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Twin Cities, Ep. 6

March 1, 2012 — On a wintry, throat-aggressing evening at Nomad World Pub, gobs upon gobs of literary and charming talent were on display to see Coffee House Press rep Kao Kalia Yang outduel Sarah Stonich (author of Shelter and The Ice Chorus) in a Neil Gaiman Cupcake Celebration that won her the Literary Death Match Twin Cities, Ep. 6 crown. For all the gory details, click for Patrick Nathan's fantastic writeup.

Report by Patrick Nathan:

Whether it’s to warm the audience or simply because he’s a swell guy, the first thing Literary Death Match host Todd Zuniga tells the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd at the Nomad is that he named Minneapolis LDM City of the Year in 2011. From then on, they’re his. After the introductory remarks, outing those who’ve never been to Literary Death Match, as well as explaining his lifelong goal of trying to trick people into reading books, Zuniga invites Twin Cities Executive Producer Sarah Moeding onto the stage and arms her with a Nerf pistol. Each of the four darts contains a name, and with some confusion (“You, sir, with the haircut”) and mispronunciation from the audience (“Martin… Kin?” “Martin Kihn everybody!”), Zuniga has introduced our writers as well as the reading order. Next, he turns to the three celebrity judges, clustered in a corner of the stage:'s sex columnist Alexis McKinnis, judging literary merit, whose bio comprises a list of felonies, and who informs Zuniga that her literary kink is “berries”; Emily Goldberg (director of Venus of Mars), judging performance, whose work in documentary cinema leads Zuniga to ask, after a Lemony Snicket anecdote, on whose book cover would she prefer to inexplicably appear, and what instrument would she be playing? (“Dr. Seuss, the sneetch”); and Ian Rans (of Drinking with Ian fame), judging the much-loved intangibles, who may also be the voice of the Minnesota Lottery, and, in a moment of confusion, admits he would kill an Underwood typerwriter. 

After an elaborate game of chance involving a drink ticket with an Emerson quote on one side and a Wilde quote on the other (think heads and tails, which, in hindsight, is hilarious, but at the time elicited a lot of strange stares), local poet and Coffee House Press author Kao Kalia Yang steps up to the mic and delivers a story about a father working in a machine shop, slowly ingesting carbon particles. LDM, she says, is the work’s first audience, adding that she just submitted the manuscript to Chris Fischbach (“Leader of Coffee House Press 2.0”) on Monday. All jobs kill you in some way, she reminds us, some faster than others. After reading in what can only be called a deeply emotional monotone (it exists), when Yang leaves the stage a woman in the audience wipes her eyes and says, “Now I need a drink.” A little sullen, the audience takes some time to warm up to Martin Kihn’s “Drafts of My Obituary” (Kihn, the author of Bad Dog: A Love Story and House of Lies, Showtime's new hit show) with its self-deprecating wit and cultural critiques, but it isn’t long before the one or two snickers give way to a roomful of laughter. Unfortunately for Kihn, the judges were more intrigued by Yang’s work and performance (despite Kihn’s hand gestures—what Goldberg called a mixture of “George Bush and Liberace”), and announce that Yang will be moving onto the final round.

After another heads-or-tails flip, this time with an audience member’s business card, round two starts off with Tristan Jimerson, whose work has appeared in The Egoist, The Moth, and on MPR. His piece, all about his annoyance with the men who approach him in bars and want to talk beards, recalls Zuniga’s observations from previous Minneapolis LDMs in which beards, in Minnesota, equate with sexual power. Minneapolis is a beard town, eliciting what Jimerson calls “beard envy” among young men, and he pleads with the men in the audience, the men in all these bars, the men whose beards come in patchy or “like rat pubes,” to stop talking to him. Why does no one marvel at his back hair, or the Simian-like hairs on his knuckles? “Why are you never a woman?” he wants to know. While this seems difficult to top, especially in a beard town in mid winter, author Sarah Stonich takes the stage, whose work Colum McCann has praised for its language, “perfectly wedded to the story.” Stonich doesn’t start off by begging for our attention or flailing her hands. She reads her work quietly, slowly, but with great precision, and halfway through the story, narrated by a thirty-something man whose wife has baby fever, the audience is spasming with laughter. Then her work contracts, narrowing in on what is a near spiritual experience for the man, and the voice that once seemed so flippant and borderline sociopathic becomes tinged with emotion. The story, at its close, hits hard. “This is why I came,” whispers a woman in the audience.

It’s a close one for the judges, yet after much disagreement they conclude that Stonich will move onto the final round. As is customary with Literary Death Match, the final round forces the readers to compete without their best weapon, removing them from the safety of their writing. It’s then that Zuniga produces (from where, it’s hard to say) an enormous glossy print of Neil Gaiman, silk-screened on a piece of foam core. Yang and Stonich are each given three cupcakes and told to stand behind the demarcation point on the floor, maybe fifteen feet from the stage, and whoever splatters frosting closest to Gaiman’s mouth is the LDM champion. The first throw is Yang’s, and she hits Gaiman’s cheek, and the audience is already screaming. Stonich smears chocolate frosting all over his chin, and one of the two human stanchions holding Gaiman in the air can’t resist licking her fingers. The third throw, from Yang, could be one of Gaiman’s dimples, and despite Stonich’s efforts, she can never come that close. Yang takes the championship while the throwers and the volunteers and the stanchions swipe frosting off Gaiman’s face, and when Zuniga asks her what this will mean to her, when she looks back years from now, she says, dead serious, “Everything.”

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