Bucks County, which is settled in the suburban north-northeast of Philadelphia, bolsters a growing population of over 620,000 citizens and a rich scene. I’ve never really had the chance to explore due to my geographical locale, but I’ve slowly begun to appreciate what’s to offer there. I’ve driven through the diverse, yet quaint, streets of Lansdale, ridden my bike feverishly down the 202 Parkway trail, read poetry at Farley’s Bookstore in New Hope, seen comedy and lost some money at Parx Casino in Bensalem, and drank multiple pints at the ever-endearing brewery that is Neshaminy Creek. Today, however, was a time where I was to explore the inaugural Bucks Country Book Fest in Doylestown.
Upon parking, I ended up getting lost among the busy center. Small businesses of all types from coffee shops, craft stores, gastropubs, and more pulled me in with a magnetic force that one would acquire when visiting a vivacious community. Splashes of contemporary designs intermingled with the architecture of the past. I stopped by the legendary Doylestown Bookstore to pick up the latest novel from Jac Jemc (a book club favorite as seen with the display they were standing on). I then traversed southbound and made it to the SEPTA train station. Throngs of commuters departed the train which ends its long traverse from Center City to S. Clinton and I hoped, even for a slight moment, that maybe they were all going to the festival. Well, it sure seemed that way once I found it.
I was able to successfully pinpoint the end of the “gauntlet” thanks to local author Nick Gregorio’s keen Instagram story, to only find their spot vacated. Maybe the crowd was concealing them; dozens of intrigued participants head-down into their next favorite read. I decided to meander around, as to not only but hopefully find the wayward author but to peruse the vendors and scenery of the 3rd literary festival I’ve attended this year. The layout was easy to navigate, with a single row of booksellers and authors behind massive white pavilions. Hosted by Philadelphia staple, WHYY, and plentiful amounts of local and statewide support, scores of industry-leading authors, publishers, and illustrators such as Michael Buckley, Floyd Cooper, Jennifer Gilmore, Chris Hedges, and Susie Orman Schnall. There was, of course, a merch pavilion, auxiliary stations for other projects, and a giant banner, teaming with festival-goers’ favorite book.
I wasn’t keeping track of time, but I ultimately found him, thanks to the unnatural clicks and clacks of a prize wheel. He, along with another local and talented author, Daniel DiFranco, split a table chock-full of their latest novels, bookmarks, pins, candy, and kazoos, to name a few. Passerby’s marveled at their interactive table and perused many pages of Panic Years (Tailwinds Press, 2018) and Good Grief (Maudlin House, 2017) displayed prominently beneath the wheel as the grand prizes of the show. Cutting through all the chatter of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the new biopic of Freddy Mercury a la Bohemian Rhapsody, DiFranco sounded of his experiences of a touring musician as a staunch premise for Panic Years, which he recalled jotting down notes riding shotgun between gigs. The “bridging of the two art forms together: writing and music” as DiFranco stated, led way to a more streamlined writing process while completing his MFA at Arcadia University, which he still holds in high regard to this day. I perused a few pages myself, peculiarly the blurbs on the back cover from Bud Smith and Dave Housley reminding myself that my own years of panic are rightfully upon me and eerily close to the narrator.
I then turned to Gregorio and Good Grief, guarded by the classically annotated Ninja Turtles of our collective youth. He, too, is an alum of the Arcadia MFA program, where he and DiFranco met as contemporaries turned friends. Transforming from a prototype of a graphic novel, the premise stemmed from a personal loss in Gregorio’s family and further expounded the idea upon his studies at Arcadia. Gregorio stated that “dealing with the loss of a family member is what carried over to the novel” which is the purest form of an homage, let alone a solace, to the stages of loss. He also noted the influence of the Ninja Turtles that “tethered two different lives together,” which is further explained in the story. For being Maudlin House’s first novel-length publication, I’m sure they were not disappointed; Gregorio has their logo tattooed on his arm for a reason!
Directly adjacent too the novelists’ table was one of my favorite journals that I discovered this year: Hypertrophic Press is helmed by a trio of talented editors and writers in Huntsville, AL and Bucks County, PA. Maddie Anthes, being the acquisitions manager and masterful fiction writer, is also an Arcadia alum and displayed the quarterly journals with prominence. Assisting her was Christopher DiCicco, author of So my Mother, She Lives in the Clouds (Hypertrophic Press, 2015) and editor of a local high school’s journal. He fielded many of my questions in the journal and how each cover is “both uniform, yet idealistically original”. Jeremy Bronaugh and Lynsey Morandin, creative director and editor-in-chief respectively, solicit artists from all walks of life to fit their templates. Within the covers, are an eclectic mix of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction which dive into their typically unrestricted submission process. “Hypertrophic is Hypertrophic” DiCicco stated, further garnishing the literary merit that the press has acquired throughout the years and the defined aesthetic that they uphold. Unfortunately, Hypertrophic is on a hiatus for the time being but will close out the year with a December issue. In the background, a startled, yet complacent cooing could be heard; Anthes’s newborn needed some attention.
I strolled down the way in search of my third feature, who was shaded underneath the vast tent of the Bucks County Writing Workshop. H.A. Callum has been an ardent supporter of Thirty West for some time and to meet him in person was a delight. It also came in the form of a new book, Whispers in the Alders (Brown Posey Press, 2018). Being a native of Bucks County, there is a heavy influence of the scenic wonders that populate his novel, a coming-of-age tale of two writers as they grow not only in age but as authors in their own ability. “The narrative spans decades, which has attracted both YA and adult readers to the themes of sexuality and moral foundation as any teenager would expect,” said Callum describing the flexibility of the novel. He is also a member of the Bucks County Writers Workshop, a long-standing, and highly sought, group of revolving fiction authors. Founded by author, Don Swaim, the workshop has culminated many types of novels and short story collections ranging from fantasy, mystery, and romance, to literary and nonfiction. Callum, and scores more, are thankful for the bastion of literary hope in the region.
I bid my farewells to the tabling folk and settled into my final event of the day: a conversation with Tom McAllister and Mike Ingram. The pavilion was crowded with eager listeners as the moderator introduced the Temple University professors and Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduates and their lengthy acknowledgments.
Billed as a podcast Q&A, McAllister and Ingram began with their experiences with Book Fight!, a podcast hosted by them that’s been publishing new episodes every Monday morning for many years (excluding holidays). Within, they would discuss classic and contemporary works from obscure to well-known figures, usually themed as “Fall of Failures” or “Summer of Scandals”. Ingram stated that his early editorial career with Barrelhouse, a non-profit magazine, and collective founded in 2004, allowed him to meet people in the writing industry and the “desire of a middle-ground between high-academia and common vernacular”. Thus, the podcast was formed, and it is a riot, spoken from a multi-year subscriber myself! Jokes were passed around about Tom’s recent literary success and if his English Composition students care enough to research their eccentric and passionate professor. Coming off a newly-released novel titled, How to Be Safe (Liveright Publishing, 2018), McAllister recounted, too, on how his three books taught him the skills to not only interview but to jokingly interview with fellow writers and readers in candid authenticity. The same principle goes into their podcast every episode. The conversation veered into academia and the perceived “bar” that people associate with it. Ingram continued that Barrelhouse gives back to the literary community with open calls for submissions and even merit grants for small presses and independent authors. The questions were then turned over to the audience for a time before McAllister read from his novel, which I am anticipated to get my hands on.
I concluded my festival with a sweep of the book tent and, you guessed it, the giant banner of book titles. I stood in line as fellow festival goers jotted their all-time favorite book. Among the anonymous repeats of The Sound and the Fury, Harry Potter, and The Alchemist, I wielded a red sharpie and squeezed in the first novella that really recaptured my life-long love with literature, Ghosts by Cesar Aira. I rose, patted my ringing cell phone in my jeans, and departed Bucks County Book Fest. The clouds grew dense and I power-walked back to my car in a brisk ten-minute stroll (I actually knew exactly how to return this time.)
And now, here I sit, recounting memories just like the writers and publishers before me. I can imagine as I recount this tale, someone is dog-earring a novel, jotting marginal notes on technique and “wow!” passages. I imagine the children, that after doing a lesson in grammar at school, come home and use the closest writing utensil to jot down something, anything, that will be cherished and framed on the refrigerator for months to come. Book festivals empower us, inform us. They give rise to entrepreneurship, literacy, and lifelong dreams of others reading one’s soul on paper. Here’s to many more years of this festival and hundreds more around the world. We love you more than you can imagine.
Josh Dale is a Temple University alum, bicyclist, beer enthusiast, and owner of the sweetest Bengal cat. His poetry and short stories have appeared in 48th Street Press, Huffington Post, Page & Spine, vox poetica, and others. Establishing Thirty West while in undergrad, he’s the current editor-in-chief and has published two chapbooks and a poetry collection, Duality Lies Beneath (Thirty West, 2016)