Readings can prompt new view of poetry—and maybe of life: Delray Beach

By Greg Stepanich

DELRAY BEACH — Four hours after the oath of office is administered to Barack Obama, a group of professional writers and everyday folks will gather around a microphone at the Crest Theatre in Delray Beach to read eight-line poems inspired by the event they have just witnessed, the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States.

Poems written to mark a society's public events are a tradition old as humanity itself, but they're something new for this fifth year of the Palm Beach Poetry Festival, which convenes at Old School Square for a six-day stretch beginning Jan. 19.

"Regardless of your political affiliations, Obama is facing horrendous challenges, and if there's an outpouring of support and good wishes from the poetry community, I think it will mean a lot," said Miles Coon, who founded the festival in 2004. From its origins as an offhand thought for Coon, an attorney and former chief executive officer of his family's apparel-store supply business, the festival is now a nonprofit corporation that runs poetry outreach programs year-round, and whose winter gathering of wordsmiths had an economic impact on the Delray Beach area last year that he estimates at half a million dollars. This year's festival features 13 American poets who have reached eminence in the profession through books, major arts awards and faculty positions at leading universities. They will run workshops for invited participants, give readings and lectures, and join in the evening coffeehouse party that will close the festival Jan. 24.

The advanced and intermediate workshops, which cost each participant $725 and $525 respectively, are reserved for the aspiring writers who have been accepted into those sessions, but the rest of the conference is open to the public, and includes nightly readings, poetry slams and the event that has proved most popular over the past years, a panel discussion hosted by the poets of poems that are their favorites or that had the greatest influence on them.

Ticket prices per event are $8 for students, $10 for seniors, and $12 for adults. The Obama inaugural event is free.

It is a great gorging of verse in a short time frame, and it's something that the festival's coordinator, Laura McDermott, is familiar with from her own efforts to get more people to hear, appreciate and write poetry. McDermott, 27, a Deerfield Beach native who holds degrees from Florida State and Florida International universities, discovered a love for poetry in the middle of her undergraduate years while taking an English course from poet David Kirby.

"I said to him the first day, 'I don't like poetry.' He said, 'Really?' I said, 'Yeah, and I guess it's going to be your job to make me like it,' or something like that," McDermott said. "And he said, OK, that's my challenge.' " McDermott, who's been the detail person for the festival for three years, found her mind totally changed by the poetry she encountered in Kirby's class, especially work by Denise Duhamel, one of this year's poet participants. One of the key reasons was that she was reading work that was quite unlike what she was used to from her pre-college days.

"It has a stigma that was set from high school. You know, it's always about flowers and love, and it's only by old dead white guys," said McDermott, who now teaches English courses at no fewer than four South Florida colleges. "Even when I'm teaching now, that's the same type of response that I get. That's how they describe it: The stuff you read in high school that wasn't necessarily appealing to this generation." Feeling that she'd found her calling, McDermott began holding regular poetry readings at the Luna Star Cafe in North Miami, well-attended gatherings that lasted for two years and won her the attention of the press and of Coon, who brought her aboard as coordinator in 2006.

Duhamel, who's been teaching at Florida International University for eight years, said it's easier to get people reluctant to read poetry into the art form by reaching them through contemporary writers, who have the same languages and same concerns, rather than starting with established writers of the past.

"Start with poets who are alive and work your way backward," she said. "Take someone like Gregory Orr (a festival participant this year). If you read him first, then you can go back to Robert Frost."

A poet who writes with a light, funny touch (Sex With a Famous Poet, On Being Born the Same Exact Day of the Same Exact Year as Boy George), Duhamel has frequently written about women's issues in her career, and admits to feeling "almost nostalgic for feminism." Her latest collection of verse, Ka-Ching!, is due out in February from the University of Pittsburgh Press.

Duhamel, who will do a reading Jan. 20 as well as teach, said she plans to give the participants in the five days of her workshop a combination of writing prompts and critiques of the work they've brought.

"People want honest feedback that can help them craft the poem they're working on at the moment, and they also want to know what their weaknesses are," said Duhamel, 47, who said she will attempt to make the writers "hyper-aware" of how they go about crafting their poems. "Not everyone is going to be wonderful at everything."

Duhamel, a Hollywood resident, said one of the most frequent topics for today's aspiring poets, in addition to childhood traumas and wordplay, is the natural world. "I think that's happening now because of the fragile environment," she said. "People feel this sort of tenderness about the earth and about nature."

Coon, who will turn 71 the day after the festival closes, came to poetry later in his career, when seeking a way for his self-described Type A personality to deal with the frustration of a corporate buyout that left him with plenty of money but no input in the business.

"I began writing short stories because I felt like I was living in one," said Coon, who was going to work every day as non-executive chairman of the firm he'd sold to an English company that never sought his advice. "But they kept getting shorter. My stories wanted to be poems." Soon, he was in an online poetry workshop of six people working with poet Marlena Morling, who participated in the festival last year, and began writing furiously. After working with poet Thomas Lux, a returning guest of the festival this year, Coon entered the master of fine arts program at Sarah Lawrence College, a two-year program that took him four years to finish because he took time off for winters at his home on Palm Beach, where he now lives year round.

"It was the happiest four years of my life," said Coon, whose work has been published in various literary magazines including The Cortland Review. The festival now has a budget in the neighborhood of $200,000, Coon said, and praised the donors, including investment bank Morgan Stanley, who have helped make the event possible. He also urged people who have had negative experiences with poetry in the past to come out to the festival anyway. "Come to one reading and see what you've been missing," he said.

For Coon, poetry has been a life-changing experience, even down to how it affected his marriage of 45 years to his wife, Mimi, an artist whose work will be on exhibit during the festival along with the work of painter Trisha Orr, wife of poet Gregory Orr. He was all business, she was creative, but after he found poetry, something happened to their relationship.

"When I got into poetry, we started to see the world the same way," Coon said, in part because the art form forces you to understand that "seeing is an active thing."

"You have to be observant," he said. "We rush around, but poetry slows us down. It says, 'Hey, take it slow and look at what's around you.' .... In the business world, I didn't see anything around me. Now that I write poems, I'm more in tune with what's out there."

That's exactly the kind of thing Duhamel says poetry can do for people.

"It's a way to get at something weird and wonderful that you can't get through movies or TV shows, or the narrative arc of a story," she said. "It's a way to speak the unspeakable ... a way for people to get in touch with their deeper selves."

And McDermott added that poetry is an ideal vehicle of creative expression for today's economic times. In short, it's necessary.

"We need poetry," she said. "Now's the time. People are hurting. What better way to express your fears, your anger, than with words?"

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