Elaborate belts, ridiculous costumes, fabricated rivalries, convoluted story lines. They’re all part of Rob Sturma’s vision for Extreme Championship Poetry, staged the fourth Friday of each month at the IAO Gallery. Tired of stale readings rife with petty politics, he created ECP as a way to present the earnest soul of slam poetry through the colorful, absurd lens of pro wrestling.
“Slam, at its best, is one-on-one combat when two poets really duke it out,” he said. “I thought it might be fun to take professional wrestling — which was a very theatrical, combat venue — and adopt it to poetry, giving it that extra artifice and theatricality. But the poetry will always be real, never gimmicky or fake.”
Like the sport, the outcome is often forced to meet the needs of ongoing story lines, but the competition is not planned. Competitors choose poems based on the mood of the room and as a response to the other poet’s performance.
The ridiculous antics, haiku trash-talking and liberal lobbing of in-character literary references created a uniquely approachable and raucous event at July’s ECP. Participant Jack Tapestry said as long as the poets do their jobs, the words shouldn’t be overwhelmed by the spectacle.
That is what the spirit of slam is: getting the audience involved in poetry.
“You’re presented with the stage persona … but then you see the real stuff: me, my heart, my soul, my words,” Tapestry said. “You take the hyperbole you see all night, and then you get the words. If a poet goes up there and nails it, no matter what else happened that night, the room will shut down, every time.”
A performer’s ability to build audience expectations and then exceed them is what Sturma believes makes pro wrestling special. In that spirit, ECP offers poets a chance to build a “heel” who is reviled all night long, and then earn redemption with one heart-shattering poem.
Lauren Zuniga admitted being hesitant when she initially heard about the concept, especially since she was expected to come up with her own character. She warmed up after hearing how heavily ECP would rely on crowd participation, whether by voting, heckling or holding signs.
“That is what the spirit of slam is: getting the audience involved in poetry,” Zuniga said. “Going to poetry readings, they are usually quiet and timid. That was the whole idea behind slam: trying to find a way to get people interested and talking about what makes for a good poem.”