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  • Basque Oral Poetry Championship
  • John Miles Foley

Imagine selling 13,025 tickets for oral poetry. Imagine further an entire 6-7 hours of live performances broadcast on regional television as they happen, with excerpts, summaries, and expert commentary on national television. Imagine a one-day event––the final act in a multi-stage, four-year, Olympian drama of qualification and elimination––galvanizing ethnic, national identity to a degree unparalleled virtually anywhere in the world. Imagine the confluence of all of these phenomena and you have the Bertsolari Txapelketa,1 the national championship of bertsolaritza, the improvised contest poetry from Basque oral tradition, which took place in Barakaldo, Spain, on December 18th, 2005.

The rules for competitive bertsolaritza are at once straightforward and extremely demanding. An emcee reads a topic or prompt to the contestants, who then have a few seconds––usually less than a minute––to assemble an 8-12-line poem along the pattern of a prescribed verse-form that also involves a rhyme scheme. Melodies are chosen from among hundreds of traditional tunes. In other words, poets must fit their unique, never before realized ideas into a highly complex framework of rules and patterns, and they must accomplish all these tasks concurrently in extemporaneous performance. That's a lot of balls to keep in the air all at once, so bertsolariak must be expert jugglers. (Speaking of balls, organizers chose a rolled-up ball of paper with words scribbled on its strips as the icon for the 2005 championship.)

I heard three explanations of this memorable image, all purportedly from the mouths of the oral poets themselves. Some people saw it as a symbol of the transience of the oral poem, carefully constructed and delivered but then discarded like trash; the moment of performance was what mattered, they said. The poem lived as an experience in time, not as a timeless artifact. A second group suggested an opposite perspective on the process but a similar basic concept, namely that the ball represented a nest of ideas opened up in performance, so that individual words became actual poetry only during the process of singing––only as the ball was unrolled. The third explanation held that these balls of paper/poetry were in fact the bertsos, the poems themselves, tossed back and forth between dueling competitors. As we shall see, this last interpretation reflects the direct verbal combat that lies at the heart of bertsolaritza.

As the opening session of the championship final began, and amid energetic strains of techno-pop that flooded the arena, the eight finalists marched to the stage. To honor these heroes [End Page 3] of oral poetry-making, let me name them in an "epic catalogue" in the order they appear in the photo below (left to right):

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  1. 1. Igor Elortza Aranoa

  2. 2. Andoni Egaña Makazaga (the current and three-time champion)

  3. 3. Jon Maia Soria

  4. 4. Amets Arzallus Antia

  5. 5. Sustrai Colina Acordarrementeria

  6. 6. Aitor Mendiluze Gonzalez

  7. 7. Maialen Lujanbio Zugasti (the 2001 runner-up)

  8. 8. Unai Iturriaga Zugaza-Artaza

Seven men, one woman (Maialen)––a reflection of the fact that this oral tradition has, until recently, been primarily a male genre, but also a sign that more and more women are performing, and performing very well. In this and many other ways bertsolaritza is adapting to and documenting social change.

To get a sense of the strong cultural underpinnings, it is important to take account of what didn't actually occur on December 18th, but serves as the crucial background for the quadrennial ritual––the 47-month backstory, if you like. In fact, even the regional competitions that serve as the opening rounds of progressive eliminations, gradually yielding the chosen eight for the finals, themselves represent only a part of that backstory. To understand the power and presence of bertsolaritza, we need to realize that the art and practice of oral poetry is woven very deeply into the fabric of Basque society, in both formal and informal settings and on a virtually everyday basis. Perhaps the most intimate of such settings is the ubiquitous "bertso-dinner," a city or village ritual that features a...

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