Visions of Wheaties Boxes Danced in my Head:
The Second Annual Poetry Olympics
One could not argue with great success that the words poetry and olympics
have often shared the same breath. When hearing the two words together for the first time,
it is tempting to envision months of training, preparation, sweat, and early risings; the
contenders all waking at the crack of dawn, jogging to Odes of John Keats or the Cantos of
Ezra Pound, or pole-vaulting to the sonnets of Christina Rossettithe winning team
with their faces emblazoned on the front of Wheaties boxes, wanting to go to Disney
It was a warm, balmy, somewhat overcast fall afternoon on Saturday, November 13, 1999,
when I made my way from home to The Brooklyn Brewery by ferry, bus, and subway for the
2:00 P.M show. I had my notebook and planned on taking copious notes on the day's
games. There were five schools competing for the title: Brooklyn College, Columbia
University, New School University, New York University, and Sarah Lawrence College. Each
team was composed of five graduate students from each of the schools' respective MFA in
Creative Writing Programs. David Lehman, esteemed poet, critic and teacher, served as the
Master of Ceremonies. Among the judges, to name a few, were Mary Jo Bang, Mark Bibbins,
Fran Gordon, Mickey McDonald, and a young man by the name of Jonah. The official
scorekeeper was poet and writer, Hal Sirowitz, who is also a whiz with math. I kept
expecting to see some kind of Olympic torch but was sorely disappointed. The closest thing
to it was a lit cigarette.
There were four rounds in the competition. The first was Literary Jeopardy,
followed by Dead Poet's Slam, Bad Sonnets, and Instant Haiku. A series of questions were
asked during Literary Jeopardy, the answers to which were often "T.S. Eliot."
Other questions pertained to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ted Hughes, Robert Frost, The Star
Spangled Banner, Villanelles, Sestinas, Yusef Komunyakaa, William Carlos Williams, Czeslaw
Milosz, and Edgar Allan Poe. There was only one question pertaining to the odes of Keats.
Even though this was Literary Jeopardy, the style was more like Family Feud.
I was already having trouble keeping track of the score, so I gave up and had a beer.
My choices were an ale that was as golden as the sun or an orb or some such thing, or a
brew as dark as molasses. I couldn't decide and took a large glass of both. The second
round began, and after sipping the lighter ale, I had a new perspective. This round was
the Dead Poet's Slam, and it was better than Cirque du Soleil. Each of the teams took the
floor in succession for a five or ten minute skit. Brooklyn College brought Walt Whitman
and Marianne Moore back to life. New York University resurrected Sylvia Plath and Ted
Hughes. In the highlight of the day, Emily Dickinson rose from the dead with a drastic
change in persona. Emily D. hiked up her skirt above her knees, tap danced, and belted out
her poems. Columbia University presented the history of poetry through the ages. In only
five minutes they took us from Sappho, through the Elizabethans to the Romantics, the New
York School to the Beats, and from the Confessional Poets to the Language Poets. The New
School performed a fractured rendition of William Wordsworth's "The Bliss of
Solitude" to the bass accompaniment of "Bad to the Bone." Sarah Lawrence
College performed a rendition of Pablo Neruda's "Ode to an Artichoke," complete
with vegetable props. I started thinking I would love a nice baked artichoke stuffed with
bread crumbs and spices.
It was now halftime, and David Lehman gave the teams their Bad Sonnet assignment. The
topic was "If I were Poet Laureate." After finishing the second beer, I thought
Jerry Springer had better watch out in his next contract negotiations. David Lehman could
probably replace him and do a better job, too. During this break in the action, the
winners were announced for The Brooklyn Brewery Art and Poetry Coaster Contest. Michael
Rose won the Art portion of the contest for his oil painting entitled "Triptych of
the History of Beer," and Denise Duhamel won the poetry portion of the contest with
her poem "My First Sip." Everyone was speaking a lot faster than my hand could
write, though I do admit that my tolerance to alcohol is extremely low and two drinks in
the course of a day is more than enough for me.
The teams returned with their Bad Sonnets, and as Jonah, one of the judges put it,
"They were really bad." But Jonah is a practical young man. His mother, fiction
writer/poet Victoria Redel, is also an instructor at Sarah Lawrence College, and Jonah
thought it fit to give the Sarah Lawrence team some sorely needed extra points. The most
popular sonnet was written by the Columbia University team. They very cleverly rhymed the
last word in each line with the last name of our current Poet Laureate, Robert Pinsky.
It was now time for the last event of the competition, Instant Haiku. Each team picked
one member to go to the microphone as their representative. The judges would toss out a
topic, and the player had ten seconds to form an instant haiku. This was perhaps the most
difficult part of the competition, requiring great skill and calm under pressure. The New
School was given the topic of "a white trash picnic." Their team member retorted
with "Give me hot dogs and miracle whip, I want to live with you forever."
Columbia University was given the provocative topic of "spanking." Their player
came up with, "Good enough for Rousseau, good enough for me, I love a good
spanking." Even though they were one syllable over the limit in the first line, the
judges accepted it anyway, and the team earned 58.65 points. Brooklyn College was given
the topic of "not being able to think." They retorted with, "Help me,
Ginsburg, I'm American, I can't think, I can't think, Help me." Sarah Lawrence
College was given the difficult topic of "pantyhose" and came up with, "In
these pantyhose I have seen the night and felt the comfort of the woodchuck." The
last team at the microphone, New York University was given the topic of "spam."
Their team member came up with, "In the red thickness and preservative, I arch my
back to belief."
It was now time for the final tabulation by Hal Sirowitz. David Lehman noted that this
year's last place team had earned more points than the previous year's first place winner.
Brooklyn College placed fifth, The New School placed fourth, Sarah Lawrence College placed
third, New York University placed second, and the first place winner was Columbia
Each player was given a copy of The Best American Poetry 1999, a t-shirt,
and a six pack of beer from The Brooklyn Brewery. The first place finishers would have
their names engraved on The Brooklyn Brewery Poetry Olympics "trophy" so future
Poetry Olympians in the next century would be able to reflect upon this important day,
too. The proceedings and events of the day were recorded and placed in a time capsule, not
to be opened until the year 2099. There were no photos taken for Wheaties boxes, and no
one wanted to go to Disney World. At least if they did, I didn't hear about it.