Byline: Holly Haber
TAOS, N.M. — Every spring in this high mountain valley, hundreds of people converge for one night to hoop and holler as two poets face off in a boxing ring for the World’s Heavyweight Championship Poetry Bout. Staged like a boxing match, with 10 timed rounds sounded by a bell, the event even sports an emcee who thunders “Let’s ruuuuuuumble!” and a drag queen ring girl.
“The whole idea is to show that poetry is not just eulogies and greeting card material,” says Bill Knief, who has worked with the bout for most of its 20 years. “It’s a competition that gives people a chance to stomp and yell and scream and to see that you don’t have to be an effete student of literature to know when somebody moves you.”
Each contender has five minutes per round to seduce the crowd with his literary prowess. In the first nine rounds, the poets recite previously written work, but in the 10th round, each draws a word from a cap and has 30 seconds to improvise a poem about it.
Sherman Alexie, the reigning three-time Heavyweight Champion and Native American writer, best known for the 1998 movie “Smoke Signals” that he wrote and starred in, defended his title with humorous readings of free-verse stories.
“What is courage?” he dramatized in round two. “I mean, if you think about it, there’s like four or five times in everybody’s life when they truly get the chance to be courageous. Maybe that chance is something small, so small you don’t even notice, like returning a lost wallet, or helping somebody with directions…”
Alexie’s challenger, Saul Williams, the African-American poet and performer who starred in and co-wrote “Slam,” revved up the audience with his rapper-style delivery in round three.
“Five senses cannot sense the fact of our existence and that’s the only fact. In fact there are no facts. Fax me a fact and I’ll telegram a hologram or telephone the son of man and tell him he is done…”
At the beginning of the 10th round, Williams drew the word “weave.” After pausing for a few seconds, he began to speak.
“I’m a 29-year-old man who spends most of his time on stage reciting that poetry is not an art that is written — it’s an art form that’s lived. Yet in my personal life, away from the stage, I find that I have difficulty weaving that which inspires me+The truth is a woven fabric — is not a simple cottony, cottony truth, a simple leather, dead flesh+”
For Alexie’s impromptu poem, he plucked “squash,” a word which — after 30 seconds of deliberation — led to a story about a man who grew up on his reservation in Spokane, Wash.
“I was used to seeing that in Santa Fe, used to seeing thirsty white people showing up at my reading, tribeless people looking for a tribe, looking to get washed, hoping they wouldn’t get squashed…But I remembered him…They were so poor, they were white people so poor that poor Indians felt sorry for theme We treated them like they were Custer and Columbus returned”
In the end, the judges declared it a tie. Because the bout follows boxing rules, reigning champion Alexie retained his title, a decision that elicited loud boos from the audience. Alexie even admitted that he thought Williams deserved to win. The two agreed to a rematch.
“It’s the people’s art, so we invite the people to judge it,” explained Anne MacNaughton, project director of the World Poetry Bout Association.
In fact, results of the audience poll announced two days later gave the bout to Williams — by a margin of two to one.