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NPR star Vowell to headline inaugural Wine Country spoken word fest in Petaluma

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Sarah Vowell is more easily recognized for her high-pitched, girlish, slightly acidic vocal tones that for her face — which generally only appears on the jackets of her bestselling books. But through the stories and essays she’s delivered on NPR’s ‘This American Life’ and other programs — stories that have helped define “must listen radio” — and boosted by her skillfully emotive vocal performance as Violet the Invisible Girl in Pixar’s “The Incredibles,” Vowel has placed herself among the most influential and important voices in the U.S.

This October, locals will have a chance to see the Invisible Girl face-to-face, as Sarah Vowell comes to town as the headliner of the Inaugural Wine Country Spoken Word Festival. Also in the lineup are acclaimed humorist and award-winning storyteller Bil Lepp, from West Virginia, and the electrifying poet-actor-rap-performer Steve Connell.

“Sarah is one of the top authors in the country,” says Dave Pokorny, who is producing the first-time event with his wife, Juliet, formerly of Pixar studios. “Sarah’s hilarious and surprising and brilliant,” he says. “Lots of NPR listeners have heard her talk about her life. Now she’s coming to Petaluma to help kick off the inaugural Wine Country Spoken Word Festival. We’re not calling it “the first annual” festival because that always sounded dumb to me. It’s the inaugural festival, and yes, we do hope it’s the first of many.”

With their popular monthly spoken-word showcase “West Side Stories” — held the first Wednesday of the month at Sonoma Portworks — the Pokornys have already established themselves as adept at creating buzz and audience for spoken word events. With the new festival — set to run Oct. 13-15—they’ll be taking what they’ve learned, and ratcheting it up to a whole new level.

One thing in their favor, Pokorny points out, is that a festival like this is truly one-of-a-kind.

“We’ve run it up the internet flagpole,” he says, “and while there are plenty of storytelling festivals and cowboy poetry festivals and comedy festivals and solo performance festivals, it looks like no one else in the country is doing a spoken word festival, which encompasses all of that.”

As such, the festival will include traditional storytelling, poetry, solo shows, stand-up, Moth-like story slams, and more. It’s an ambitious project, and Pokorny acknowledges that others might have started small, testing the waters with medium-sized acts first.

“We wanted Sarah Vowell from the beginning,” he says. “Once she agreed to do it, we knew it would be easier to get other big names.”

Vowell originally leapt to prominence as a contributing editor to ‘This American Life,’ where her slyly comedic stories of growing up, learning hard truths, and losing her faith gained her a huge fan-base. Her 1997 radio essay “Guns” — in which she described her rocky relationship with her pro-NRA gunsmith father, and concluded with Vowell describing shooting his ashes from a cannon after his death — is now considered one of the greatest such pieces ever aired on NPR. Since then, she’s written numerous books (“Unfamiliar Fishes,” “The Wordy Shipmates,” “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States”) blending detailed history with a rich, entertaining sense of humor.

“Saying we’ve got Sarah Vowell on board has made it much easier to pitch the festival to sponsors,” says Pokorny, allowing that he’s still working to fill in a number of performance slots, aiming for as musch variety as possible. “As soon as we can lock down the other slots,” he says, “we’ll announce the full line-up on our website.”

The festival’s performances will be spread all over downtown Petaluma, with events planned for Copperfield’s Book Store, Hotel Petaluma, the Big Easy, the Petaluma Historical Library and Museum and the Mystic Theater.

“And we’re hoping to have a campfire ghost story session outdoors at Brewster’s Beer Garden,” he adds, “because, hey, they have an outdoor fire pit.”

The ambitious undertaking, which already has Sonoma Portworks, Hotel Petaluma and Petaluma Sign Company on board as sponsors, is currently looking for additional corporate and organizational sponsors. Not content to merely take a supporter’s check and put their name in the program, Pokorny has come up with a thematically appropriate way of incorporating those sponsors into the festival.

“We’ll give sponsors a moment to stand up and tell the story of how their business came to be, or why they do what they do, or how their particular product or service has changed someone’s life. It’s a spoken word festival right? Our sponsors should get a moment to speak too.”

Pokorny’s vision is for an event that will draw folks from all over the country, one that spoken-word artists will hear about and want to be a part of. He hopes that such artists will not just fly in, perform, and fly out, but will stick around and attend other artist’s performances.

In short, he wants a spoken word festival that people won’t be able to stop talking about.

“We intend to become the best and biggest spoken word festival in the country,” says Pokorny. “And I think we will. It just might take a while.”

For information, visit DavePokornyPresents.com

(Contact David at david.templeton@arguscourier.com)

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