everything starts it's a very much a day-by-day.
Melody: Hundred percent. Yeah, I try to explain that to people on like, you have to stay open to the spontaneity and there's going to be opportunities you can't say no to, there's things that sort of happen that — pleasant surprises, not pleasant surprises — just like you have to roll with it. And there's this like adaptability.
I think everybody on our team, I would say the connective thread — not everyone is a writer and never has been my thing, creative writing — the thing, the underscore: everyone loves Miami and everyone is like really able to roll with the punches. Look, if you're rigid, if you're sort of like, "No but it was supposed to happen this" - like that just that doesn't fly in this approach, in any art practice.
So, you have to have room for breath. You have to have room for like happy accidents, as they say in art school, like just make it work.
Kristen: It's part of you know, creating or developing an idea.
Melody: Yeah, because you're not following necessarily a rule book and especially what we've created it, there's not like a playbook. And so you just sort of have to run on instincts and you have to sort of interpret and be flexible and allow for that vulnerability, because someone will step up, because people want to do this. People want to contribute. People want to do this powerful work.
And I've never not asked for support, not had like an overwhelming response. So yeah, I think how this thing kind of happens for everyone. It's like, just know when you need a lifeline.
Kristen: And when you empower the people that are working with you, they want to take that ownership. I mean, contrasted with a corporation where if you don't do it that way, then you're failing and that's such a horrible feeling.
Melody: Or in that sort of environment, "Oh, like well, that's not my job. I don't get paid for that," and well, "No, you know that wasn't part of my job description."
You don't see that in this art scene, in this like creative kind of community organizing. It's just like, "Oh, that seems fun. That's a cool challenge or like I know someone who's really —" Like, everyone's got someone that they can like bolster, right? So yeah, I think I haven't even, thankfully, had to think back to those times where you like beg somebody to do something with you or like even the approach, "Hey, um, do you have —" No, it's like here there's so many awesome folks that either have an interest in improving their city or like a really specific sort of goal for their career. So it's yeah, it's a totally different experience.
Kristen: Completely. And you mentioned besides - so besides the cafecito and the wines and the sparkling waters and all that, what else did you do to kind of maintain your sanity, you know, during that month?
Melody: I have an awesome home life. My husband Ben, he goes into Festival Mode - so we call this thing Festival mode, it's a little internal but everyone gets it. Where it's like, all right, you know, it's just you're hyper on and he also gets into Festival Mode and so he's been amazing like, doing the laundry making sure there's food because you'll have an event.
You'll be working, literally answering emails from the moment you wake up like before you even get out of bed, hopping to an event or planning meeting and then you've got an evening program or you're front-loading for you know, you're doing a video piece for the project. And so this non-stop and I'll go home and like do a quick like you know, like just like a quick like perfume, quick clothes change, before going out. So, if I didn't have him and my two dogs, I would probably completely dissolve and just spiral out of control, because you don't have someone to kind of remove you from that and be like, "No, we're gonna catch up with John Oliver. No, we're you know, we're going to watch like an episode of Handmaiden and like something that isn't looking at a blue LED device and just like talking about like that drama that happened earlier."
So, that keeps me — I mean, definitely sparkling water and wine, all the caffeine — but just having like a great network. And I will say, our staff and the day-of collaborators, like we totally recharge ourselves. It's like this solar-powered battery of positivity. Like, I'll find we'll have an 18-hour day and then we'll be in the parking lot loading stuff into my car, whomever's car. And then we loiter in the parking lot like Kendall High School teens talking about like highs and lows of that event and like planning tomorrow and then you'll notice, I'm like, "We've been in this parking lot for 40 minutes. We gotta go home."
And so, there's this thrill that it is so brief. This thing that we're creating is special.The moments of each event in each project are really special. Like I can't tell you how many times I've had chills where you're like, "I met this person. I would have never encountered this moment." Like, I'm at Palacio de los Jugos and this woman, like literally made me cry because of this encounter that like recharged us.
So I think, yeah, the balance of having small dogs and a lovely husband and just this team and this thing that you create — and I think any real, you know, cultural organizer, producer can tell you they've had moments that you're like dragging yourself from one event to the next and then something just like totally revives you. It's a person or thing, an experience.
Yesterday, granted it's only like day three of the Festival, but yesterday we had this a little event. It was really sweet and not at all like, you know high-stakes. It was just this like sweet dog open mic in South Miami and this six-year-old girl read a poem about her dog and like I recorded it and I was like, this is going to be one of those moments I take with me forever because it was just such a sweet moment.
Yeah, you kind of like you get a pep in your step from what we do and how you see what you're doing and the importance of it.
Kristen: And it speaks to you know, the love that's going into the org. It only keeps on giving, I feel.
Melody: Totally. I would say, I feel like maybe this is selfish to say. I feel like I get more of the out of this thing that maybe even some of the producers and the project managers that we fund their ideas. I'm like, "Oh, my God," I am like just so psyched from the side lines seeing these things and you've maybe accomplished something tonight, but it's me that's like overflowing with joy.
Kristen: And that also speaks to your sense of ownership, too.
Kristen: And so most fortunately, Scott did recover. And when all is said and done, did you notice a change moving forward? I mean, I guess in how you encountered this year's programming and in your relationships in the org and how you conducted your role?
Melody: I would say a significant shift in just work-life balance, none of this is worth killing yourself. Like if you feel a little sick, if you think you have a fever, like chill out. You don't have to do it all like because you can get sick to the point where you're not okay, and that's not okay.
I think we approached this year — granted, there's been some challenges, we've had a huge challenge. Like, I feel like this hurricane and the two, three months were disrupted. Everyone lost valuable time. We lost offices and resources like, you know, we were really impacted by Hurricane Irma, but I think one of the things we approached this year and moving forward is just like a sense of balance.
I have a a good understanding of what my limits are now. Scott's got a family and a baby and there's time you can't get back again. It's just community organizing. It's just poetry. Like thankfully, it's not life and death. So, seeing that you can get things done without pushing yourself to this point that's sort of obscene that doesn't even get stuff done.
Kristen: there's a point, you know, you cross that line and it becomes completely unproductive
Melody: Totally and you know, I think those industries that burn themselves out — like, I've never been in advertising. I assume advertising is sort of this like client-based stuff where it's like "everything is now, now," because you're spending money —
We don't have that. I think we can kind of like tickle the line that is like, "Oh, this looks like advertising because it's like copy and it's text and there's this blur between like commercial and Fine Art and poetry. In what we do, I think there's this approach that's like, "Ok, it gets done or it doesn't. So, don't cry about it."
But thankfully, I've never cried at work [laughter]...at least, doing this.
Kristen: That's a great realization to have. I think sometimes, when you love what you do, you can drive yourself into the ground. And it's good to have that perspective.
Melody: I take time off in the summer. Like, summer me looks very different. I'm not so crazed and we take vacations. Like, this thing that we've created, we worked tirelessly like Festival mode, you know, I don't even want to say how many hours a day. But I love that Miami kind of goes into hibernation mode in the dead heat of summer and we all really like chill. No one's like on your butt about like an email. Some of these institutions even close for the summer. I love that I get to work with people that own their time and you know, we step away when we need to because you know, you're gonna hustle real hard when you have to.
Kristen: What are some of your most favorite projects that you've done?
Melody: So there's a lot, I mean there's a lot of projects, but I would say a lot of the projects where we've been able to incorporate children's poetry. We've got this program called The Sunroom. We're working with third and fourth grade students and for different elementary schools around maybe Dade County. We're in three schools in Liberty City and one school in Westchester. These kids are like little poetry factories and they're so brilliant. They're so funny, like that age like between 7 and 10, they're poets, your primed to be a poet.
So, you know starting in like 2015, we started bringing their work to public space. We painted two poems on rooftops along Miami flight paths that you can see either going Northeast or Northwest. And that was a wildly ambitious project, but it's still up. I find that we get tagged or sort of someone will later find it on Instagram or Facebook and then tag it like, "I think that's O, Miami." So, that was definitely a favorite.
Last year, we put some of the kids' food poems on conveyor belts at grocery store.
Kristen: I saw that, I loved that.
Melody: Oh, I loved it. We installed it with our designer and my friend Noah. So like, actually putting these vinyl wraps in the grocery store and spending a couple of hours. People ask me like, "Donde está el pan?" You know, over there!" Like you're just really sort of integrating into this thing.
A project that like made my heart almost, like I felt like the Grinch, like physically exploding out of my chest — 2014, a friend of ours, an actor Ivan Lopez, just I would say like March, like way late in the planning of the festival is like, "Hey, I have this dream. I've always wanted to be José Martí on a horse and like ride down Calle Ocho." And I could just picture it so clearly in my mind. I was like, "That is happening." And yeah sure enough, maybe like four weeks later, three weeks later, he was full uniform. I found him a white horse on Facebook from a friend of mine that I went to high school. I was like, "Where is there a white horse?" Showed up on my Facebook feed and he rode down Calle Ocho, like several blocks, like handing out white roses and reciting these beautiful Martí poems from memory in Spanish and my parents came and all of these by-standers, these pedestrians on Calle Ocho were like really having a moment. These viejitos and these guayaberas like reciting the poems alongside him because they also grew up knowing them and it was like a [sigh] breath taking.
There's been moments that I feel really fortunate that I'm like, I'm even present let alone like I got to be part of this. This year, one that I think is powerful that I maybe even haven't fully processed is that we got a proposal from my friend Marla whose a music therapist at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Treatment Center as part of a poetry workshop with their patients and then we then had henna artists paint their poems on their scars and above their heads and you know, anywhere significant on their body.
So it was this like, super intimate experience? It was like me and 13 other people here are having this like life-changing experience and some of the workshop participants had never even been in like a therapy group with anyone else, let alone done poetry. And then having some of them reveal their scars or parts of their bodies that they have also never made public to then adorn with their poem tree, like I don't think I can even fully rationalize how special that was. This was just [exhale] like a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. At least for me. We've had a lot. I mean, the highbrow and the lowbrow, that's sort of like the festival in a nutshell.
Kristen: Sounds like with that project, you created this very safe space for people to be affected by the work. Which I mean, you just try and read somebody poetry, it doesn't always connect. But that is extremely personal and accessible.
Melody: I think it's just like kind of taking away, like demystifying poetry. Like I think something that really appeals to me is that poetry is so open and limitless and like yes, there's rules. And yes there is this whole part that's like steeped in academia, but then also its language. Like, poetry can be text illustration. Poetry can be spoken word and like that flexibility and that sort of openness, like really adapts itself to our approach and really, we take down barriers and I get to be on the sidelines looking and like, you know tears in my eyes.
Kristen: Like a proud mama.
Melody: Mmhm, totally.
Kristen: I think also when you're so involved in programming and developing projects that you, you know, kind of have this idea of how it's going to play out or how it should be received. How do you find the response of participants? I mean, do you find that some people are not understanding it or that there's a curiosity or what are the kind of the general reactions to all the programs you guys do?
Melody: I think when there's an event where we're bringing poetry to a specific audience, sometimes you have a little bit of an icebreaker. If we're bringing it to Palacio de los Jugos or if we're going to like a public space, you have to kind of be like well, yes, you're a poet. Like, we did something with Jackson Memorial, Jackson Health like Hospital in their plaza and we did these poetry prescriptions that like, we kind of had to like be like, "No, come here. This isn't a prescription." We had people dressed as pharmacists and we're like, "No, there's a poem inside." And then you see this like face light up like once somebody realizes that you're getting something for free.
It's an experience, so often they can't wait to tell you a story. Like we did a pop up again. A lot of these things are sort of pop-ups. You have to already kind of like come with a little - like there's gonna be some resistance, you know, you're not supposed to be here. With this like pop-up bookshop botanica called booktanica in Downtown and I actually had people come in who would share their stories about either some like cool mystical thing that happened or once they see that we are also book publisher, like poetry publishers, want to share their story, your like my grandmother's poetry.
So, the resistance is like, I mean, it really kind of dissolves quickly and then of course if there's like an event, it's like a ticketed event or you're coming to see a specific person or a workshop. It's like overwhelmingly unifying, like so many of our workshops which end up being intimate just by nature, you find that the participants like share each other's contacts and like will then tag each other and it's like you seek community more than you're sometimes seeking just culture, right? So yeah, it hasn't really been this like closed off sort of alienating thing. And like granted we've tried to put poetry in like public transit and like yes, there will always be that person that's like, "No, I don't want it. But thanks." But it's never really been a deterrent.
Kristen: And what are some programs that people can look forward to, this month?
Melody: Ooh, we've got so many.
Kristen: Maybe in this upcoming week.
Melody: Yes. So tomorrow, we have at the Betsy Hotel a book release and poetry reading as part of our Cave Canem chapbook prize. Layla Benitez-James is reading at the Betsy. You know, the Betsy is this like oasis, this like literary haven in like the heart of like super South Beach. So that's going to be beautiful, tomorrow.
I'm really looking forward to Friday's poetry and pajamas. We're having a pajama party in the Gardens at the Miami Beach Botanical Gardens. Two little poets, Sam and Simon are going to be the MCs and they're going to be encouraging kids to share their poems about dreams and the stage is a little bed. We're gonna have a dreamcatcher station. It's super sweet and there's so many workshops this month. Again, I think workshops are really essential.
We're doing on April 12th at the the Frost planetarium, we're going to be animating the poetry of Tracy K. Smith who is the current US Poet Laureate. So we're taking over the night sky inside the planetarium with poetry. I can't wait. This is like totally for me because I love this movie. We're closing the month on the 30th at the Nite Owl theater in the Design District and we're going to be playing Dead Poets Society and so you can come dressed as, you know, come in your school uniform or as a like Midsummer Night Dream cast member. So, there's like so many different things I mean, honestly can't like distill the month in like 2 seconds.
But yeah, just OMiami.org. There's a full list of events and projects but the projects I think for me personally what revs my engine is like the poetry in public space, the unexpected encounters, like whether you're dining at Flanigan's and you find poetry at your table, which, totally go to Flannigan's and look for poetry, to being at a gas station, to going to Robert Is Here and like your change has poetry stamped on it.
Kristen: And what's your Instagram handle?
Melody: It's at OMiamiFestival.
Kristen: Okay, Melody, thank you for your time on the show. Unfortunately, we got to close out but I do, in the spirit of poetry month, I want to just end with you reading one of your favorite poems or poems of significance to you.
Melody: I brought a stack of books. There's not enough time.
Kristen: We'll do a part two.
Melody: Yeah, so I brought Wide Brim which is a poetry book, a collection of Marjory Stoneman Douglas excerpts and poems, totally amazing. I brought the work of - it's called Lesser Tragedy of Death by Cristina Garcia, but what I'm gonna read, because it makes me really happy, is a poem from one of our Sunroom students that anyone who knows me has probably heard the first like line of this poem and they're like, oh my God, stop it Melody.
This is actually one that was on the grocery. So, this is by Thomas Brashears and I like say it to myself to make myself feel good. It's Untitled. It says:
Dear scrambled eggs, / One day I will take you on a trip / to my stomach with my acid. / Sometimes you are yellow, white / and brown, you taste very good. / When you first talked to me, I asked, / "Why are you talkign to me.?" / And you said, "God blessed me with / a mouth like you." And then he said, / "Just eat me, I know you want to."
Kristen: Thank you for sharing that. I loved that and also I'm a huge eggs fan.
Melody: "Dear scrambled eggs..." I mean, I can't stop saying that.
Kristen: Well, thank you everyone for tuning in tonight of this episode's Kidnapped for Dinner. Until next time.
Have a good night.
Melody: Thank you...