The idea for the Poetry World Series had its genesis in a reading by Rebecca Foust, Dean Rader, and Melissa Stein that followed an Exquisite Corpse format, each poet reading a poem that somehow responded to the piece read immediately before. Noticing how spontaneity, surprise, and audience engagement enlivened the presentation, we began to brainstorm about ways to incorporate these elements into traditional poetry readings. The goal has always been to find a way to deliver finished, high-quality poetry in a format with the energy, excitement, and audience participation of a poetry slam event.
The San Francisco Giants had just won the World Series in 2010 and were gearing up for other wins in 2012 and 2014, so baseball was in the air in the Bay Area and was a natural tie-in. Our first series was held at the San Francisco Library in 2011 with Why There Are Words founder Peg Alford Pursell as emcee, Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) and Evan Karp as judges, and Robin Ekiss, Troy Jollimore, Ada Limon, Dean Rader, Melissa Stein, and Matthew Zapruder as players. In 2012 the series moved to the Mill Valley Library, and in 2013 the Poetry World Series Litquake edition was added; the series has run annually at both locations since then. Since 2015, the series has also included a Seattle edition.
As time went on we improved and streamlined the format, adding features like celebrity judges, music and special effects, and a live a cappella performance of the National Anthem by Chorum, a Bay Area men’s vocal group. Since its inception, the Poetry World Series has drawn rave reviews and standing-room-only crowds, and it is still going strong. Players are rising poets, mostly from the area in which the series is held. Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), Will Durst, and John Roderick have all been emcees, and judges have included prominent local poets as well as prose writers Susan Orlean, Pam Houston, Cristina García, Tom Barbash, and Bich Minh Nguyen, and “Mac and Murph” radio show personality Brian Murphy. To see a complete roster of participants to date, please visit the Archives page.
Each series event has nine innings and three judging rounds. In each inning, a player from the red team “bats” against a player from the blue team. Instead of pitching balls, though, the emcee pitches prompts and instead of bats, the players wield their poems. The prompts are collected from the audience while they are finding their seats. At the start of each inning, the emcee pitches the prompt, and each poet has three minutes to respond with a poem that in any way relates to it. Time limits are strictly enforced (sometimes with an air horn if necessary!) to keep things moving.
After every three innings, we pause for a judging round so judges can cast their vote for the winner of each at-bat, and the emcee tracks points on our scoreboard. Judging is mostly tongue-in-cheek, with points awarded for style and performance as well as for content. These rounds are fast, funny, and smart. At the end of nine innings and three judging rounds—it usually takes under an hour and a half—points are tallied and the winning team is announced.
Rebecca Foust has written books including Paradise Drive and All That Gorgeous Pitiless Song. The 2017-19 Marin County Poet Laureate, she is the recipient of fellowships from The Frost Place, MacDowell and Sewanee.
Melissa Stein is the author of the poetry collections Terrible Blooms (Copper Canyon Press) and Rough Honey, winner of the APR/Honickman First Book Prize. She is a freelance editor in San Francisco.