I've wanted to interview Todd Zuniga who is the co-founder and editor of Opium Magazine and Literary Death Match co-founder for a while now. Since he'll be in town for our next Death Match it seemed like a good time. For this, the 30th San Francisco episode, LDM has teamed up with Litquake and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts to bring a blow-out spectacular event. In case you've never been to a Literary Death Match (what?) it's more competitive, less contemplative than other literary events. Part Poetry Jam, part American Idol, Literary Death Match started in New York in 2006 with four episodes, then had its legendary first event in San Francisco in July 2007 before Todd went viral: London, Beijing, Paris, Chicago, Denver, Austin, Iowa City, Savannah. . . .
I sent Todd a bunch of questions earlier this year and told him to answer them by the end of May. He was in the middle of moving to Paris, so life was hectic for him, but I knew he'd come through and he did. Then I asked him to send me some PDFs and that's when things started to go downhill. Todd kept emailing me photo after photo from time zone after time zone, but they were cursed. Nothing would upload right. Frustration set in. "Don't worry," Todd emailed me and vowed to figure it out even if it meant having a wrinkled shirt on stage at London's Episode Six Death Match. (Thanks for making me feel guilty. You always look spiffy, Todd.) But after a certain point, I believe it was the email with the subject line, "Good Lord," that I decided to let Todd off the hook. I appealed to Elissa Bassist, the lovely and charming Executive Producer and co-host of LDM San Francisco and editor of Funny Women and my friend Liz Worthy, also lovely and charming, and she teaches Bikram Writing Classes at the SFPL, in case you're interested. (She also cleans your computer screen and keyboard for you. Did any of your Ivy League professors do that for you before class? I didn't think so). Finally Liz was able to lift the curse off the PDFs. Thank you Liz. (And speaking of cursed photos, my next interview is with Lisa Brown who illustrated and co-wrote Picture The Dead--a whole book about spooky photography!) But now, here's what Todd has to say about death matches, literary style; Brian Boitano and fine art of judging.
Avakian: How did you come up with the idea of a Literary Death Match?
Zuniga: When I started Opium Magazine in 2001, there was an unexpressed philosophy to do things that were a bit odd, causing a feeling of bemusement (like estimated reading times, for instance), and were still very respectful of literature. The way the world works, as I see it, is that people (particularly Americans) see certain things in the world, and think: I like this, but I think I’d love it if it were done this way. And then we go off and do it our way. With readings, I went to so many when I was in NYC, and when one hit, it was paradise. But so few were. So we--Dennis DiClaudio, who is Comedy Central’s Indecision blogger and a good friend, and Elizabeth Koch, Opium Magazine's co-founder, thought [about] a lot of things, and constructed this thing that was full of fail-safes. If we do a LDM event where the readings aren’t perfect, the judges save the day. If the judges aren’t funny, the readers make it sing. And if it’s all a mess, the finale has everyone exiting in a good spirit. So, to answer your question in very short: we came up with a literary-type of idea that made people happy. And then we called it something semi-scary.
S.A. You travel a lot for the Death Match. How many time zones have you been in this week? How many cities has LDM been in so far? Any new cities on the horizon? (And are you definitely going to be here in June?)
T.Z. The most time zones in a LDM week: three’s the record, and for the sake of my constitution, I think it’s best it stays that way (though I could pull off four, I think). So far we’ve been in 23 cities. On the horizon: Tel Aviv (August 5), Edinburgh (August 10), Shanghai (August TBD), Montreal (TBD). Though the return to do LDM Beijing in August is maybe what I’m most excited about. Or, wait, no, Tel Aviv with Etgar Keret. His writing, and his reading of his writing, is genius. I will be there for San Francisco, June 11. No way I’d miss it!
S.A. Brian Bontano is one of the judges for that event. How did that happen? The crowd went wild last month when Elissa announced he’d be a judge.
T.Z. Brian came to a LDM a few months back, the first one that the brilliant Elissa Bassist curated (she's LDM SF's executive producer). He does a cooking show called "What Would Brian Boitano Make?" and he's so perfect to judge a LDM, it makes my knee-skin tingle.
S.A. You’ve moved back and forth between SF and Brooklyn (like so many hipsters) and now you’re in Paris? Seriously? Or was that a joke? Does it really matter where you live? Also which is better? San Francisco or Brooklyn? San Francisco or LA?
T.Z. I have moved to Paris, visa-lessly, so let’s keep it hush-hush until I pitch the French government on Opium Europe for a special skills visa. As for the other question, it doesn’t matter where I live. Basically, I live, now, between La Marais, and couches across the world. It’s insane. But I get to see so many people I adore and admire, so it sort of balances out. As for SF v. Brooklyn v. LA. For me, I’d move back to SF first, LA second, Brooklyn third. I know everyone loves NYC, but the cost of rent, the amount of space, the noise. I need to recharge before I go scrambling back. Or I need more money than the $24 my bank account got down to three weeks before I moved to Paris. Yikes!
S.A. Tell me about the first death match. It was in NY? Who read? Won? Who were the judges? What was the final round?
T.Z. It was a colossal success. The wireless mic barely worked, there was no light for the readers in the dim back room, and none of it mattered. It was a smash hit, packed beyond what I could have dreamed, the kind of night you look back at and say: Wow, maybe we’re on to something.