Tabula Rasa

Tabula Rasa

Book festival could write new chapter in city’s literary history

By Sara Cardine 03/15/2012

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Editor’s note: Due to severe weather, LitFest was postponed and has been rescheduled for May 12. For more information, visit litfestpasadena.org. 
 
As recently as one year ago, the idea of a literary festival in Pasadena seemed little more than a dream. Despite the city’s long-standing reputation as a bastion of the arts, and the fact that Pasadena is home to several renowned authors, there had never been an event that recognized the region’s rich contribution to literature or tried to connect readers with area writers, poets and publishers.
 
Until now.
 
LitFest, the city’s first free, communitywide book festival, takes place from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday in Pasadena’s Central Park at the corner of Del Mar Boulevard and Fair Oaks Avenue. In addition to readings and panel discussions led by some of the area’s best known authors, LitFest boasts hands-on activities for kids and “good food, better books and great fun, all aimed at promoting the literary arts.”  
 
The troika organizing the event comprises local author Jervey Tervalon, Pasadena Star-News Editor Larry Wilson and Tom Coston, producer of the Doo Dah Parade. While the group’s immediate aim is to host an event that celebrates the written word, LitFest itself is a linchpin of a broader mission to foster a core community of authors, poets and artists in Pasadena.
 
“To me, the city should have always had an arts festival, ever since the Tournament of Roses began. There should be a 120-year-old arts festival, but there isn’t,” Wilson says. “We’re putting the word out, but you never know the first time — this is the tabula rasa.”
 
Before you begin conjuring images of LitFest as a closer, less crowded version of the annual LA Times Festival of Books, be warned: This is not your grandmother’s book club. At least that’s one popular tagline being used to advertise the inaugural event. Given that the idea was a vision that grew organically among a poet/newsman, a novelist who teaches creative writing at USC and one of the visionaries behind the Doo Dah Parade, the fringe quality of LitFest was a natural conclusion. 
 
“For us, this represents an independent spirit and making room for voices that may not have been heard,” says Coston. “What’s great about Pasadena is we do it our way. If you have a Rose Parade, you have a Doo Dah Parade. So if you have a Festival of Books, you have a LitFest. It’s kind of a counterpoint event that has the kind of stuff that’s not at the other places.”
 
Embracing LitFest’s alternative, counter-culture spirit, an October fundraiser at Castle Green, titled “Singing the Bawdy Electric,” featured members of the art model group Gallery Girls performing a striptease to literary readings. That, along with a second fundraiser in January, raised the $15,000 needed to pay for city permits, tents and other costs, according to Wilson. Astoundingly, the big literary names scheduled for Saturday, many of them friends of the organizers and groups involved, will appear for free. “Everybody’s doing it because they believe in it and love it,” Tervalon says.
 
And the author appearances planned for Saturday are sure to set book hounds slavering. Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic/author Jonathan Gold, novelists Mona Simpson and Denise Hamilton and local poet Wanda Coleman are confirmed to attend. Libros Schmibros founder David Kipen will join 30 other publishers, institutions and book vendors selling titles at the event. Panel discussions will cover a range of topics, including: 21st Century Noir; The Rise of the Graphic Novel: Write the Image; the LA Canvas; and History, Fiction…and Truth? 
 
A children’s area will employ storytelling, Shakespearian actors from Foshay Learning Center and a demonstration on Quidditch, the once-fictitious sport brought to life in the Harry Potter book series.
 
Reaching out to students and teachers is a particular passion of Tervalon’s. He hopes educators who attend LitFest are inspired by the unique ways literature is used to entertain and engage younger audiences. 
 
 “Literature belongs to a community, not just trapped inside a classroom or a university, where it can wither and die,” he says. “We’re celebrating writers in the region and our literary life, which is vital and growing and organic.”
 
As quickly as things are developing in the days leading up to the event, bringing LitFest to life was an immense effort. When the group couldn’t get the city to organize a festival, Wilson and Tervalon began meeting weekly at Caltech’s Athenaeum to discuss how they might do it. The meetings grew as more individuals and groups came on board, including local publishers Red Hen Press and Prospect Park Media. 
To help with the fiscal and bureaucratic details involved with nourishing the festival from zygote to viable life, the group contacted the Pasadena Arts Council, a nonprofit that supports community arts projects. It’s EMERGE fiscal sponsorship program acts as an incubator for events like LitFest.
 
Currently, the Arts Council manages the group’s funds and provides oversight and a range of services, from bookkeeping and accounting to marketing and grant-writing assistance, according to Executive Director Terry LeMoncheck. 
 
LeMoncheck says that when Wilson and Coston first contacted her about bringing a free book festival to Pasadena, it made perfect sense. 
 
“We talk about Pasadena as the city of art and science. But there are a lot of readers in Pasadena, and there are a lot of writers in Pasadena,” she says. “Visual and performing arts are very rich in Pasadena, but I feel it’s important to have as broad a perspective as possible.”
 
No one knows just how many will turn out on Saturday, and guesses range from Wilson’s cautious 750 to Tervalon’s optimistic 5,000 (“It’s interesting, compelling and free — and there’s lots of parking,” he qualifies.) But most are hopeful those who attend will want to come back next year and will spread word about the literary storm coming to Pasadena, one that is perhaps 100 years overdue and summed up neatly by Coston: “It’s a scrappy little effort on behalf of literature.”

For more details on LitFest, visit litfestpasadena.org or check it out on Facebook.

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