By Konomi Ishida, U.S. Embassy Intern

Have you ever heard of poetry boxing? It’s when two people recite original poems in a battle on stage to see who engages the audience the most, with judges deciding victory or defeat. Poetry boxing tournaments have been held at various venues throughout Japan. On May 22, 2014, the U.S. Embassy organized a “Tokyo vs. New York” poetry boxing event in Tokyo. Along with many other poetry fans, U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy arrived early in the morning to enjoy the exciting poetry battle between the two teams. Participating as judges were musician VERBAL, Japan Reading Boxing Association President Katsunori Kusunoki, and author Renee Watson (joining from New York via video feed).

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When I hear the word “poetry” I imagine someone holding a book in one hand and reciting poems in a room surrounded by silence, but attending this poetry boxing event totally changed my perception of poetry. The students were like actors on a stage, freely using their bodies to express themselves as they recited their poems. Ambassador Kennedy took photos of the students with her smartphone and congratulated them as they returned to their seats. Her eyes were filled with warmth, just like a mother attending her child’s performance at school.

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One of the Japanese students actually performed karate moves while reciting a poem titled “This Blessed Environment.” It was such a dynamic performance that the audience members couldn’t help gasping in awe. Another student recited a poem titled “Mt. Fuji.” As she recited her poem, she jumped, struck poses, and used facial expressions to convey a deep sense of love and power that could not be expressed through words alone.

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But the students in New York were not to be outperformed. Although they didn’t move around as much as the students in Japan did, there was artistry in their use of words. At times they spoke softly and gently as if telling a story to the audience. At other times they used strong, clear tones. It was deeply moving to watch them express their feelings through poetry in this way.

In the final round, two students were given the topic “future” and asked to improvise by reciting a poem on the spot. Even though they didn’t have much time to compose their poems, both contestants took the audience by surprise with their impressive performances. But it wasn’t only the students that put on remarkable performances. The interpreter who translated the poem improvised by the student in New York (lower right photo) skillfully performed the extremely difficult task of translating poetry on the spot. She didn’t merely translate the words, but accurately grasped the idea the student was trying to convey and expressed it. She contributed greatly to the success of the event.

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Now I’d like to talk about two of the poems that I was particularly inspired by. The first one was a poem called “Vacant” by Jordan Rice of the Bronx. This poem is about Jordan’s father, who had a violent death. His honest words spoken in a slightly melancholy tone went straight to my heart. As he recited the poem, I became mesmerized by the words flowing out of his mouth and began to visualize the scenes he was describing. The sensation was almost like watching a movie.

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The other poem I’d like to mention was “Identity” by Maria Angelica Justiniano Palomino. Her poem received the highest score in the entire event. The author was born and raised in Bolivia. Ever since she moved to Japan, she’s felt as though there were two sides of her struggling to coexist within one body, even though she only has one heart. By reciting her poem in both Spanish and Japanese, she succeeded in giving the audience a very real sense of the conflict brewing within her in just a couple of minutes.

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The results of the event can be viewed in the video below, so please take a look if you’re interested. I hope this will inspire you to express yourself freely and openly like these young people!