Poetry Bouts

Anne MacNaughton
Peter Rabbit

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Abbreviated History of Poetry Bouts

The principals of Lucid Performance, Peter Rabbit and Annie MacNaughton, staged the first sanctioned Poetry Bout—entitled the World Heavyweight Championship™—at the inaugural Taos Poetry Circus in August of 1982.

They had read in Ed and Jennifer Dorn’s Rolling Stock about poetry fights happening in a Chicago bar. Chicago poet and writer Al Simmons, a student of Ted Berrigan’s and Ed Dorn’s, and bartender at the Oxford Pub, had devised a way of settling loud-mouthed spats between poets. He organized the first official Poetry Bout between Jerome Salla and Jimmy Desmond in 1980.

Modeled on a boxing match, it was held in someone’s loft. Later a rematch staged at Tut’s bar attracted an audience of hundreds. The Stone Wind City Poets continued to stage occasional Poetry Bouts at the Déjà Vu Club and Get Me High bars in North side Chicago (influencing Marc Smith to develop poetry slams at that venue five or so years later).


Peter Rabbit Bout announcer.

Rabbit contacted Simmons and invited him to help with the World Heavyweight Championship Poetry Bout. Simmons sent Terry Jacobus, also a student of Berrigan’s and Dorn’s, to challenge the inimitable Gregory Corso, “Captain Poetry” himself, whom Rabbit had invited from Naropa’s Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder.

There would be 10 rounds, each poet reading one poem per round. There was no prize other than an original trophy, cast at Shidoni Foundry www.shidoni.com. Fees paid to the poets would be the same for each. The goal was to pay the poets—that they be paid at all being innovative at the time, and more so the attempt to pay them reasonable performance fees. The producers weren’t so much invested in who won or lost as they were in a quality reading series: the “winner” would be invited back the following year to defend the Title.
[photo of Jacobus in Bout 1982]

Barely a hundred paying customers showed up that night and most had come to hear Allen Ginsberg, who performed with his partner Peter Orlovsky on the first half of the bill. After a bizarre, calamity-filled five-round performance in the first-ever iteration of the event, Jacobus was summarily declared the World Heavyweight Champion.

Mayor Fred Peralta awards "The Max" trophy to the Shermanator,
2000 World Heavyweight Champion Poet!

The participants in all twenty WHC Poetry Bouts were all seasoned professional poets, the cream of late twentieth century poetry—of all races, backgrounds and ages. And the WHCPB became the “Main Event” of the annual Taos Poetry Circus throughout the remainder of its 22-year existence.

Initiated as an audience-development ploy, the WHCPB provoked a renewed national interest in poetry as it grew throughout the 1980s to become a premier American literary event. The “Main Event” helped to spark the later so-called spoken word movement. This innovative performance event received mentioned in the textbook Communications which featured the WHCPB in a chapter on “Poetic Interpretation.” And there have been spin-offs, of which the famous poetry slam form of amateur competition is one. Another is Tag Team Poetry, modeled on pro wrestling teams. www.minorheron.org

Judges before the Bout!

Since that first sanctioned Poetry Bout in 1982 there have been a few tweaks to the formula. In 1988, the 7th Round was tweaked with what is now the “free form rule,” allowing poets to add music or other accompaniment to their poems for that Round. In 1989, the “Waldman rule” was created, capping delivery time for a poem at five minutes. Otherwise the concept remains the same: ten rounds, twenty poems, a ring, a ring girl, a bell, a timekeeper, a referee, two excellent poets, and a fine poetry reading.

Want More Details?

Official Regulations for the Conduct of Poetry Bouts

Sanctioned Bout Information

Exhibition Bout Information

History of Bout Poets



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