The Palm Beach Poetry Festival will return in two years — but not in Delray Beach. Or Palm Beach County.
With the passing of the festival founder and director Miles Coon in May 2022 at the age of 84, and the coincidental loss of its long-term venue in Old School Square, the future of the festival was in doubt.
“I want to see the festival continue to provide the kind of nurturing community I’ve found there, a true home for any poet serious about words and what they can do in the world,” festival director Nickole Brown said at that time.
Last month, Brown sent an email update out to subscribers announcing the return of the festival for Oct. 5-11, 2025, but a new venue in the Black Mountains of North Carolina, 25 minutes from Asheville.
“If there’s one thing at the top of our list, it’s to assure that the legacy our founder Miles Coon left behind is treated with utmost care,” she writes in the email. “The motto of the festival iterated time and again throughout the years (is) ‘poetry brings us together.’”
“What will remain steadfast is the vision Miles had for the festival,” Brown says.
Brown and the board are working on renaming and rebranding the festival, creating a logo, and building a new website to launch next year.
Coons left an enduring legacy in the festival he founded in 2005, bringing many of the heavy hitters of the poetry world, including Thomas Lux, Billy Collins, Laure-Anne Bosselaar and Carolyn Forché, among others, to Delray Beach as well as performance poets Glenis Redmond, Taylor Mali and Patricia Smith, as guests of the festival.
With a warm and welcoming environment, attendees came from 30 states and overseas, including England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Denmark, Germany, The Bahamas, Australia and Qatar, for poetry readings, workshops, craft talks, interviews and panel discussions and to attend one of South Florida’s top literary events.
A Harvard Law School graduate and businessman, Coons ran his family business until he went back to school to earn an MFA at Sarah Lawrence College to follow his interest in all things poetic. One of his professors, who became a mentor and longtime attendee of the festival, was Lux, who came to the festival each year until his death in 2022.
Other frequent attendees include Miami poets P. Scott Cunningham, founder of O, Miami, a poetry festival he runs each April in that city and author of Ya Te Veo, a book of poetry selected by Collins for the Miller Williams Poetry Series; and Campbell McGrath, a professor of English at FIU, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry and recipient of the MacArthur Foundation’s Genius Award.
Both agree the announcement of the return of the festival to a new city is bittersweet and McGrath notes that when an event is tied to a particular person and that person is no longer involved, carrying on their legacy can be tricky.
“I’d like to see Miles’s legacy and the positive and community spirit he created carried over to the new festival,” McGrath says, adding that he has faith in Brown’s intent and ability to remain true to Coon’s vision. “Nickole is a very capable and energetic person.”
Cunningham also laments the loss of the Old School Square venue as the home of the festival for 18 years.
“It was the perfect venue for a poetry festival,” he says, adding that he’s attended poetry festivals all over the world and enjoyed the Delray Beach locale.
Cunningham first attended while he was still a student in graduate school in 2006 and had the opportunity to intern for poet Major Jackson and was honored to introduce poets Gerald Stern (who died last year) Alan Shapiro and Anne Marie Macari, It was “an amazing experience,” he said.
“Miles was a special guy and did so much for other people,” Cunningham says. “I want his legacy to continue.”
According to Susan Williamson, past director of the PBPF, the death of Coons, the COVID-19 shutdown and loss of the Old School Square venue were key factors in the festival’s decision to look elsewhere for a new home.
The festival went virtual during the pandemic in 2021 and 2022, which Williamson says had a record number of applications.
Attempts were made to continue their relationship with Palm Beach County and Williamson says she estimates that the PBPF generated a positive economic impact to the city of Delray Beach of approximately $400,000 in a single week, totaling $6.4 million over the period from 2006 to 2020.
“The indirect positive impact has been even more substantial over time and annually,” she says.
In February 2022, Coons and Williamson wrote to Delray Beach city commissioners expressing their desire to return to the venue for the coming year. They noted that their festival brought in as many as 7,000 visitors who stayed at local hotels, dined in the restaurants and had disposable income to spend in the city.
“We have come to view the festival and Old School Square as a partnership,” they wrote. “The venue is as close to perfect for our needs as a venue can be. We would very much like to return the Festival to Delray Beach.”
While that did not happen, everyone agrees the spirit of Coons will live on in the new iteration, and the Black Rock Mountains of North Carolina may spark some poetry of their own.
Brown says she and Coons discussed future plans for the festival before his death and decided that not only should the festival be a celebration of poetry’s artistry, but also its ability to move people to empathy and action, especially around issues of climate change.
“Miles and I both agreed that the transformative power of poetry to rise up during the most challenging times is a powerful force for change, and this will be an important focus of the festival moving forward,” Brown writes.