Wrestling Fear and Poetry

April 29 one-man poetry performance showcases work by Jeff Kass
Jeff Kass

Jeff Kass, rehearsing his poem "Build" at the Liberty Athletic Club.

When Jeff Kass contacted The Chronicle about his upcoming one-man show, “Wrestle the Great Fear: A Performance Poetica,” we were particularly intrigued by this statement in his email: “The piece includes a lot of physicality in the performance, including a great deal of wrestling.”

A one-man poetry performance with a great deal of wrestling? Yep, we were hooked. So we met with Kass recently at the Liberty Athletic Club, where he showed us exactly what he meant.

Kass has been a leader in local poetry circles – he teaches creative writing at Pioneer High and works with the Volume poetry program at the Neutral Zone, where he serves as literary arts director. But this is the first time he’s attempted a full-length, continuous narrative, complete with music, video, directors and intricate choreography. This ain’t no three-minute poetry slam.

Rather, Kass has crafted a play of sorts, shaped thematically by 28 poems that explore the relationship between students and teachers, in all its joy and angst. Kass says his effort is a convergence of several things: 1) a desire to show his former students that there are ways to push your art beyond the poetry slam, 2) the work he’s doing while getting an MFA from the University of Southern Maine, and 3) the realization that much of his current poetry is about students and teaching. He could have compiled his poems into a book, he says, but chose to perform because of his strong emotional attachment to the spoken word.

Annotated poems from the notebook Kass is using as a script.

Annotated poetry from the notebook Jeff Kass is using as a script.

The show looks at what it means to stand up in front of a group of kids, day after day, with the expectation that you’ll deliver to them wisdom and knowledge. The interaction between teachers and students can be like a collision – after it happens, do you retreat into your respective corners, or do you investigate the crash? Kass is all about wrestling with the aftermath.

The wrestling metaphor relates to his own struggles as a teacher, and by extension, to the same challenges that all teachers face: Preconceptions, an unwillingness to make emotional investments, fear of young people. This last one, Kass contends, results in efforts to control kids with dress codes, surveillance cameras, hall monitors and the like – actions that have proved controversial at Pioneer. “To me, that comes from a place of fear,” he says.

Wrestling those fears, plus his own personal fears – of lacking empathy, of not working hard enough, of balancing family and work – informs one layer of the performance.

Jeff Kass

Jeff Kass, rehearsing for his one-man show "Wrestling with Fear: A Performance Poetica."

Kass also evokes the Biblical image of Jacob wrestling the angel after defrauding his brother Esau of his birthright – a story that some interpret as Jacob’s internal battle over his actions. That image is one used on promotional materials for his performance, and Kass notes that “great fear” is one possible translation of the Hebrew word for “angel.”

There’s a literal wrestling connection as well: Kass was a wrestler in high school and, briefly, in college, and coached the sport as well – he notes that there aren’t many Jewish wrestlers. It was a way of differentiating himself from his father, an intellectual force and successful environmental lawyer. Rebelling against his father is similar to the way students rebel against teachers, Kass says – but there’s more to it than that.

Just after college, Kass was living at home and going through some boxes in his parents’ basement, looking for old baseball cards, when he came across his father’s undergraduate thesis. Its title? “Wrestle the Great Fear.”

The title was a jolt – a connection with his father through something that Kass had used to set himself apart. The thesis explored how American literary heroes evolved from the physical to the intellectual. But where his father saw a dichotomy of those two traits, Kass believes the two need to merge: “You have to be in order to increase your capacity to know.”

Jeff Kass

Jeff Kass executing a move during the performance of one of his poems.

Though this is a one-man performance, there are many others involved. The show is directed by theater veterans Ben Cohen and Glenn Bugala – Cohen is the choir and drama teacher at Greenhills School, and Bugala has directed and acted for the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre and Performance Network. The show will also feature poetry performed by Angel Nafis, Maggie Ambrosino and Ben Alfaro, and music by Nick Ayers (of The Macpodz), Greg Burns and Sean Duffy.

We end this article with one of the poems Kass plans to perform on April 29. As for how he incorporates wrestling moves into the performance of his poetry, well, that’s an art form that defies written description. For that, you’ll have to see the show.

Reversal (by Jeff Kass)


You can't execute a successful Granby Roll
if you can't believe you can be a wrecking ball
and bounce

Pop your hips toward the sky
make your body an A-frame
post your weight on your left hand

Ready yourself for your quake
hop your left foot in front
of your right, now blow
your house from its moorings,
duck your head and make your
break violent

The Granby Roll will not work
if you don't have faith in your
own momentum, you cannot quit
halfway, your naked shoulders
exposed to the mat's cold mercy

You must believe you can ravage
your own symmetry and survive

Now try it from standing up
you are human, tall on two legs
and you can dive and spin
from upright too
it's hop, hop, go

Don't let your fear of falling
failure, falling, failure, don't
let fear of falling fail you,
failure fall you, dive,
dive  – trust your dive,
and roll.


“Wrestling the Great Fear: A Performance Poetica” will be performed on Wednesday, April 29 at 7 p.m. at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater in the Michigan League, 911 N. University Ave., Ann Arbor. Admission is $5. To reserve tickets or for more information, call (734) 223-7443 or email Jeff Kass at eyelev21@aol.com.

Sign for Wrestlethe Great Fear on a utility box near Burns Park.

A sign promoting "Wrestle the Great Fear" on a utility box near Burns Park.


  1. By Kris
    April 20, 2009 at 6:57 am | permalink

    Nice picture of an illegal waybill! Maybe now Ann Arbor’s community standards will start cleaning this stuff up.

  2. By John
    April 21, 2009 at 7:44 pm | permalink

    A community without waybills is pretty but dead. Or pretty dead.

  3. By Ben
    April 21, 2009 at 10:29 pm | permalink

    ‘Clean this stuff up’ ?? It’s Burns Park man, that’s about as clean as you can get in Ann Arbor.

  4. By Stan Bidlack
    May 5, 2009 at 2:47 am | permalink

    Jeff Kass is the finest practicing Creative Writing master in the United States.

    Every Ann Arbor teacher should aspire to be the classroom inspiration that he is. For more than a decade now, Jeff has been an education FORCE in both Ann Arbor and its public schools.

    If you are an Ann Arbor Pioneer parent, do everything in your power to get your child into one of Jeff’s classes.

    Your sons and daughters will remember this wonderful teacher for the rest of their lives.