Last Tuesday, Toronto Poetry Project held their Annual Haiku Deathmatch. The event took place at Supermarket, and was hosted by Cynthia Gould. The stage was lit with green and blue lighting that spotlighted the participants as they stood on opposite sides of the stage. All seats were filled.
The Deathmatch functioned like this: the poets who had volunteered to participate went head-to-head against each other in a randomly-selected order. The opposing poets exchanged haikus back and forth on stage—verses, rhymes, and foul language were tossed around in the heat of the competition. If my devout Catholic mother had been at this event, she would’ve wanted to wash out the mouths of the participants. But this obscenity was the charm of many participants. The use of crass language and expression of dirty truths about almost anything was rampant. It was a beautiful mess.
The haikus were assessed by a set of judges, who awarded points to the winning haiku of the round. In order for each poet to move forward in the Deathmatch, they had to achieve a predetermined amount of points. In the first round, it was best three out of five; in the second round, it was best five out of nine, and so forth. Any participants using too many syllables had to forfeit a point.
Andre Prefontaine was one of the fan favourites. He was able to garner a roomful of laughs every time he spoke, and dethroned the previous year’s champion. Prefontaine stood out among his competitors, mainly because of his inability to restrain himself from the use of sexual innuendos. For instance, “Gandhi’s testicles/Mother Theresa’s dentures/Worst porno ever.”
The evening wasn’t all obscenities and foul language, though. There were some well-crafted, PG-rated haikus put forth as well. One poet gave the verse, “You are my best friend/I turn to you when I’m sad/Refrigerator.”
As the rounds progressed and participants were eliminated, it wasn’t enough to let them just walk off the stage. Each loser had to perform a mock seppuku (also known as a harakiri), a ritual Japanese suicide by disembowelment. This act was in keeping with the evening’s theme of Japanese traditions. The failed participants pretended to cut their stomachs open with a Hattori Hanzo blade. Gould provided the blade, and would not let the defeated ones leave without a proper exit. Talk about a new meaning to the title, “Deathmatch.”
In the final round, Prefontaine squared off against Anda Zeng. In the final, tense moments of their battle, they were both one point away from walking away victorious. But before the event was over, a bit of controversy was thrown into the mix. The match was extended, as Prefontaine faltered in one of his final haikus and spoke too many syllables. After much debate, the audience, judges, and even Zeng, agreed to disregard the mistake as a technical error. Despite dismissing Prefontaine’s error, Zeng prevailed with the winning haiku: “Brevity grew old/Levity cried in her sleep/Gravity’s smile soared.”
Overall, the Annual Haiku Deathmatch was filled with laughter and many imaginative haikus that were well-received. The participants’ delivery, pacing, and carefully paused moments built tension and anticipation between syllables. The haikus were always met with creative conclusions. The event delivered poetry and comedy, which provided the audience with an enjoyable evening.