THE POETRY WORLD SERIES: of litquake and the literary death match

(Evan Karp)

As Litquake approaches and the air brings us memories of what’s to come (soon we will turn into pumpkins), it’s a perfect time to reflect on what makes San Francisco such a beautiful place for literature. It’s not the festival that makes us what we are, but the spirit of the festival (here’s to you, Dionysus). The party allows us to come out, to trick and treat; it makes it OK for us to be (lit) freaks, to do this all year (we do). We dress up to remind ourselves we are always wearing costumes. Tomorrow, Wednesday October 5, is the Poetry World Series! Before you say, “Yeah, autumn!” (OK, say it), let us ask: what is the Poetry World Series?

Two teams of up-and-coming Bay Area poets (enter who’s-who namedrop: Matthew Zapruder, Melissa Stein, Dean Rader, Ada Limon, Robin Ekiss and Troy Jollimore) will take turns batting at a poem topic pitched to them by the audience (with the help of prodigy Peg Alford Pursell). Fastballs, curveballs, knuckleballs: these poets won’t know what’s coming next! The judges? Daniel Handler, Michael Krasny, and Michelle Tea!

Watch a reading by each participant by clicking “play” below (then click forward to toggle)

[youtube_video width=400]PWS Preview[/youtube_video]

I spoke with Rebecca Foust about the origin of this event:

LITSEEN: How did you come up with this idea; what were some of the thoughts behind it?

REBECCA FOUST: The idea for this event originated about a year ago with SFPL Events Coordinator Joan Jasper’s response to my query about doing a reading at San Francisco Main. Joan commented that the library was not always able to attract strong audiences when just one poet read and asked whether I’d be interested in reading with others, hopefully some established poets along with other newer ones like me, and she asked me to come up with some names.

I began to brainstorm about this at about the same time that I had a reading with Dean Rader and Melissa Stein at Bird and Beckett in SF. We decided to have fun with that reading, and instead of standing up one at time to declaim our poems, we went one at a time, each reading a poem somehow inspired by the one that preceded it. So, when Dean read his poem about his arm falling asleep when he is in bed with his wife and how he wished he could detach it and put it on the bedside table, I said “Ah-hah, a body-parts poem!” and then read mine (“Synecdoche”) about a poet who metaphorically gnaws off her arm to escape a trapped life. Melissa followed with a murder and mayhem poem, and then we were off. We went on like that for about an hour, doing a sort of exquisite-corpse reading where each poem riffed off the one that preceded it, and the audience loved it.

The Bird & Beckett reading was the genesis for the idea for the Poetry World Series. I asked Dean and Melissa to join me in planning, and we decided that we wanted to do something different than your standard poets-taking-turns-reading-from-their-books kind of event–there is so much of that happening already on any given night here in the Bay Area. (We are very lucky and rich in that way, but it makes it hard to attract an audience.) We wanted to do something lively, with built-in spontaneity and excitement, but that would also deliver poetry that had had the benefit of invested time and revision. We were bound only by the date—the library’s only opening for many months. At some point I noticed that the date, Oct. 5, corresponded to the date that the Major League playoffs began, so we started thinking “Exquisite-corpse-concept-meets-baseball,” and the idea evolved from there.

Baseball and poetry have been entwined; it seems, from the inception of the sport. Everyone knows about “Casey at the Bat,” of course, but there is also “Baseball and Writing” by Marianne Moore (who famously loved baseball and even once threw out a first pitch at a Yankees game), as well as a much-anthologized poem by Gail Mazur called, simply, “Baseball.” One of our team players, Mathew Zapruder, wrote a poem called “Poem for Giants” after the SF Giants won the 2010 Series. There is, as a quick google search will reveal, a substantial body of writing (and poetry) about baseball.

In some ways, we are hoping to capture the energy of a poetry slam but at the same time to preserve the quality of poetry that has been worked on, revised, committed to the page.  We also want to expand the audience for poetry, to bring in people who might not otherwise attend a reading by poets. Perhaps we’ll get some of the people who normally only attend slams, perhaps some who normally only attend “serious” readings by “established” poets. And perhaps we’ll pull in some audience who wouldn’t normally go to any kind of poetry reading.  Who knows, maybe we’ll even convert a few baseball fans into poetry enthusiasts! Or poets into baseball fans! That would be great.

LS: Tell us more about the questions. How is this going to work?!

RF: We are working with “topics” (not questions) that will be “pitched” to the players, each of whom will bat against another player in each of three rounds. Thus, there will be nine topic pitches in all (ten if there is a tie-breaker round), and each player will have three chances to read (or “bat’). Topics will be drawn from a hat and read out (“pitched”) by Peg. Each pair of batters will receive a different topic, and each batter will have three minutes to read a poem that relates to or in some way responds to the topic. Topics will be solicited from the audience before the event. We’ve told the poets they might receive topics like “Love gone wrong,” “Dark and Stormy Nights,” and “Body parts,” but no one really has any idea what will come up on a given pitch.

LS: How did you select the poets?

BF: To populate the teams, Dean, Melissa and I brainstormed about other poets and also about high profile “celebrity” judges who would bring energy and wit to the event. This competition is not meant to be serious. It is meant to be a way to pique audience interest and to inspire the poets to create something on the spot—a new way of seeing their work, perhaps—even though they are reading  poems they have already written. Again, our hope is that by having the poets use poems they’d already written and read before, the overall literary quality would be higher than for, say, poems written on the spot. And yet, by making the poets come up with poems that relate to a topic that is “pitched” to them, there is introduced an element of spontaneity and an on-the-spot act of creation not found in standard poetry readings.

The hard part was deciding who to ask, because the Bay Area just abounds with fantastic poetry talent. In the end, Melissa, Dean and I each just suggested a name, and the first poets we asked said “yes.” Voila, we had our two teams of three players. We certainly had many, many other players we wanted to ask, but only had to ask once to fill our team rosters. Then we came up with some names for judges and again were very lucky that they said “yes.”  We’d all seen and heard Michael Krasny, Daniel Handler, and Michelle Tea  and knew that they would grasp the concept quickly and enhance the whole experience with their unique brands of wit, intelligence, and powers of aesthetic discernment. Plus, we knew they had followings—not necessarily among the poetry-reading-attending crowd—and that having them associated with the event would further our goal of building a broader audience. We like the idea of having some judges who are not poets, too, because it underscores our desire to have a friendly, for-fun competition and to attract a demographic wider than just people who love to read and write poetry.


Think of your topics now!

The Poetry World Series is free and begins at 6pm at the Main Library, 100 Larkin St, San Francisco. See you there…