College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

Authors to Face Off in Literary Death Match

Zany event to raise money for department’s Barry Hannah Fund

OCTOBER 11, 2015 | By NATHAN WEBER

Death Match PosterFaculty members of the University of Mississippi Department of English will compete in the first-ever Oxford rendition of a Literary Death Match on Tuesday (Oct. 13) at the Powerhouse in Oxford.

The event is set for 8 p.m., preceded at 7 by a cocktail reception provided by Cathead Vodka. Tickets are $15 for general admission and $10 for UM students, available at the door or in advance at http://literarydeathmatch.bpt.me/.

“Literary Death Match takes place around the nation and around the world – Shanghai, Paris, London, now Oxford – celebrating literary talent,” said Beth Ann Fennelly, UM professor of English and director of the MFA program in creative writing. “If I had to summarize what it is, it would be a cross between a literary reading, ‘American Idol’ and a stand-up comedy show.”

Fennelly, who helped bring the concept to Oxford, is among the competitors in this inaugural event.

The match is comprised of four reading contestants who each get seven minutes to read their material. The first two readers present their material, and after the judge’s deliberation, they pick one to move onto the final round. Then the next two readers duke it out for a chance to go onto the final.

The final round pits heat one winners in a Literary Death Match Finale, which is a vaguely literary-inspired game along the lines of Pin the Mustache on Hemingway, to decide the ultimate champion.

The four readers competing will include three MFA program faculty members – Fennelly is joined by Matt Bondurant and Derrick Harriell – and UM Grisham Writer-in-Residence Kiese Laymon. Judges are Mary Miller, author of “The Last Days of California” and “Big World”; Damein Wash, a musician, conductor, composer, performer and producer; and Jim Dees, host of “Thacker Mountain Radio Hour” and author of “Lies and Other Truths.”

Many faculty members are no stranger to readings and similar events, but this one is different, Bondurant and Harriell agreed.

“It’s the only thing of its kind as far as I know. It’s a strange beast,” said Bondurant, assistant professor of creative writing and fiction. “I’ve never seen another reading/festival event that combines game show-style competition, general comedic absurdity and literary merit. It is a good way to see rather serious, self-important and introverted writers make complete fools of themselves.”

“Performing poetry is something I’ve had a passion for, but I don’t know what to expect,” said Harriell, assistant professor of English and African-American studies. “In slam, I wanted to compete, but in this instance it’s difficult to view this as a competition because I will be up against my friends. I may be swayed more to compete when I’m up there performing.”

The Literary Death Match is the brainchild of Adrian Zuniga, who developed the show and goes all over the world emceeing LDM events. The concept for the competing writers is a cross between a live reading, a game show, a stand-up routine and a slam.

“In January 2006, two friends and I were looking for a way to make readings more fun – bring in comedians, make it zany, make it a show that celebrates literature in all ways,” Zuniga said. “We were hosting 60-plus LDM events a calendar year for three years, but now we’re at 40. I host 99 percent of them, except for a London show or two every year, where my producer there does it.”

Zuniga approached Fennelly with the idea of bringing LDM to Oxford, and Fennelly saw an opportunity to help raise money for the Barry Hannah Fund, which the MFA program uses to recruit students.

“This became a great way to do something in Barry’s honor while also celebrating Oxford as a great place for literature,” Fennelly said.

Faculty members enjoy performing, and LDM provides a platform for general creative expression and genuine absurdity from the contestants, Harriell said.

“I think the Oxford community is thirsty for an artistic and competitive experience,” he said. “This type of event will showcase the continual diversification and ability of our department and faculty. We have a faculty flooded with talented writers from different perspectives, and this platform allows us to display that. We should display this as much as possible, and this may open the door to provide the town with more creative events in the future.”

Zuniga said that bringing LDM to Oxford is “a home run,” not just for UM but the community as a whole.

“It’s a huge win for us because seven amazing people are going to do the show and fall in love with the sweet, hyper way we bring literature to the masses,” he said. “And the Oxford community will see, ‘Oh, literature can be presented like this.‘ It’s eye-opening, it’s exhilarating and it will be one of the most fun nights of everyone’s life.”

Fennelly said she is excited about the prospects.

“It is a chance to help raise money for the Barry Hannah fund and honor the MFA program and students, but also it’s a fun and different way for the Oxford and university community to interact with the program and faculty,” she said.