I watch a lot of pro wrestling, and I wish more poets I knew watched it, too. And it isn’t just because there’s something to the populist trickle-down (or trickle up? or trickle sideways?) way art works; Street art at Christie’s, haute cuisine based around fried foods and the processed cheese of youth raised between storefronts and screens.
To really love pro wrestling is not just to engage a spectacle or immerse oneself in a unique performance of entertainment, but to understand a history of American performance art, to study the television’s rise as the vanguard storytelling medium, and to trace the roots of the American diaspora of the traveling carnival, itself diasporic, from town-to-town menagerie of characters, codes, and languages to publicly shared companies and unique streaming servies. Gabe Sapolsky, the current owner of indie wreslting promotion EVOLVE and former head of Ring of Honor, told me, “The internet did a lot for wrestling. On the one hand, it let in a lot of people who never would have had a chance. It let them reach audiences they wouldn’t have been able to before. But it also let in a lot of people who had no business being there.” To really get the essay going by turning back on the premise, the biggest different between poetry and pro wrestling are drawing lines about who should or should not “be there.” Unlike wrestling, poetry’s accessible catharsis MAKES fans producers. To be a wrestler, well, you need to get in the ring. You need to get the crap beaten out of you until you literally learn the ropes. It’s possible to be a poet and to write poetry without ever having to roll out of the ring vomiting from exhaustion and injury. But there is still pain. I’ve been saying to Michael Seidlinger for months that CCM was like wrestling’s famed ECW: Small on budget, big on exposing new, emergent talent, giving opportunities to longtime poets who never had books out on major presses or breathing new life into discontinued works and showcasing new, cutting-edge poets who will, if they keep on keeping on, inherit the mantle.
But the mantle is something always changing and expanding in all directions, and while traditions sustain it, innovation grows and develops it. It speaks to the world this way.
I wish more poets I knew loved pro wrestling so we could talk about it!
PRO WRESTLING AND POETRY ARE ALSO BOTH ABOUT THE LIMITS AND AMAZING RELIANCIES OF THE BODY
On yet another pro wrestling podcast I listened to on Lake Shore Drive headed to the Water Tower Loyola campus while cars, unmoving, honked wildly and unreletingly at each other, former half of the iconic tag team The Road Warriors, Animal, told the grim, gritty story of his partner, Hawk, breaking his leg badly in Japan, flying home, cutting the cast off in the back, taping garden stakes, with help from “the boys in the back” around the leg, then putting on his boot over it to get out and wrestle a grueling, terrifyingly high risk scaffold match. Suspended above the ring, someone had to fall to their doom. “If you didn’t work, you didn’t get paid!” And in a slanted way, sort of like the way a shadow beads off something depending upon where the light hits it, poetry is this way. Working through trauma, through agonoy, and through all conceivable manner of exhaustion. Like wrestling before it and today, poets travel with little money and for little money, driven by intrinsic desire to do the thing. The indie leagues—the territories of yore—are the new small presses.
Art within artists is an impulse or an urge difficult to actually explain because it supercedes language itself. Imagine letting water out from behind a dam and watching that water fill canals. Imagine the poet on the road with a trunk full of their books. Imagine the wrestler driving from town to town, even between the stadium opulence of WWE’s slick product, hovering like shadows, people with pains and feelings, laborers behind the constructs of their work.
Poetry may be text, but text is an adjunct to being moved.
Poetry is so often about the body. The only house we know. The only tangible vessel, full of logic and mysticism. Wrestling is this way. The narrative is like the flowing blood and tender muscle. The match itself, the spots, the bell to bell, the skin. Where does structure meet learning? At what point do our feelings have physical composition? In composition class, I’m having students read Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. If we are so moved, are we speaking to idealized forms? Or do those forms take shape in the visible, touchable, smellable reality from which content springs? And the body:
Did we do the reading?
Are we capable of self-governance?
Socrates says, in Crito, “could we live with an evil and corrupted body?” Of all the things I say to Carleen about wrestling, I find myself most often and exhasperatly talking about how much it hurts these guys. When Finn Balór was injured taking an errant outside the ring throwing powerbomb into the baricade, I couldn’t explain the way it made me sad. From the performance of your life on the biggest stage to the shelf, and while recovery is likely, it’s never guraenteed. The only guarantee is that the body is finite during its placement in this world. I’ll go a step further: the body is finite during its place in the world.
GESTURES AND SPOTS
Watch a really high-energy pro wrestling show, especially an indie one…watch performers that do an intricate series of counters, dives, flips, and moves that drop one another on their heads. And see if you don’t get tired. Pro wrestling isn’t really about the high-octane in-ring content at all, but the subtleties. The lines that lead to lines in poetry. The line breaks, the enjambment. The way a wrestler runs his thumb through the top of his tights—tired, in control, taking a breather, adjusting to continue. Daniel Bryan, former WWE Champion and Wrestlemania main eventer, said in his autobiography, “John Cena told me that it isn’t about how you hit your finishing move, but about what you do BEFORE the move.” Watch faces. Watch eyes.
Weirdly, “you haven’t earned this,” a common poetry-workshop critcism, applies more aptly to wrestling. “Wait, you’re in a match where you’re trying to win by pinfall or submission, and you’re diving out of the ring with a flip onto another person, then acting like it didn’t hurt you at all?” Earning here isn’t economic; earning is about logic, but it’s a logic that propped up by gestures and constraints.
Famed commentator and former Vice President of Talent for the WWE, Jim Ross, said that “wrestling was once ‘holds based’ and is now ‘moves based.’ Poetry was a lot like this, too. Consider the ways poetry has been taught, or at least what canonical work continues to be taught; today’s poetry is so often anchored in specific lines, memorible moments in the spirit of the embedded. Maybe less about the deeply-individual-that’s-somehow-universal epic that find humanity’s place in the ineffable pockets and corners of the wilderness. America is so big. We have so many roads to adventure. You can still get lost. Pro wrestling, with its regionalist styles, schools, and major purveyors, might as well be publishing culture. Or it’s a content culture thing, at least.
AN ANNOYING THING
Sometimes, when it comes up that I’m obsessed with pro wrestling, more outgoing people will snap into their “announcer voice,” usually a higher-pitched version of their own voice: “HE’S GOING FOR THE ATOMIC SLAM!” “TOP ROPE ELBOW! LEG DROP! OOOOH YEEEEAH!” Which is fine, I’m not going to be an asshole about charicaturing something so overtly flamboyant (and totally dependant upon that flamboyancy, because flamboyancy is a risk). Wrestling can conjur up the weirdest bargain bins of bright, dated pop culture. Masked goofballs in capes; juiced-up, googly-eyed nutcases screaming about what they’re gonna do to you when they get you in that ring!
But these images are frustrating because, as a poetry person, I immediately get hung up on the connection I sometimes here from non-poets about what poets are: the fedora-wearing, wine-sodden bards (read: out of touch white people) writing odes N’ elegies to nature, to The Muse, possibly carrying around typewriters. And their audiences–
Poetry is flamboyant by virtue of risk. How colorful the attire is is up to the poet.
The truth is that the worlds of producers and fans is a world that is round and complex, flavored locally and nationally, colored by its production and where it’s produced, full of its own mythology and characters that expand it. Wrestling culture is forever changing, just like poetry is, and so are the roles of the artist, even as they continue to function today as barometers for the cultural climate.
BEHOLD!: THE POSTMODERN FANSCAPE
Pro wrestling, like poetry, now hinges on the experience, meaning the fans, more than ever. I listen to so many pro wrestling podcasts in my car. So many. Some from great minds historically associated with the business…names everyone who even knows a speck about pro wrestling can identify: Stone Cold Steve Austin. Chris Jericho. Jim Ross. Taz (I wouldn’t wish listening to this show on anyone. It’s like if Howard Stern and his production crew/sound effects board got locked in bunker after the apocalypse with nothing else to do but entertain themselves to death). Eric Bischoff. But one episode featured Kevin Owens, former indie darling Kevin Steen, the current WWE Universal Champion on RAW. Owens is like a beloved indie writer working his way to a National Book Award, a Ben Lerner. In fact, ANY wrestling title belt, however big or small, works the same as a poetry award; indie companies have their top, secondary, and tag titles. Poetry has Pushcarts and Best of the Net. We are all plying our trades in the subjective, highly crafted arts, and awards represent microscopes for examination more than finality. He said that he and other top stars aspire to be like Roman Reigns, the heavily hyped, heavily pushed, heavily (feeling) manufactured poster boy for WWE in the last few years. “Boo him or cheer him, people are so loud. Being in the ring with him, you’re hit with all that sound. I want to be like that,” Owens told Chris Jericho. In fact, smaller companies rely on storylines ABOUT mobilitiy to the big-leagues of the WWE. The bigger audiences. The wider readership. The polarity!
Booing and cheering who and how on a personal quest of authenticity within authenticity; the same guiding principles behind publishing friends and family, or voting for Clinton or Trump based on emotions or folk wisdom or indirect lessons. We are moving away, waving farewell like a ship from land, from narratives of good vs evil and into the inky, muddled, unpredictable waters of the self. Booing and cheering is often about faith vs. evidence or how belief itself plays out—and through—us all. Fans chanting “THIS / IS / AWE / SOME” or “FIGHT / FOR / EV / ER” are tantamount to poets sharing one another’s work: “This is lit.” “This is truth.” “And I’m crying.” “And I’m dead.” In an indirect world full of indirect messages, performance art and text that illict real feelings indirectly are real.
To be a “star,” or a familiar name, is to be polarizing today. It is not the cheers or the boos, but the noise—the noise of all pitches that makes a space—we covet and find ourselves within. The narratives of good vs. evil and the 256 gradient scale therein does not match the millions of gradients in the complex struggles between how we find the shades of good and evil, excuses, identities, and forms, within ourselves. And others: Argue this, please…you cannot separate artist from art in 2016. That doesn’t mean that the artist needs to be pure, but they can’t be removed from their work. The artist is the authentic rock in the journey THROUGH the art. Social media isn’t just about complaining, venting, and sharing. It’s about your own journey, and in this way we are commodities, brands, and wrestling characters with behavior indicators and familiar move sets. This move sets up this bigger move. This is how I go flying out of the ring. In poetry, countless examples of the artist being juxtaposed to the work to determine what is problematic get shared and human mic’d again and again on social media. But I’ll call out only one example here, a worst case scenario: Chris Benoit. The professional wrestler whose work in the ring was unparalleled, whose intensity was unmatched, and whose brutal crimes and suicide see him as a black spot on the industry and a sobering reminder-through-omission of how content shapes history and how some lines demand to be drawn. It is the fans who, by embracing a front-room audience and backroom culture of input, become both part of the art, a justice system of rating, scales, measures, love, and disdain, within it.
POSTMODERN FANSCAPE SPRAWL’D ON, or SOME EXAMPLES:
–The backstage region supersedes or is on par with the front; like poetry stories about presses or individuals feuding, being called out, or telling road stories, wrestling works in similar manifold ways. Currently, I’m experiencing TNA’s morphing from TV and PPV wrestling showcase to affidavit emails and unsealed court documents regarding lies about company finances, misuse of sensitive information, and Billy Corgan, former Smashing Pumpkins frontman, wanting to take control of everything.
-Anne Carson, a poetry figure for whom the Red Sea parts, is The Undertaker of poetry. There is only one. There is a timelessness to their unique brilliance. There is a cross-generational resonation. There is a respect for the greats that came before living through each.
-The rise of James Ellsworth, the chinless jobber and ridiculous meme sensation who began as fodder for giant beast-man Braun Strowman but became, because of social media, a one-man Sysiphician quest to overcome impossible odds in the form of getting spotlight—ANY spotlight—let alone matches with AJ Styles, the WWE Champion, on Smackdown Live. Ellsworth’s fascinating look (and OFFSPRING TATTOO!) and endless social media/media rounds humility makes him a hyper-real underdog, so unlikely he’s perfect for wrestling, so uniquely ambigious he’s star material. He’s a representative figure as an overnight senesation. He looks like any dope like you and me sitting in the stands, eating popcorn and possibly listening to Deftones on tape in his car. Like opera, which I wish I knew more about, Ellsworth represents a clown figure, loveable, identifiable fodder for whom the audience roots but whose hopeless bumbling advance critical storylines. I think about the clown from Dr. Faustus. There are likely a million examples.
-The astronomical beauty of the Cruiserweight Classic, the WWE Network-exclusive showcase of “talent under 205 lbs. from all over the world” competing to be the first-ever Crusierweight Champion, but really about the brutal reality of trying to make it to the WWE. The brutal reality of having your hard work acknowledged and justified by the the main publishers of it and archivists of its history. Brian Kendrick, cheating every way he could to win, but falling short to Kota Ibushi, then crying in the ring, older, broken, and possibly never getting that redemptive chance to return the company that let him go over a decade earlier. Cedric Alexander, also falling to Kota Ibushi, a young kid who worked his way in, being met with chants of “PLEASE SIGN CE-DRIC” and a thumbs up and nod on the ramp by Triple H, the backstage mastermind behind the tournment, thumbs upping the crowd. It was unscripted and it made me cry. To be acknowledged. An ancient lesson: Respect is earned. It might not be the wellspring of poetry’s power, but it’s the driving force. To toil and to falter; to become the legendary selflessness that moves others as you were so moved. To be documented and remembered within the times…and beyond them.