Monday, January 18, 2010

On the Literary Death Match: I'd rather watch a monkey than a sloth

Artifice is on my mind

That is, the new Chicago-based journal of the same name from Rebekah Silverman and James Tadd Adcox.

First, they are publishing some cool work in their soon-to-be-released debut issue--from the likes of:

Carol Berg - Jessica Bozek - Blake Butler - Neil de la Flor - Andrew Farkas -Ori Fienberg - Elisa Gabbert - Kelly Haramis - Roxane Gay - Kyle Hemmings -Tim Jones-Yelvington - Gregory Lawless - Jefferson Navicky - Lance Olsen -Joel Patton - Christopher Phelps - Derek Philips - Cynthia Reeser - Kathleen Rooney - Davis Schneiderman - Maureen Seaton - David Silverstein - Susan Slaverio - Kristine Snodgrass - William Walsh

They will also publish the story "Backatcha" that I co-wrote with Kelly Haramis, my wife. It's her first fiction work, and they only one we've written together so far.

Our shocking interview on the subject of conjugal collaboration, new on the Artifice blog, is here.

Last week, as is now widely reported, I came in second in the Chicago ep4 Opium Magazine Literary Death Match. Coincidentally, Rebekah Silverman and I were opposed in the first heat, and while I let loose with my trademark literary wind (leaving the crowd, according to Opium founder Todd Zuniga, in a "bemused state of wonder"), Rebekah, representing Artifice, tried something more daring.

She read a piece "by" William Walsh, one my favorite literary provocateurs, from the forthcoming Artifice. The piece used every sentence in Joyce's Ulysses with the word "Conmee" in its order of appearance; her well-sliced copy of Ulysses, with the familiar cover, had every extraneous page prepped to scatter across the floor, which it did with delightful gusto.

No only did Silverman read a piece that was not hers (and perhaps not Walsh's either), but it set a Literary Death Match record for shortest reading. Additionally, the performance was anti-performative for this sort of event. The other three readers, all male, btw, produced differing versions of literary swagger--with IO-trained winner and young-adult novelist James Kennedy fully blocking his performance and almost matching me for sheer decibels in the process.

The judges chose my performance over Rebekah's to advance to the finals--where I lost, after a close match, in a drawing competition.

This leads to the larger question of performativity; we bring in many writers and speakers to Lake Forest College, both for our annual reading series as well as the annual Lake Forest Literary Festival--and I admit to being burned a few times on great writers who are boring fucking readers: real snoozers, I mean. Like sitting in a dark room after inhaling 10 mkg of Melatonin while you soak your feet in warm bathwater while reclining on a sleep number bed. That's a sure bet to turn off students already tottering in vain against the great void of collegiate numbness.

I'm no better. Some years ago at a Modernist Studies Association conference in Philadelphia, I sat entranced as motion sensor lights continually dimmed against a set of three died-in-the-worsted-wool academic blubbering on about the length of T.S. Eliot's fingernails as dug into a plateful of dung.

Except. It. Was. Really. Much. Less. Exciting.

Whenever I am invited to give a reading, I try to keep this in mind--and I will even let exhuberance overwhelm or determine literary content. I almost always read short pieces at readings--leaving the work of my sustained and usually complicated narratives to the space of the novel. I've also subjected audiences to strobe lights for flicker poetry, and asked another audience to push and pull an extension cord they were entangled within during another. I recently procured a mixer in the hopes of developing some live word-dj skills. I've engineered a suit that turns me a phosphorescent green every time I sputter a compound-complex sentence.

In other words, I'll bring the noise and the funk. Or try to.

An audience member at the LDM approached me at the break to thank me for the exhuberance of the reading and noted her dead-to-the-world dog-tiredness at the other sort of literary event. And thus, the question: does performance become a necessity for public readings?

The LDM model suggests as much--turning the reading into competition rather than recitation, and proclaiming itself as an antidote for the lugubrious game of yawn yawn yawn.

So what of those who are not natural extroverts (what would an Emily Dickinson reading sound like)?

Are they less likely to get the high-paying readings (har!), and what do academicians need to do to get students to see beyond the less-than-raucous delivery. I admit that in a climate of scarce resources, I only bring in those who I know can "rock the crowd" (as Ricardo Cortez Cruz calls it)--or the occasional unknown quantity whose work I admire.

Certainly, though, no second acts for the underwhelming.

Is this another version of video killed the radio star?


James Kennedy said...

I had a great time at the Literary Death Match as well! It was an pleasure to read with you.

Like you, I've sat through some snoozeworthy readings. My performance notwithstanding, I share your uneasiness that readings can devolve into a debased form of standup comedy if the screaming and jumping about go too far. (Most of my readings are at junior high schools, so my style evolved from there. Adults will sit politely through almost anything, but try holding the attention of a room of bored eleven year olds. They'll turn on you in a heartbeat.)

Maybe it's time for someone to start a reading series in which shouting and jumping about are banned; in which readers whisper with deadly intensity while the audience gathers around so closely it makes everyone uncomfortable. I'd go to it.

Davis said...

I think I'd like the opposite even more: scream fest readings like death metal shout-core....

maybe, maybe not.