I'd heard about other Haiku Death Matches before, and when I interviewed Rusty Priske, the Slam Master, about it a couple of weeks ago on Literary Landscape, we talked about what kind of haiku to expect. A haiku's short, and if you're going up against each other in an audience-judged competition, you go for pithy, funny, snappy, right? In Vancouver, I've been told, the competition is dominated by sex jokes.
Ten people were eventually signed on to the lists. I'd intended to sit back and enjoy the show, but then was asked to be a judge. "You don't have to give a grade," Brad said. "You just have to pick one poem or the other."
Well, how hard can that be? I thought to myself. I've judged at slams before but I really have a hard time giving a number grade to poetry.
I was a fool. Having to pick between two haiku was, at times, astonishingly difficult.
The competition was gleefully hosted by Brad Morden, who announced the rules: Two names would be drawn from a hat. Those two "haiku warriors" would come to the stage. Each would perform a haiku, and the judges would choose a winner (by flashing either a copy of the latest Capital Slam CD or the flyer for next week's VERSeFest). Best two out of three would take the bout. Once you lost two bouts. . . your balloon was popped. Ceremoniously. To a chorus of cries from the audience of "Aww... no! NO!" as Brad proclaimed, "We live and die by the pen!" and popped the balloon with a ballpoint.
Another rule: total silence during the bout. You could clap for the "haiku warriors" when they were called up (and as the night went on, you could hear the reaction from the audience when a particularly strong pair got called), but then Brad would call out, 'SILENCE!" and you were supposed to be quiet as the haiku, some of which were really funny, were read. This, of course, only served to heighten the hilarity as people either stifled laughs, or defied the silence rule and laughed out loud or shouted things.
Meanwhile, behind the competition, classical Japanese music played.
It was hilarious.
The haiku had a wide range: from the expected sex jokes, through pop culture references, to the stereotypical lyrical and evocative image. Some haiku warriors made their stuff up on the spot: "I love cats. Too much. / My arms are full of scratches. / Kitties, love me back!"
Others brought their books, and flipped through them madly trying to choose the right response. And then came the first balloon death. "No mercy at the death match!" Brad roared. "We live and die by the pen!"
I get the feeling he was enjoying himself.
Finally there were only four poets left standing, and we had a break. I had been surprised by what I was hearing. As a judge, I had to make a snap decision every time. The poems could be radically different, or both in similar modes: either way, it would be a serious bitch deciding which to give the win to. There were funny poems about zombies, or wistful poems about lost loves, or snappy self-referential poems - I liked Rusty's "haiku trash talking" poem, for one - or 'deep thoughts' poems (a lot of these brought out by a newcomer to the CPC scene, who went by K. G., an older man who got up to the mike each time with a sort of gravitas, and a measured, dignified, Caribbean accent, that inevitably slew the other poets, particularly if they brought a funny poem. We talked about it afterwards: If you were up against him, and all you had was a dick joke, you inevitably sounded trivial compared to his meditations on the human condition. You had to have one hell of a good dick joke to beat that.)
Which is the surprise, for me. I knew that in the Vancouver scene, the dick joke would normally win. As the night went on I saw the judging going in strange directions - not always in favor of the deep stuff, but definitely resistant to the cheap shot. I know I was giving more points to people whose phrasing sounded natural (it takes more skill to make a 5-7-5 syllable pattern sound like normal talk than to drop out the odd article because it saves a syllable, and I consciously rewarded that). I think my fellow judges were doing the same thing. Top marks, generally, would go to witty AND insightful, which was hard to go for.
My money, if I had had money riding on this thing, would have been on Kevin Matthews. He's the Master of Many Genres, and I've seen him do everything from slam to avant-garde. He's good at brevity and epigrammatic wit. And I know from his slam poems that he can do funny and perceptive at the same time. I'd have backed Kevin. And, when it came down to the final four, he was in the ranks.
|Final Four: Uncle Kevin, K.G., Sean O'Gorman, Rock Howell.|
And, as it turned out, K. G. took the last bout. To cries for mercy from the audience, Brad popped Kevin's balloon: then the audience called for a victory haiku from K. G., which he read from his chapbook. (He also insisted on having his balloon popped as well, while the audience shouted, "Let him keep it!" But I thought it was fitting the whole pseudo-bushido atmosphere. All things are ephemeral, even victory: they all dissolve into a small, limp film of red rubber. We live and die by the pen.)
Many things were good about this night. The novelty and fun of a new form of show, the sense of humor, Brad's sumo-referee style of hosting, and the revelation of how flexible and living the haiku is. Kevin and I were talking about modern haiku on the break. He said that while you think of traditional haiku as evoking nature, for many people now, going online is like going for a walk. So, once you're there, surfing around on the web, if you look around, you see things you can turn into haiku everywhere.
And there really is a skill to making such a limited number of syllables sound natural, and cause the audience to guffaw, murmur, or sigh.