June 6, 2012 – Congratulations to Stephanie Wilbur Ash, Literary Death Match Twin Cities, Ep. 7 champion and thanks to The Loft Literary Center for presenting LDM Twin Cities! To see how it all went down, check out the writeup by Mill City Bibliophile's Patrick Nathan by clicking below. Must-read internet recapping, indeed!
Literary Death Match: Twin Cities Episode 7
Nomad World Pub, Minneapolis
June 6th, 2012
Though he travels all over the world, Todd Zuniga turns up in Minneapolis more often than you’d think. It was only three months ago that he was onstage at the Nomad World Pub, encouraging finalists Kalia Kao Yang and Sarah Stonich to lob cupcakes at Neil Gaiman’s face. Fortunately for us, the MSP area is one of Zuniga’s favorite places to stage the ever-growing Literary Death Match, which earlier this year surpassed its two-hundredth performance. “We come back because people say yes, because people show up, and because the crowd is always excited.” Zuniga loves to quote Emerson, reminding us that “Nothing is achieved without enthusiasm,” and it’s this enthusiasm that keeps him coming back, that keeps filling the venue.
Zuniga is fond of eccentric, almost Rube Goldbergian setups. Rather than draw names from a hat or a shot glass to determine the order, he inscribes participants’ names on Nerf discs and fires them out into the crowd — this time with the incentive, “If you catch a name that turns out to be tonight’s winner, you get two free tickets to the next Literary Death Match.” The crowd quiets for a second while a man somewhere in the middle reads, “Lorrie Moore!” with no small tinge of excitement. “Lorrie Moore, everybody!” shouts Zuniga before admitting that she won’t be reading tonight, but he thought it’d be funny. “Of course she’s a winner,” he explains, and tells the man he’s won free tickets. The remaining discs denote authors actually present at the Nomad, laying out the night’s reading order. Before the show can start, however, Zuniga must introduce the judges.
Judging literary merit is novelist and provocateur Marlon James, whose second book, The Book of Night Women, won the 2010 Dayton Literary Peace Prize and the Minnesota Book Award. On performance is polymath Danno Klonowski, cartoonist on Manly Tales of Cowardice and False Witness: The Michele Bachmann Story, but probably best known for dominating TBS for 24 hours straight every year on December 24th as Ralphie in A Christmas Story. Judging intangibles (Marlon: “I wanted intangibles.”) is Dennis Cass, who “used to write for the New York Times” and is now “reinventing himself as a sci-fi author,” but more than anything seems to be a lover and provider of surrealistic anecdotes and meditations.
The night’s first reader is Juliet Patterson (author of Truant Lover and Threnody). She prefaces her work with instructions. First, we are to shout “Love!” whenever we hear the word “love” in the poem. Second, before she begins to read, we are to close our eyes, breathe deeply, and tell ourselves that this poem is “more of a French impressionistic painting than a Swiss watch instruction manual.” Her description is apt, but not in the vague, magnetic poetry kind of way. It’s hard for a long, slow, complex poem to go over well in a loud bar with a tipsy audience, but for Patterson it’s effortless. “These thoughts fall apart when you think them,” she says, dragging us through imagistic lines like “The refrigerator gives milk,” and through the streets like “swallowed light.” The audience is too lost in the poem to catch the “loves”—to know what we’re supposed to do—and when we remember it sounds like church must sound at three in the morning, “Love” spreading itself through the bar like each listener’s own amen. It’s a shame when Zuniga shoots her in the leg with the Nerf gun — his trademark over-the-time-limit warning — but she finishes anyway, warning: “Some of the worst things in your life never happen.” “The poem actually made me want to fall in love,” Marlon James says, “and falling in love is absolutely disgusting. But it worked. It’s like Wuthering Heights, but hot.” “I love a writer who is a poet and reads poems,” Cass says, shuffling through index cards that may or may not be blank.
Pete Hautman (The Big Crunch and The Obsidian Blade) — travel-writer, YA novelist, and National Book Award winner — pulls us in a new direction with his smart, charming, and creepy protagonist, Dougie. “Dougie is a teenage boy with all his knobs turned up to 11,” he says. Dougie’s primary obsession is a girl in his class, and, while nobody’s willing to admit it, the wish for tornadoes and other natural disasters to trap us in basements with our beloveds, to bring about a slight dependence, is both familiar and hilarious, not to mention disturbing. All three judges are at work—Marlon scribbling in his notebook, Klonowski sketching his interpretation of the scene on an 18”x24” pad, and Cass itemizing intangibles on the index cards. “Dougie is like Holden Caulfield before he was bitch slapped,” Marlon says. “I definitely think he’ll be a serial killer.” After a brief deliberation, the judges decide that Hautman will move on to the next round.
Starting off with poet and performer Jeffrey Skemp (author of Spent), Round Two turns out to be far more theatrical than the LDM audience has come to expect. If voices could mate, Skemp’s would be the offspring of Tom Waits and Charles Bukowski (“But less of a woman hater,” Marlon says). It brings to mind Christian Bale’s Batman voice, only in this particular artwork it’s actually called for. The audience slips into Skemp’s trance, and, halfway through his humid, still, dark poem about a ballpark, someone actually snaps their fingers in agreement or pleasure, making it an official poetry performance. Skemp follows it with his stellar poem about the ocean’s bottom feeders—the rockfish. Accompanied by an atmospheric guitar riff (after some technical difficulty) and layered feedback, Skemp’s work is both threatening and comic. It’s like laughing about the fact that each one of us will die. “Thank you for taking the sea back from The Little Mermaid and Finding Nemo,” Marlon says. Cass shuffles the note cards. “All the rocks in the MSP area are now polished,” he says.
Joining fictioneer/performance artist/MPR Electric Arc Radio's Stephanie Wilbur Ash is the Prairie Fire Lady Choir. “Please allow some patience while my Goth harpies get in place,” she says. This piece, too, requires audience participation. “When we get to the part where we sing Joy Division, all you have to do is sing along.” Her work showcases a hilarious confrontation between Jacky, a young mother of twins (who go “apeshit with ecstasy” every time someone touches their hair), and Tyler, a fourteen-year-old budding Goth boy down the street. The piece breaks now and then for a rhythm and choral section—an adaptation of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” involving a tom drum and part of a donkey skull. Wilbur Ash juxtaposes adolescent loneliness against adult existentialism, and as Jacky tries to reach out to an indifferent Tyler it’s clear that young adulthood is the more painful experience, despite how we may have remembered it. She and her harpies close with a rendition of “Dear Prudence,” Zuniga throwing Nerf discs from offstage, presumably because the gun is broken. “You mention farts, twice,” Danno says. “Very well done.” “All I could think about,” Cass says, “is the jawbone of the ass. The guitar pedal over there says Echo Hall, but there’s the jawbone of the ass. Was it even played? When will it be played?” (It was played.) After another brief huddle, Wilbur Ash moves onto the final round.
A Literary Death Match custom, the final round features no creative work. “You’ve heard enough reading,” Zuniga says. This time, he introduces an author word jumble in which volunteer participants — including LDM Twin Cities Executive Producer Sarah Moeding — hold individual letters while the finalists rearrange them to spell a name. It starts off easy—Poe, Nin—but moves onto the five- and six-letter names. Despite constant shouts from the audience, it takes Hautman a near minute to spell Plath. Wilbur Ash catches on more quickly and easily wins the match, though Huxley almost stumps her. Zuniga takes Hautman aside. “You conquered the gem known as Juliet Patterson, then took 59 seconds to spell Plath. What does this mean for your literary career?” Hautman shrugs and says without thinking, “It’s the end.” Wilbur Ash, as LDM Twin Cities Episode 7 champion, confesses to being a little drunk, but is grateful “to live in a city that enables us to make our art.” It’s something for which all of us are grateful. It’s art that makes every one of us go apeshit with ecstasy, and without it we’d be nothing but rockfish.