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Behind the scenes at the Scottish Poetry Library

Festival Poetry: Literary Death Match

“Come away o human child! This is the fifth Edinburgh Literary Death Match.”

A packed Spiegeltent did not know what to expect. The contestants may or may not have known what to expect. Certainly I didn’t know what was ahead of me. Roland Gulliver, EIBF programme manager, cleared that up (sort of) by calling last year’s LDM ‘impossible to explain … the perfect Unbound event, really.'

What followed was part Def Poetry Jam, part slam, part (in the best way) 90s TV show sans the gunge dropping on the losers – sorry, semi-finalists. You got the distinct impression that the lack of gunge was only out of consideration to the venue, not because the idea hadn’t occurred to the organisers.

The whole glorious affair was affably and energetically compered by Todd Zuniga, who introduced the format with ease (it is the 237th global LDM), although he left some of the more audacious surprises to the last. At its heart, the format is familiar slam territory: three judges, two rounds, one winner, judged on literary merit, performance, intangibles. Edinburgh in August at the EIBF is nothing if all about the intangibles – police sirens during Nikita Lalwani’s moving reading and the nightly fireworks at 10.30pm, to mention but a few.

Etgar Keret’s quietly funny story and Nikita Lalwani’s serious novel went head-to-head in the first round, with Keret emerging victorious. Catherine Brogan and Rodge Glass faced off in the second round: Brogan’s set of short poems saw Rodge Glass’s football novel Bring Me the Head of Ryan Giggs sent off at half-time, though it was a close run thing. Brogan read a satirical piece on Olympic branding product placement and a powerful piece about Omagh (both the town and the 1998 bombing that became synonymous with its name). It feels almost wrong to quote from a poem that, as the judges said, bore the flow of never having been written down, but it was a very, very strong piece, full of memorable lines:  ‘never put it in a poem – it wasn’t personal’, ‘do Londoners live in fear of a knife?’, ‘mostly it was hoaxes / calling from phone boxes’.

Judges Bidisha, Sabrina Mahfouz and Jarlath Regan leant heft to proceedings: for all the viciousness implied in the event's name, the critiques were sensitive, informed and perceptive – and very entertaining. Performance judge Mahfouz said of Rodge Glass, ‘holding a book with one hand, now that’s a skill’, and also complimented Etgar Keret’s steadiness as he read: ‘I would trust him with a scalpel’. Keret won the coin toss in round one but said he didn’t mind whether he read first or second. Going first, he apologised for his English in reading – Bidisha, judging literary merit, said later: ‘Don’t apologise for who you are’.

Proving nice guys don’t have to finish last, Keret went on to win the LDM in a tense literary triathlon. Did you know literature used to be an Olympic sport?* LDM made it so once again for one night only. Events included:
- Literary Discus, a mix of bowling and shot-put, but with books.
- Synchronised Listening: Zuniga read a passage from Miranda July that the contestant had never heard, but was to perform charade-like actions to, with partner - a volunteer from the audience - with no other aid than serendipity. The audience, judging from 1 to 10, were instructed: ‘I don’t have to tell you that decimal points are funny.’
- Finally, a Brave (sorry) and tense finale: archery! A picture of the 1932 gold medallist in Literature, German Paul Bauer, served as target; compere Zuniga lives in Los Angeles, host city for 1932.
If this sounds like it has the makings of a weird but amazing TV show, that’s a good thing, because the Literary Death Match crew want to make one: check them out at @litdeathmatch or at their website.

*No, seriously, we’re not making this up. It was an Olympic sport according to Wikipedia!