The late, great Taos Poetry Circus

From 1982 through 2003, the 'bouts' brought poetry out of the chapbooks and onto the stage

By Lynne Robinson
Posted 4/30/20

'To be a poet is a condition, not a profession."

That quote is attributed to Robert Graves, and if one does in fact have the courage to call oneself a poet, they most probably would agree. It's a heavy weight to bear, and few carry it lightly. So while April (National Poetry Month), draws to a close, we here at Tempo are celebrating all things poesy, and honoring the poets who bring forth the muse's gifts.

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The late, great Taos Poetry Circus

From 1982 through 2003, the 'bouts' brought poetry out of the chapbooks and onto the stage

Posted

'To be a poet is a condition, not a profession."

That quote is attributed to Robert Graves, and if one does in fact have the courage to call oneself a poet, they most probably would agree. It's a heavy weight to bear, and few carry it lightly. So while April (National Poetry Month), draws to a close, we here at Tempo are celebrating all things poesy, and honoring the poets who bring forth the muse's gifts.

And as Taos' live creative scene - music, theater and spoken-word performances - goes digital, the lockdown has also forced us all to slow down in other ways besides. This enforced pause has caused some of us to travel back in time, mining our memory banks for inspiration and clues that might help us chart a new course as we traverse unfamiliar pathways into a most uncertain future. What awaits us, ahead?

Poets have always asked questions such as these, searching for the answers in the labyrinths of their minds, alert to symbols and signs pointing them in the right direction.

"The poet is a liar who always speaks the truth," noted Jean Cocteau. The lies perhaps are rather imaginations that travel further than most care to go, bringing back with them chimera and other fantastical phantoms that may or may not truly exist, except in those uncharted regions where only angels and poets dare tread.

When the world goes dark, poets and the poetry they write rises like cream to the surface; their voices become louder and more often are heard.

"Ring around the rosie,/Pocket full of posies,/Ashes, ashes,/We all fall down." Children all over the Western world grow up hearing this verse, but few realize it was written during the Black Death. It rings through the ages as a reminder. The past and present colliding in that simple verse.

Poetry has extraordinary power, and a true poet understands he or she wields a mighty wand.

"Poetry is not an expression of the party line. It's that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public, that's what the poet does." So said Allen Ginsberg, the great 20th-century American poet, whose epic poem "Howl" became the clarion call for a generation shell-shocked by World War II.

A few decades ago, lucky Taoseños might have seen Allen Ginsberg perform here. The late, great Taos Poetry Circus was in its heyday, a Golden Age when illustrious poets from all over, descended on our little valley year after year.

For decades, in fact, the Taos Poetry Circus brought internationally known poets to perform in New Mexico alongside New Mexico's own poets - Allen Ginsberg, Greg Corso, Patricia Smith, Sherman Alexie, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Saul Williams, Andrei Codrescu, Danny Solis, Amiri Baraka, Anne Waldman, Simon Ortiz, Demetria Martinez, Don McIver, Socorro Romo, Jim Carroll, Victor Hernandez Cruz, John Trudell and dozens more went into the ring to battle it out in the infamous World Poetry Bouts that drew thousands of visitors from all over the world to Taos.

Poet Peter Douthit, who was better known as Peter Rabbit, and his life partner, poet Anne MacNaughton, met in Colorado before moving to Taos shortly thereafter. They settled along with all the other exiles from Main Street America, searching for an alternative to the mundane daily grind of urban life. Their kids grew up and went to school here; the same schools MacNaughton taught in for decades.

Peter Rabbit performed poetry, published several chapbooks and was also a founding member of the jazz-poetry ensemble Luminous Animal. MacNaughton has published her work in several anthologies and was a founding member of Lucid Performance.

After founding SOMOS, the couple continued to expand their literary vision. Chicago's burgeoning spoken word scene that would evolve into slam poetry was certainly an inspiration after they met and befriended the founders. Chicago has arguably been the poetry capital of America ever since Harriet Monroe, a freelance writer for the Chicago Tribune, founded Poetry magazine in the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue--a publication that is to poetry what The New York Times is to journalism.

It brought modernist ideas to the rest of the world by publishing Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and Carl Sandburg before anyone else. And it remains one of the world's most influential poetry publications--and it's still in Chicago.

Inspired by Chicago's thriving spoken word culture, Rabbit and MacNaughton created the Taos Poetry Circus. From 1982 through 2003, they worked tirelessly to bring poetry out of the chapbooks and anthologies (that were, like the political broadsides of the time, the only means of discovering new poets and critical thinkers outside of the mainstream media), and onto the stage.

The "Circus" is remembered fondly by those of us who witnessed and/or participated in it, and its legacy continues in our schools, and with the annual Poetry Festival curated by James Navé, who (like me) was once on the board of the Circus along with Brigid Meier.

The best known of the festival's ongoing reading series was the World Heavyweight Championship Poetry Bout. This improvisational event featured the best poets in a competitive performance staged as a boxing match.

Billed as the "main event" of the Circus, it was presented in 10 rounds, with a boxing ring, referee, bell, ring person and three judges, whose scoring was patterned after the "Illinois Ten-Point Must System." Other events took place all over town in cafés, backrooms and bars during the weekend the Circus came to town, along with the poets, troubadours, storytellers and gypsy bohemians who traveled here with fans and family alike to be a part of the experience.

It was truly a festival apart and set the precedent for all to come. The events, especially the bouts, had a huge impact and influence on modern American poetry, and what came to be known as poetry slams.

Eventually, it became too much for the couple to maintain, and as Rabbit's health began failing, MacNaughton - aside from teaching - had little time for anything else. After he passed away in 2012, she took the time she needed to put their affairs in order and be there for their children.

Last year she teamed up with her old friend Meier to publish Rabbit's last work, an epic poem that centers on the life of conquistador Álvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca ("The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca"). She did a reading from the book at SOMOS, bringing it all back home.

Asked if she'd be up to get the Circus back on its feet, she demurred. "Too much work and too much money," she explained. "I'd consult, though, if anyone was interested."

Any takers?

"Just say I was a good poet," were among Rabbit's last words. I'd add that "he was good for poetry."

To discover more about the Taos Poetry Circus, you can visit the Minor Heron link included here, which contains archives and other material: minorheron.org.

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