In the Summer of 2004, the newly created Great River Shakespeare Festival presented its first season of productions of Shakespeare’s plays. Because the Bard is known for his 154 sonnets as well as his theater productions, Winona's then-Poet Laureate, James Armstrong, suggested an accompanying event, the Great River Shakespeare Festival Sonnet Contest. This idea was immediately seized upon, and the 2008 season heralded the first Contest, which in 2012 became the GRSF/Maria W. Faust Sonnet Contest. From humble beginnings, the Contest has grown exponentially; the 2021 Contest drew more than 600 individual sonnets, representing 10 foreign countries, and 35 of the 50 States.
Apart from advertising and many other administrative duties, the real “heavy-lifting” is borne by the Sonnet Contest judges, former Winona Poets Laureate, Contest Founder James Armstrong, Emilio DeGrazia and Ken McCullough, and a fourth judge, Leslie Schultz, a widely-published poet who has three times received recognition for her own sonnets through the Maria W. Faust Sonnet Contest. They are all owed a great debt of thanks for what they contribute each year.
Following are some relevant comments from each of the Poets Laureate, that are printed in the sonnet anthology "This Melody Weaves In and Out: Poems from the Maria W. Faust Sonnet Contest, 2008-2012".
This sonnet contest was a joint project I started with the Great River Shakespeare Festival crew the first year of my Winona Poet Laureateship. It seemed like a fun way to get the community involved with both poetry and Shakespeare. I have found that when one tries to write sonnets one gains a new appreciation for the Bard, because one is no longer just a passive spectator. People who have had the fun of fitting their thoughts and feelings into fourteen lines of iambic pentameter understand both the difficulties and the surprising excitement of the task. The real surprise of the sonnet contest has been how many closet sonneteers there are in Winona! It was gratifying to learn that the sonnet lives on without any help whatsoever, and it was doubly gratifying to see that with a little watering from the city and GRSF, so many new practitioners have been drawn to the form.
—Jim Armstrong, Winona Poet Laureate, 2008-2009
It has been a pleasure to watch the sonnet contest grow from a local event to one that receives submissions from many states and several other countries, by young poets as well as seasoned veterans. This book is an anthology of the prize-winning poems from the first five years of the contest. The Maria W. Faust Sonnet Contest is yet another gem in the crown of Winona as an arts destination.
— Ken McCullough, Winona Poet Laureate, 2010-2011, 2014-2017
While we like to think of America as the land of the free, we’re often turned off by some of the free verse of the last fifty years or so. I think of the sonnet as a type of poem offering poets the opportunity to exercise their freedom within a given form. As we think about how best to make use of the shrinking spaces we have, and how to keep open the lines of communication necessary to community, the sonnet seems like a good metaphor for how to shape and make sense of our lives. It offers us thoughtfulness, freedom within responsibility, and the pleasures of song.
—Emilio DeGrazia, Winona Poet Laureate, 2012-2013