At the end of the day, it all came down to who had the best hearing.
I was thrilled when I got the invite to compete in the inaugural Oakland Literary Death Match, a roving, worldwide literary circus that finally touched down in Oakland on Wednesday night. Here’s how it goes down: four readers are given seven minutes to read a piece on stage. Three judges then provide critiques in the arena of Literary Merit, Performance, and Intangibles. Two readers, as selected by the judges, advance to the finals, which is when it all goes off the rails and a winner is chosen by almost completely arbitrary means. The whole night is ably ringmastered by LDM founder and three-piece-suit wearer extraordinaire, Adrian Todd Zuniga.
Our judges were Oakland gold: author, activist and occasional rabbi Joshua Safran; poet and body activist Sonya Renee Taylor, and comedian Karinda Dobbins. It would have been fine with me to just let the judges do some readings and call it a night.
Even with the support of the friends who showed up to cheer me on, I pretty much kissed the trophy goodbye as I listened to the first reader: Tim “Toaster” Henderson, a poetry slam king who read an ode to the Scoop Dunk. Go check it on Urban Dictionary; it’s Definition One you want. Once alerted to the dangers of the Scoop Dunk, I crossed my arms across my chest and will probably never go out in public again, at least not without Toaster at my side to defend me.
He was followed by the lovely Jaz Sufi, who is such a stone cold seasoned performer that a.) she was crocheting backstage and b.) she didn’t use notes for her reading. She killed it with a poem that managed to weave together spiced pumpkin lattes, uggs, and green cards – humor wrapped around a punch to the solar plexus.
The judges gave a little critique to each reader – Safran’s involved a Lake Merritt Alluvial Scale rating – and then conferred to choose a winner to advance to the final. I don’t know how they picked between Jaz and Toaster since they were both so good, except that maybe the judges were are grateful as I was to Toaster for the Scoop Dunk Defense tutorial. Toaster went through. And then Adrian summoned Mac Barnett and me up to the stage.
Mac’s won a little award called the Caldecott for his children’s book writing, and he and his girlfriend are young and nice and super hip. So that wasn’t intimidating at all. His piece was a dramatic and hysterically funny rendition of his book Guess Again. Not only was it one of those rare pieces of writing for children that adults also enjoy, but he had the Librarian Picture Book Swivel down to a T. Mac’s got a new book coming this fall called Telephone that is going to the top of my baby shower shopping list.
And then it was time to walk across a stage floor so sticky that it felt like walking on masking tape, to read a piece I wrote called The Secret to Incredible Parenting. The secret involves a car accident, a colonoscopy, and the surprising scent of redwood. People laughed, which made me so happy because I am gratified when my humiliation can become someone else’s entertainment. The judges said it was some of the whitest ass shit they’d ever heard, and that they, too, had sweat like a big man in a sauna. And suddenly I was in the finals, against Toaster.
The final was decided by a round of Literary Pictionary, wherein audience members came onstage to draw clues to the titles of books related to Oakland, as chosen by Adrian. Shouted guesses from the audience are encouraged, which was helpful because many of the drawing audience members appear to have been drinking Kamikaze shots before they attempted to capture “Call of the Wild” and “Packing for Mars” in pictorial form.
My strategy was to listen as hard as I could to the audience shouting, and when I heard a book title, I screamed it at Adrian. And that’s how I got crowned the first winner of the first Oakland Literary Death Match.
And if getting the LDM medal weren’t enough, Safran had thrown in a medal for the Oregon High School Racquetball League to sweeten the deal. Michael Phelp’s got nothing on me.
In closing, I’d like to thank my friend and Bay Area literary-man-about-town Matthew James DeCoster for putting me forward to participate; the friends who cheered me on in person and from afar; my fabulous opponents, the judges, and Adrian; and finally, my daughters and husband who gave me their blessing to share the story of our terrible, horrible, no good, very bad afternoon. Check out the schedule for upcoming LDM shows (San Francisco, LA, Seattle and NYC are coming up,) go see Toaster and Jaz and Sonya Renee and Karinda perform, and buy Mac’s books for every kid you know.
And most of all: thank you, shouters of Oakland-related book titles. I owe it all to you.
If anyone feels like doing that most Oakland of recreational pursuits, and here I speak of course of ghost ridin’ your whip, I’m available to sit on the hood with my medals.
You don’t want to miss it.