Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A death match, indeed

Tough sledding in attempt at haiku mastery

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I am feeling bruised and battered in a metaphysical kind of way.

I guess that's the way it goes when you get roughed up by a gang of poets.

I sustained this psychic poetic pummelling Saturday night at the Free Press News Caf© when I took part in the aptly named Haiku Death Match, part of the Thin Air Winnipeg International Writers Festival, which runs at various venues until Sept. 28.

I agreed to be a combatant in the death match because my colleague and buddy Dan Lett, who organizes stuff at the caf©, assured me, and I will quote him directly: "It will be a lot of fun, Doug. You'll love it."

If someone ever says those words to you, I recommend you immediately wallop them over the head with something more substantial than a poem.

The evening kicked off with performances from Winnipeg's slam-poetry team, who are -- and this comes from the heart -- (bad word) awesome. If you ever get a chance to see this cross between poetry and a soccer riot, drop whatever you are doing -- even if it's a baby or a hot cup of coffee -- and go.

This was not a polite evening of quiet, reflective contemplation. This was a sweat-stained night of damn-the-torpedoes, take-no-prisoners, in-your-face, rip-out-your-still-beating-heart provocative poetry.

The way the death match worked was six combatants went head-to-head in a series of bouts, spitting out raucous haiku, with the winner chosen by audience members, who held up paper plates, displaying either the green side or the white side, depending on whose poem they liked best.

For you non-death masters, haiku are 17-syllable poems, with five syllables in the first line, seven in the second and five in the third. Before the match, I spent 30 minutes writing two dozen haiku, taking only one break for lunch.

When the death match began, I quickly realized, in a purely poetic sense, I was in big trouble, because my competitors were dishing up some seriously hardcore haiku. So, while sitting on stage, I quickly pumped up my poems with a few words you will never see in a family newspaper. I'm confident that's what Emily Dickinson would have done had she been in my shoes.

The unvarnished poetic truth is I did better than I expected and -- prepare for a shock -- won a couple of bouts, not because of the quality of my haiku but because I openly begged the audience to take pity on me.

They seemed to enjoy the following haiku -- which, for some reason, I read in an angry German accent -- wherein I adapted my son's favourite joke from when he was in kindergarten: "Two peanuts walking/In dangerous area/One was a salted!"

In the 17-syllable end, the coveted title of Haiku Death Master was bestowed on the hilarious and heartfelt Mike Johnston, 31, a city school teacher who is in his first year on the slam-poetry circuit.

"I think if, on the way home, my wife lets me get ice cream, this will have been the greatest night of my life," Mike humbly told the adoring crowd after taking the haiku crown.

I would like to present one of Mike's haiku for your enjoyment, but it would probably result in me getting fired. Instead, here's a non-spicy one he wrote but didn't read: "I wonder if bumblebees/Ever walk in and say/Honey, I'm home!"

I should also mention that, earlier in the evening, Mike performed a deeply moving poem dedicated to his wife that left everyone in the crowd, including hardened humour columnists, more than a little misty-eyed.

As for my performance, Bruce Symaka, publicist for the Thin Air festival and MC for the death match, had this unbiased review: "It's just 17 syllables to get the audience to love you. I think you begged for the audience's love, and frequently it worked."

Which is why I'll leave you today with my final poetic counterpunch: "Like the Beatles said/In a song: Love, love me do/Because I sure can't haiku!"

doug.speirs@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 23, 2013 A2

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