X.J. Kennedy, an eminent poet, has heard repeatedly how important the West Chester University Poetry Conference is to the writers who attend.

It is one of the largest and most respected in the country.

So he was heartbroken last week when university officials announced the school was removing the conference's director and canceling next year's event while the Poetry Center finds a new leader.

"That's catastrophic," said Kennedy, a past keynote speaker at the conference who lives in Massachusetts. "I know there will be hundreds of people who will be deeply disappointed."

The annual conference attracts a few hundred poets from throughout the country and the world and celebrated its 20th anniversary in June.

Kim Bridgford, an associate English professor at the university, had been the director since August 2010. She left her position as a professor at Fairfield University in Connecticut to take the job at the Poetry Center. She is up for tenure at West Chester next year.

"She's been reassigned to full-time teaching responsibilities," Pam Sheridan, the university's spokeswoman, said Tuesday. She said she could not give further details because the matter is a personnel issue.

Bridgford declined to comment on her removal.

Patricia Valdata, who served as the temporary associate director of the Poetry Center to help Bridgford prepare for the 2014 conference, said Bridgford has been committed to the university, the Poetry Center, and the conference.

"She just put her heart and soul into it," said Valdata, an adjunct associate professor at University of Maryland University College.

Bridgford's dismissal seems to have taken her by surprise. On Sept. 6, she announced that the keynote speaker for the 2015 conference would be Ted Kooser, a two-time U.S. poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner.

Next year would have been Kooser's first time at the West Chester conference.

"It would be an honor to be the keynote speaker for something like that," he said Friday.

University officials have assured concerned poets that the conference will resume in 2016.

"We value it greatly," said Greg Weisenstein, president of the university. "We take great pride in who has visited us here for the poetry conference."

Poets from as far away as Wales and Pakistan have attended the event, which focuses on formal poetic technique through workshops, seminars, and panel discussions.

Allison Joseph, a poet and associate English professor at Southern Illinois University, said the conference "is akin to a poetic family reunion."

"There are many poets for whom this is the main conference, that this is the main creative activity for their craft," Joseph said.

Poets expressed their frustration on an online writers forum, Twitter, and Facebook.

So what do angry poets do when their beloved conference is canceled? They put pen to paper.

They encouraged each other to write to Lori Vermeulen, West Chester's dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and to other school officials.

In an e-mail to the English department faculty Monday, Vermeulen said: "As is often the case, reorganization is challenging. However, challenges present opportunities, and I am confident that with your help we will fulfill the Poetry Center's unique mission with new strength and vitality."

Anna Evans, a poet who lives in Hainesport, N.J., said some poets were considering holding a gathering of their own in the Philadelphia area next June. But it won't be the same, she said.

"People can say, 'Go somewhere else next year,' " she said. "But there is nowhere else. There is nowhere else like West Chester."

610-313-8207 @MichaelleBond