The Cortland Review


Yusef Komunyakaa
An interview with Yusef Komunyakaa by David Lehman and a reading of some of his finest poems, all in RealAudio.

Chantelle Bentley
Listening for the Whispers Above the Screams: The necessity of poetry in the age of technology.

Daniela Gioseffi
From the Serious to the Silly: A review of three new anthologies of women's writing from the Stone Age to the Present Age.

Renee Bandazian
Visions of Wheaties Boxes Danced in My Head: A report from the Poetry Olympics.

John Kinsella
Next Door to the Racing Pigeon Clubhouse: The next chapter in John Kinsella's continuing autobiographical series.


Renee Bandazian

Renee BandazianRenee Bandazian is a poet and freelance writer who serves as a volunteer in the PEN Prison Writing Project, and with STARTII, an animal rescue organization. She is a student in the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College, and the beloved Managing Editor of our journal.

Renee Bandazian - Poetry Olympics Report


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 Rossetti—the winning team with their faces emblazoned on the front of Wheaties boxes, wanting to go to Disney World. 

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 University.

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.


� 2002 The Cortland Review