baseball · creative · literary art · performance art · poetry · poets

Litquake: 2015 Poetry World Series

Venue: Make-Out Room
Date: October 13, 2015

Welcoming sign to the 2015 Poetry World Series.
Welcoming sign to the 2015 Poetry World Series.

My previous post had a clever twist to the title but this event honestly didn’t need one. Can you honestly tell me that seeing a World Series in something other than baseball doesn’t instantly make you excited? It worked in addition for me considering I happen to actually love the MLB World Series. Last night marked my second Litquake event in 2 days. I believe the point is to generally attend as much as you can but the timing of it all was pure accident for me.

The previous night I had attended Chemical Wedding in a sort of last minute fashion while I had bought tickets for the Poetry World Series (PWS) weeks before. This resulted in the latter taking place at the exact same venue I was at on Monday night. You would think that the event would have played out in the same manner but this was not the case at all. I had a different experience in the same venue because the shows were extremely different.

Our deer overlords looking down upon us.
Our deer overlords looking down upon us.

After getting checked off the guest-list, my boyfriend and I entered the bar fairly confident that we would immediately be seated considering we had arrived 45 minutes before the show was set to begin. We were wrong. All of the booths were filled and for whatever reason, two tables were blocked off with boxes. This left us leaning together by the bathrooms and my arm incredibly close to a woman sitting on a stool to my right. It was pretty clear that this was going to be our “seat” for the night so I started looking around again in an effort to see what I had missed the night before. All of the seats were taken by the bar and I managed to get a clear picture of the overhanging deer heads this time. There were also mini disco balls surrounding the magical one I had praised.

Crowds kept pouring in of people who had tickets, those who just wanted a drink and audibly made it clear they “didn’t even care about poetry”, and older women wandering through the neighborhood who somehow ended up in a bar. From these short descriptions alone you could tell that seating was at max capacity in addition to actually seeing that everything was filled. Yet somehow a pair of women were complaining to a Litquake volunteer about the seating situation even going as far as to say “what are we supposed to do, sit on the floor?” As if the volunteer was magically going to poof chairs out of thin air like a blue genie. All she was doing was asking if they wanted a free festival guide and ended up getting accused of being ill-prepared.

Mr. Daniel Handler/Lemony Snicket in the flesh.
Mr. Daniel Handler/Lemony Snicket in the flesh.

As expected, the show did not begin until 30 minutes after the set start time but luckily my Chemical Romance Wedding had prepared me for the delay. There was a scoresheet set up next to emcee Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket). I include the parenthesis because I did not know his actual identity until much later in my life. If someone had asked 14 year old me if I read any Daniel Handler I would respond, “Huh?” I had seen that he was going to host for the night and every time he walked past me I gasped a little which is both flattering and incredibly embarrassing. I wanted to ask if he still cared about the Baudelaire children but he probably would have just threw a drink in my direction.

Our players taking center stage.
Our players taking center stage & judges getting ready.

Anyhow, there were 6 poets split up into two teams. Complete with red or blue shirts/caps, each poet was introduced to the crowd. Each team member had their books of poetry with them and were going to battle each other on topics provided by the crowd. Daniel Handler would pick a topic out of the hat, they had 1 minute to choose their poem, and then they took turns reading to the crowd. Originally thinking that the winner of the round would be based on applause (too much time spent watching You Got Served), 3 judges were seated above the competitors to make the scoring decisions. I will be discussing each round because the topics varied greatly and there are so many great lines that need to be reiterated on behalf of these amazing writers.

Ada vs. Chad to start off the night.
Ada vs. Chad to start off the night.

Round 1: Ada Limón vs. Chad Sweeney
After thanking the full house for coming out, the first two competitors spoke on the topic giving birth. Chad went first reading “Little Wet Monster” which was based on waiting for the birth of his own child. I enjoyed the blatant personal connection and also loved the cadence of his voice. It was strong and he carried out certain letters to an almost hose-like sound. I hope that makes sense. Ada read from “The Conditional” and she won the round for me with her very first line, “Say tomorrow doesn’t come.” She came out of the gate like this was the actual World Series and I loved it. The existential feeling it gave off definitely set the tone for the night.

Brynn vs. Douglas to get the ball rolling.
Brynn vs. Douglas to get the ball rolling.

Round 2: Brynn Saito vs. F. Douglas Brown
The following two were given the topic of regret as roars of laughter emanated in the crowd after the emcee uttered “All books are about regret.” One of Brynn’s lines that stuck out to me was “…we wandered through the gate of radiant days” because I rarely see the word radiant being used in a non-corny sense nowadays. It implied something happy/good yet emphasized that it was still closed off. Douglas read a completely different piece that centered on a father’s sacrifice and he won the round with “…meals had to be put together with the clank of Goodwill pans.” That line alone screamed sacrifice.

Alex vs. Christina as my last photo before I was completely blown away.
Alex vs. Christina as my last photo before I was completely blown away.

Round 3: Alex Dimitrov vs. Christina Hutchins
Introductory battles concluded with Alex and Christina taking on the topic of Music! The exclamation point was made evident to the crowd. I thought this was an interesting one considering poetry has a music to itself as a form and there was a desire to place something on top of that. Both of these poets had a genuine sadness that was portrayed through their equally beautiful lines. Christina with her last line “I fasten the past with a loose clasp” and Alex with “…playing with my hair, playing sad ridiculous love song.” Alex had a certain appeal with “I’m lonely and I love it” but I couldn’t get past Christina’s line. The “s” sounds and the image of life like a bracelet or a jewelry box was too vivid to ignore.

I’d like to point out that my opinions on the “winner” in each bout had no actual effect on the judging. After each pair read, the judges took turns with their commentary and voting on who they thought won the topic. The panel was incredibly insightful and I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of delight each time they pointed out a line that I too had wrote down. I don’t think the 3 of them unanimously picked one winner the whole night. They incorporated a lot of jokes which created a fun atmosphere and even set a drinking game in motion where whenever one of them said “this was a tough round”, you would take a drink. One thing that a judge said which stuck with me was judging on the “velocity of a poem.” I’m going to analyze that phrase more in order to figure out how I am exactly going to apply it to my own writing.

Apparently there are usually “breaks” at poetry readings but all of the shows I’ve been to, including this one, decided to forego breaks so we moved onto the next round. Each round was composed of 3 readings which meant that there were a total of 9 readings. Talk about a glorious poetry filled evening, I didn’t even mind standing because of how amazing everyone was. How amazing? This brings me to my next round of breakdowns.

Round 4: Ada vs. Brynn
Two women who definitely took different approaches to the topic of making-out. Brynn had a more subtle approach with “…her, the tree of life.” Having one person be compared to a tree of life gives them significance and I honestly would never have imagined that line up. Although I found her take more relatable, Ada’s poem about having sex for the first time stoned packed more heat. “O my new obsession, his lips” has a sense of urgency and intimacy that made the room come alive. You really only needed to be infatuated with someone to feel that tingle drawn up by this line.

Round 5: Chad vs. Christina
Battle of the two C’s on the topic of work. Christina really has a gift for diction and how words sound because “…cascaded the castle” was very reminiscent of the line I mentioned previously. I am definitely a sucker for a hard “c” in a poem because there is something so harsh about them. Even though I enjoyed her other line “I knew so little of effort” (which should probably be the title of one of my novels), Chad’s opening line was so brilliant that he won it immediately. Opening a poem with “In Heaven, the unemployment office gives out free Bourbon” combines the right amount of hilarity with a touch of reality. However, I secretly hope there is no unemployment office at all.

Round 6: Alex vs. Douglas
This was the most intense round in my opinion which seemed very unlikely when the topic was presented as farms. I had no idea what they were going to come out with because I have not seen a lot of pieces dedicated to farmland unless you are looking up a particular subgenre. Even though Alex said that he felt he was talking too much about sex, it was the emotional parts that stuck out to me. One of my favorites was “…after everyone I know has died a little and come back” because as a 23 year old post-grad, I can definitely relate to dying a little inside. Douglas presented us with “How to tell your dad you kissed a man” and this poem was literally so great that my boyfriend and I discussed it in the car on our way home that night. He captured the senses with “sage mixed with lavender”, catered to the theme with “He knows crazy shit happens on a farm”, and he blew me away by ending with “Tell him anything you want then tell him you did it again.” Isolated these lines are wonderful yet it was the reading itself that completed the picture. The way he sped up as the descriptions of the kiss increased created the suffocating feeling. That feeling whenever your parents came home and there was a boy hidden in your room even though you weren’t supposed to have anyone over when they weren’t away. In high school my best friend and I referred to it as the “caught-up feeling.” When you know you’re doing something in secret and you love every minute of it. Douglas was able to transport me back to that feeling by reading about a man kissing a man and if that isn’t deserving of winning the round, you need to get your ears checked.

Round 7: Chad vs. Douglas
I know that it is going to seem very biased that I picked Douglas as the winner of this round as well but bear with me, I have an explanation. The topic was ghosts and with this, I am definitely attached to pieces connected to someone passing away opposed to a physical depiction of ghostly proportions. This is why I could not fully connect with Chad’s “Zombie Ballad.” Later in the evening, my boyfriend said that the zombie poem was his favorite of the night. He pointed out specific parts about the zombies trying to mate while I was completely unaware that was even mentioned. It is important to note that I am not a fan of anything scary/horror related. Scary movies, ghosts, zombies, no thanks. With that being said, I still admired Chad’s vivid descriptions like “ivy over swing sets” and “…blue and beautiful.” I would never think to associate the undead with something beautiful but it made their scary faces come to life nonetheless. Douglas spoke again on a father but this time of a father’s ghost. Having experienced the death of loved ones, this one definitely struck a chord. “My father’s laughter still bellows over everything” is as heartbreaking as it is breathtaking. Laughter brings joy yet it can also bring sadness when the person is no longer around. The personal choice of the word bellows is something that I appreciated as well. “Today the grass grows in his throat” was my second favorite line because aside from the alliteration, it conveyed so many different images. My boyfriend seen is as a nervous feeling when something is left unsaid whereas I seen it as grass growing on and over the grave. Whatever the intended image was, it was powerful and deserved the win. Mr. F. Douglas Brown, you are just amazing.

Round 8: Ada vs. Alex

The battle of the A’s. I’m starting to think this whole common letter thing was a set-up. They were faced with the peculiarly phrased “that awkward moment when…” as a topic. Alex decided to read a more serious piece which showed off his versatility and skill. My favorite line was “I’ve put a period to end each thought that won’t end” because there are many times when I wish ending a thought was that simple. If only adding a period would bring a final end to things. Ada had such strong comparisons with dogs/cars and herself/dogs. How could this possibly work? With lines such as “…bearing their grills like teeth” and that climactic ending of “…lifted my skirt to piss like the hard bitch I was.” Even though it is fairly common, I am always caught off-guard with curse words but this worked so tremendously well. It was meant in reference to a female dog and the fact that Ada knows how to end a piece. I am all for a woman who knows when she has to pee in a poem and an actual poet who is aware of the right things to say. All the points to Ada.

Round 9: Brynn vs. Christina
It all came down to the topic of rhyme. For poetry most people expect some sing-songy Dr. Seuss tales but that is not how the night ended. If you read my previous post on David Levithan, you know that I am a huge fan of dictionary pieces. Christina read a piece about opening the dictionary and left us with the eerie realization that words are forced together when a book is closed. Letter intimacy if you will. The best line was “…watermark and watchtower wait in the dark” because the spacing of a dictionary page is immediately conjured and the dark could be physical darkness or the light fading out whenever a book is closed. I use the term Meta ironically but in this case it fit with the actual definition (I did not intend to make a pun here but now I can’t help but marvel at it). Despite using one of my favorite forms, Brynn won the round with her poem “River Through.” She said it was about the recent loss of someone very close to her and you could definitely feel that. It was seen in lines like “…ghost waters rain over unblossomed orchards” and my favorite “…we cry without crying and she comes.” Anyone who has experienced loss can attest to crying without crying. That sadness seems to always be lurking and when the tears actually do fall, it makes everything real.

I wish I had taken a photo of the final scoreboard but after all of the judges’ commentary, the red team (Ada, Douglas, and Christina) came out victorious by 1 point. Thank you messages were immediately given to the crowd as people began to disperse. If you liked the sound of any of the poets I mentioned, their work is available for purchase and you should definitely invest in them. I bought Ada’s newest book that night and have no regrets.

As for my rating, I gave this event a 9.5/10. If you have made it to this portion of the post, you see how deeply I was impacted by each performance. Every poet was fantastic in a different way and it was amazing to see them all come together on stage. You may wonder since I watched the whole show and raved on for so long why I did not give the evening a perfect 10. The last .5 was left off because I had expected a more rapid fire type of show. There were many awkward pauses between “sets” and times where pieces seemed to drag on. If I had known what a PWS is like, I probably would have left this rap battle type expectation at home but it walked in with me. I am definitely looking forward to next year and hope to make it a tradition. It was a fierce battle but in the end, everyone was a winner. The poets are the world champions!


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