Literary Death Match Part Deux, March 2

Russell Valentino

The literary death match returned to town last night, and I was able to get out for a change.Here's the blurb from the lit death match website.

"The doozy of a lineup features Guggenheim Fellows Robin Hemley (author of DO-OVER!; Defunct Magazine editor) and Chris Offutt (Kentucky Straight; The Good Brother), poet extraordinaire Micah Bateman and Essays Editor of 

Wag's Revue, Sandra Allen! They'll be judged by three, talent-laden arbiters that include LDM Iowa City, Ep. 1 champ David Gorin, knockout actor/director Saffron Henke and saxophonist/storyteller Pete Balistrieri.

Hosted by LDM creator Todd Zuniga & Iowa City's organizer-of-mayhem Andre Perry."

For those who haven't attended one of these, death match participants read short pieces--poetry, fiction, essay (all really good)--and then the judges, who have the toughest role in this show, give impromptu comments roughly divided into the categories of artistic merit, perfo

rmance, and intangibles. The whole thing comes together through the performance skills of everyone involved and plenty of audience participation, with Todd Zuniga providing the glue, and, in the Iowa City event, Andre Perry seconding.

Just as there is occasional poetry, the death match provides an occasion for an evening of readings that allows a little breathing space, maybe some additional perspective, and a linking mechanism that can itself be entertaining, as many a linking mechanism is not. The judges have to be able to make (at least) some substantive comments, but they can't make too many, especially since some of the pieces read are polished published works and others are manuscripts on their way to being polished published works; some of the authors reading have published a ton, others are on their way to doing so; and anyway it's not a workshop, and it's not really even a contest--but more like a parody of a contest, at least until people start really working at the comparisons--so the applause could be as much for a judge's performance of a non-sequitur as for an apt metaphor enunciated with clarity or, as happened tonight, Chris Offutt's jacket (which was quite something).

And just as the occasions of occasional poetry condition the kinds of work one is likely to encounter (at a coronation, for instance, or a funeral), the lit death match tends to invite certain modes and marginalize others. Humor reigns supreme, with lyric a close second. Serious activism is less commonly encountered: you're not likely to be moved to go out and demonstrate at the end of the evening. And the performance atmosphere, which is rich and lively, gives the readings and commentary a shimmer that might not be so alluring during quieter contemplation. That's not the point, of course!

As for last night's event, competition was fierce. Robin Hemley started off with an indirect attack, through email no less, but Offutt was on it (sorry, Chris) and countered with a dangerous move known in the trade as "shooting the monkey." Tensions rose to a peak when Micah Bateman, his students cheering and taunting some of the other contestants, tossed out the "You are a woman" line and one of the judges actually took it personally. But then Sandra (aka "Sandy") Allen, even while recumbent, managed to open a very special kind of window and did a victory lap on a jenny provided by the organizers. They should all get a lot of re re re respect for their work, not to mention their willingness to put their lives on the line in such a competition. The evening passed without major injury, thank goodness.