When I moved to Tallahassee to start graduate school at Florida State, I found myself, for the second time in my life, a watcher of professional wrestling. When I was a kid, my mother and stepfather rented all the big Pay-Per-View’s, and I sat enthralled as my favorite wrestler, Stone Cold Steve Austin, crushed countless beer cans together above his head, foam raining down over his working-man tanned arms and leather vest, while stadiums full of fans cheered in approval. Then in ’98 Austin drove a Zamboni into the arena in Detroit on Monday Night Raw, rammed the stage, and dove over the top rope at Vince McMahon.
I was dumbfounded. As security placed Austin in handcuffs and marched him through the backstage toward a cop car waiting in the parking lot, I kept thinking, they can’t take him to jail. They just can’t. Not once did I consider who let him drive the thing in the first place, how McMahon just happened to be in the exact right position for Austin to tackle him, or why so many “officers” were already in place. Instead, I yelled at the television, too young to understand how well Jim Ross was selling that bit, and how much planning went in to pulling it off.
I marked out. I marked out hard—
Coming to wrestling the second time, in the company of seasoned veterans who also happened to be Comp/Rhet. scholars, was a far departure from my previous spectating experience. I was inundated with terminology, tips for card predictions, etc. We talked finishers, jobbers, promo spots, kayfabe, and meta-narratives. As a result, I could no longer look at it the way I had when I was younger. The mystery was gone; the curtain pulled back, the apparatus revealed.
At first, this was disheartening. How could I cheer a shallow victory? How could I boo a heel that was only following a script? I needed to believe he deserved it. I couldn’t just boo without justification. I spiraled into a full on wrestling induced existential dilemma, and soon realized that I had to adjust my vantage point. I read Reddit threads, listened to those who knew more than me, and started to appreciate the moving parts: the calculus of a storyline, characterization, and iconography, which made those moments when the show deviated from expectation all the more exciting.
I often approach poems in the same way that I initially approached wrestling; it’s about the suspension of disbelief—the willingness to go along with the poet and trust the reasoning of what they are showing me. The poems that have had left the greatest impressions on me operate in ways similar to an epic match. There’s a battle between oppositional ideologies, each dependent upon the other, each altered and informed by interaction.
When it comes to writing a poem, I’m Attitude Era through and through. I don’t want a poem to be a handshake. I want it to be a fistfight. I want it to be Mick Foley landing head first onto a table after being thrown off the top of the steel cage at Hell in a Cell. I want you see to blood but not the razor blade tucked under my wrist tape. But I also know I have to anticipate the reaction of a reader; that the pacing should be deliberate, the argument clear in order to elicit the desired response. A poem has to be a good technician as well as a good showman. And I’ve gotten better at recognizing my hang-ups: the tendency to barrel toward the ending, forsaking logic for musicality, and many more that I won’t bore you with here. There’s no shortage of new moves to be learned.
Over the past few years, I’ve gone back and rewatched a lot of those iconic matches from my adolescence. And sure, I see the referees calling the minutes, the botches. I know it’s predetermined. But that doesn’t mean it’s fake. It doesn’t matter if I can estimate about how many near-falls will occur, how many signature moves will be executed, etc. If a segment lands, it lands every time.
There’s a common trope in wrestling known as the “hope spot.” It’s the moment in a match when a “good guy” or “a face,” after he’s spent a respectable amount of time being dominated by a heel, a “bad guy,” suddenly mounts a comeback. He hulks up. He rallies. Maybe even lands a few blows. Then the heel strikes once again, high-jacking his momentum, instilling doubt. It’s a beautiful tension builder. And despite the fact that the majority of the audience knows the face will, nine times out of ten, eventually go on to win, it has to look hard-fought, like he earned it. The audience can tell when nothing is at stake.
I have those poems that I read again and again—mostly to see what I can steal. Because when a poem is well engineered, I never doubt it. It lives in the hope spot. I forget the language of line breaks, metaphor, and buy in to the possibility that poetry is a space in which I can confront seemingly oppositional truths: my own perception vs. the unquantifiable experience of others. Sometimes, those truths are reconciled. But even when they’re not, there’s plausibility, a reason they occur, and a reason why it’s important that I engage. Poetry doesn’t exist in a bubble. It’s a distillation of all of our greatest fears, our greatest aspirations. In poetry we may be down, but we’re never out. There’s a chance. Anything can happen in a poem… even a Zamboni. It’s a genre dependent upon a metaphysics that hinges on our capability to embrace feeling first, to stand in disbelief of a reality that doesn’t facilitate our wonder.
And for the record, the result of every “Which Professional Wrestler Are You?” quiz that I’ve taken on Facebook has been Stone Cold Steve Austin. So that’s something.