After a decade working in corporate marketing (we’ve promised not to mention how many decades preceded that) the statuesque Ann Heatherington stumbled upon a return to her poetic roots when she she took over as producer and host of New York’s popular Literary DeathMatch. But not satisfied with the status quo, Ann has combined her talents for writing and business in hopes of taking LDM mainstream. It may not pay her rent (or yours, so don’t ask!) but this self-described mayhem specialist, with the help of a quick wit and a sailor’s mouth, is ripping the leather elbow patches off stuffy public readings. In the process she’s making literature fun again, one death match at a time.
What exactly is a “Literary Death Match”?
Literary Death Match is a live, loosely competitive reading series started in 2006 by Todd Zuniga, founding editor of Opium Magazine. The idea was kind of a lark – just a way to make literature fun and fresh and relevant and prove that, in fact, it can be entertaining. Everybody reads and everybody likes books, but most readings are a snooze fest. So why not make it fun? We bring in four emerging or established authors, some National Book and Pulitzer Prize winners, and they compete against each other reading seven minutes of their own work. The writers are warned that, come seven minutes and fifteen seconds they will get shot with a Nerf gun. If they hit eight minutes the audience is welcomed to rush the stage, because we can’t take it anymore. That’s enough.
Where does the competition come in?
We have three judges, one focusing on literary merit, one on performance, and one on intangibles, but it’s not meant to be serious critique. It’s a trope. Some of the commentary is completely off topic. It’s all non-sequiturs – the more random, the more absurd the better. The one instruction the judges do get over and over again is, “don’t be a dick.” There are no Simon Cowells. The judges ultimately decide on two finalists and the finale is a ridiculous contest, a combination of wit, stamina and aim (musical chairs, trivia games, laser tag, “pass the haggis”). We often have the audience involved so the writers are supported and people are screaming and drunk and silly string is flying. An hour-and-a-half in, everyone had an awesome time and realized that they learned something.
And that’s the goal?
Right, it’s not a passive event. And another goal is to give authors a forum that’s really fun and entertaining to connect with new audiences, not just their built-in followers. They get reactions that they don’t in a typical venue. They also aren’t usually hurried on by wild applause. For any writer that’s cooped up in their 350-square foot studio it feels really good to have that visceral connection with your work and the people in front of you, while not taking yourself so seriously. The winner gets a medal and it’s great to see them six hours later hammered at a bar and still wearing their Literary Death Match medal.
How did you get involved with LDM?
A friend of mine, a poet, was reading at a death match. I went to see the show and thought it was hysterical. At the time I was head of marketing for a global litigation firm. Not my soul’s work. I’d done everything from events production to sales to branding and I was looking to return to my creative and spiritual roots. I introduced myself to Todd, told him I was a mayhem specialist, and that I’d love to help design some of the finales. A couple weeks later Todd told me he was moving to Paris and they needed someone to take over the show in New York. It went from, “Hey, I’d love to play in your sandbox” to, “Jesus, I’m in charge of this sandbox!” I wasn’t coming at it from publishing or editorial, I was coming in sideways from corporate marketing and it turned out to be a really positive marriage. If I’d have been a publicist at Penguin I wouldn’t have been able to help the same way.
What has been your favorite LDM moment?
Because we don’t vet what’s read, that just adds to the madness. You look at them with the glasses and they’re soft spoken and they’re rumpled and whatever, but because it’s nighttime and it’s a bar and people are drinking, they bring their most outrageous material. Material they would never read anywhere else. In one night, completely unbeknownst to anyone, every single story slash poem slash whatever was on cunnilingus. Did I not get the memo? One woman said, “Now this is the place where I normally stop,” but instead she just kept on going. It was hysterical. It was a good show.
What is the future of LDM?
Nothing about the format has really changed since the beginning. What was a lark then has proven itself to be viable, at least conceptually if not entirely financially. So where can it go from here? Does it have legs to be a television series? Does it have legs to be a web series? We think so. Definitely. “Literary” is a scary word for people in entertainment but people tend to come to a show and say, “oh, I see what you’re doing. There’s a whole lot stuff going on during the 90 minutes that isn’t literature.” Branding and marketing and strategy, these aren’t dirty words. There’s just so much good writing out there now. It’s daunting. It’s about finding ways to generate interesting content. I get an enormous amount of satisfaction being able to give writers, comedians, artists, actors a place to be seen, whether it’s on a TV, an iPad or live.
What can Daily BR!NK readers do to contribute to your success?
Are you busy tonight? [laughs] We need volunteers! People have floated in and out of the LDM family, then somebody goes to grad school or moves. I have people that pitch in but there’s no full-time commitment from anybody. If you want to see something like LDM in your city let us know, but maybe I’ll try to be more inspirational. I’d like to see people who are more passionate about things get involved even if they don’t think their involvement is valid. Do something. Create something. If you believe in something give people a space to bring it there and see who comes. When I went to college I went as an actress and as a poet. What I never really understood was the importance of production and the person that makes it possible. If you’re not the person that does the work, but you love the work, you have this incredible opportunity and gift of making it possible for somebody else.