Troubled West Chester Poetry Conference has a new director

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After a still unexplained one-year hiatus, the renowned West Chester University Poetry Conference at West Chester University will resume in 2016 with a new program director, poet R.S. "Sam" Gwynn.

Now entering its 21st year, the four-day poetry gathering has attracted poets from around the world for its intensive workshop sessions, acclaimed teachers, and traditional focus on craft.

"I want to make the conference so attractive in its offerings that it'll be hard for people not to come," Gwynn, 67, said by phone. He observed that the conference had established itself with an emphasis on the craft of poetry, "and I am trying to build on the success of former years."

A participant in the conference for 19 of those 21 years, Gwynn is poet in residence at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, where he has taught since 1976.

Gwynn will be taking on a challenging assignment, stepping into a troubled and controversial post. The conference took a one-year hiatus this year after the announcement in September 2014 by Lori Vermeulen, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, that previous program director Kim Bridgford had been reassigned to full-time teaching. No explanation has been forthcoming, and the move aroused confusion and ire unusual in the world of poetry.

Bridgford assumed the conference directorship in 2011. She was widely praised for broadening the conference's focus, bringing in new kinds of poets and poetry, including more minorities and female poets.

The announcement of Bridgford's reassignment came shortly after she requested an audit of the Poetry Center, which among other activities organizes the conference. News of her reassignment sparked surprise and outrage from students and faculty.

Neither Bridgford nor Vermeulen could be reached for comment. A union action regarding her reassignment is underway.

Poet and editor Anna Evans, who has been a panelist at the conference, started an online petition to reinstate Bridgford as director of the Poetry Center. "The 2014 conference had been magnificent," Evans said by phone. "There were no complaints. There was no understandable reason for this change.

"Why would you fire this woman that's done such an amazing job?" Evans said. "It caused the institution embarrassment. There's no justification for it."

Gwynn said many people associated with the conference feared it would not return for a 2016 session.

"I'm trying to reassure folks that I want it to come back stronger than ever," Gwynn said. "Consequently, I am under more than normal pressure to put on a hell of a show in June. And I'm planning on doing that."

The West Chester Poetry Conference was cofounded by Dana Gioia and Michael Peich in 1994. Gwynn called it the "only conference in the U.S. that focuses on the craft of poetic form and poetic narrative." The first conference, held in 1995, featured about "six or eight workshops" and about 85 people, Peich said. Now the conference averages about 300 attendees. The 2016 event is scheduled for June 8-11.

"Sam Gwynn is an excellent choice to lead the West Chester conference," Gioia said via email. "A superb poet and anthologist . . .. He's open-minded, positive, and collegial. He also has a great sense of humor, which is something any writing conference director needs."

Gwynn is associated with new formalism, a late-20th- and early-21st-century American poetry movement that attempts to reinstitute traditional metrical and rhymed verse. Gwynn said he wanted to add "new conversions to formalism.

"The conference is 20 years old, which means that most of the people who first attended are senior citizens, like me now," Gwynn said, "which means that certainly there's an untapped resource of younger poets."

Peich said via email that Gwynn was "intimately conversant with contemporary poetry. He will build an annual event that is instructional, inspirational, and welcoming to a diverse audience interested in poetry and craft."

Along with the Poetry Center advisory board and the faculty advisory committee, Gwynn is in charge of coordinating appearances for poets, marketing the conference, fund-raising, and engaging West Chester faculty and students. He will also recommend poets for the Iris N. Spencer Poetry Awards for undergraduates, which he will present at the conference.

csasko@philly.com