On December 8th, 2012, the new lucha libre slam poet champion of Mexico, Miguel Santos, stepped into a ring that had everything one would expect at a lucha libre match: blue and white ropes, a big-screen TV to provide closeups, promoters, announcers, a table of 5 judges, commentators, men wearing masks, and 400 screaming fans. Hortencia Carrasco, the 2010 champion, was waiting for Santos with knee-high black wrestling boots and a stopwatch. On the mic, Carrasco introduced Santos and his opponent, Alejandro Zenteno, as they faced off in the semifinals. Carrasco gave the rules: No throwing opponents to the floor, no rapping, and 3 minutes per poem. A bell rang. The referee gave the signal to start, verse!
Santos, at first shy, avoided the center of the ring. He kept close to the ropes as though they were telephone wires, and his poems wiretaps. It was Zenteno’s turn. Minutes before climbing into the ring, he’d said he was saving his best poems for the championship round. But Santos made sure Zenteno would have to save them for the following year. Opening with “A Clean Fist,” Santos quickly became the audience and judge’s favorite. Zenteno fell in a unanimous decision.
Kevin Mulvaney, a writer for ESPN, once described how boxing compels two strangers to meet, beat each other up, and go their separate ways. A prizefighter contradicted his characterization of the sport. “When you’re alone in a ring with your opponent,” the fighter said, “the two of you become closer than any other people in the world.” Reading Mulvaney, one would think that on the far side of the fist lies solitude. For the victor, it may be true.
At least in the United States, lucha libre doesn’t enjoy the kind of legitimacy that boxing does. Thus, the spectacle, the costumes, and the machismo may seem ill-fitted to serve as inspiration for a meaningful poetry slam. But lucha libre’s history goes deep. In traditional lucha libre competitions, fighters will sometimes wager their mask on a fight. A loss could mean the end of a career. If their identity has never before been revealed, then the loser, according to custom, will state where he was born, who his parents are, and what he hoped to achieve.
In lucha libre, the biggest wagers, the most immediate grounds for disqualification, and even the sport’s defining characteristic all revolve around the mask. David Foster Wallace’s Little Expressionless Animals is often quoted for the author’s characterization of love as an act of removing the mask of the Other:
Say the whole point of love is to get your fingers through the holes in the lover’s mask. To get some kind of hold on the mask, and who cares how you do it.
But, as this sport shows, love does not have a monopoly on responding to Otherness. Defeat in the ring is just as good.
Verso DestierrO, a small publishing house in Mexico City, created the lucha libre poetry slam to showcase a poem all about Otherness. In 2004 its founder, Andres Cisneros de la Cruz, published a poem about two dead writers from different eras who meet in the afterlife. Two well-known literary figures read the parts aloud, one of whom goes down in defeat, forgotten by time. The event was successful, and in 2007 de la Cruz inaugurated the first poetry slams to be held in a lucha libre ring. He wanted to have two poets battle in the ring so that writers would get to know each other better. The ring also attracted people to poetry who might not otherwise have been interested.
The slam combines elements of lucha libre, such as “two out of three falls” to win; and elements of boxing, such as the emphasis on technical ability and victories secured by points awarded by judges. In the six years of its existence, the lucha libre slam poetry tournament has showcased and discovered some of Mexico’s best talent: Hortencia Carrasco; Jorge “La Mole” Manzanilla, chief editor of Grietas; Sandino Bucio, who wrote the manifesto for the popular political youth movement, Yo Soy 132; Guillermo “Rojo” Córdova; Venancio Neria, one of the chief poets of the oral ñahñu tradition in the state of Hidalgo; Guadalupe Ochoa, a leader of the infra-realist group of friends best known for producing Roberto Bolano; Gonzalo Martré, 2010 winner of the prestigious Carlos Pellicer Prize for Poetry; as well as a number of living legends such as Leopoldo Ayala.
For Cisneros de la Cruz, some of the best fun he’s had has been watching the tournament grow and spin off into ‘slams’ in the street and seeing unknown writers, young and old, be discovered and launch their careers. He’s also aware, however, of the risk that this tournament will be seen as ‘kitschy.’ He already sees too many ‘writers’ act more like stand-up comedians. There can be a fine line, but it’s there, de la Cruz seems to emphasize. Verso DestierrO started the tournament because they believed writers will become better for having performed in the ring.
In the US, some of the best slam poetry can be found at places like the Nuyorican in New York City. More than just a place for poetry, it’s a space for people to give testimony to their lives. It is civil society at its best. De la Cruz may be starting in Mexico what Miguel Algarin began with the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and its Braggin’ Rites poetry slams back in the 1970s and ’80s. Santos himself made a call for the audience to step up and continue the tradition: “You come here to listen to the rain but not get wet? To listen to fire but not get burned?”
In her book Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, novelist Margaret Atwood noted, “The story is in the dark. That is why inspiration is thought of as coming in flashes.” Santos’ poetry has plenty of flash. But rather than search in the dark, his poetry searches for its imagery in the past. If his memory had flesh, it may be tanned black from how often the light of his gaze has fallen upon it. The past and memory are central themes in his writing. Speaking of a lost loved one, Santos says, “you are this ancient forest resin, Quetzal rubbing it on my back, his hands whispering No More.”
But not all of Santos’ prose reigns in the ring. Sometimes his subjects are obscured by the very poetic language that has given him his laurels: “The soul vibrates you in a turtle shell,” for example, just falls flat. Thus, in the same way that a car’s headlights can drown out fireflies in the very medium that gives those little creatures meaning — light — so too does Santos’ talent sometimes drown out the object of his gaze.
For Santos, memory is his boxing ring. He is alone there with someone else. But by using poetry to imagine whoever it is — a lost loved one, an enemy, or an anonymous thief — he has created a mask with the very words he would use to describe their face. This is a flaw, and one that future poets are sure to challenge. But as Zenteno would point out, there is always next year.
Visitors to Mexico can expect to see information in the next few months about where and when the tournament will be hosted in 2013. For more details, check the blog torneodepoesia2012 or www.versodestierro.com. The name of the tournament in Spanish is “Adversario en el Cuadrilatero.”
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Danny Thiemann is a J.D. Affiliate at the Center for Constitutional Design. He works as an assistant to documentary filmmakers and human rights litigators. He is the recipient of the Madalyn Lamont Award for Literature (Egypt), an Arthur C. Helton Human Rights Fellowship (Costa Rica), a Milt Steward Global Law Fellowship (India), a short story finalist in Glimmer Train, and a 2012 Global Human Rights Fellowship (Mexico). His writings have appeared in Guernica, Observador Global, and the Minetta Review.
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