Kevin Varrone wanted the name of Philadelphia’s first small-press poetry and art fair to be memorable.
Varrone, an English professor at Temple, said he had been thinking about phenomena in language and found himself drawn to echolalia, a symptom of Tourette syndrome which involves uncontrollable bursts of action or language.
“That’s poetry – the stuff that you would like to say, but when you open your mouth it comes out as this big rush of stuff,” Varrone said.
The next step seemed obvious to Varrone – he combined the idea with the location to create Philalalia.
“It’s classic poet marketing – it’s difficult and no one can say it, but hopefully it’ll stick in your head,” Varrone said.
Varrone, who has taught at Temple since 2004, was an integral part in the conception of Philalalia, which will be held from Sept. 25-27 in the Tyler School of Art. All events are free to attend.
“We have a great poetry scene here,” Varrone said. “And yet we don’t tend to have these kinds of festivals and book fairs.”
Kimberly Southwick, a Temple adjunct professor who helped organize Philalalia, agreed.
“When I first came to Philly, I had a hard time finding the lit scene,” she said. “I don’t think that’s fair. There’s no reason that we don’t all get together once a year and celebrate it.”
Varrone said he met Gerard Brown, a professor of Foundations at Tyler, at a poetry reading Bucks County, where Brown was curating a poetry and art fair similar to what Varrone was envisioning.
Brown was on board and suggested the Temple Contemporary Gallery in Tyler as the venue. Robert Blackson, the director of the gallery, agreed.
The result is what Varrone called “a three-day department store of poetry and art.” During all three days, small-press poetry publishers and print-based artists will vend their goods on the first floor of Tyler.
Many of these vendors produce books that strongly deviate from traditional ideas of what books should look like.
“Even in 2014, [people] still have a really antiquated view of poetry, who does it and what it looks like,” Varrone said. “My hope is that they’ll see a real live sampling. People are doing these really weird, interesting, great things in an era when the book is supposedly dead.”
Varrone had a bag full of examples of the kinds of books to expect. They came in all shapes, sizes and formats.
In the bag was a canvas about three inches tall, two inches wide and half an inch deep. The front was painted in green and yellow blotches, and a small bit of cotton rag paper was wedged in the back. When pulled, the paper accordion-folded out and became a book.
“A book is an object, not just a thing that holds words,” Varrone said.
The book, “Very Different Animals,” was written by Frank Sherlock, the Poet Laureate of Philadelphia, and published in an edition of 100 by Fact-Simile Press, who will be vending at Philalalia.
Sherlock will be at Philalalia, too – he’s part of the second major component of the festival, a series of poetry readings over the course of the three days. The readers range from undergraduate organizations at Temple to Eileen Myles, one of the most recognized names in contemporary literature.
Most readings will be held in the Temple Contemporary Gallery, but each night also includes an off-site reading at various Philadelphia venues.
“We’re trying to have it be the kind of event that gets people from the Temple community involved, but also gets people from the city involved,” Varrone said.
Other readers include Soledad Alfaro-Allah, Philadelphia’s Youth Poet Laureate and Babel, Temple’s performance poetry collective. Several vendors including bedfellows, Apiary and Southwick’s literary magazine, Gigantic Sequins, will be selling their publications as well as hosting readings.
Varrone said this variety is one of the most exciting parts of Philalalia.
“If you’re up there with Hyphen [Temple’s undergraduate literary magazine], and the next person up is the Poet Laureate of Philadelphia, that’s as it should be,” he said. “Everybody’s doing the same thing.”
Philalalia strives to be a place for artists of all varieties and levels of experience to come together – an occurrence that the organizers said does not happen nearly enough.
“Artistic communities tend to segregate themselves from other artistic communities, [but] we’re all interested in the same basic form of expression,” Varrone said. “We’re trying to bridge that gap and get the word around.”
“I think it’s really important that the arts stay collaborative,” Southwick said. “Government funding is constantly being cut for the arts.”
Philalalia accomplishes this collaboration not only by combining readers and vendors, but also by including more hands-on events.
“A lot of the events are interactive,” Southwick said. Her magazine, Gigantic Sequins, is hosting a reading with Apiary magazine on Friday afternoon. The reading will be followed by an open-mic and a writing contest.
Blackson, Temple Contemporary’s director, is running a hands-on event on Friday for Publication Studio, a Portland-based publisher with a sibling studio in Tyler. At the event, participants can bring a flash drive with their own work, which will then be bound and published on the spot, free of charge.
In addition, The People’s Library, a Virginia-based organization that combines art and commnity empowerment, will be hosting a paper-making workshop on Saturday.
The organizers of Philalalia don’t want the event to be intimidating. “It’s a no-pressure event,” Southwick said. “Come by and see what’s going on.”
She emphasized that the fair is not just for poets by saying, “Everybody reads.”
“The goal is to dispel this notion that you’re a beginning writer or a student writer,” Varrone said. “Once you start to write, you’re a writer. If you’re making art, you’re an artist. Here’s three days where it doesn’t matter.”
Grace Holleran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter @coupsdegrace
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