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Episode XL: "In the end we are still just hanging out with our friends in a bar and listening to dope writing"
In this installment, I speak with Katie Rainey of The Dead Rabbits Reading Series. Topics include the origins of The Dead Rabbits, schlepping, what they look for, what they disagree on, looking ahead & more.
I’m talking with Katie Rainey of The Dead Rabbits Reading Series, a monthly event that was started in 2014 “as a way of providing a place for the burgeoning and young New York City literary scene to exist and thrive in Upper Manhattan.” All three founders are recent MFA graduates of Sarah Lawrence College, and I’m going to guess that’s where the origin story starts—yes?
Basically yes. Katie L and I had both graduated already and Devin was starting his second year. But we were all great friends who lived in East Harlem together, so that's when it started—about a year and a half ago.
And what was the impetus to start? Had any of you been involved with a reading series prior?
We have all had some experience with reading series and poetry festivals in the past, but none of us had ever started a series. We really started it because we were tired of traveling to Brooklyn or lower Manhattan for the literary scene. We felt that there were great writers in all parts of NYC and we wanted to find them. Technically, the readings are held in the Upper East Side, but we like to think that it began in Harlem.
If you had to estimate where most of your participants live, where would you say?
Oh we definitely get the biggest crowd from Columbia, so I'd say West and Central Harlem. Although we've had readers from all over. In the beginning, our biggest supporters were our friends from Sarah Lawrence, so we've had a big Westchester crowd too.
Most of the New York City publishing industry (and therefore, most of the country’s) spends its days Mid or Lower Manhattan and its nights in Brooklyn. How true this statement is is hard to tell, but it is self-fulfilling; if you’re in New York to be a writer, an editor, a publishing entrepreneur, you want to be in the neighborhoods that will facilitate connecting to the right people. Do you feel like you’re ‘missing out’ on anything by not being in, say, Fort Greene? Do you see a future where Harlem or the UES/UWS can compete in this regard?
Not at all. In fact, we feel that the NYC literary scene has been incredibly generous and willing to come to us. I think people are looking to branch out everywhere. And that's not to say we don't love going to Brooklyn or lower Manhattan. There are great series all over. We just wanted to branch out and, initially, we were worried that people wouldn't want to come to Harlem/UES for a reading, but our supporters have definitely proved us wrong. We aren't worried about that anymore.
Oh and I do think Harlem can compete with reading series everywhere. We've seen more and more spring up as time has gone by. And all of the series are equally supportive of us as we are of them.
You accept fiction, poetry and nonfiction. What's the breakdown?
Do you mean how many of each we take or what's the percentage of submissions we receive?
I meant the former, but I'm curious about both.
So we don't have a set number for any category. We just look at the quality of writing and creating a diverse line up. If that means we have mostly poets one reading, then that's that. But we generally strive to have a writer from each category. Sometimes it doesn't always work out that way, but we do our best. There are always more poetry submissions than anything else. Second would be fiction, and last nonfiction.
You say that you "strive for emotion & honesty & intelligence & grace, things that are read as movingly as they were created." In lieu of asking the impossible—"What exactly do you look for?"—can you tell me one specific aspect of a submission that without a doubt will turn you off, and one that makes you want to say yes immediately?
Ah well that is a tricky question when there are three of us reading the submissions. We all have wildly different tastes, so I cannot speak for Katie L and Devin, but I'll tell you what I look for. I like playful and experimental, anything that challenges language and the human experience, which may sound more vague than I want it to, but that is what is in the back of my mind while reading. When you only have 8 minutes to read (which is what we allow each reader), there has to be something that binds us with the piece right away. I want writing that makes it so I can't put it down. Something I haven't seen. However, we all want different things out of literature I think, which is why having three of us works so well. Our varying opinions keep the line up fresh each month and brings new voices to the microphone.
Something that turns me off a piece? Well there are technical things, like if someone hasn't read through their piece before they submit it, which happens a lot. If it's messy and there are a lot of grammatical mistakes or something, then we'll know they don't really care about the piece as much and are just mass submitting. We want people who care about their work, which seems obvious, but you'd be surprised how many submissions we get that just seem slapped together.
But as far as the content goes, we are all open to everything. There isn't any one subject matter that would turn us off immediately. We never have a theme and welcome all forms of writing.
To ask another tough one: how do your tastes tangibly differ from Katie L and Devin's?
Ha. I love that question. And I don't know if I'm going to have a very tangible answer for you. I would say that I am probably the most postmodern of the three, or at least the writers that I love tend to be postmodern and experimental. But we're also three different writers. Katie and Devin are both poets, whereas I am mostly a fiction writer. Devin is probably the most diverse in that he writes fiction and nonfiction too. So I think that tends to have an effect on the way we read submissions. I hope that somewhat answers your question. It's a really difficult thing to try and answer specifically. Maybe I should just send you one of our drawn out email threads and then you might have an idea.
When you disagree about whether a piece should be submitted, what are the lines of argument like?
Well, when we bring our selections to the table, we usually have a "this is my first choice line up" and compare those selections. The ones that match up we take immediately. Then, we each generally have second choice picks. So we'll go back and forth that way. There has never been an actual argument over a reader. If one of us feels particularly strong about a submission, the other two tend to accept them. We're all very generous towards one another, I think. So there aren't any "arguments". Occasionally we've had a "well we can't decide, let's just take them both" and we'll take 7 readers. But that has only happened twice I believe. Our decisions are a lot of talking out loud with one another about creating a diverse line up. We each know that the main goal is to bring new writers and new voices to light, so I think that is why there aren't ever any arguments.
How has the series grown since you started (besides just in attendance and submissions)? Have there been any substantial changes or pivots?
Oh yes. This year is especially exciting for us. At the start of the season, we decided that we wanted to expand in ways. So we started taking visual art submissions. We project artwork at the beginning of the reading and during intermission. We've also talked about bringing in musicians too, but we're still working on the logistics of that. We've also been working on creating an online journal attached to the series. We would publish the work our readers submit, as well as a few select others that we couldn't take to read.
I'm not sure if I am supposed to talk about that yet, but there it is. We are all very excited about it.
Beyond growth, and reaching new readers/audience members, what has been the most rewarding part of it all?
Wow there are a lot of answers to that question. I think when we initially started, we all thought of it less as a reading series and more as a "we're hanging out with our friends in a bar and listening to dope writing," but clearly it has evolved from that and we are thrilled that it has become what it is so far. We've created a special community of writers up there and our numbers are growing. Each week, we are introduced to new writers and lovers of art, which is a pretty cool experience. A number of friendships have been established because of the series and that is rewarding in itself. We've also met a slew of talented writers and that number keeps growing. The reading series has opened up doors for all three of us that we never could have imagined. I think, above anything, it is incredibly rewarding to sit in that bar once a month with people who get it, people who make you feel understood. So, I guess in the end we are still just hanging out with our friends in a bar and listening to dope writing, but we know it is a lot more than that. The community we've created has made it all worth it, I think.
We're nearly out of time, so I'll ask you just one more. You bring up the concept of community, a word which is trending to include the digital realm more and more. Do you think there's something lost in the sort of connection-building that happens on social media, or is it crucial in bridging spatial gaps, and being inclusive to those that aren't in the New York area, let alone an hour's subway ride away?
You know, when we started, we realized that we would need to do a lot of social media work for the series, and I am probably the one who was most resistant to that kind of thing. (I don't really have a Facebook or Twitter or anything). We used to make an announcement at the start of the event about how we would be tweeting and how we were sorry, but these were the "necessary evils" of social media and the world we live in. But I'll tell you that I really don't feel that way anymore. I actually look forward to live tweeting our readers' work and I think that is because of exactly what you just said. It bridges the gap between us and those that can't be in the room with us. It allows our readers' voices to be heard in new and larger ways. It has definitely helped us build this community too. So I don't think that there is anything lost. Yes, those who aren't present and who are only receiving 140 characters of a poem or story are losing in that they won't get the full effect, but maybe later they'll come to another reading, or look up one of our readers and that will have made a connection where there wouldn't be one otherwise.
Wonderful answer Katie—thanks for your time, and your words.
Thank you so much for reaching out to us and for this lovely conversation. We all really appreciate it.