On stage at Toronto’s Rivoli club under the merciless glare of spotlights, 25 poets lean intently over desks, scribbling, chewing pens and staring at the expectant audience. They are participants in the Poetry Sweatshop, a lighthearted competition to compose a poem in the unnervingly short period of 30 minutes. The event is the creation of twin brothers Jim and John Coburn, 28-year-old actors, and publicist Fred Hill, who has organized 12 sellout evenings at the Rivoli since early last year. Now they are intent on making it a national phenomenon: Calgary’s first Poetry Sweatshop will take place this week, and Kingston, Ont., staged its first contest earlier this year. Said Hill: “Just as economic health can be measured by the number of housing starts, so the cultural health of Canada may soon be measured by poetry starts.” John Coburn invented Poetry Sweatshop while he was sitting in a Toronto cafe in January, 1983, admiring a young woman at a table nearby. Noticing that she had just begun to write a poem, Coburn dared her to compose the entire
work on the spot. He recalled: “When she finally read what she had written, she was trembling with emotion. She said it was the best thing she had ever done.” Coburn and his co-workers shaped the drama of that moment into Poetry Sweatshop, which begins with 25 poets drawing a page from Roget ’s Thesaurus out of a hat. At the clang of a cowbell they furiously begin composing verses based on a word from the page. Later, a judge chooses 10 finalists who read, sing, chant or croon their creation to the audience. Finally, three winners are awarded $25 each.
The Coburns and Hill have high hopes for Poetry Sweatshop. Indeed, Hill says he foresees a day when the best poetic improvisers from across the country will converge on Toronto for the “Kentucky Derby of Sweatshops.” Meanwhile, Judi Gunter, a publicist who planned the Calgary event for its Public Library, said that she would like to hold a special sweatshop in conjunction with the city’s 1988 Winter Olympics, hoping that some of the athletes might participate. The prospect of Soviet hockey players spouting rhyming couplets is in keeping with the whimsical spirit of the event. The poems created in the pressure cooker of Poetry Sweatshop may not rival Shakespeare’s, but rarely has verse been put to such entertaining use.
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