(Pictured, from left to right: SFPA President, Bryan Thao Worra, Deborah L. Davitt, Holly Walrath, and Michelle Muenzler, at the George R. Brown Convention Center, Houston, TX, May 12, 2017, #Comicpalooza.)
Four entered. None left.
Okay, truthfully, we all walked out under our own power and adjourned to the first bar we could find, in keeping with the grand tradition of poets throughout the course of history. But what happened between our entrance and our exit was, if not magical, at least highly entertaining and perhaps even a little educational.
We drew a surprisingly large crowd of people, perhaps intrigued by the notion of a poetry “deathmatch.” One audience member asked if the front row was a “splash zone,” and we offered him liability waivers to sit there.
In this corner, speculative poetry!
Bryan Thao Worra, current SFPA President, started us off by discussing what speculative poetry is, and how what’s speculative can vary incredibly, depending on the cultural background of the person in question. He gave as a fascinating example, his own poem, “Full Metal Hanuman.” In India, Hanuman is a god; in other parts of Southeast Asia, he’s a revered figure out of mythology and folklore, but more accessible. Writing about him in the tradition of SE Asia, he’s a figure open to interpretation in modern and speculative fields, while an Indian reader might read the same poem, and give the author a glance askance.
When intrepid moderator Holly Walrath asked the rest of the panel what they considered to be speculative poetry, Dallas-area poet Michelle Muenzler replied that she’s an open door sort of person–that speculative poetry should be more inclusive, and not less so. “Let science poetry be a part of science fiction poetry. Let it all come in.” Houston-area author Deborah Davitt replied that much of the continuum of world and historic poetry already is speculative, from Homer’s Odyssey (venturing off into the unknown, to fight monsters, and use the customs of invented civilizations to shed light upon the home reality? How science fiction is that?) to Spenser’s Faerie Queene, with its female knights removing their helmets to remind their foes that they are no man.
Then, to prove that we could actually write decent stuff, each competitor was afforded a moment to read one of their existing poems, published or unpublished.
Are you ready to rumble?
After setting the stage, the deathmatch began in the vein of Whose Line is it, Anyways? Holly Walrath asked the audience to provide a profession, a location, and a thing. Each poem had to include all three items, and only three to five minutes of time was allotted for the actual writing. Michelle Muenzler blatantly bribed the audience with sugary cookie wondefulness (we kid, we kid!), but also offered them to her competitors . . . perhaps in the hopes that a sudden sugar high would wreck their concentration!
Her strategy paid off. In the first round, with these as the prompts: Volcano, bounty hunter, and ninja cat, Holly’s best effort became:
but it was Michelle who won the acclaim of the audience, including at least one vocal trill from the back of the room.
Ladies and gentlemen and others, her deathless first-round winner!
fourpawed and fleet of feet
stalks perilous the pools of branthag’abor
long passed the ghosts of ancient city
cradled in ghosts older yet
through molten halls smoothed by age
our samurai pads
as he has padded before
perhaps never to be found
ghosts are hard to catch
There was no time to recover. Shaken and sweaty, the competitors faced the audience for the second round’s prompts: traveler, Roman Empire (Deborah Davitt may have shouted a heartfelt “THANK YOU” for this prompt, and may have raised her copy of Ave, Caesarion for the crowd to see at this juncture) and rubber ducky.
Yes. Rubber ducky.
A profound silence followed.
Bryan gave it his all:
In these antique lands
I stride forever
wandering between reigns
But what is it to be immortal
Amid a thousand lifetimes
By these hills of Romulus, of Remus?
Shall you remember me
A Methuselah, a gladiator, a sage?
Or give me no more thought
Than a rubber ducky
Who at least will outlast
The radroaches of Tomorrow’s Wastelands?
However, the inclusion of Roman Empire gave the author of the Edda-Earth novels a strategic advantage over the other competitors. Though she sunk to low-brow humor in a blatant attempt to sway the crowd, which succeeded.
Deborah Davitt’s winning poem now, for the first time, in all its squeaky glory!
The Survivors Adjourn.
To the laughter of the crowd, we departed for the nearest bar, dizzy with relief at our survival. And, buoyed by the spirit of companionship, we promptly made plans to do this all again next year. Perhaps worse, we ventured upon a pact to spread Stately Thunderdomes and poetry deathmatches across the country. Convention by convention.
You heard it here first.
We’re coming for you.