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Let's R-U-M-B-L-E!!! : Sharp Jabs, Vicious Uppercuts and Stinging Hooks at the World Heavyweight Championship Poetry Bout

July 24, 1994|Lewis MacAdams | Lewis MacAdams is a Los Angeles poet, journalist and filmmaker. His last piece for the magazine was "Loose Threads," on the rise and fall of L.A. clothier Cross Colours

1. The Buildup. Bets are down. Brown paper bags have sprouted, Bible-Belt style, amid forests of 7-Up and Coke cans. The capacity crowd of more than 500, which has paid $15 for general admission tickets and $25 for ringside seats, has just settled down inside the remodeled Piggly Wiggly Super-Market when referee Peter Rabbit slinks into the middle of the ring. Long and lanky, wearing a fedora and a thrift-shop seersucker suit, Rabbit grabs a microphone as it descends into his hand.

"From Ramona's dance hall in beautiful Taos, New Mexico," Rabbit thunders, "the Poetry Capital of the World . . ." The crowd explodes into cheers. " . . . the challenger Quincy Troupe versus the champion Simon Ortiz . . . for the Heavyweight Poetry Championship of the World!" The wise guys on the back patio at the Caffe Tazza have established Ortiz, who is from Acoma Pueblo, the oldest continuously inhabited place in North America, as the home state favorite at 7-5.

2. The Prize. A spotlight focuses on the Max M. Finstein Memorial Poetry Prize--a bronzed boxing glove atop a wooden pyramid--known simply as "The Max" and named in honor of the poet, communard and con man who died in 1980 when his pickup truck spun off the road in a snowstorm on his way to Los Angeles. Leaning against the trophy is a fist-sized silver belt buckle engraved with the words "The Max." Beside it is a navy-blue baseball cap, the bill bordered with cut beads plotted and sewn by Cheyenne artist Joyce Starr. The crown says in white letters "World Heavyweight Champion Poet."

3. The Rules. Two poets, last year's champ and a challenger, selected by the World Poetry Bout Assn., compete in a 10-round bard-off.

In theory, scoring is based on the Illinois Boxing Commission's 10-point must system. Each of the three judges, using entirely personal criteria, must award 10 points to the round's winner; the loser usually gets nine unless there's an intellectual knockdown. In practice, the judges simply designate the winner for each round.

Poets must employ the naked human voice only, except during the seventh round, when accompaniment is allowed. (Last year, in taking the championship from Ntozake Shange, who used a boombox tape to back her poem, Ortiz shuffled river stones against one another to frame the title piece of his collection, "Woven Stone.")

The 10th round is extemporaneous. Each poet draws a slip of paper from a hat and has 30 seconds to create a poem based on the idea or phrase on the paper. (Bout vets still consider Victor Hernandez Cruz's inspired 1989 improvisation on the word "mud" the finest 10th round in championship history.)

This year, for the first time, poems must remain within a five-minute limit. (Wags refer to this as the Anne Waldman rule.)

4. The Contestants. In the recesses of Ramona's, handlers are giving the poets last-minute instructions. "It's a great crowd," Quincy's wife, Margaret, exhorts. "Don't hold anything back." Ortiz huddles in the green room with two Indian poets, Lance Henson and Sherman Alexie, who read in a preliminary bout two nights before.

"And in the Red Corner . . ." Rabbit intones, gesturing to an empty stool on the right side of the ring. "He battles demons every day. He walks unknown trails and many follow. New Mexico can be very proud of S-i-i-m-on "-- he elongates the syllables, stretching them back like the rubber in a slingshot--" Or-t-i-i-z!! " The slight, bespectacled Ortiz, dressed for work in sneakers and jeans, bounces down the aisle, carrying a folder full of poems. The audience rises to cheer. Ortiz's sister, who has never heard him read, surprises him with a shout of "My brother!" and hugs him before he can reach the stage.

Son of a railroad worker and a distinguished potter, Ortiz has been the Acomas' official "interpreter" to the outer world and a lieutenant governor of his pueblo, and is probably the greatest of all American Indian poets. The Native Writers' Circle of the Americas, an organization of indigenous writers, last year named him the winner of its second annual Lifetime Achievement award (novelist N. Scott Momaday won the first). In 1992, Ortiz wrote the narrative for the PBS documentary "Surviving Columbus." His 14th collection, "After and Before the Lightning," will be published this month.

A man of humility and strength, Ortiz is also, when alcohol engulfs him, a mean, scary, falling-down drunk, who knows the insides of VA hospitals all over the West. This contradiction is often at the center of his poems.

"And in the Black Corner . . ." Rabbit growls, pointing to the stool at his left. "His line is long. He spits on capital letters. He's gonna knock you out ! The challenger, Quincy 'The Jazzman' Troupe!!"

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