Get lit with yearly bookfest

Beth Nixon, Philly-based artist, asks some tough questions.

“Do geese see God? May a moody baby doom a yam?”

You may notice these sentences read the same forward and backward – these are palindromes.

On Sunday, Oct. 7, the closing day of the seventh-annual 215 Festival, Nixon will release “So Many Dynamos,” her new, illustrated palindrome calendar, published by Bindlestiff Books in West Philly. The calendar of watercolor and pen drawings explores “how ideas, characters, themes, facts, and opinions ? out of context and next to each other ? cast perspective on each other,” Nixon said.

“Through some fluke of language, these phrases develop that can be forward and backward, putting [seemingly dissimilar] objects and ideas in relation to each other.”

Through her organization, Ramshackle Enterprises, Nixon works with groups to build community, comment on the human experience and encourage imagination. Her puppet shows and workshops “enable people to imagine a reality that’s more desirable, accept the positive [in the world], and imagine alternatives to injustice,” said Nixon. “Palindromes put ideas in relationship to each other in the same abstract ways as puppet shows.”

At the calendar release event, Nixon will engage participants in “palindromatic antics” to celebrate “So Many Dynamos,” boost literary community, form relationships and have some fun.

Nixon’s work fits right in with the contemporary, imaginative spirit of Philadelphia’s eclectic annual literary arts bash, the 215 Festival. The festival features local and national writers, musicians, artists and photographers who use literature as a springboard for their work.

This year, the festival will be Oct. 4 – 7 at venues all over Philadelphia, including the Padlock Gallery, Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts and the Latvian Society.

The best part? Most of the events are absolutely free.

The festival debuted in 2001 as McSweeney’s Festival, a two-night literary symposium for contemporary writers and musicians at the Free Library of Philadelphia. That first year, McSweeney’s attracted about 1,000 people. Since then, it has expanded to include many more artists, venues and visitors.

“In the mid-1800s, Philadelphia used to be a major publishing city,” said volunteer programmer Sharon Thompsonowak. “It’s about time we celebrated our local publishers.”

The purpose of the festival is to “introduce new audiences to art that is cutting edge and reach out to people unfamiliar with it,” Thompsonowak said. “Philadelphia has a thriving literary community, and the festival provides a venue for people to get together.”

This year, the festival will host Lovingly Bound, a book and arts fair to showcase books as a creative medium and celebrate the craft of bookbinding. “These artists view books as a sculptural medium,” explained Thompsonowak. Vendors will present 3-D book sculptures, hand-painted designs and even literary jewelry – one artist makes bracelets from books.

In addition to wordplay and sculpture, the 215 Festival will feature music by Jack Kerouac-collaborator David Amram, a composer and multi-instrumentalist who worked with Kerouac from 1956 to Kerouac’s death in 1969. Amram will open the On the Road 50th Anniversary Celebration at the Free Library on Oct. 4. Following his musical performance, John Leland, author of “Why Kerouac Matters”, will lead a panel discussion featuring beat author Joyce Johnson, Kerouac’s former lover and “muse.”

On Oct. 1 at 8 p.m., tune in to WXPN 88.5 FM for the festival preview, “LIVE at the Writers House: Pocket Myths presents the Odyssey.” Andrea Lawlor, editor of the zine series Pocket Myths, described the series as “a collaborative, artsy retelling of classic Greek myths.”

The latest installment, the Odyssey, is a collaboration between Lawlor and filmmaker Bernadine Mellis. Each book of Homer’s 24-volume Odyssey is retold as a short film by a different filmmaker. Lawlor described the accompanying zine (actually, a book) as a “dramatis personae [literally ‘the persons of the drama’]” that highlights different characters of the Odyssey with poetry, writing and visual art.

The twist? The 24 shorts feature everything from stop-motion puppets to toilet paper rolls to drag queens, and explore Homer’s Odyssey from different social perspectives. “Masculinity is a recurring theme through Odyssey,” Lawlor said. “Contributor Robin Coste Lewis created a beautiful feminist piece about Laertes’ slave, a character mentioned only once.”

Lawlor explained the majority of the project’s 75 contributors are gay, transgender or women.

“It just happened,” Lawlor said. “The contributors are a community of writers and artists.”

Leah Kristie can be reached at leahk@temple.edu.

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