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Palm Beach Poetry Festival is a bumblebee

January 18, 2010

Kevin Young

You know that old saying that a bumblebee can’t fly but no one told it, so it does anyway? The Palm Beach Poetry Festival is like that, growing in just a few years from nothing to a major cultural event. Heck, wasn’t poetry itself supposed to be extinct by now?

“In every measure the festival will be bigger and better than in years past,” Miles Coon, founder and executive director, tells the Palm Beach ArtsPaper in a story that also features Kevin Young, one of the distinguished poets at this year’s event.

Other poets on the schedule: Stephen Dobyns, Carolyn Forché, Marie Howe, David Wojhan, Ilya Kaminksy, and Thomas Lux, the only poet to appear at every Palm Beach Poetry Festival to date.

The Palm Beach Poetry Festival, which started in 2004, opens today at Old School Square in Delray Beach with six days of workshops, public readings and panel discussions. The workshops are closed, but public events are scheduled each day, with tickets priced at $12, $10 for seniors and $8 for students. Here’s a  complete schedule and ticketing information.

Coon fell in love with poetry after successful careers as a lawyer and an industrialist (the family company made plastic hangers for department stores). He retired in 1994 and, determined to catch up on what he’d missed, earned an MFA in creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College, where Lux was his mentor.

“Every time I talk to poets and say I was both a lawyer and a businessman, their eyebrows go up,” Coon says. “But I happen to believe both are simpatico with poetry. Like poetry, both believe in the power of language to effect change.”

It’s always been said that America ignores its poets. By 20 years ago, things had gotten so bad that even poets made jokes about the death of poetry. Since then, though, interest in poetry — especially among the young — has grown exponentially. Credit for this routinely goes to hip-hop music and the rise of spoken-word performance, which kindled interest in verse forms in general.

But while Coon and Young, at 39 one of the country’s leading younger poets, acknowledge hip-hop and spoken word, they agree something more elemental is at work. Poetry, they say, helps people survive trauma and hard times.

“People turn to poetry in moments when they need it,” says Young, whose latest book, Dear Darkness, was inspired by the death of his father. “Especially after 9-11 people realized poetry is an essential part of our lives. It moves across time to remind us we are human.”

Maybe that’s why, at the depth of the worst economy since the Great Depression, the Palm Beach Poetry Festival filled each of the 96 workshop seats, with a waiting list.

Tell me — have you turned to poetry for comfort more often in recent years? What are some of your favorite poems? Who are your favorite poets?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    January 18, 2010 3:14 pm

    I don’t think poetry ever died. It’s been in music since the invention of lyrics, hip hop or otherwise.

    It is true that art in general tends to get better in hard times.

    Have fun at the festival, Mr. Mabe. Wish I could be there.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 18, 2010 8:31 pm

      Yeah, it’s always great. Of course, I’m talking about what’s come, in response to the popularity of hip-hop and slam poetry, to be known as “page poetry.”

  2. rachel permalink
    January 18, 2010 3:49 pm

    I agree with Candice, poetry has always been in music. In the lyrics and music of songs. In fact some lyrics are even so poetic that they can be read aloud and hold up like a poem.

    I like to think of myself as young, and I like poetry. I guess I initially turned to poetry when I needed it, when I was sad as a child and began writing my own poetry. Over time that led me to read other poets. It’s an interesting idea, people turning to poetry in dark times of need…

    I really like:
    James Tate (I find his surrealistic poems very easily accessible while saying very real things that a realist is incapable of saying), Mark Strand, our very own Spencer Reece (who I saw at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival two years ago), W.D. Snodgrass, Anne Carson (especially the book “The Beauty of the Husband,” in my opinion it’s a masterpiece), Frank O’Hara (one of my all time favorites: “Steps”), Pablo Neruda (I mean who doesn’t love Neruda? But I find his odes particularly charming). And so many others.

    I’m looking forward to the Palm Beach Poetry Festival and I feel grateful to have so many solid literary events so close to home.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 18, 2010 8:32 pm

      I’m looking forward to all the poets, too, but especially Stephen Dobyns.

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