Miles Coon, a former business executive who founded the Palm Beach Poetry Festival after coming to the art form late in life, has died, festival officials said.
Coon, who was 84, died May 21, the festival said.
Susan Williamson, the festival’s director, remembers Coon as the first poet who welcomed her to Florida in 2006 and got her a seat at the workshop that year, despite it being sold out.
“Miles was a visionary,” says Williamson, noting that when he founded the festival in 2005, besides the Key West Literary Seminar and the Miami Book Fair, there were no dedicated poetry festivals, and certainly not in the winter when academics are teaching.
“This was a revolutionary idea,” she says. “Spending time with other poets at the top of their game is a big part of what Miles created and what people will remember. In addition to being very generous and thoughtful, it’s rare to be in an atmosphere with that many poets at the same time all speaking the same language.”
The festival, which has taken place for six days at Old School Square in Delray Beach each January since 2005, offers would-be poets the chance to meet with major practitioners in a workshop setting, and interested observers the opportunity to hear special guests such as former poet laureates Billy Collins, Robert Pinsky, and Natasha Trethaway.
Other poets such as the late Thomas Lux, Laure-Anne Bosselaar and Carolyn Forché, as well as performance poets Glenis Redmond, Taylor Mali and Patricia Smith, also were guests of the festival.
But Williamson said the future of the festival is in question, in part because the city of Delray Beach has cut ties with the nonprofit organization that ran Old School Square for decades.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty,” she said.
Born in Brooklyn and raised in Great Neck, N.Y., Coon was a 1959 graduate of the University of Virginia and a 1962 graduate of Harvard Law School. After graduating from Harvard, he practiced law for several years before agreeing to take over the management of his father’s apparel-store supply business in New York.
He sold the company after 30 years to a British firm that kept him on as non-executive chairman, but as he told Palm Beach ArtsPaper in 2008, never consulted him. Seeking a way to channel his self-described Type A personality into something productive, he turned to literature.
“I began writing short stories because I felt like I was living in one,” Coon said then. “But they kept getting shorter. My stories wanted to be poems.”
After working with poets Malena Morling and Thomas Lux, 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.
“It was the happiest four years of my life,” Coon told ArtsPaper. His poems were published in literary magazines including The Cortland Review, and a chapbook of his work was published by Jeanne Duval Editions in 2005.
His debut full-length book of poetry, The Quotient of My Self Divided by Myself, will be published next month by Press 53, an independent North Carolina-based publisher. All proceeds from the book will go to the festival.
Jennifer Coon, Coon’s daughter, a psychologist and budding poet herself, remembers her father’s consistency the most.
“Whether he was a student, a lawyer, a businessman, a poet or the founder of the Palm Beach Poetry Festival, my father dedicated himself with a full heart and conducted himself with warmth, grace and ethics,” she said.
She noted that he never read his own poetry at the festival and never took up a spot in the workshops, saving them instead for the participants.
Noting that he loved his Sarah Lawrence experience, Jennifer Coon said her father sought to recreate that warm and welcoming community in Palm Beach County, and said that when she attended the workshops herself the sense of belonging and community made them special.
“He dedicated himself to truth and beauty in the form of poetry,” she said from Palm Beach.
In 2008, Miles Coon said that poetry had a singular effect on the way people relate to the outside world.
“You have to be observant,” he said then. “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.”
In addition to his daughter Jennifer, Coon is survived by his wife, Mimi, son, Matthew, and grandson Elias. Burial was private, but the festival he founded is planning a memorial celebration in the near future.