The Twin Cities have no shortage of monthly lit readings. See rain taxi’s comprehensive calendar for proof—there’re three events any night of the week. So how do you consistently pack a room, month after month? Elizabeth Tannen’s 555 Reading Series is a textbook we should all study. Five readers, five minutes each, at the same location (Five Watt Coffee) on a consistent, regular schedule. Readers whose backgrounds and genres are as diverse as the city they’re living in. Coffee. Donuts. Proximity to bars. Did I mention the whole thing wraps under an hour?
Liz, a poet herself, is the creator, organizer, and host. I emailed her to ask her how she does it all, and so well.
It’s remarkable how not difficult it is to find five writers—Minneapolis is pretty much crawling with talented folks. I try and scout people at other readings and get recommendations through friends and past readers; I’d say those are the main ways I find people. But I can’t stress enough how easy it feels to consistently feature great writers.
Good question! I’ve pretty much never organized anything before. (I associate “organizing” with details and I don’t really know what those are. You know, poets…) Anyway, my return to Minneapolis in 2014 after a few months away coincided with the opening of Five Watt Coffee. I didn’t have much to do besides mope around and feign work on a shitty manuscript, which I wound up doing a lot of at the shop. I became friends with one of the owners, and he and I started floating the idea. There’s a perfect little stage, so it seemed irresistible. But I kept insisting that I didn’t know how to go about doing it, and that—to align with the shop’s kind of goofball identity—it couldn’t just be a straight reading series. There would need to be some sort of gimmicky concept. Then, in 2015, I was having coffee with a local poet (Mary Austin Speaker) at Five Watt, and the topic came up; Mary had hosted a couple of reading series in New York, and she basically talked me into doing it.
Letting the night drag on too long! I think a main reason the event’s become popular is brevity. Personally, I’m kind of a terrible listener, and I think a lot of people appreciate when readings are kept to a manageable length. It feels less intimidating, particularly for folks who aren’t writers, or don’t know they want to commit two plus hours to writers they’ve likely not heard before.
There have been so many! Danez Smith’s reading sticks out—he read a poem about the “white penis” that literally brought the house down. I remember feeling thankful that he read last, because it would have been cruel and unusual to make someone follow that performance.
Um, every time I tell a dad joke and 0-3 people laugh?
I feel like I’ve been a pretty crummy literary citizen lately, at least as far as making it out to as many readings as I’d like. That said: I like what Lewis Mundt does with the New Shit show. Queer Voices has amazing lineups. Cracked Walnut is always organizing great things. Janaya Martin does a great job with Writers Read at the Coffee Shop Northeast. Black Table Arts reading series always looks amazing and I am never able to go. Clarence White and Margaret Hesse do the Banfill Locke Series which features incredible writers. The Bridges series at Barnes and Noble.
I think the main thing I’ve learned is how difficult hosting is. I’m pretty comfortable speaking in public—I love reading my own work, and am very at ease in a teaching or facilitating role. But hosting is different, and it definitely causes me more anxiety. I’m not sure exactly why. You have to be on your toes, do a lot of improv, basically, and constantly be reading the energy in the room. The most important thing, I think, is to make everyone feel welcome and appreciated and as comfortable as they can possibly be. I always try and introduce folks to one another before and after the reading.
I can’t think of a single event that didn’t feel like a success. That sounds like BS, but it’s true. I feel really lucky that 555 has managed to attract steady turnout, and the people who come make it feel festive, like community–to me, that kind of positive energy is what determines success.
People tend to arrive at the last minute, so I try to remind myself of that!