You’ve read all about what to expect during Adrian Zuniga’s Literary Death Match (LDM), which means you’re prepared for the no-holds-barred, knock-down, drag-out literary part-wrestling, part-gameshow extravaganza!!!
SUNDAYSUNDAYSUNDAY!! At the Fluid Event Center!! Sorry, no, got carried away there. Saturday evening, at the Accord. And while Nathaniel gave us a glimpse at the talent which will be competing that night, we decided to take a bit of a closer look at just who will be pretending to not want to get into the final round.
(Cue triumphant image of Lindsey Gates-Markel standing at the top of the stairs of KAM, holding a sheaf of paper. Don’t worry, she took the ramp to the side.)
“That’s boxing.” My partner corrects me as he’s reading over my shoulder. “Rocky, Adrian, contenders…that’s boxing. Deathmatch is wrestling.”
“Deathmatch, like Celebrity Deathmatch on MTV. It was boxing, right? There was a ring.”
[pulling up youtube] “Nope. Wrestling. Move over, if you’re going to intro your wrestlers, there need to be two color-commentators anyway.”
RK: Ok, joining us today will be guest commentator and wrestling fan from a very young age, David Bellmore. According to his father, he used to beg to get Pay-Per-View Wrestlemania, so he’ll probably be better at this than I am, even though I know what a heel-turn is and I’m totally going to use it.
DB: Well folks, we have a very exciting match for you this weekend, I can tell you firsthand because I actually took classes at Illinois from our main-eventer: Tyehimba Jess.
RK: Was this before or after ProfessJess became a regular on the Green Mill Poetry Slam Team?
DB: I’m a little unclear on the timeline, here, but speaking of slam, you should see that guy when you don’t stick to an assignment. This one classmate was so into hip-hop that he totally ignored the sestina form we were supposed to write, then got up in the Prof’s face about a bad grade. That kid got poetry-slammed right out of class. Probably around 2005?
RK: Ah, so that would be after his stint in Chicago, clearly, he was in practice. Good to know. I hope that doesn’t intimidate our celebrity judges.
DB: I hope it does! Ha!
RK: Well, I guess color commentary doesn’t have to be unbiased. Of course, sometimes rather than anecdotal evidence, we need to go straight to the source for some legit reporting. Out in the field we have Sarah Keim with The Grimm Reader – Maggie Smith.
SK: Thanks, Rebecca. I’m here with Ohio native Maggie Smith, aka The Grimm Reader, I guess? Sure, since her recent focus has been compared to the original nature of Grimm’s Fairytales. Even though contemporary tellings can remove the more gruesome parts (like the fate for Cinderella’s sisters) of a tale, some authors have sought to return to these original, vivid stories of morality. In her poems, Maggie Smith seeks to harken back to these original moral tales by placing them in our modern times. Her poems range from the vivid and bloody to the sedate, yet evil lurks ever closer.
Smith has authored several poem collections including Disasterology (2016), The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison (2016), and Lamp of the Body (2005), and she has a forthcoming publication, Weep Up, in 2017. She has won several awards for her work including the 2012 Dorset Price and 2016 Independent Publisher Book Award’s Gold Medal Winner for Poetry. She was also the recipient of the 2011 National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship.
DB: That’s a pretty impressive pedigree. And prolific to boot. Three books this year as opposed to Jess’ one…could he have met his match?
SK: I’m trying to find out — if you’ll let me.
SK: Ms. Smith, what are you looking forward to most about participating in the Pygmalion Festival?
Maggie Smith: This will be my first time at the Pygmalion Festival, and I’ve heard so many good things. I’m looking forward to reading in Literary Death Match—despite how daunting it sounds—but I’m most excited about taking it all in. The Pygmalion Festival is a combination of a lot of what I love best: writers, bands, food, and beer. What’s not to love?
RK: How about wearing a wristband for four days?
SK: What types of fairy tales and folktales draw your attention? I noticed in The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison the tales The Wild Swans (along with its Brothers Grimm version titled The Six Swans), The Seven Ravens, and Brother and Sister were prominently featured.
Smith: I’m particularly interested in the cautionary tale. The poems in The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison are poems as warnings, poems as admonitions, poems that push back against story as a safe space. The children are lost, swallowed, changed into animals, lifted and carried off by birds. The questions underpinning the poems are big ones: How can we keep our children from the brutality of the world they live in—the world we brought them to? How can warn them of the dangers in the world without ruining all the wonder and beauty in it?
SK: You seem to use imagery that invokes memories or perceived ideas of suburban and city life for a child. Is this imagery drawn from your personal life or from a more general place?
Smith: I grew up in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, in the 1980s, and so the imagery of banana-seat bikes and backyard trampolines and streets lined with pear trees is absolutely from my childhood. I like the idea that poems may be unfolding on a suburban cul de sac, but they are also deep in mythic woods, and so there is a kind of conflation of time and place in the book. It’s a strange and un-strange world—our world!—in which the real and the fairy tale are the same thing.
SK: What else inspires you when you write your poems?
Smith: My work has always been concerned with vision and re-vision, with orientation and disorientation, and with how the daily is transformed into the archetypal. But those concerns intensified when I had children. There’s something paradoxically anchoring and obliterating about motherhood; you are at once more and less of yourself. I find this liminality to be “good poetry weather.”
SK: What can you tell us about your forthcoming publication Weep Up?
Smith: I’m really excited about this book. It will be out in 2018 with Tupelo Press. Many poems from Weep Up—such as “Good Bones,” which went viral this past summer—deal with how we see and present the world to our children. I find myself writing out of the experience of watching them read the world like a book they’ve just opened, knowing nothing of the characters or plot. Introducing my children to the world has opened my eyes to parts of it I’ve taken for granted. To articulate this world for my children requires me to rearticulate it for myself.
SK: Well, folks, there you have it, Maggie Smith as preparing for Literary Death Match.
DB: Sounds like she is pretty familiar with some of the nastier tricks in the book…the fairytale book that is.
RK: That is seriously scary, though, have you even read The Juniper Tree? Yeesh. And an article in the Guardian? That's legit.
DB: I know, I know, “my mother she killed me, my father he ate me.” Speaking of mother-stories, didn’t our next challenger reference her mother in last year’s Choose Your Own Litventure?
RK: Good memory! Lindsey Gates-Markel did indeed do that, probably specifically to help us with our transition this year. She is just. that. good. at set-ups.
DB: I got that impression whenever I listened to her podcast, You Big Dumb Idiot.
RK: And when she and Andrew co-hosted the Pens to Lens Gala last year.
DB: Since LDM is a humor thing, I’m sensing a bit of a Dark Horse here…Jess is focused on history, Smith on evil, but Ms. Markel is a true humorist.
RK: It’s true. I have this Triple-Named Triple-Threat on the line here, let’s see what she’s thinking regarding her chances.
RK: In the past, I observed to a colleague that just because a writer wrote words doesn't necessarily mean they are always the best qualified to perform it — which is likely why acting is a thing people get paid to do. As a writer, actor AND director, do you feel this training gives you an unfair advantage over your opponents, and how do you plan to use these skills to orchestrate a victory?
Gates-Markel: My approach is to lull my opponents into a false sense of assurance that I'm not a threat. So they should take some comfort in the fact that in my 20-some years of stage experience, I've only gotten paid like, a couple times.
RK: What prompted you to throw your hat in the ring? Was it because you knew as a triple-threat, they would all be at your mercy?
Gates-Markel: Okay, can I be honest? Someone more notable dropped out.
DB: Hilarious! She is one to watch out for… she may look like a face, but I can see a heel-turn in her future.
RK: The judges for our special PygLit LDM include a Chicago journalist (with all the implications that brings), an author notorious for speaking frankly about a scandal, and a pair of talented and education-minded rap artists. Each is qualified in a unique way to shred your work to pieces. Which of these three is most intimidating to you? Which do you look forward most to hearing from?
Gates-Markel: Oh, they're all intimidating in their own ways, and I hope they all speak up. Elizabeth's Fast Machine was a game-changer for me. Mother Nature has moved me to tears more than once. I've never met Neil, but he appears to be a man, so frankly I'm already desperate for his approval.
RK: Okay, that actually is hilarious. Seriously, Lindsey is an extremely talented actress as a staple at the Station Theatre, and I have heard so much about her as Hamlet that missing it has become one of my largest theatrical. She made her directorial debut last season with Discord, and writes beautiful, odd, heartbreaking yet funny stories. She can win this even without a heel-turn, David.
DB: I’m sure she could, but she will also be up against a poet who wrote a book called Tonight, We Fuck the Trailer Park Out of Each Other. Should we just declare a winner right now?
RK: As good as that title is, it seems a little premature at this point. The writing has to be as good as the title, you know.
DB: I like it — the Premature Poet — C. Russell Price is burning it up, keeping in shape. In fact, they just finished up another bout, I mean, show, earlier tonight but have agreed to say a few words before we sign off.
DB: LDM is highly focused on literary hijinks and hilarity, which most people wouldn't necessarily associate with many poets aside from Shel Silverstein. Yet considering the title of your most recent book, I'm guessing this won't be an issue. Still, how would you characterize the work you'll be reading, and why should your competitors take you as a serious threat?
RK: Strong, silent type, I see. Yes, actually, that is pretty intimidating.
DB: Another aspect of LDM is that each reader is supposed to "represent a literary publication, press, or concern." Which is your poison, and how do you hope they will benefit from your participation?
RK: We've gone from intimidating to unsettling, now — very effective.
DB: Intimidating! That reminds me: I really liked that question about the judges, so I’m going to toss it out here again:
The judges for our special PygLit LDM include a Chicago journalist (with all the implications that brings), an author notorious for speaking frankly about a scandal, and a pair of talented and education-minded rap artists. Each is qualified in a unique way to shred your work to pieces. Which of these three is most intimidating to you? Which do you look forward most to hearing from?
DB: That is the word straight from the source. You heard it...or didn't...here first. What we do know about C. Russell Price is that their middle name is almost Danger, but not quite, and they have had a..."religious experience"...during a public reading. Stay tuned here to Smile Politely for that story later.
RK: Seriously, whoa, that is kinda creepin me out.
DB: It's just crazy enough — this approach might just work onstage. I'm coming around. [shudders]
RK: Four corners of the ring, four contenders. Two rounds and a final showdown. Who’s got your favor? If you were a betting man, who would you put your money on? I’m for the Triple-Named Triple-Threat: Lindsey Gates-Markel. David’s sure that experience will take the day and see ProfessJess reign supreme. Leave your votes in the comments.
Literary Death Match will be inside the Accord from 6-8 p.m. on Saturday, September 24th as part of Pygmalion LitFest. Like all LitFest events, it is FREE, although capacity is limited to the maximum occupancy.
Contributing writers to this article were Sarah Keim and rebecca knaur. David Bellmore was present in name and spirit only.