I had a tooth pulled on Friday and judged a poetry contest on Saturday. For many Americans, the first experience would have been less painful.
But while there was nothing I liked about going to the dentist, except for the drug-induced, semi-hallucinatory daydreams and illusions, judging the Billings Grand Slam 4 had rich rewards.
It was the second time I have been a judge in the contest. Last year, I judged the first slam I ever attended, an experience that reminded me of Roger Clawson’s remark that the first canoe he ever saw was one he built himself. It looked, he said, like a canoe built by someone who had never seen a canoe.
But I am a glutton for all sorts of things, including punishment, and willingly assented to a second go-round. While the other judges and I had our disagreements, the list of winners perfectly matched my own biases: Anna Paige (last year’s runner-up) in first place, followed by Nate Petterson and Brad Lambert. Ms. Paige’s final-round poem appears elsewhere in this issue.
The event was organized by James Hickman, whose life bumps into mine in all sorts of odd ways. He is an occasional contributor to The Outpost; he is an editor of Noise & Color, a monthly arts and features magazine that nominally competes with us; and he does design for The Retort, the student newspaper at Montana State University Billings, for which I am faculty adviser.
Pete Tolton, last year’s slam champion, was emcee. He said he decided to stay out of this year’s competition because he was so involved in organizing it, but he did offer up a “sacrificial” poem for judges to calibrate their scoring at the start of the evening.
The event also invited community members to read or recite their favorite poems as part of the Favorite Poem Project, a national effort to get Americans involved in sharing and reading poetry they love.
Ken Siebert, a fellow judge and director of Yellowstone Public Radio, read Wallace Stevens’ “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” a poem that, he noted, seems to delight in its own – what’s the word? – poemism? Poetricity? Musician Steve Brown read a poem from local poet Doug Oltrogge.
Mr. Tolton read a poem from James Dickey, who was a well known poet even before his novel “Deliverance” was made into a creepy hit movie. Mr. Tolton’s mom, Jennifer Tolton, read Eugene Field’s “The Duel,” a poem whose title you may not recognize but whose first lines you probably do:
The gingham dog and the calico cat
Side by side on the table sat.
I contributed my one party trick, a German translation by Robert Scott of Lewis Carroll’s “The Jabberwocky.” I told listeners who didn’t know German that they wouldn’t miss much. The English version begins and ends with this verse:
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
The German version begins and ends with this verse:
Es brillig war. Die schlichte Toven
Wirrten und wimmelten in Waben;
Und aller-mümsige Burggoven
Die mohmen Räth’ ausgraben.
Not much difference, really, except that the second is a lot more fun to say.
Then the real poets took the stage in individual acts of naked courage. Even musicians have guitars to hide themselves behind, but poets have nothing except their own words, which they draw from places within themselves that rarely see the light of day.
It was tempting to give everybody a 10, the highest score, but I was restrained by having watched the day before an HBO documentary on the National Poetry Slam, in which team members from Albuquerque, N.M., urged judges to give their performance a score of seven – a devastatingly low score at that level of competition.
Their message was that poetry at the highest level is not an “everybody wins” event. Olympic gymnasts don’t get points for showing up; slam contestants should be subjected to the same rigorous standards.
Poetry slamming is occasionally slammed in academic circles, where reducing a poem to a numerical score can be seen as belittling and reductive (although professors do the same thing to student essays every day). But if it’s true, as I often pretend to believe, that we are entering a post-literate age, then the message from those Albuquerque poets is worth holding.
Poetry began in a preliterate age as a way of preserving and crystallizing thought. My daughter and I can still recite to each other dozens of verses from our favorite childhood book of nonsense poetry, “A Great Big Ugly Man Came Up and Tied His Horse to Me.”
Those poems pull us together across generations. If, in the world of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, that ancient art of oral poetry, practiced at its highest level, can pull us back together, then that will be better, any day of the week, than having a tooth pulled.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the poem delivered by Anna Paige in the final round of the Billings Grand Slam 4 poetry contest on Saturday. Ms. Paige finished first in the competition.
The Amorist – For Trey
Spring, this brassy parade from winter to summer
lingers like early morning rain on branches.
Quivering leaves drip apprehension,
uneasiness in this change of season.
Looking pale and drawn, winter’s first mourners begin to shed their cloaks.
Rediscovering their voice with the songbirds of sunrise,
they tease us with announcements of warmer days ahead.
April’s cruelty will soon become a distant memory.
Yet we return to winter’s well-worn path,
wearing lockets with memory neatly contained
for we are still in mourning.
The boy who is in love has died.
The amorist, one who is in love or writes of love, feared the forgetfulness of others.
He was unable to leave the consequence of his life on paper.
Rather through suffering he worked every day for joy;
he loved each day’s demise
even while knowing it brought him closer to the dead.
Through every moment of agonizing pain he continued to be in love.
In love with winter’s silent snows and spring’s procession,
in love with the swelter of summer and the cool nights of routine,
even though each furthered an unappeasable cancer through his bones.
In these swings from beauty to sadness, darkness to warmth
It’s hard to believe he was afraid we’d forget.
Forget his tussle of his hair each time it re-grew,
the warmth of his presence and the rogue curve of his smile,
the sound of his pain, the ebb of his disease taking pieces
while he continued his love of living.
When The Amorist passed onto the invisible beyond,
into the whitewash of painless days,
his wave goodbye came with a promise
that death is not an ending.
That he’d returned to the expanse of the sea.
Through the churning of sand and in ripples against the shore
he built sandcastles to hold our fear.
And in spring’s cruel tease I find the boy who is in love
has grown under our feet,
tickling our bare toes in the revival of spring.
Our scars drift like threads across placid skies
dissolving slowly with the each breath of morning.
Summer brings with it chore, project, enterprise.
Greasy lawn clippings scatter on sidewalks
chalked with pink squares and outlines of
mom, dad, dog.
I look up to find the Amorist has grown
into the shade trees of summer,
as if he were roots beneath our feet,
holding the earth in place.