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Literary Death Match combines readings, silliness

October 7, 2013

Man reading from a book

Four respected authors rise, one by one, and read selections from their work for an attentive crowd. The affair is sponsored by an exactingly selective literary magazine.

But, of course, no one knows what will happen when the event reaches its thrilling conclusion: when the authors must put on blindfolds and attempt to attach a moustache to a portrait of Ernest Hemingway. Or throw cupcakes at a picture of George Saunders.

This is a Literary Death Match.

“The thing about the Literary Death Match,” said Kathleen Volk Miller, “is that you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Literary Death Match is a traveling series of reading events featuring big names in literature and an air of goofy humor, encapsulated in the absurd finale that determines each event’s winner. And after Volk Miller, an associate teaching professor in Drexel’s Department of English and Philosophy, witnessed one at a conference in Washington, D.C., she had to help reproduce the experience in Philadelphia.

“Even though people are reading their real work with real earnestness, it’s also kind of light-hearted and goofy,” Volk Miller said.

So Volk Miller arranged for Painted Bride Quarterly—the 40-year-old literary magazine housed at Drexel and overseen by the Drexel Publishing Group—to produce periodic Literary Death Match stops in the city.

The next one is this week: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 8, at Underground Arts, 1200 Callowhill St.

At each Death Match, four authors affiliated with area universities or arts organizations read seven-minute pieces of their choosing. This week’s contestants: Paul Lisicky, Ru Freeman, Lee Klein and Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon.

Rulings are handed down by a reality show-style panel of local celebrity judges. Taking part this time are Eric Smith, the founder of Geekadelphia; Anna N. Dhody, curator of the Mutter Museum; and Anna Goldfarb, blogger, screenwriter and author.

Part of their job is to offer witty observations on the proceedings. “The authors read, and then the judges snark on them,” Volk Miller said.

The authors tend to get into the light-hearted spirit, too, she said, reading pieces that will shock or amuse.

The event is capped off by a finale that, appropriately enough, has little or nothing to do with literary ability. The only way to find out what that might be this week is to go watch. (Tickets are $7 in advance, or $10 at the door.)

“It’s respectful of the work,” Volk Miller said, “but shows how literature can be fun.”

It’s fitting, then, that Volk Miller’s Drexel Publishing Group is behind Philly’s death matches. DPG’s publications offer Drexel students the opportunity to experience the fun, and the work, of literature and publishing. Students help choose the work published in PBQ, which accepts one of every 100 pieces it receives. They help write and assemble The 33rd, an annual interdisciplinary, multiple-genre anthology of student and faculty work (unique among U.S. university publications) that’s used in the following year’s freshman writing curriculum. And they help write and edit pieces that appear daily on DPG Online, a more journalistic web-based magazine.

“It’s a whole buffet of the publishing industry,” Volk Miller said.

It’s all designed to give students a real-world literary experience, she said—and to show them how fun that experience can be.