Literary Death Match is the brainchild of Adrian Todd Zuniga, who has hosted it now in 55 cities across the United States. I saw my first one at the Elbo Room in San Francisco last year as part of Litquake. This time it was at Oakland’s Shadow Ultra Lounge. Dave and I arrived about twenty minutes before the show was supposed to start, and there were no tables left on the main floor, so we wandered up to the more lounge-y area off to the side where there were at least some comfortable cushioned benches.
We’d already had cocktails at home with some friends, so Dave sipped water while I nursed a Corona. I’m sorry that I can’t report on the cocktails that were especially for this event, but the mango mimosa sounded good…
Our charming host introduced the three judges, then brought out the first round of competitors, who were both young poets. The first one, Tim “Toaster” Henderson, recounted the saga of (Keen-wa?), who had the rude habit of cupping, then slapping women’s breasts. (Don’t worry, the offender was the recipient of some poetic justice.) The second contestant was Jaz Sufi, whose bio describes her as “a performance poet and amateur dogwalker.” Her poem was harder for me to hear because there was a table of folks who waited until she was performing to loudly rearrange their chairs to squeeze one more at their table. But I do know it started and ended with “Praise the white girl.” And there was a pumpkin spice latté and some Uggs in there somewhere…
The judges gave their critiques in completely different styles, using varied random criteria, which is all part of the fun. Activist/author Joshua Safran devised a “Lake Merrit” alluvial scale and measured performances in centimeters. He also handed out personalized awards that he partially created on the spot from his pockets. Sonya Renee Taylor, poet, activist, and founder of The Body Is Not an Apology, usually started with the contestants’ appearance and how they used their space. Karinda Dobbins, a local stand-up comedian, found characters or situations that she could relate to and then shared her personal connections with the crowd in a random, comic way. For instance, when a character was described as having big, hard teeth, that reminded her of her ex-girlfriend.
While our host shared fun literary (and not-so-literary) facts about authors, the judges huddled to make their decision. I did not know that Lord Byron carried on an indelicate affair with Caroline Lamb (wife of William Lamb, who would be England’s prime minister) in which she sent her lover a token of her affection by post—one of her own bloody pubic hairs.
Between the two rounds, there was some unfortunate noise that was intended to be musical entertainment, but I found it pretty painful.
Round two featured one of my favorite children’s authors—Mac Barnett (who also happens to be an alum of my alma mater, though he graduated decades after I did). As a New York Times bestselling author, Mac was certainly the most commercially successful of those competing and, in my opinion, the most entertaining. He read aloud his hysterical children’s book Guess Again and invited audience participation. He is just a funny, charming guy!
His opponent was Oakland-based writer Nancy Davis Kho, whose blog Midlife Mixtape is “for the years between being hip and breaking one.” Her humorous essay purported to be parental advice. Both competitors gave terrific performances, but the judges went for Nancy’s account of teaching her daughter to drive that also involved her husband’s colonoscopy—a pair of comic elements that is hard to beat.
The final round was less about the writers and more about just having fun, as it involved audience members drawing book titles Pictionary-style. All the books were written by Bay Area authors, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I only knew one out of four (Packing for Mars, by the lovely and hilarious Mary Roach). The big winner of the evening was Nancy Davis Kho. Although the real winners were the audience.
It was a fun Wednesday night. I hope Literary Death Match returns to the East Bay. Considering the great turnout, I imagine it will.
Nancy Davis Kho gives a great account of the evening from her standpoint on her blog at http://midlifemixtape.com/ (It’s also where I snagged this photo of her winning. Thanks, Nancy!)