Fine arts students duke it out at LitQuake Body Slam

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By Tamerra Griffin
Inside the dimly lit Cafe du Nord, soft chatter buzzes about.  San Francisco’s young literati–outfitted in thick-rimmed glasses and carefully coiffed “unkempt” hairdos–brave the chilly mist outside, huddling around folding chairs and clutching beer bottles and glasses of wine sweating with condensation.  Two mic stands sit atop a lonely stage at the front of the room, daring souls bold enough to come forth.  Those in question are MFA students from schools across the Bay Area–San Jose State, Mills College, University of San Francisco, California College of the Arts, St. Mary’s College of California, and SF State, to be exact.  Situated throughout the room in teams of three, they compete in San Francisco Litquake’s first ever MFA Body Slam, which consists of game show-like questions, fabulous prizes fit for the dedicated bibliophiles, and opportunities for the students to showcase their latest works-in-progress.
Established in 1999 under the name Litstock, Litquake began as a one-day reading event in Golden Gate Park.  Having since expanded in both participants and festival length, this year’s Litquake spanned from October 7-15, and included a variety of events, from readings and meet-ups to discussions and demonstrations.  And as per tradition, the largest independent literary festival on the West Coast concludes with a booze-infused lit-crawl through the Mission, where patrons simultaneously get their fill of poignant prose and lip-puckering libations.
Lit Quake
The first ever MFA Body Slam was held at the Swedish American Hall in San Francisco on Fri. Oct. 10, 2011. The event was organized by the Litquake, and six universities were represented in the literature trivial event. Photo by Hang Cheng
In tonight’s academic duel, the emcee summons representatives from two schools to the stage, where they each have five minutes to read aloud their latest creations to the audience.  Following the readings are a series of trivia questions intended to challenge the contestants’ knowledge of Bay Area pop culture, with such inquiries as, “Which of the following bands is not originally from San Francisco?”  The team member who answers the most questions correctly takes home a prize, which ranges from signed copies of books to psychedelic Fillmore posters.
Carolyn Ho enters the hall with a small swarm of enthusiastic friends. Dressed in a lengthy ruby coat, she appears to be the heart of the party.  Along with Annemarie (who shortens her name into the pseudonym A.E.) Munn and Justin McElfresh, who goes by Justin etc., they comprise SF State’s team.

After the first round between St. Mary’s and USF, Munn approaches stage left to face Jose Vadi of Mills College.  Vadi reads a selection of untitled creative non-fiction about his Puerto Rican family, focusing primarily on his strong-willed mother and her bout with cancer.  Munn chooses an excerpt from a fictional short story, a romance at the soup kitchen of a meditation camp.  Both students’ voices rise and fall in time with the plots of their respective stories, captivating everyone else in the room.

Lit Quake
Carolyn Ho, a SF State graduate student of MFA, reads her poems on stage during the MFA Body Slam, a Litquake event, at Swedish American Hall in San Francisco, Fri. Oct. 10, 2011. Photo by Hang Cheng

But in spite of these students’ undeniable talents–from Ho’s sexually-charged poem about sandwiches to Justin etc.’s dry humor–the foreseeable future of book publishing is less than bright.  According to the SF State’s body slammers, the shift in the industry from big corporations to independently-owned bookstores and from printed works to online archives makes them alter their approach to getting published.
Ho finds that online publications ensure a longer shelf life of her work.

“It’s unfortunate, but electronics are more permanent than print,” she says.

Lit Quake
Annemarie Munn, a SF State graduate student of MFA, reads her writing during the MFA Body Slam, a Litquake event, at Swedish American Hall in San Francisco, Fri. Oct. 10, 2011. Photo by Hang Cheng
Munn, who also considers herself a book artist, notes that “a book as an art object [now] replaces a book as a physical object, since they’re no longer mass produced.”
Justin etc., embodying a romantic nostalgia for lit culture, maintains that while the publishing industry is undergoing a metamorphosis, it should not have an influence on writers’ intentions.
“The creative process is more important than getting your work out,” he says.