O, Miami at New World Center: Poetry, writ large

Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Hass was among the most public of United States poet laureates when he took “the very odd job” in the 1990s, saying he wanted “to go where poets don’t go.”

On Saturday evening he will take part in O Miami’s Poetry in the Park, a free outdoor gathering (complete with live music and food trucks) highlighted by readings from Hass and 2011 National Book Award winner Nikky Finney projected on the 7,000-square-foot space on the side of the New World Center.

While it may not be the most unusual setting for one of Hass’ readings (he once had a reading projected on a wall in The Colosseum in Rome), the University of California-Berkeley professor says it presents a unique challenge.

“The poems that I’ve been writing, some of them are kind of mournful. And this event feels celebratory,” Hass says. “So I was going to write a note to [Miami poet] Campbell McGrath, who I know, and say, ‘Give me a feel for what the event is going to be like’ so I can make some calculations.”

Hass, 73, was speaking from the esteemed Iowa Writers Workshop, where he was spending a couple of weeks instructing young poets at the University of Iowa. Temperatures in the 50s were a cause for joy, he says.

“A friend and I got up early and drove down to a bend in the Iowa River where there was a raft of white pelicans in bare trees near an icy shore, just heading up to B.C. from the Gulf,” Hass says.

The natural world is a source of pleasure and pain for Hass, who founded the nonprofit eco-literacy group River of Words and has joined a soil scientist friend at Berkeley to teach an introductory environmental studies course. Hass, who contributes his perspective on relevant literature and policy, says his personal reading list has recently included Elizabeth Kolbert’s “The Sixth Extinction” (“It’s a tough book,” he says) and “Hydrofracking: What Everyone Needs to Know,” by Alex Prud’homme.

“It is not an easy time to be optimistic,” he says. “But I remember someone telling me, when I was young in political activism, that you need optimism of the will and pessimism of the intellect.”

Hass shared a Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for his collection “Time and Materials,” which took its name from a deeply personal study of the fissures that run through everyday life, inspired by a Gerhard Richter painting. Personally, Hass finds plenty of room to be “temperamentally and strategically optimistic.”

“In my own life? My kids are OK, their health is OK. That kind of optimism I have a lot of, actually,” he says. “This morning I got to go see white pelicans. The world is still very much alive. It’s one of the things I tell my students: You can start mourning now, or you can go see the Everglades, if you’ve never seen the Everglades. Fall in love. Go see a roseate spoonbill. Walk the John Muir Trail from one end of the Sierra to the other, and then, you know, get to work at whatever you can do with your gift that changes things that are making you unhappy.”

IF YOU GO
Poetry in the Park, which includes live musc, food and drink, is 5-10 p.m. Saturday at Soundscape Park, 500 17th St., Miami Beach. Readings begin at 8 p.m. Bring a blanket. Cost is free. Go to OMiami.org.

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