In 2004, when John Palozzi, President of Poets of the Palm Beaches asked Miles Coon to organize some workshops, Miles said, “Hey John, why not a festival with workshops, readings and craft talks taught by really great poets?” Out of that initial conversation, John and his board authorized Miles to organize the first festival around a partnership between Poets of the Palm Beaches and Lynn University.
The inaugural festival was presented in January of 2005. Audiences up to 300 people attended readings by Patricia Smith, Thomas Lux, Sharon Olds, and Billy Collins. Campbell McGrath and Spencer Reece pitched in with wonderful introductions. All available workshop seats were filled by poets who had to apply for admission. Of the 48 workshop attendees, 75% traveled from out of state and even from as far away as Australia to attend the first festival.
As a “start up,” we were thrilled that four of our country’s great poets agreed to be part of our adventure, and Morgan Stanley and the Palm Beach Post gave much-needed support in those early days. After the enormous success of the first festival, John and Miles agreed that the mission of the festival would be best served by establishing a nonprofit corporation of its own. Palm Beach Poetry Festival, Inc., was founded in March of 2005 with net proceeds from the first festival.
The second annual festival was presented in January 2006 in partnership with Old School Square Cultural Arts Center. Eight workshops were offered (up from four the year before), and each workshop was ten hours (up from five the year before). Of the eight workshops, two intermediate level sections were included to encourage participation by those with less than advanced skills in the craft. A Florida Poets reading was added. Again, all workshop seats were sold and again, audiences approached 300 in number. In addition, the festival offered some outreach programs to better engage the local community.
The success of the second festival was due to the amazing line-up of featured poets: The exciting line up of poets for the 2006 festival included Laure-Anne Bosselaar, Winner of the Isabela Gardner Award; Kurt Brown, Winner of the Custom Words Poetry Prize; Jane Hirshfield, Winner of the Poetry Center Book Award; Tony Hoagland, Winner of the James Laughlin Poetry Award; Galway Kinnell, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award Winner; Thomas Lux, Winner of the Kingsley-Tufts Poetry Award; Campbell McGrath, Winner of the Kingsley-Tufts Poetry Award; Susan Mitchell, Winner of the Kingsley-Tufts Poetry Award; Marilyn Nelson, Connecticut Poet Laureate; and Sharon Olds, former New York State Poet Laureate. The facilities at Old School Square proved ideal. The Crest Theatre provided an intimate and comfortable setting for the readings and craft talks, and the Vintage Gymnasium proved a wonderful space for the festival gala and late night slam event. And the classrooms, so bright and welcoming, were perfect for the workshops. Again, Morgan Stanley and the Palm Beach Post came to our aid. Clear-Channel Communications and Barnes and Noble were also there to help us along with many other generous donors.
The beginnings of the festival were very much a collaborative effort between Miles’s wife Mimi, his good friends, Carol and Alan Benjamain, and other board members. Thanks are also due to Chris Bluemer, a local poet, who counseled Miles in the early organizational days of the festival and to Marya Summers, (www.maryasummers.com) local poet and journalist, who served as the festival’s communications director and coordinator from the outset until August of 2006.
Poetry feeds the human appetite for solace, in its making and in its reading. In every society throughout history, poetry has expressed our deepest human emotions. The individual voice speaking for all of us. In Palm Beach County, such an event has proven to be essential, desired and thrilling.