Snail-mail celebration as Rumpus starts subscription service where readers get letters from notable authors

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Stephen Elliott (Dan Rosenblum)
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Standing onstage at the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe last night, the writer Jonathan Ames prepared to read a copy of an old letter he had sent two decades before.

“I had many friends I used to write letters to, maybe a dozen, 20 people,” Ames, who is perhaps most widely known as the creator of the HBO series Bored to Death, said to the crowd. “I’d love to go to my mailbox and come out with a bunch of letters. An amazing day would be to have more than one letter and I would take my time with it.”

He spoke to a standing-room-only crowd from a stage set up between the store's dance and graphic novel sections. They were there to hear Ames and other writers celebrate the forgotten, low-tech intimacy of letter writing. The event was in celebration of the "Letters in the Mail" service, organized by literary website The Rumpus. For $60 a year, 2,100 subscribers will get a letter written the old-fashioned way, sealed in an envelope, stamped and, sometimes, even with a return address to encourage replies. 

Some of those contributors, including Ames, Tao Lin, and Emily Gould, brought letters or other work to read last night. They weren't all ink-and-paper letters but in their own way, each writer touched on how confusing it can sometimes be to communicate and connect. The Rumpus itself has been, until this project, a web-only venture, so the effects of technology and social media were evident in plenty of what was read and discussed.

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Rumpus founder Stephen Elliott opened by telling the crowd the site would pay for Rumpus tattoos.

“Nobody at McSweeney's ever got a McSweeney’s tattoo,” he said. “I mean I love those guys, but they’re not fully committed.”

The literary crowd, some almost certainly affiliated with the Dave Eggers imprint, laughed.

He said his letter-writing history began to shift toward a merging of the personal and the literary when he was sending letters, sometimes up to 30 pages long, to his then-fiancée while she was traveling through Europe. She would call, but rarely wrote back. Then, his relationship to the form grew further while he was volunteering for Ralph Nader in 2000, during which time he sent letters from the road to his friends.

"I always sent a lot of letters," he said, joking that it was almost a sickness.

Elliott initiated the "Daily Rumpus" emails, personal communiqués he continues to write, and explained that the form, though over email, became incredibly satisfying, especially as the readership grew.

Thought Catalog contributor Marie Calloway followed Elliott.

“Someone on Twitter said they came so they could glare at me, so I hope they get their fill of that,” she said.

Calloway read a letter, a memoir that shared her experiences since high school, through a bad breakup, then becoming published, and circling back to her decision to write memoirs.

Tao Lin followed Calloway. (Both of whom recently shared the bill at a St. Mark’s Bookstore reading.) He read a 2005 piece about his father’s sentencing in a Brooklyn courthouse. Poet Ariana Reines recited her work.

Former Gawker contributor, author, and cofounder of Emily Books Emily Gould told the crowd about her experience of waiting for her boyfriend, n+1 founder Keith Gessen, to be arraigned following his arrest after November’s police raid on Zucotti Park. While she waited she read, visited friends, chatted with to people online, and explored the Lower Manhattan changed by her recent experiences.

“I know all these people in the way I know a lot of people—from the Internet,” she read. “And a part of me knows a part of them and while these parts connect consistently, some quite intimately, It’s not like we hang out.”

The experience, she wrote, made her remember previous walks around other neighborhoods and made her think about how every object in the city was meaning for someone.

Ames pulled out letters he’d written to an Australian friend in 1990. He explained they’d bonded over their appreciation for German writer Thomas Mann and that Amesh had, for a time, imagined himself a “young gentleman” out of The Magic Mountain or Brideshead Revisited.

“I couldn’t keep up with you and Thomas Mann and I thought you would find me lacking as an intellectual foil,” he read. “I felt embarrassed I wasn’t as interested in Mann and this made me insecure. I know this sounds ridiculous, but this is the truth.”

Alina Simone closed the night with mini-set including a song she'd written expressly for the "Letters in the Mail" event. She said that before last night, the unnamed song had still been labeled "letters.mp3," but that Gould had recommended she give it a proper title, “Letters in the Mail Song.” With a modest backing band, she sang the dirge-like celebration of the letter and it's improvement, sometimes, on the real world.

“I liked you better in your letters, now go away,” she sang.

After one more song, a cover of Britney Spears’ “Oops!... I did It Again,” the crowd milled about as Housing Works volunteers packed up the room.

“I love letters, but I don’t write them anymore,” Ames said before leaving. “And emails don’t feel [like] the same thing, emails feel very telegraphic, you know what I mean? They tend to feel short and to the point. They’re very discursive.” Not everyone, clearly, felt the natural progression of the letter's form from physical to digital had been without loss. 

Afterward, a thinned-out crowd stood on the steps, many on the way to Tao Lin’s apartment or nearby Botanica Bar. Only one of those plans was tweeted.