The Absolute Best Reading Series in New York

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Look out for flying candy at Dead Darlings. Photo: Liz Clayman

New York is arguably the best book town in America, so a successful reading series here has to have that X factor: a combination of talent, venue, crowd, and most importantly, a skilled, if not fanatical, curator. The city’s still-thriving independent bookstores host readings all the time (the Strand, Word, Three Lives, Greenlight, and McNally Jackson to name a few), but there are plenty of off-site series to check out, lively gatherings that will feed your head and impress your lit-loving Tinder date.

The Absolute Best

1. Dead Darlings
Judson Memorial Church, 55 Washington Sq. South, nr. Thompson St.; 212-477-0351

The premise of this series is also its emotional center: Guests must read, perform, sing or show material that, for whatever reason, was cut from their work. It’s a smart set-up. Exposing something that failed humbles the reader, and the entire room is filled with an encouraging empathy. You see an artist at their most vulnerable, and the results are riveting and often hilarious. The setting, in the gorgeous balcony space of the Judson Memorial Church, also gives this night a sweet, communal energy. Guests have included author Alexander Chee, playwright Doug Wright, comedian Jena Friedman, New Yorker cartoonist Emily Flake, and costume designer Clint Ramos. It’s helmed by Amanda Duarte, a fiercely intelligent, firecracker feminist comedian, who interjects the night with brilliant political rants, readings of recent tone-deaf puff pieces in the Times Style section, and a twisted trivia segment (like: “Who said it: Joan Collins or Hitler?”). Whether you guess correctly or not, she still throws candy at the audience with all the fury of a performer who can’t believe this is the state of the world. (Suggested donation $10; second Wednesday of the month)

2. The Poetry Project’s Wednesday Night Reading Series
The Poetry Project, 131 E. 10th St. nr. Second Ave; 212-674-0910

The Poetry Project has been keeping the poetic voice of the city alive since it was founded in 1966. The Project hosts readings in the venerable St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery every other Monday (for emerging poets and open-mic readings) and every other Friday (geared toward multidisciplinary work), but the Wednesday-night series is when the big guns come out, like Lyn Hejinian, Cathy Park Hong, Eileen Myles, Luc Sante, and Ron Padgett. ($8; weekly)

3. Dia: Readings in Contemporary Poetry
Dia Chelsea, 535, 541 and 545 W. 22nd St., nr. Eleventh Ave.; 212-989-5566

Located at the Dia Art Foundation building in West Chelsea, this monthly reading series feels as honed and crystalline as a poem itself. The sound system is clean, the gallery setting provides an expansive inner clarity, and the resulting vibe makes you listen more intently. Each month the series offers a pair of poets, usually one established and one lesser known. Previous line-ups have been stellar: David Trinidad, Rae Armantrout, Ron Silliman, to name a few. Poet and author Vincent Katz is the host and curator, and he provides articulate, intelligent introductions. After each reader finishes, you realize he described their work absolutely perfectly. ($10; next event in September)

4. Franklin Park Reading Series
Franklin Park, 618 St. John’s Pl. nr. Franklin Ave., Brooklyn; 718-230-0293

This spacious, friendly beer hall in Crown Heights has become a major stop for writers who make it to those front tables in bookstores, thanks to dedicated curator Penina Roth, who wrangles big names like Colson Whitehead, Mary Gaitskill, Adam Haslett, Heidi Julavits, and Tayari Jones into taking the 2/3/4/5 train out to Crown Heights. There’s also a free-to-enter raffle to win the author’s books. (Free; second Monday of the month)

5. Cave Canem New Works Reading Series
Cave Canem, various locations

Cave Canem provides opportunities for black poetry and poets to flourish, and its New Work Reading Series brings together popular voices like Patricia Smith, Robin Coste Lewis, and Kwame Dawes with lesser known poets to help connect audiences and share the love. Taking place at the New School’s Theresa Lang Center and NYU’s Lillian Vernon House, the readings are centered around the fall and spring semesters, but during the summer, Cave Canem hosts readings in Bryant Park and the Brooklyn Museum as well. (Free; next event May 26)

Honorable Mentions

Pete’s Reading Series
Pete’s Candy Store, 709 Lorimer St., nr. Richardson St., Brooklyn; 718-302-3770

This beloved Williamsburg bar has a narrow, luminous back room that is one of the most inspiring spaces in the city to hear great writers. Pete’s has been dedicated to literary events since it opened in 1999, and its history of scribes is impressive: Sam Lipsyte, Gary Shteyngart, Jennifer Egan, and Hannah Tinti among them. Trust the curators here — the line-up of lesser-known names is always worth a listen. It also offers a slew of other series as well, including the stellar, well curated poetry series, Pete’s Big Salmon. (Free; every other Thursday)

Behind the Book (KGB)
KGB Bar, 85 E. 4th St., 2nd fl., nr. Second Ave.; 212-505-3360

Cedar Tavern may be gone, but KGB Bar is still here, keeping the boozier side of downtown New York’s literary history alive. This worn-in bar has been tightly entwined with the writer scene for years. Everyone has read there, from Chris Adrian to Karen Russell. The intimate setting allows you to get up so close you can watch the author’s wheels spinning. (Free; every second Thursday)

Guts; Experiments and Disorders; Guerrilla Lit
Dixon Place, 161A Chrystie St., nr. Delancey St.; 212-219-0736

Dixon Place, a performance space located in the Lower East Side, has become a center for downtown NYC’s edgy, experimental work, and hosts a healthy roster of reading series in its cozy lounge. The venue offers three different evenings worth checking out. The long-running Guerrilla Lit, the more performative Experiments & Disorders, and Guts, hosted by Dia Felix, a decidedly uncurated reading series that leans toward the queer and feminist spectrum. (Free; times vary)

The Absolute Best Reading Series in New York