Book 'Em

The 215 Festival returns with a diverse literary and musical lineup.

Philadelphia Weekly
September 29, 2004

The 215 Festival returns with a diverse literary and musical lineup.

There are music snobs and literature snobs. But if Philly's 215 Festival has its way, both groups will have to get over themselves. Deftly fusing poetry and prose with rock music, the 215 Fest--which started in 2001--is a new kind of literary festival, one that's less stuffy academic banter and more laid-back, heady fun.

Some of the biggest contemporary literary names have performed at past 215 Fests--Sarah Vowell, Jeffrey Eugenides and George Saunders, to name a few. And this year there'll be another crop of top-notch participants, including Elise Juska, Jonathan Lethem, Ken Kalfus, Diane McKinney-Whetstone and Neal Pollack.

Musically the Fest also boasts a diverse lineup, with performances from Bitter, Bitter Weeks, Espers, Les Sans Culottes, EDO and many others.

So what makes the 215 Festival different from other lit fests? "The booze," says Mary Richardson Graham, laughing. Along with fest president Sara Goddard McAteer, Graham booked the majority of the fest while working with a small board of directors.

Tom Devaney, program coordinator of Penn's Kelly Writers House and a member of the planning committee, agrees with Graham. While not all events will be held in 21-and-over venues, "books in bars make readings more open and entertaining," he says.

"It's more fun!" echoes 215 Fest president Sara Goddard McAteer. McAteer, who first became acquainted with 215 through her position as an events planner at the Free Library, believes that Philly's unique energy sets the fest apart.

"It's sort of got an irreverence about it, especially vis-a-vis literature. Literature, no pun intended, tends to get shelved as a boring art form. We wanted to make it a social experience."

The first incarnation of the 215 Festival took place in 2001, when then-local author and McSweeney's contributor Pollack helped organize the Philly branch of the McSweeney's literary tour. Featuring free readings by McSweeney's bright young things like Dave Eggers and Zadie Smith and nightly music performances at the North Star, the fest was a smash.

A year later, when Pollack's disdain for Philly became no small secret, he and his wife relocated to Austin, Texas, and put the festival in McAteer and Richardson Graham's capable hands.

Richardson Graham met Pollack through her husband's Old City bookstore, Big Jar Books, one of the McSweeney's tour's original sponsors.

"Neal used to do readings at Big Jar and help set up events, and he prodded me to get involved with the festival," she says. McAteer was also directly recruited by Pollack, who returns this year as an MC and performer.

McAteer and Richardson Graham wanted to program the perfect mix of writers and musicians. "We booked the musicians either because they're interesting lyrically or have some kind of literary element to what they do," she says, pointing to band One Ring Zero, which has lyrics written entirely by famous authors.

The writers also aren't your typical lit-fest fare. "We try and avoid the standard boring readers," says McAteer. "We wanted people who would put themselves out there 100 percent."

McAteer is especially excited about the night she's booked with Harvey Pekar, the subject of the recent indie film American Splendor. The festival will screen the film and then feature a Q and A with Pekar on Oct. 7.

It's this spirit of openness and accessibility that defines the 215 Fest. "At most reading events," says McAteer, "writers generally walk off the stage after they're done reading and never interact with their audience. With our fest, they're right in the midst of people. We encourage attendees to ask them questions, have a drink with them," or, she says with a laugh, "stalk them if you want to."

Feel-good drinking, carousing and reading poetry and prose aside, Devaney wants to use the fest to highlight a burgeoning problem for writers and readers. Perhaps the numbers are merely a coincidence, but many people believe the Patriot Act's most controversial part is Section 215, which gives the FBI unlimited access, says Devaney, "to the communications, research and reading habits of the public."

Not surprisingly, this clause has gotten librarians up in arms, and should have the general public kicking and screaming as well. Devaney plans to use the fest to get the word out and spur attendees into action.

Both McAteer and Richardson Graham are raring to get this year's festival going. And they're happy that 215 is in, well, the 215. "The Fest has a really unique Philadelphia vibe to it," explains McAteer. "I don't think a festival like this could have been put together anywhere else."

215 Festival
Starts Wed., Oct. 6. Through Oct. 10. Various prices and venues.

Party of 215

There's a wealth of authors and musicians taking part in this year's festival. Here's a small sampling.

Philly Sound at the Kelly Writers House
The 215 Fest's kickoff party, held at the quaint but formidable Kelly Writers House, features performances by several local poets, including Linh Dinh, Frank Sherlock, hassen, Kevin Varrone and the ephemeral Ish Klein. Local virtuoso cellist Monica McIntyre will also perform. Tom Devaney and CA Conrad host.
>> Wed., Oct. 6, 8pm. Free. Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk. 215.573.WRIT

L'heure de Variete 215 Avec Les Sans Culottes
Enjoy the fake French with Brooklyn's premier faux Francophiles, Les Sans Culottes. With songs about underpants and runaway elephants, this '60s-fied group will have you bomping in your Italian boots. Rounding out the night will be Sugar Town-er Sara Sherr on the turntables and an evening of readings hosted by 215 founders Neal Pollack and Whitney Pastorek. Writers Amanda Stern, Darin Strauss, Amy Sohn, Emily Flake and Jennifer Amey are scheduled to read.
>> Fri., Oct. 8, 8pm. $12. Tritone, 1508 South St. 215.545.0475

215 PIMP With Painted Bride Quarterly
Fusing improv with artistry, Painted Bride Quarterly 's Poetry Improve Meets Post-Modernism, aka PIMP, brings together elements of Quizzo, Whose Line Is It Anyway?, Exquisite Corpse and poetry slams. Local crooner Joey Sweeney performs afterward, along with songsters the Pearly Gates.
>> Fri., Oct. 8, 8pm. Free. World Cafe Live, 3025 Walnut St. 215.222.1400

Little Gray Book Lecture No. 28 1/2: "How to Communicate Without the Use of Wires"
New York Times Magazine editor Paul Tough and writer Jonathan Coulton present a "lecture" on "How to Communicate Without the Use of Wires." As part of John Hodgman's monomaniacal Little Gray Book Lecture series (previous lectures include "How to Throw a Curveball," "Mystery Cults of North America" and "How to Pour the Perfect Werthman"), Tough and Coulton headline a night of strange and whimsical readings from the likes of Brendon Greeley, Starlee Kine and Brett Martin.
>>Sat., Oct. 9, 8pm. $10 donation requested. Indre Studios, 1418 S. Darien St. 215.463.3000