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Rain Taxi’s Eric Lorberer: ‘Writers are thought leaders and maybe heart leaders as well’

Rain Taxi will publish its 100th issue this winter. And next week the 2020 Twin Cities Book Festival will take place virtually over three days: Oct. 15 through Oct. 17.

What’s in a name? If you’re Rain Taxi Review of Books, an homage to Salvador Dali’s sculpture “Rainy Taxi,” a nod to Tom Waits’ album “Rain Dogs,” and 25 years. A respected literary quarterly based in Minneapolis, specializing in “aesthetically adventurous literature,” Rain Taxi will publish its 100th issue this winter.

Eric Lorberer
Eric Lorberer
Eric Lorberer has edited nearly every word. “We’re quite often one of the few or sometimes the only place to review a given book, or interview a given author,” he said by phone last week.

Rain Taxi was founded in 1996 by Carolyn Kuebler and Randall Heath. Lorberer came in after the first issue. When Kuebler and Heath left in 1999, Lorberer stayed. His commitment to print has never wavered. Rain Taxi is not something that drops into your email as a PDF. You don’t download it. You go to your favorite bookstore or literary center, pick up a copy (it’s free), bring it home, pour a drink or make some tea, curl up with your cat and start turning pages.

These days, during a global pandemic, the “go to” and “pick up” parts are problematic. Bookstores are closed or have limited hours. Still, Rain Taxi’s circulation nationally is holding steady at around 15,000 copies. A new membership model, launched in early March by sheer coincidence, should give that a boost.

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Five years after Rain Taxi began, Lorberer, himself a poet, essayist, critic and Jerome grantee, founded the annual Twin Cities Book Festival, which has since grown into a one-day books-and-authors blowout on the Minnesota State Fairgrounds that draws some 6,000 people. Except this year it won’t be on the fairgrounds. It will be on its own website, accessible through our devices. It will be three days instead of one, Oct. 15-17, the same as MEA weekend for the benefit of kids, parents and teachers, who need all the help they can get. The festival will feature several children’s and YA authors, a story hour and other special programming.

Fall 2020 issue of Rain Taxi Review of Books with art by Leslie Barlow and Keno Evol
Fall 2020 issue of Rain Taxi Review of Books with art by Leslie Barlow and Keno Evol
Rain Taxi also has a robust website for the magazine. It includes “separate, entirely original content,” Lorberer said. “It’s almost like the web is overflow seating for all of the great content we have to offer.” It doesn’t include anything from the print edition. If you want to read that, you have to turn pages.

Along with publishing the magazine and holding the book festival, Rain Taxi also presents a reading series and maintains the Twin Cities Literary Calendar. For now, the reading series can’t go on as before. Instead, Rain Taxi hosted a Zoom event for its summer print issue and a virtual screening of a fascinating film based on the work of Canadian avant-garde poet bpNichol.

Like everyone running a nonprofit these days, Lorberer faces a host of challenges. But he’s determined not to respond out of fear. As always, this conversation has been edited and condensed.

MinnPost: How are you holding up?

Eric Lorberer: The bar is definitely different than where it used to be. I certainly have learned to appreciate the small victories. I find myself struck by the little things that I couldn’t have predicted being the things I’d miss. The 10-minute browse in a record store, or walking by a window in a storefront and popping in because something catches my eye.

MP: What was your 2020 like before COVID?

EL: We were rolling out several events and getting ready for the four issues that we would put out this year. On top of all of that, we were planning some special things for our 25th anniversary.

A retrospective exhibit celebrating our history had just opened [at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts]. It quickly closed. We cosponsored the book launch for Louise Erdrich on March 1 [at Plymouth Church]. Louise was radiant, as usual. Hundreds of people came, and I was greeting many of them by offering elbow. At least a dozen people asked me what I was doing.

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MP: You already knew about the elbow bump?

EL: Yeah. The next day, I was supposed to fly to the AWP [Association of Writers & Writing Programs] conference in San Antonio. I canceled my flight an hour before I was supposed to get on it. I thought, “I can’t do this in good conscience.”

That was when it started to sink in. There were going to be major changes.

I was on to elbow bumps by March first, and probably by the fifth, I was no longer going out in public. That was the choice I made.

MP: What were some of the special things you were planning, and what have you lost?

EL: I don’t think of things as lost because we’ll circle back to some of them. Some ended up informing how we would shape the book festival. To give an example, Frank Wilderson’s book “Afropessimism” came out in April. We were going to host an event for that, but we couldn’t. We brought him onto the festival roster for this fall. And certainly, it’s not too late. That’s the great thing about books. They don’t spoil.

The most unfortunate thing was the exhibit [at MCBA] we were so excited to share with the community. But we have made a film of that, and we’ll be releasing that fairly shortly, so people can at least get a glimpse of some of the fun stuff. [Note: Watch for it on Rain Taxi’s YouTube channel.]

MP: What has changed at Rain Taxi since mid-March?

EL: Fortunately, we have not had to furlough any staff. We’re only a staff of three. And a very active board of 10. There are a few key volunteers and consultants who help us throughout the year. All have recommitted to keeping us on a good path. In many ways, we’ve been working harder than ever.

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Big changes have been not having the public output – events and in-person contact. Converting to working from home. Learning more about digital formats and going down that path, which is time-consuming.

The entire sense of time has changed. How much time you spend on a given thing is different now, because you’re doing it differently, or from a different location, or having to adapt in ways you didn’t anticipate.

That has been the shape of our year. On the plus side, it has, I think, reconnected us all with our core mission. We have been exploring how we can continue to connect readers with this vast range of aesthetically adventurous literature, given some of the new limitations. One of the big ones for us is the closure or limited access to bookstores, which are such a key element in our magazine program. Our magazine is carried at over 150 bookstores across the country. It’s been very difficult to get [copies] there so customers have access to them in the same way they used to.

Those are some of the challenges we face. At the same time, we feel grateful to have the opportunity to face those challenges and to try to serve the literary community.

MP: March brought the virus. May 25, the killing of George Floyd. You’re publishing a chapbook. Can you tell us about that?

EL: That event was just awful. To have it be so close to home was heartbreaking. As I often do in moments of challenge and crisis, as many readers do, I turned to literature and to poetry in particular for wisdom and humanity. As I was doing that, I realized that what I really needed was to hear from the poets here.

The cover of Rain Taxi’s latest chapbook, “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop”
Courtesy of Rain Taxi
The cover of Rain Taxi’s latest chapbook, “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop”
So we asked Mary Moore Easter, a wonderful local poet, to edit this work, and reached out to Black poets who reside in the Twin Cities that we know to see if they would be interested in submitting something. That’s how this happened. We’ve just sent it off to press, and it’ll be released on the first day of the festival.

Writers are thought leaders and maybe heart leaders as well, in terms of how we can best move forward when social crises challenge our humanity. I’m honored to be publishing this and grateful to the writers who are willing to share what are often very raw and heartbreaking works.

MP: In September, Rain Taxi was one of five Minnesota literary organizations to get a grant from the Literary Arts Emergency Fund. You’ve gotten support in the past from the Minnesota State Arts Board, the NEA and other sources. What does future funding look like for you?

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EL: Quite honestly, we don’t know. We are legitimately concerned about the capacity for funding. It’s obvious that it must change, with the upheaval in the economy.

I’ve been cheered that the philanthropic community is trying to have vision and create opportunity in this [pandemic]. That’s a ray of hope. But when the money’s not there, it’s going to be challenging to have the resources that once were more available. So, yeah, we’re concerned.

At the same time, we’ve always believed that our primary job is to do our work, pursue our mission and adapt to what’s needed in the community, and what resources are available to us to help us fill that need. In the big picture, I feel confident we can continue to do that. All of us who run nonprofits need to embrace that challenge.

We have a chance – we have the hope – that we can inspire individuals to give even small amounts. We’ve always believed that a lot of individuals giving small amounts is as important as large funders giving larger amounts. It’s not just important as a kind of fiscal principle. We think it’s morally important, too.

We’re trying to come up with non-fear-based ways to think about this problem. It is a problem, but we’re hopeful it has some solutions. We have always felt it is our job to be innovative and flexible.

MP: In 2019, more than 6,000 people attended the Twin Cities Book Festival. How many are you expecting this year?

EL: About 6,500 came. We always felt thrilled to consistently draw that for a one-day event. For this year, we have some ideas, but they break down very differently.

We learned from our issue release party this summer that many people watched the virtual event live and engaged that way. Within a week, an equal number of people had watched the video on their own time. The counting mechanism is different when you add in that expansion of time.

For a live event, you construct the program to be a kind of heightened sensory engagement for the people in the room, whether it’s a large room or a small room. For a virtual event, we’re trying to craft something that someone who wants to see it the next day, or the next week, or three months later will find great value in it. And we anticipate far exceeding the 6,000-7,000 people we’d normally bring in.

And this never really occurred to me, but readers from across the country have begun to say, “Oh, I get to come to your book festival!”

An image from a pre-COVID Twin Cities Book Festival, held on the State Fairgrounds.
Courtesy of Rain Taxi
An image from a pre-COVID Twin Cities Book Festival, held on the State Fairgrounds.
MP: Will you have more or fewer authors than usual, or about the same?

EL: About the same. At the live event, we have multiple stages, and we often have things going on at the same time on different stages. For the virtual festival, we took the opposite strategy. We stretched out the one-day event to three days, without overlapping.

We have a great author lineup, as usual. We have authors from all over the country and an international guest, which is something we almost always do. This year, it’ll be Jasper Fforde from Wales. And then, of course, things for every age group and genre. We have really strong children’s programming, because it’s the one event a year where we can dive into children’s literature in a big way.

MP: Can you name five authors or topics you’re especially interested in seeing at your own festival?

EL: Only five? Well, you know, I’m excited about every event. I invited every single one of these authors, and I did so because I believe their work has something to offer.

That said, we have a stunning opening and closing to the festival. We’re beginning with Naomi Shihab Nye, an important figure in poetry who has a special kind of outreach to children. And we’re closing with Ayad Akhtar. He’s well-known as a playwright, has written an important novel and was recently named the new president of PEN America. [Note: The Guthrie produced Akhtar’s “Disgraced” in 2016.]

We strongly believe that writers are important figures in maintaining free expression in our society, and in being actively engaged with the civic world. Ayad Akhtar embodies that. He’ll be in conversation with Minnesota’s own Dessa. We think that conversation will be unique and wonderful.

James Patterson is a good example of an author who might have been harder to bring here live. He’ll be appearing with Kwame Alexander. Their collaborative book is a biographical novel about Muhammad Ali. As a kid, I idolized Muhammad Ali. The second I heard about this book, I could imagine a young kid today becoming inspired by this life story.

We have really strong programs this year in comics and graphic novels. This reflects a little bit of our history. Twenty-five years ago, it was beyond rare for general interest publications to cover comics. Several comics publishers have told me that Rain Taxi was the first non-specialty publication to do that. The world has caught up and now recognizes as we do that this is literature. We’re bringing in Hope Larson and Derf Backderf, who many people know from “My Friend Dahmer.”

One of the things we seek to celebrate is the amazing plethora and range of creative work. There truly is something for everyone. On the one hand, we have a writer like Bruce Cameron, who is beloved for his bestsellers about dogs. On the other, we have folks like Kathleen Rooney, who writes historical fiction, and David Hajdu, a highly acclaimed nonfiction author coming out with his first novel.

It never ceases to amaze me just how big the world of books can be, even though they all come in the same kind of package.

MP: What keeps you up at night?

EL: A fragility that has been exposed by the twin pandemics of COVID and racism. The tendency of some people to batten down the hatches and only think of themselves, versus the opportunity and the necessity for us to care for each other, because that will help us care for ourselves. That’s always been the struggle. How do we construct a society that has as part of its principle caring for others as much as yourself? That’s my insomniac bugbear.

MP: Can you see a silver lining?

EL: Oh, absolutely. There’s a potential here for really positive change. I think many people are becoming awakened to what is actually important. The things we miss aren’t the things we knew we would miss. The things we thought we needed, whether it was the ritual of dinner at a certain place, or things that we bought that gave us pleasure, we’re questioning those things. We’re realizing “Oh, that thing I thought I needed, I don’t actually need. What I need is a way to see my friends or my family.” So I do believe, and hope, that some really great positive change can come out of this.

MP: What’s the first thing you’ll do when you can do whatever you want?

EL: My aspiration at this moment is to be able to tell you that I am doing what I want to do. That I’m not waiting for a magical moment. That would be my goal, anyway. I’m not claiming to be there. But that’s how I’m hoping to approach a question like that.

***

The 2020 Twin Cities Book Festival will take place virtually over three days next week: Thursday, Oct. 15, through Saturday, Oct. 17, between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. All events are free to attend; all will be hosted on Crowdcast. Visit the website anytime to see the author lineup and view the schedule. You’ll need to register for events.