Friday, February 22, 2008

Poetry Friday: Boxing, Poetry (and Water Afterwards)

I had a joyous day earlier this week, donning my boxing gloves and pounding away at the heavy bag in the back corner of my gym. Bad Moon Rising was blasting from my iPod; I was wearing pink and feeling strong; the more I hit the bag, the more I felt as if I was going to lift off the ground and fly.

For those of you who've never boxed, let me say that it isn't about anger. At least not for me. It's about rhythm and control, and that sound...the thwack of my gloves popping against the bag. It's also about getting my whole body to work together, so I can put every bit of my strength into one concentrated punch. Focus and power---that's what boxing means to me. (I love this essay, too, by Robert Flanagan, "What he learned in boxing," in which he says "gym work -- skip rope, medicine ball, light bag, heavy bag -- was like saying the stations of the cross, a penance for weakness, yet giving you hope of being redeemed.")

So what does this have to do with Poetry Friday?

I wanted to find a poem about boxing that expressed what I felt. I haven't found one yet. (I may have to write it.) Most of the poems I found were about blood and being in the ring, something I've never experienced, and might never want to. (Big conflict avoider, that's me.)

But I did run across something amazing that I wanted to share: the World Heavy Weight Championship Poetry Bouts. It's just what it sounds like---two poets enter the ring and duel with poetry, until one is declared the winner by the judges. Poems instead of punches. Cool. Wait until you hear who was competing not too long ago.

Here's the scoop:

The Taos Poetry Circus ended its run after 22 years in 2003. The World Poetry Bout Association, which ran the World Heavyweight Championship Poetry Bout ("The Main Event") during the circus, disbanded. But remnants of the circus exist, including video footage of the 10-round bouts, and this archived article from the NY Times: Bouts of Poetry (the Stress is on Beat,) published June 21, 1994.

"...the circus included readings by several American Indians, like Sherman Alexie, a 27-year-old poet from Spokane, Wash., of the Coeur d'Alene tribe. In a bout on June 9, he read several works, including "Song," which speaks of adolescence on the reservation:

I remember all your names, Indian girls I loved, Dawn, Loretta, Michelle, Jana, Go-Go, Lulu, all of you Spokane Indian princesses who never asked me to slow dance

To the music

That always found its way

Into the tribal school."

Four years later, in 1998, Sherman Alexie won the World Heavyweight Championship Poetry Bout, and went on to win three more times, until he "hung up his gloves" in 2001. Here's a picture of him with the trophy.

No wonder he wrote about fighting in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. And even though he's won other major grants and recognition over the years, I still marvel that it took from at least June, 1994, when he was reciting that poem, until last November, 2007, before his work about the exact same subject---adolescence on the reservation---won another championship bout, the National Book Award for Young People's Literature. (Read more about why he decided to write for young adults here.)

I'm seriously thinking of springing for the $29 it costs to buy a video tape of one of his bouts. Or maybe I can get a motivational tape of his voice to listen to while I smack the bag and compose poetry, punch by punch, line by line, at the gym and in that fighting corner of my soul.

Now for the water I promised you when we were done...

From his collection, "One Stick Song":

by Sherman Alexie

I know a woman
who swims naked
in the ocean
no matter the season.

I don't have a reason
for telling you this (I never
witnessed her early morning
dips into the salt) Read the rest here.

Poetry Friday is hosted today by its founder, Kelly Herold, at Big A, little a.


  1. The POetry Bouts sound very cool! I'm going to check them out.

    I heard Alexie speak last year and read a few poems, though he he mostly talked about Absolutely True.

    I've been meaning to check out more of his poetry and haven't. Thanks for this reminder.

  2. Fabulous post! Poetry bouts sound very cool, and Alexie's poems rocked big time. Thanks for the enlightenment (and the water).

  3. Now I understand where those strong shoulders come from (and all along I thought you wrote very vigorously!).

  4. Feel free to put some of your poems on my website. It would be an honor boxer chick.

  5. Poetry bouts. Who knew?!?!! Awesome post, Sara...

  6. This poem is more about endurance, I think, but have you ever read "Save Me Joe Lewis" by Gabrielle Calvocoressi ( I love that poem. My favorite lines:

    but it's like spoons dropping in kitchens:
    enough to make someone look up,
    not enough to get them moving.

  7. Great post, Sara! I guess one could say you never pull any poetry punches.

    I love that poem by Sherman Alexie. I wish I had a children's poetry sparring partner.

  8. Tag! You're it!
    Hi Sara...
    It's almost the weekend, so...
    I've tagged you on my blog for "5 Random Things about me."
    Ever played?...

    Stone Stoop

    Kim Norman

  9. Adrienne, love that poem. Thanks for that.

    My shoulders are very sore today, by the way. Ooouch.

  10. I just read Part Time Indian last week and found it "two parts broken heart and one part hope". That Alexie! And Poetry Bouts? You keep amazing me girl.

  11. This is an awesome post! I'd love to hear Sherman Alexie read this poem.

  12. I'm really enjoying your blog, and now I'm in New York - where there are bookshops unlike Marrakech where there aren't(!) I can pick up
    May I add you to my blog roll?

  13. Of course, Elizabeth. Add away. I hope you can find Rapunzel in NY, but you can always order it if it's not on the shelves near you.

    Quite a shock from sunny Marrakech to frigid NY, I'd say. I hope you have fun!

  14. I never thought of boxing that way before. Thanks for the change in perspective!

  15. I'm late in getting to this, but poetry bouts? Hands down, the neatest thing I've read in a while.

    And, man, I love that Flanagan quote.

    Jules, 7-Imp


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