Smile Politely

The pen is mightier at PygLit’s Literary Death Match

Photo by Jason Gutierrez

“We haven’t had any deaths on stage,” explains Adrian Todd Zuniga, founder, mastermind, and master of ceremonies for Literary Death Match (or LDM for short). “We’re still clear on that front.” Most literary readings wouldn’t need to offer any clarification on that subject. But LDM doesn’t want to be just any literary reading. It’s part game show, part improv comedy, part poetry slam; a bold attempt to put on a literary show with the excitement of professional wrestling.

Four writers take part in an LDM show. Each one reads for seven minutes from a poem, story, nonfiction work, or whatever they feel like. “We did have a playwright bring on somebody from the audience one time, to read the other half of their play with them,” Zuniga says, “like a two-person monologue… I guess that’s just a dialogue.” The pieces don’t have to be original for LDM, but Zuniga says that writers who have composed specifically for the show, especially fiction writers, often do better. “There’s just more awareness around the performative aspect,” he explains.

After each pair of readers, that night’s panel of judges discusses the merits of each and picks a winner. The judging is, of course, completely subjective, but that just adds to the fun for the audience, according to Zuniga. “I think in a lot of ways LDM is like sport; as an audience member, you root for someone in a way that is not commeasurate to the event.” The spotlights and competition can turn normally placid writers into fierce combatants. Zuniga says “I always hear before the show ‘I don’t wanna be part of the finale, I just wanna lose in the first round’. And I know that’s the person who’s gonna have a ferocious look on their face, and try to win at all costs at the end.”

The finale round might be LDM’s most unique innovation. In it, the two winning writers from the first round face off in a surprising and often ridiculous challenge. One recent showdown involved Zuniga reading one-star Amazon reviews of famous novels for the competitors to try and identify. Others have included a game of “Pin the Mustache on Hemingway” and a literary author-name spelling bee (sure you can probably spell the names of V.S. Naipaul and Evelyn Waugh, but what about Dutch novelist Cees Nooteboom?). “I never say what we’re doing beforehand,” Zuniga explains, so the audience can only expect to be surprised.

The competitors for the Pygmalion edition of LDM are a diverse and exciting group of writers. Urbana actor and writer Lindsey Gates-Markel has published numerous stories and essays, including a Pushcart Prize-nominated work of flash fiction for Sundog Lit and a celebration of the wonders of Livejournal for The Toast. Chicago-based poet C. Russell Price’s new chapbook is entitled Tonight, We Fuck The Trailer Park Out of Each Other. Poet and former UIUC professor Tyehimba Jess’ new book, Olio, explores African American performers and musicians at the turn of the 20th century. (Be sure to check out Jordan Kreie’s interview with Jess for SP.) And Ohio poet Maggie Smith’s latest collection, The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, evokes “Folk tales and their eerie, animistic wisdom”.

The four readers will display their talents in front of an esteemed set of judges. Neil Steinberg is a daily columnist at the Chicago Sun­Times. Michigan author Elizabeth Ellen is an editor for Short Flight/Long Drive Books and Hobart. And T.R.U.T.H and Klevah are the two halves of notorious C-U hip-hop force Mother Nature.

Showcasing a diversity of writing styles and voices is a crucial part of LDM’s mission. “It’s about trying to find a lineup of readers that is just diverse and interesting,” according to Zuniga. Over LDM’s ten years and more than 400 shows, he’s tried mixing it up in different ways. “We once did an all comedy writers show, and the crowd loved it, super funny.” But without diversity, and the unexpected, he says, “everybody sort of knew what they were going to get, and then they got it”. Variety and excitement are all part of the balance Zuniga tries to strike in LDM shows. They need to be accessible enough for everyone, but also strive to be challenging enough to inspire the audience through the power of literature.

A wide appeal is key to LDM’s success. That’s what drives the attention-grabbing pagentry, from the name to Zuniga’s notoriously natty choice of blazers. The goal is to present a quick taste of contemporary writing in a fun way that appeals to everyone, and might draw in a few people who wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to exciting new literary authors. “You’re going to find authors who are accessible,” Zuniga said, “and are performing in a way that makes you say ‘Oh yeah, that’s what literature is; I want to read that.” He lays it out in a hypothetical:

I have this great fear that somebody will be sitting at home, and they’ve watched all of Breaking Bad, watched all the Harry Potter movies, and they think, ‘It’s time for me to read books.’ Then they Google ‘best book ever’, and then they pick up that book, they buy it, they leave, they go home, and after one page of Ulysses they say ‘This is horrible! I’m going to go back to watching all the TV shows.’

In other words, LDM is aimed at keeping literature from feeling too precious, or too unapproachable.

Ultimately, Zuniga hopes that attendees will be inspired to read more, once they see what literature has to offer. “LDM is a gateway drug to Ulysses,” he explains. For a show with the lofty goal of bridging the gap between Jane Austen and Stone Cold Steve Austin (or, more precisely, between AWP and the WWE), that sounds about right.


The Pygmalion Festival iteration of Literary Death Match will take place at 6 pm on Saturday, September 24 at The Accord. Visit the Pygmalion website for more information and to purchase tickets.

Nathaniel Forsythe is a writer living in Champaign. He is currently shopping the rights to Sense and Knocked Senseless-ibility: The ‘Stone Cold’ Jane Austen Story, if anyone in Hollywood is interested.

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