Highland Park hosts first-ever poetry pentathlon

Jennifer Dotson, the founder and program director of Highland Poetry, holds a copy of her book,
Jennifer Dotson, the founder and program director of Highland Poetry, holds a copy of her book, "Clever Gretel." | Photo courtesy of Jennifer Dotson.

What started as an attempt to market one book of poems has grown into a unique cultural event that celebrates poets from around Highland Park.

After winning a poetry competition in Chicago last year, author Jennifer Dotson will bring the North Shore its first-ever “poetry pentathlon” at 8 p.m. Friday, June 13, at The Art Center in Highland Park.

“I’d just published my book and was looking for ways to sell copies,” said Dotson, the founder and program director of Highland Park Poetry. So she entered a poetry pentathlon hosted by the poetry collective Waiting 4 the Bus.

“It was cool to win,” said Dotson, whose book, “Clever Gretel,” came out in April 2013. “I got the idea to bring it to the North Shore.”

Once the idea was in her head, Dotson went to work organizing the pentathlon in Highland Park, where she puts on similar programs at least once a month for Highland Park Poetry, giving area poets a place to present their work and meet with peers.

Like an Olympic Pentathlon, this competition has five events, according to Dotson. The six competitors must submit one sonnet ahead of time, bring three poems with them to the event and create another there, based on a prompt.

“Each contestant will be given a subject when they arrive,” Dotson said. “While everyone is listening and cheering, they’ll have to squeeze in some scribbling on the side.”

Besides the sonnet and prompt, each contestant must write a how-to poem, a verse about a famous person and one for someone else to read. Dotson calls that the potluck event.

“This is about performing as well as writing,” Dotson said. “Each person must bring a poem in a sealed envelope. We’ll mix them and hand them out. The points will be split [between the writer and speaker].”

Three judges will award between zero and 10 points for each event, according to Dotson. In potluck, up to five points are given to the author and as many as five to the reader. A perfect score is 150 points.

“This is not a poetry slam,” Dotson said. “It is a judged competition. You can’t bring a posse to help you win.”

The three judges are Charlotte Digregorio, Joanna Kurowska and Amy David, all accomplished, published poets, according to Dotson. David is also experienced with performance poetry.

While Dotson got no prize for her victory last year, she has had a ceramic chalice designed for the winner of the Highland Park event.

“It would be nice for this year’s winner to hand to who wins next year,” Dotson said. This year’s champion also gets an invitation to compete in the Waiting 4 the Bus event, Aug. 29 in Chicago.

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