Since 2006, Opium Magazine’s Literary Death Match has been pitting writer against writer in bloody showdowns across the globe. From Beijing to Chicago, audiences have been bespattered by writerly verbiage and tickled by the critiques of iron fisted judges. On January 26, I had the luck to join the hopelessly literate audience at Literary Death Match, New York, Ep. 35 at the ever hip, ever ready, and mildly overpriced “Le Poisson Rouge.”
Before setting foot in the venue, I was showered with a bounty of paraphernalia from the Village Voice and featured author and death match judge of the evening, Shya Scanlon. Courtesy of the Voice, I collected flavored chapstick and a beer-cozy, and from Scanlon, a copy of his new book, Forecast, accompanied by a devilish smile and gloriously illegeable autograph.
Warming up to the literary evening, I took my seat at one of LPR’s low lit, romantic tables with my friend and literary companion Kate, and acquiesed to the waitress’s imperative that I order not one, but TWO drinks. Shocked, and somewhat delighted at this regulation, I said giggling, “Oh, so, I guess I have to get drunk!” The waitress found my comment strikingly unoriginal. Slightly dismayed, and sure my “joke” would have played better to a male waiter, I turned my attention to co-hosts M.G. Martin and Todd Zuniga, who had graced the stage and begun their introductions to the three Death Match judges of the evening, the aforementioned Shya Scanlon, Sam Lipsyte a Guggenheim fellow and author of the The Ask, and Susan Blackwell, known for her performance in Broadway’s [title of show].
The set up for the evening was as follows: Four writers – Morgan Meis, Anya Ulinich, James Freed, and Amy Shearn read a selection of their work (in 7 minutes long or less…) in two rounds: Round one = James Freed vs. Anya Ulinich. Round two = Morgan Meis vs. Amy Shearn. The winners of each match, (Anya Ulinich and Margan Meis respectively) battled it out in the final round for top dog status in an imbecilic round of charades in which audience members joined either Meis’ or Anya’s “team” and mimed a series of weather patterns, inspired by Scanlon’s book “Forecast.” Meis’ “team” played the best, so he won.
As you can see, “Death Match” is only titular. It is ironic rather than literal. The judges are instructed to be hopelessly forgiving. The final round is not bloody, because it is illegal to hire writer-gladiators for public performance in the 21st century. There is no “official” winner because it is impossible to nominate a “best” writer when literary taste is largely subjective.
Therefore, in the spirit of literary criticism, here are a few opinions of my own. Where the Literary Death Match can not venture, due to legal and scholarly limitations, I will go!
James Freed was terrible, and terribly drunk. With beer in hand, he sprinted through his piece, and stumbled on words, with a slippery, drunken tongue. I was so repulsed by his performance, I couldn’t even hear what he was reading.
Anya Ulinich was delightfully witty, humble and unapologetic in her performance – and her wacky story – about dentistry, the tooth fairy and motherhood, had me giggling and engaged throughout.
Morgan Meis’ piece felt more long form poem than a work of fiction – and without wasting one word, he captured the sensual aural and visual life of riding trains in Europe.
Amy Shearn’s piece, which she stole from her blog, felt depressingly familiar: as she acknowleged on stage, she was going to read a piece about being a writer, writing about writing in coffee shops. YAWN. Yes, people sometimes talk on the phone too loud, slurp their coffee, and try to get your number. Next?
Morgan Meis and Anya Ulinich were the best. The silly round of charades, the MC’s witty banter, or the judges comically impotent comments were amusing.
But in the end, that wasn’t the point.
The real value of the evening was the total experience of the literary reading. Readings are a glorious kind of theatre – a radio theatre – that does away with all the “multi-media” apparatuses, and Spiderman-esque stunts, that try to make up for a dramatic text that is lacking or hollow (something that is, sadly, prevalent in modern theatre.)
Literary Death Match, like Top Chef, America’s Top Model and ArtStar serves as an amusing scaffolding for an art form that is often overlooked. And it does so with a snide, delightful, literary snigger. Pop culture + irony + wine = A dreamy literary-hipster cocktail! Now tell me, what could be better than that?
Literary Death Match shows in New York approximately once a month. Check their website for updates or sign up for the mailing list and watch the bloodied letters fly!