This past Friday night (6/10/11), I attended the now bi-monthly Literary Death Match, at the Elbo Room. I have a love-hate relationship with this reading series, and I suspect I am not alone. The producers themselves have referred to aspects of the LDM as “harebrained” or, more kindly, “audacious.”
How wild does it get? I recall the debut performance of current hostess Alia Volz and former host mg martin with a cringe along with my chuckles. As it was their “virgin” performance, the finale consisted of having contestants attempt to “pop their cherries” – said cherries were balloons filled with stage blood and covering their genitals, which contestants (distinguished authors all) attempted to puncture with darts. By the end, the platform was covered with stage blood and Alia looked like she was starring in a revival of “Carrie.” Were we having fun, or what?
There is certainly a kind of carnival pleasure in presenting “high culture” (and in this instance, the emphasis is clearly on “high” as much as “culture”) in such a low manner.
The appeal of this circus is rather fascinating. On their website, the perpetrators remark that “the most fascinating part about the LDM is how seriously attentive the audience is during each reading.” And this is true. This is not an audience of drunken low lives making fun of literary eggheads. Nor is it an audience who require circus-like distractions in order to approach literature. Some of the most sophisticated of San Francisco literati are regular attendees and participants in the mayhem. These are people who would willingly and attentively attend more dignified and traditional readings such as, for example, Why There Are Words in Sausalito. That reading could easily be characterized as the antithesis in style to LDM, but many of the readers and audience overlap.
LDM is a success in cities throughout the world, from New York to London to Paris to Hong Kong. People like it.
I ask myself: why do I keep coming back? Aside from the yucks, what is the appeal to attentively listening to fine writing (some of the best, really) in this seemingly inappropriate environment?
I think “inappropriate” is the key word. Usually, when reading literary fiction or poetry, I (and, I’m guessing, you too) approach it in a calm mood, intending to be meditative and reflective. In a word, respectful. It is a commonplace, in our quantum-conscious world, to note that the thing observed is changed by the act of observing. And so it is with literature. If we approach the reading and/or listening task with a specifically “appropriate” state of mind, our experience of the work is limited or at least colored by that attitude. We are getting less of it than we ought.
LDM takes steps to remedy this limitation. In a way, the mood-changing shenanigans of the LDM circus cleanse the doors of our perception to experience the writing in a new way. All of this is consistent with LDM’s claim that they are “passionate about inspecting new and innovative ways to present text off the page.” If a live reading just more-or-less duplicates reading alone in the library (with the added opportunity of getting your book signed), what is “new” and “innovative?”
By inducing in the audience a completely different, off-balance, ambivalent, even confused state of mind and then demanding (and receiving) attentive listening to serious writing, LDM creates a new experience of that writing. A given work heard at LDM is simply not entirely akin to the “same” work heard at Why There Are Words or any number of other reading venues from suburban bookstores to beat seances to the best of all possible reading series (jk about that last one, of course).
At the most recent edition of LDM, my limits were tested even more than usual. I was treated to the image of mine hostess in a sexy cop costume complete with leather hot pants, high boots, and a prosthetic pig’s snout. Then, one of the readers, a blind man, read his essay as he felt himself up and down his entire upper torso, having printed the piece on his tee-shirt in Braille. And, for the finale, I was shocked (shocked!) to see they had prepared a variant game of “pin the tail on the donkey” (pin the cigar in Hemingway’s mouth or the reefer in Alice B. Toklas’) to be played by the BLIND guy and his competition. Outrageous, to say the least.
And yet, nothing could have quite commented in the same way upon that author’s performance and the content of his writing, which explores his experiences related to his disability. Could I have been brought more fully into that experience than by the combination of his writing and the absurd game which he played with a wry enthusiasm? I don’t know how. As so often before, LDM surprised and challenged me and gave me a new experience I don’t find elsewhere.
So I’ll be back.
Here is the video:
And… The Death Match