Iambic Pentathalon

The poetry of the game of poetry

Art by Bob AulThe major knock against modern poetry is that it has forgotten its roots. It's not just that the words don't rhyme anymore; it's that poets don't go for the jugular—they don't play to win. There was a time when poets always had their game faces on. Anyone who has studied the language knows that, just as they know the phrase "dude looks like a lady" was originally turned by Emily Dickinson in an attempt to throw Oscar Wilde off his game in one of their exhibition matches—ironically called "friendlys."

The vicious nature of the (Wallace) Stevens-(e.e.) cummings duels showed what a blood sport poetry really was, causing some to call for its abolition. But it didn't take an act of Congress to kill classic poetry. No, as with the decline of other modern games (such as synchronized miming, full-contact haiku and baseball), the selfish and shortsighted nature of its participants spelled poetry's demise. More concerned with themselves—their alienation, their lesbianism, their cat—than with the welfare of the game, poetry turned inward, away from its classic purpose, a purpose best expressed by Dryden as "kicking arse and appropriating names."

Fortunately, there has been a revival of that classical form. On May 28, 10 crack practitioners gathered at Laguna Beach's FACT Gallery to compete in the regional poetry-slam final, vying for four spots on the Laguna Beach slam team that will compete in the National Slam in Chicago in August.

Expectations were high, and the palpable crackling throughout the room couldn't be passed off as unsheathed male toes. No, that was the sound of anticipation: last year's team placed 17th among 45, and there was a buzz about this year's strong field of Laguna Beach contenders, including veterans Chris Tannahill, John Gardiner and Mindy Nettifee as well as newcomers David Watson, Paul Suntup and Buzzy Ennis.

The poets would compete in three rounds, reciting in each round a poem of no longer than three minutes. Five judges would score them on a scale from 0 to 10, with high and low scores thrown out. Thus, the highest possible score for each round was 30.

Poets' names were drawn from a hat each round to determine when they would perform. Order is critical. "You never want to follow something serious with something serious, something funny with something funny," Ennis said. "You want to leave your options open and play off what the last poet did."

As usual, the first round was left for the participants to feel out their opponents, the judges and the crowd. Ennis scored well (27) with a funny ditty called "if i was jesus," perhaps because he followed the hulking Tannahill, who eschewed the microphone and shouted out his verse, soon venturing out into the terrified crowd like Libby Dole on 'roids. Tannahill was given a 26.4.

It became obvious that would not be enough to carry the day when Nettifee followed Tannahill and Ennis with relationship verse that garnered a 28.5 and Lizzie Wann came up with a measured piece for a 27.6.

It was also obvious that this was a woman's audience; women made up the majority of the crowd and three and a half of the five judges—a man and woman couple shared the scoring responsibilities of one judge. Sensing as much, Suntup hit a big 28 with a poem about fruit.

Tailoring your poetry to the judges is part of the game, "playing the room," as they say, what Elizabeth Barrett Browning did to great effect with "There Was a Young Lass from Pagina" at the 1855 de Sade Invitational. Soon after, Gardiner, who had started out with something about a dead coyote, talked about feelings of inadequacy while talking to young women. That earned him a respectable 27.6. Ennis launched into a tirade against the unreal expectations for women's bodies, ending "magazine" with "Please tell her she's beautiful/Just as she is." That garnered the evening's top score, a 29.2—and the comment "Women are so easy" from someone in the crowd.

Which may be why Tannahill began his next poem with a line about sleeping next to his lover—though soon he was again threatening the audience and talking about the "suicide gene." He rallied with the night's best line ("dropping acid when I'm too lazy to redecorate") to get a 28.8 and work himself back into contention.

After two rounds, only 1.1 points separated the fourth and final qualifying place (held by Lizzie Wann at 55.7) from eighth (Gardiner at 54.6). The only thing certain going into the final round was that Nettifee would have to fail miserably with her final poem to be knocked out of a spot in Chicago. She had scored a 28.9 with her second poem, which ended with the female-friendly anthem "spontaneous desserts." Ennis and Nettifee sewed up spots on the team early with strong third-round efforts—garnering 28.9 and 29 points respectively. Since Suntup was sitting in second with a 56.5, it became obvious that only the fourth-place spot was up for grabs.

Poets talk about scores "heating up" in the last round after they've had a chance to judge the room and the room has warmed to their style. Wann's last effort, a 28.4, was solid but left the door open. J.D. Glasscock, sitting in fifth, could not capitalize on the opportunity, though. He had done well with his modulated, mumbling Mike-Stipe-gets-jiggy-with-Ice-Cube style. Unfortunately for Glasscock, his love poem—rife with images of maggots, crap teeth and syphilis dreams—didn't connect. No one's fault; it was just a misread—one person's thoughts on love being another's "sour-milk chrome-like breasts," as Glasscock put it. The poem received just 26.9 points and reminded more than a few old-timers of Walt Whitman's "violet miscalculation" at a Theodore Roosevelt-judged event, as well as Keats' ill-timed reworking of "Ode on a Grecian Urn" to "Ode on a Grecian Urn that I Will Shove Down Thy Piehole and Make Thee Like It. . . . Thou Dost Not Think I'm Serious? . . . Try Me."

Tannahill's last effort was perhaps his weakest, and it was soon clear that Wann, along with Ennis, Nettifee and Suntup, would be going to Chicago.

If it did some of the old-timers' hearts good to see poets with their priorities in order, the good feelings were short-lived. Ennis announced that Chicago would be his last slam.

"I hated this slam because I really wanted to win, and I found myself hoping the other people would score low," he said. "I hated that. Competition is psychotic. But I guess I'm going to Chicago."

And, sadly, once again modern angst infected modern poetry as yet another poet admitted to playing for himself instead of for the love of the game.

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