Many poetry readings are pleasant, predictable affairs – a host/hostess serves as facilitator and runs an open mic period before introducing a featured poet. Sometimes, the feature goes first and the open mic follows. Sometimes, the reading will be a collection of readers whose work has some connection: all published in the same journal, all reading on the same theme, etcetera. On the other side of the spectrum, poetry slams are the full-contact version of readings. Poets perform with time deadlines, receive scores and feedback from a very vocal audience and judges, and a winner is announced. There are slam competitions all over the country, and the best slam poets hone their performances over time, even developing the equivalent of “greatest hits.”
But what about formats that fall somewhere in between the two? One such format that I have experienced in the Chicago area is called the Poetry Pentathlon, hosted by the Chicago poetry collective Waiting 4 the Bus. Besides producing a print journal called Exact Change Only, this group hosts two monthly Monday readings, usually with an announced “theme” for the Open Mic followed by a featured poet. They also sponsor a First Friday reading series that showcases four or five poets selected by guest hosts. But they also try to expand the boundaries of traditional readings in many ways, and the Poetry Pentathlon is one of them.
Here’s how it works: poets who sign on to compete are given five prompts to complete about four weeks before the event. (The assignments for the past two years have included a form poem, a rant poem, and a revision of a piece from verybadpoetry.com, along with two other prompts.) On the evening of the reading, poets compete in rounds for each prompt, and three judges from the local poetry community score them on a scale from 1 through 10. There is an atmosphere of friendly competition and genuine camaraderie among the participants, the audience members, and the judges. Yes, it’s a competition, but it is more about enjoying the words and the experience.
Compared to a traditional reading, it is an interesting twist to see how poets respond to the same prompts in radically different ways, and the audience gets an evening of poetry that shows off the writers’ skills with both page and stage. (It is only fair to mention that I was a participant the first year, and I signed on mainly to hone my performance skills. I ended up – to my surprise – winning bragging rights in that first competition and served as a judge for the second pentathlon this past September.)
If, as previous posts have discussed, fear is an element that prevents the poet from reading, perhaps a friendly, competitive structure that levels the playing field by having all participants share work created strictly for the competition is way to jump in with both feet. What do you think? How could competition encourage (or discourage) poets to read their work in public?