Tomorrow, Thursday, March 25th, a Lansing literary staple is taking its literary pursuits online, as many are, in order to deliver story and connection in an uncertain time.
We talked to Matthew Rossi, the founder of the REO Town Reading Series to find out how the series came about and why it’s so important for him to continue sharing while we’re quarantined.
(Listen to our conversation here….or keep reading!)
The Problem Being Solved
When Matthew Rossi moved to Michigan from New York four years ago, he noticed there was something missing in his literary life.
“When I first moved to Lansing, I would talk to people I knew who were writers and ask, ‘where are the reading series?’ I really wanted to meet other writers and form a community with them. The response would always be, ‘there aren’t any.’”
While the culture of a reading series was strong in New York, Matthew noticed that at the time at least, it was non-existent in Lansing. “Everyone thinks of writing as this really solitary act,” says Matthew, “and it can be. But it can also really be helpful to know other writers and to have a community that you can talk to and share your work with. Before I moved to Lansing it was a really big part of my life as a writer.”
So, Matthew says the REO Town Reading series was born out of a selfish need to fill a gap in his own creative life. “I was just sitting there not writing. There was something very fundamental to how I thought about literature that was missing for me.”
How It Started
Matthew had been in Lansing about a year when he decided to approach the local coffee shop, Blue Owl, about starting a reading series. “I knew them and I knew they wanted to host cultural events.”
Matthew was prepared to present a pitch and sell his idea but when he said, “I’m thinking about starting a reading series here,” the response from Blue Owl Co-Founder Rich, was simply, “That’s a good idea, let’s do that.”
So, on the last Thursday of every month, Matthew invited artists to share their work and lovers of art to come enjoy the readings.
“I’ll take comic writers, essays, short stories, poetry, novels…really any sort of creative writing endeavor. The goal is to give the people who have written these things a chance to read in a long-form format so that you can really see their work.”
While the reaction was slow at first and Matthew really had to hustle to get people to join, it continued to grow and over the last few years, Matthew says it’s become a center for the literary community.
“It nurtures this part of the literary community in Lansing in a way that I think is really much needed.”
From 7:30 until 9:30 on the last Thursday of every month, The REO Town Reading Series features three writers at various stages of their creative careers and one featured writer. “We’ve had people that this is the first time they’ve ever read and we’ve had people who have been doing this for 50 years,” says Matthew. The featured writer is usually someone who has released a book recently.
Each reader gets 20 minutes. “It can seem like a daunting amount of time but if you’re a writer of fiction, you can really see a complete short story (or excerpt) or if you’re a writer of poetry you can see your work as a kind of a collection.”
Just as the REO Town Reading Series was gaining momentum, creating partnerships, gathering a community, even producing an anthology, COVID-19 happened and we were all asked to stay home.
“As soon as things started happening, I thought, okay, that’s it for now,” says Matthew. Like many, he initially thought the best course of action was to put things on hold for a bit. “It was really kind of a moment of dread because we had this momentum and had all these things on the horizon.”
But Matthew called his speakers and just told them with everything happening, he would have to cancel. “My initial thought was, okay, this is just gonna stick for a month. Let’s see how this goes for the next month.” But that didn’t happen and now events are being canceled into April. “It became evident that this was a pretty sizable shift…a historic moment. The idea of putting it online actually came about as I started to see more people put things up online. I started to think, okay, this is a thing that we can and should do.”
Matthew contacted all the readers again and said, “what if we just did it online?”
Matthew started to realize, “The world does need people to tell stories, continue getting together and to continue finding ways to share culture. Because if anyone is like me, which I imagine a lot of people are, a lot of people are kind of stuck in their houses staring at their four walls, trying to find ways to connect with other people and trying to find ways to find meaning in all of this and interpret and process all of this.”
And for Matthew, that’s what writing and storytelling have always been about. “Story is the mechanism by which we process.”
“It also gives us an opportunity to talk to readers who are aren’t just living in Lansing and to also think about how our community in Lansing connects to the literary world and the rest of the country.”
The New Normal (For Now)
On Thursday, March 26, The REO Town Reading Series decided to shift to an online fireside chat. “I love that term, the fireside chat,” says Matthew. “It’s sort of a leftover term from what FDR used to do to help people make sense World War Two and I really loved that as a format.”
The series will be presented on Facebook Live at their normal time so make sure you’re following their Facebook page to tune in and find out more about the readers being featured.
“Someone once described the REO Town Reading Series as being consistently one of the most chill readings in town and I think that this one will be no different.” Matthew will be hosting from in front of his fireplace in his home and the readers will be chiming in from their own homes and their own Facebook streams.
“This is one of those moments in history that’s going to define us,” says Matthew, “And I hope that the memories of people meeting together and gathering in this way become part of that historic memory. I hope it becomes something that people go, you know, times were really bad, but people came together in really new and beautiful ways.”
Get more information about the event and how to tune in, right here.