The Record-Review – The official newspaper of Bedford and Pound Ridge, New York


March 11, 2011

Donors inject new life into poetry series
Poet, Billy Collins


Two events this weekend will mark a rebirth of sorts for the Katonah Poetry Series, which had been threatened due to lack of funding.

But there’s an interesting story behind the pair of readings — a public event at the Katonah Village Library on Sunday afternoon and a $250 a plate fundraiser in the hamlet that evening that largely symbolizes the generosity that’s led to the popular series being saved.

At 4 p.m. on March 13, Tom Healy will be the featured poet at a reading at the library, the first since the poetry series was revamped last fall. He’ll be introduced by Billy Collins, the former poet laureate of the United States, who served as director and later co-director of the Katonah Poetry Series from 1991 to 2008.

Later that evening, Mr. Collins will read his own poems at a fundraising dinner for about 40 guests at the home of Jeff and Tondra Lynford in Katonah. Mr. Healy will also be reading and signing books along with Mr. Collins at the dinner, slated for 6 p.m. Sunday. Although Mr. Collins said in an interview how eager he is to share his poetry and hear Mr. Healy read from his critically acclaimed book “What the Right Hand Knows,” his delight was equally evident in his recounting of how a somewhat strange offer turned into a substantial donation to the series.

“This certainly falls under the category of an odd story with some twists and turns but ultimately a happy ending,” Mr. Collins said.

Last year, Mr. Collins was approached by a smiling stranger at a poetry festival in New Jersey, who said that his girlfriend was a huge fan of his poems, and had a birthday coming up. “He asked if I would have lunch with his girlfriend for her birthday,” Mr. Collins explained. “It seemed like an oddly personal thing to do with someone I had never met, so I said probably not. I offered to write her a birthday poem, or send a card, which I felt more comfortable doing.”

The gentleman, however, was persistent, and offered to fly Mr. Collins out to Los Angeles for the lunch, or fly his girlfriend to New York if that was more convenient. “Then he looked me square in the eye and said, ‘And, I’ll give you $5,000.’”

Mr. Collins admits being at a loss for words when he first heard the offer. “There was, however, a little part of me that wanted to respond by saying, ‘I won’t even open a menu for less than $10K,’ but I held back,” Mr. Collins said with a laugh. “I backed away from it because it seemed exorbitant, a little crazy, and I didn’t like the idea of having a price put on me, the idea of presenting myself as a commodity.”

The gentleman dropped the subject when Mr. Collins declined, and they went on to have a nice conversation. They exchanged contact information that day, and e-mails over the next several months.

In the course of that correspondence, Mr. Collins said he and the gentleman, Scott Brooks, a Beverly Hills attorney, developed a friendship, and realized they shared a few things in common. “We started to develop a connection, and found out things like that both our mothers had a Scots background,” Mr. Collins said. “And at one point I realized that I’d be out in Los Angeles this winter, and an idea struck me.”

That idea was to have dinner with Mr. Brooks and his girlfriend while in California, which they did last month. But when Mr. Brooks again made the offer of paying Mr. Collins $5,000, the poet suggested that Mr. Brooks instead make a contribution in whatever amount he chose to the Katonah Poetry Series.

A few weeks later, a $2,000 check for the poetry series arrived at the library from Mr. Brooks, along with a request. “His donation came with this astounding little note that said he would like an upcoming reading to be dedicated to my mother,” Mr. Collins said. “Not dedicated to him, or even to his own mother. Here’s a guy with no connection to Katonah making a very generous donation to the poetry series, and asking that one of the readings be dedicated to my mother, who he never met. I just thought, ‘How special and how sweet.’”

The reading this Sunday will be dedicated to Mr. Collins’s late mother, Katherine, who died in 1997.  

Mr. Collins said he believes that a New York Times article last fall about the financial threat to the series went a long way in sparking people to rally around it. “The way The Times story put it was that a poetry series that has been going on for more than 40 years and attracting nationally and internationally known poets to Katonah needs about $6,000 a year to survive and might not get it, and that’s taking place right in the middle of one of the most affluent communities in America,” Mr. Collins said. “I think people saw things in a different light when it was put like that.” 

Funds for the poetry series have been raised locally and nationally, with some people without any connection to Katonah making pretty sizable gifts. “We had a very generous donation from another man from the West Coast who happened to read the piece in The Times about the series possibly ending because of the lack of funds,” Mr. Collins said. “He said he doesn’t even follow poetry but couldn’t bear the thought of that happening. Hopefully, more people will feel the same way and give whatever they can to keep it going.”

Both excitement about the revamped series and fundraising efforts are picking up steam, according to members of the volunteer committee now organizing the series.

“The response has been great, and we’re hopeful that with continued fundraising the poetry series can continue for at least another 40-plus years,” said Marlene Gallagher, a poet who served as co-director of the series from 2008 through July 2010. “There has always been a lot of interest in the series, but because of the economic realities we’re all faced with, there wasn’t enough money. But now there is a team of committed individuals who are working hard to ensure that there is both enough interest and enough funds so the series can continue on.” 

The poetry series in Katonah began in 1967, launched by local resident, poet and advertising executive Robert Phillips. Over the course of the next 43 years, the series at the library drew some of the most prominent poets, including Joyce Carol Oates, Erica Jong, James Merrill and Tony Hoagland. Mr. Collins has often said that if someone sat on the steps of the Katonah Library throughout the past few decades, “you would have seen pretty much every major American poet walk through the doors.”

But in recent years Dr. Leisha Douglas, who had served as co-director of the series since 2000, said the cost of holding the series rose while funding steadily decreased. Despite numerous fundraisers to cover the $6,000 annual cost, in late 2010, Dr. Douglas announced that there was no money to continue the series beyond this past fall.

As word that the poetry series could cease, library staff and supporters as well as Katonah residents stepped in to save it. Some new funding came in, and a volunteer group has been formed to work with the library staff to run the series, which now falls under the auspices of the Katonah Village Library.

Admission is $10 for Mr. Healy’s reading on Sunday, which includes a wine-and-cheese reception and book signing immediately following. The cost for students is $5. 

For more information about the two readings this weekend and the Katonah Poetry Series, including the next reading set for April 10, visit

Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of the The Record-Review. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.


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