Last Thursday, September 13, 2012, Le Poisson Rouge hosted a dynamic, cross-genre reading series called Literary Death Match at 7 P.M. The reading, called an “episode” by the series’ creator, Adrian Todd Zuniga, featured four readers from NYC’s most recognized literary journals and magazines, and three judges from different entertainment sectors.
The series, which has experienced a dramatic increase in popularity since its creation in 2006, seeks to make literary readings more entertaining for the general public by adding elements (like having a panel of judges) from competitive reality shows like American Idol and infusing the whole evening with the same levity and comic spirit of an improv show.
Each episode has two rounds of readings, in which the four readers are pitted against each other and evaluated based on the three categories of “literary merit,” “performance,” and “intangibles.” After the judges choose one finalist from each round, the two authors left standing have to perform a non-literary challenge; whoever wins this challenge is crowned the victor.
Representing the online literary powerhouse that is Electric Literature was fiction writer Matt Sumell, a graduate of UC Irvine’s MFA program with multiple publications in such venues as Electric Literature, Noon, and The Paris Review. The other fiction writer of the evening was Courtney Maum, standing in for the Brooklyn-based BOMB Magazine; she is a regular columnist for both Electric Literature and Tin House, and a book reviewer for BOMB. The nonfiction writers of the evening included Pulitzer Prize winner Tina Rosenberg, who currently writes an online column for The New York Times called “Fixes,” and represented the online longform journalism venue, The Atavist in this episode of LDM. Also battling for the genre of nonfiction was current New York Deputy Editor of Flavorpill, Jason Diamond, also the founder of Vol. 1 Brooklyn, a multimedia project that brings together art and culture from every sector, and which he chose to represent as a competitor in this episode.
“Tonight is going to be less Hunger Games and more like that party when Alfred Lord Tennyson got really drunk and walked into the fireplace,” creator/host Zuniga said, as a way to preface the event.
Then he led out the three judges for the evening, including Jon Ronson, author of The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test, novelist, essayist, music journalist, and TV personality Toure, who wrote the essay collection Never Drank the Kool-Aid, and comedian Jamie Lee, a semi-finalist on NBC’s Last Comic Standing, and one of Huffington Post‘s “Top 18 Women You Should Watch.” Zuniga then opened the first round, which featured Diamond and Sumell.
First, Sumell read a story called “Rape in the Animal Kingdom,” a hilarious account of a tough Brooklyn teenager’s attempt to train a hawk to be the most terrifying hunter in the avian world. The narrative was charged with wonderfully filtered details; at one point the narrator called the stamens of stargazer lilies “flower dicks.” The judges loved his performance, too. Ronson called it “an awesome rumble of Brooklyn exoticism,” though Toure deducted performance points for the Bud Light that Sumell carried onto the stage.
By contrast, Diamond read a personal essay that sarcastically evinced his trepidation concerning an upcoming high school reunion. Though his essay was pretty funny (it contained such gems as “Even the Rastafarian guy who cleaned the pool was making jokes about how much weed I was smoking”), it was Diamond’s ad-libs throughout the reading that impressed the judges most, advancing Diamond to the final round instead of Sumell.
In the next round, Courtney Maum read first, sharing an intermittently haunting and comical commentary on life from a “reduced fetus.” Her narrator is the one aborted baby in a group of unborn triplets. Maum’s use of the first person and her delivery of lines like, “Can you hear me okay? My mouth hasn’t fully formed yet” made her story, “Dispatch from the Fetal Reduction,” stand out. Toure responded by telling Maum, “It was delightfully weird. You owned the mic more than anyone we’ve seen tonight.”
The final reader of the night was Rosenberg, who read from an essay about how spy novels informed the deception plans in WWII on both sides of the conflict. Though her essay was exceptionally well crafted and as a reader, she was animated and engaging (even singing to the audience when she came to the lines of a song that were a part of her piece), the inventiveness and gripping nature of Maum’s fiction simply overpowered Rosenberg’s cerebral and insightful essay.
Though the judges applauded Rosenberg’s style and technique, they chose Maum to compete against Diamond in the final round, in which the winner was determined through an epic battle of “Pin the Mustache on Hemingway.” Maum’s team of volunteers put up a valiant fight, but Diamond ended up taking home the victory.
“I feel like the Michael Phelps of Literary Death Match,” said Diamond.
There’s no word yet as to when LDM plans to make its triumphant return to Le Poisson Rouge, but for a full schedule of LDM’s upcoming events, please visit their website.
Get in touch with the author @kellitrapnell