Literary Death Match: Henry Rollins not big on spoken word

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For people familiar with the creative oeuvre of Henry Rollins, his statements as judge at Literary Death Match on Wednesday night were perplexing. ‘It’s hard to judge literary merit,’ he said about two poems performed rousingly by Javon Johnson, declining to give them literary status because they were ‘basically built for performance.’ How odd: Premiere spoken word artist Henry Rollins deeming performance unliterary. Who would have guessed?

To back up: Literary Death Match is an antic reading series with heavy doses of competition and comedy. It’s orchestrated by host and creator Todd Zuniga, a cheerleader in a lounge lizard getup, who guides four readers, a trio of judges, and the audience through an evening that might end, as last night’s did, by shooting Silly String at a poster of T.C. Boyle.

The readers are paired off randomly after the event starts. Only one victor will be declared from each pair, and they’ll face off in a final round that has nothing to do with books -- another finale featured a cupcake toss. The first part, however, is fairly literary.

Both readers in the first pair read from their work, and the judges evaluate them on a) literary merit, b) performance, and c) intangibles. Last night, Henry Rollins -- punk rock singer, author, DJ, and performance artist -- was the literary merit judge, actress Tig Notaro judged performance, and comedian Rob Delaney covered intangibles. It’s usually a comedian who intagible-izes, riffing, and this is a good thing -- particularly to those who’ve been to a lot of standard dry bookstore readings. Which this is not.


Last night, the first match was between Tupelo Hassman (author of ‘Girlchild,’ published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux) and Rex Pickett, author of the book ‘Sideways,’ on which the Oscar-winning movie was based. In keeping with the tone of the event, the judging was fairly loopy, commenting on Hassman’s tattoo and asking Pickett about Xanax. It was Hassman who was advanced to the next round (that of the Silly String).

Although usually there are breaks between rounds for drinking and mingling, the event, held for the first time at the Hammer Museum, ran straight through. Up next were Jeanne Darst, author of the memoir ‘Fiction Ruined My Family,’ and Javon Johnson, a playwright and postdoctoral teaching fellow at USC who has appeared on Def Poetry Jam. Reading from a hardcover copy of her book, Darst began with a literary-focused excerpt and ran out of time as she started a passage about an explicit sex act. Johnson, empty-handed, stepped up to the mic and with little introduction read two long poems, one about women and religion, the other about teaching his nephew lessons about culture and race.

Declining to give a verdict on the literary merit of Johnson’s work, Rollins said that performance is ‘not about how it’s assembled -- it’s about how it hunts and kills.’ That was a particularly Rollins-style idea, not to say delicious turn of phrase, framing speaking words to an audience as a lethal pursuit. And since, as a performer, Johnson had killed, it seemed like Rollins might congratulate him for his success. Instead, he backed off making any judgment at all, saying that he didn’t see how he could comment on performance’s literary merit.

‘Last night Henry Rollins told me contemporary spoken word poetry is not literature,’ Johnson tweeted Thursday morning.

That was how his decision came across. And it seemed like such an odd thing for Rollins in particular, who has recorded spoken word albums and regularly takes the stage as performer. Several conversations I had after, all off the record, focused on the unusual gap between Rollins’ public work and his stance that seemed to claim that kind of work doesn’t have merit.

I can say by experience it’s not easy being a literary judge at LDM. It’s not sporting to say negative things about the work a writer has just read; when I did it, I tried to find a way to be honest, critical and playful all at once, in the moment. Rollins’ reluctance to pass literary judgment may have been the nicest way he could find to comment on the work.

Up next, judge Notaro made a peace offering to Johnson. ‘You could have been holding a blank sketch pad and you,’ she gestured to Rollins, ‘wouldn’t know.’ Nevertheless, it was Darst who advanced, and became the eventual winner of Literary Death Match L.A. No. 11, after a silly battle with Silly String.


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-- Carolyn Kellogg

and Henry Rollins judging Wednesday night. Credit: Literary Death Match