Lowering literature’s brow
What: Literary Death Match
When: Doors open at 6:30 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 20., show at 7:30 p.m., after-drinks at 9:23 p.m.
Where: Nomad World Pub, 501 Cedar Ave.
Cost: $7 preorder, $10 at the door
There’s going to be a death match on the West Bank tonight — but it won’t be much of a bloodbath. A boozebath, maybe.
The Literary Death Match will pit four local writers against each other in a competition so carnivalesque that you might forget you’re at a literature reading.
The contenders are Becky Lang, the imaginative overlord of the Tangential network of creative writing blogs; Rob Callahan, the sci-fi-loving, three-piece-suit-wearing novelist; Peter Bognanni, the Macalester College professor who cranked out the punk coming-of-age novel, “The House of Tomorrow”; and Cole “Inky” Sarar, a slammer who waxes poetic on mitochondria and created a chicks-only variety night called Punch Out Poetry.
Two members of this crew have a history — Rob Callahan and Cole Sarar have had an only somewhat amicable beef ever since Sarar creamed Callahan in a competition between storytellers and slam poets last summer.
“Cole and I need to have a rematch. And I need to win,” said Rob Callahan. “She’s Apollo and I’m Rocky.”
No matter who wins or what happens (and you’ll never be able guess), tonight’s Death Match, hosted by Maggie Ryan Sanford, a past winner, and Todd Zuniga, co-creator of the Literary Death Match enterprise, will be sure to lower literature’s altogether too high brow with its goofy hybrid of comedy, performance and literature.
Writers will strut their stuff for seven minutes each in one-on-one matches. Then the victors of the first two feuds will face off in a madcap finale.
Painter Nic Harper, documentary filmmaker Emily Goldberg and Cabaret-creator Leslie Ball will hold forth on their performances based on the categories of literary merit, performance and intangibles.
To give you an idea of what type of writing finds success at a Death Match, Simon Rich — the youngest writer in Saturday Night Live history — won the latest San Francisco event with a story about how he wanted to go back in time and kill Hitler. The imagined conversation he had with a friend after killing Hitler was only one sentence, and it was his friend saying, “Oh my God, you just killed that baby!”
“Literature is effectively life, so if you don’t have humor, it’s not going to be great,” said Zuniga, who is also known as Opium Magazine founding editor. “People like laughing, and they like literature, so why separate them?”
Oddly enough, the champ of the Death Match might not necessarily be the most-skilled wordsmith in attendance. The final round doesn’t really involve writing — the winners of the first two rounds will brawl their way through a parlor game, an obstacle course, a silly string shooting contest or something equally unpredictable.
The non-literary nature of the finale is passable because Death Matches aren’t about determining who the best writer is anyway. There ain’t losers, only boozers.
Speaking of no-no juice, audience members don’t get too drunk — but they do get comfortably lubricated.
“From zero being they didn’t drink at all to 100 being hospitalizable, and 66 being traditionally wasted, the sweet spot is around 28 percent,” Zuniga said. “We’ve had a couple 80s over the course of 175 events.”
The crowd has no need for beer goggles, though. The type of people who go to Death Matches — which have happened in close to 40 cities, from Beijing to Amsterdam to Miami — have their aesthetic ducks in a row.
“It’s uncanny how hot the crowd is,” said Sarah Moeding, the producer of the Twin Cities Death Match.
“It’s the cream of the crop of fun, smart literary people.”
So you might meet your next main squeeze at the Death Match, especially if you can hold your own in a literary convo.
“Literature is the new smoking,” Zuniga said. “If you’re sitting at a dinner and you’re able to talk about a book in an in-depth way, you’re going to kiss infinitely more people in your life.”
The Literary Death Match has found a comfortable place in an atmosphere of uptight people freaking out about the future of books. It’s a shining example of the notion that writers don’t write into a vacuum. They work best when they come out of their hovels, make friends and hold the attention of an audience.
“So much of what we do is internal and solitary. Any event that gets us out performing and celebrating what we do is a good reminder that there’s actually an audience out there that we’re writing for,” Bognanni said.
And it works for the audience too: Death Matchers prove to them that literature can be a relevant, sexy bonding experience.
“There’s this idea that literature is falling apart, that nobody cares. But the fact of the matter is that the whole of our existence in our relation to one another is story-telling.” Zuniga said. “With that in mind, we’re doing great.”