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American Todd Z. has lit up London’s spoken word scene with Literary Death Match events. We spoke to him to find out why the night is so successful, and what to expect if you attend.
Not everyone likes spoken word nights, but tell someone you want to take them to a death match and well well well, aren’t they interested now? Opium Magazine and Todd Z. have taken the Literary Death Match from America, across Europe to Britain, giving spoken word a new twist and a wider audience.
There’s a passion and enthusiasm that Todd Z. passes onto the crowd. This could well be down to the whole aim of the night, which Todd Z. describes as: “At the start, we wanted to create a literary night that was surprising, wild and just plain fun — where the audience didn’t get bored and dreaded hearing one more reader (because the last one went excruciatingly long). There are lots of moving parts with LDM, but they’re all in place for a specific reason: to bring a feeling of euphoria.”
The nights, mainly compered by Todd Z, consist of a number of contestants that are paired off in true gladiatorial battle form and given the opportunity to showcase their work, whether it be fiction, non-fiction or poetry. The aim is to get the crowd and the judges on their side, using not only the words on the page but personality, maybe even props, and a hunger to be remembered as one of the epic soldiers of the pen that took on the LDM and won, even if they do leave with a few scars.
Following the performance, the writers are subject to criticism or praise, or even both by three judges selected for the night. This has a kind of X-Factor feel to it, except Todd Z. isn’t trying to flog you a record, a washed up diva or make you pay to vote. As well as giving the writers a chance to bandage wounds and grow stronger, these judges are part of the entertainment , “a way of expanding the audience outside of the lit realm” and a chance to “incorporate comedy into the night”.
Upon choosing the winners, the rounds continue until the finalists are left; by this point everyone has picked a corner. Something within you taps into what’s happening on stage and you’re shouting and balling like Rocky in search of his pet shop-working lover. It really has turned into a death match by this point; if you can keep blood out of your eyes you’re in for a treat.
There could be a number of reasons why the night has been successful over here, such as a Londoner’s spirit towards the night that Todd Z. describes as being “such a perfect rowdy crowd: they plain love the f*** out of books and book culture, but are never afraid to have one more drink.” Adding to this success is the attraction of big name writers such as Richard Milward who wears the colours of Faber. Todd Z. says there’s a process in which “We ask very, very nicely. And nowadays everyone has a friend of a friend who’s done it. Beyond that, people show up in droves. I know lots of authors who do bookstore readings and they feel lucky when 10 people show up. At LDMs there can be up to 200 people, all with great haircuts, or fantastic shirts. It’s like a literary party, but once the readers go on: dead silence. I love that.
Commenting on why he thinks the night is so successful, Todd Z. said: “I’ve never said it this way, and it might sound ridiculous, but we’re very, very well-meaning. We want the authors to read to huge, book-curious audiences. We want the judges to get laughs from the throng. We want the audience to leave with a feeling like they’re floating. We want people to wake up the next day and tell their friends, ‘You wouldn’t believe what I saw last night…’ right before they run to the bookstore.”