When poet Quinn Carver Johnson started studying gender in college, they realized that “Wrestling is drag” – a sentiment I highly agree with. Though, as a queer non-binary wrestling fan, I also couldn’t believe I hadn’t pieced that idea quite together for myself. Good thing Johnson’s debut poetry book, The Perfect Bastard, is here to explore that idea. Though not explicitly about the act of drag, this book of interlocking poems tells the story of a queer journey as it relates to wrestling.
We follow a non-binary wrestler known as The Perfect Bastard, who uses they/them pronouns, as they tour with a wrestling promotion through the Midwest. As they make a bigger and bigger name for themselves, the Promoter, known only as The Puppeteer, wants them to exploit their queerness by partaking in a televised gay wedding, a gimmick that may remind some wrestling fans of a similar gimmick from the early 2000s (Billy and Chuck tag-team wedding, anyone?). If The Perfect Bastard does not participate in the gimmick, the consequences are high – they’ll no longer be able to tour with the company. They’ll ultimately have to choose between their love for being in the ring and their integrity.
While the poems follow this mostly linear story, there are poems that are meant to provide background, or serve as emotional fodder. We meet characters such as The Sunset Kid, a mysterious figure who seems to provide The Perfect Bastard with guidance, and Adrian Street, a straight wrestler who played queer for the laughs. While not central to the plot of The Perfect Bastard’s journey, each of these characters add to the fullness of the wrestling world that Johnson has created, and fills out the emotional journey of their protagonist.
Many of Johnson’s poems pack a punch, though it’s luckily of the emotional kind. Johnson ties together themes of queerness and identity through the metaphor of wrestling. Johnson’s love for the sport comes through; though never explicitly stated, there are nods to many pro wrestling events and some of the wrestlers in their book have parallels to real wrestlers. Perhaps most remarkable is Johnson’s ability to hold a sport that has been traditionally homo- and transphobic accountable; their poems hold a tenderness and passion for wrestling while still critiquing the culture that has often made queer fans feel diminished.
Though certainly not a center of the story, one of my favorite parts of the book were poems about Tanner Hart, a female valet who has dreams of fighting in the ring. Her character is referred to as a “cautionary tale” and indeed, it is. Johnson pairs a moment of her triumph with a poem of her fall and not only highlights the stakes that The Perfect Bastard is up against, but creates a commentary of how women are treated in the sport.
While this sport has traditionally excluded queerness and gender diverse folks from their roster, things are slowly changing. In their acknowledgements Johnson gives a shout out to Sonny Kiss, a queer, trans wrestler who is now working with Impact Wrestling. She started out as many, doing smaller indie promotions. Kiss is one of those rare visibly queer wrestlers in the sport – and is an incredible performer. Johnson also gives Effy a shoutout, another wrestler whose queerness is not being treated as a joke, but with respect.
As with most poetry books (or even most wrestling shows), some of the poems in this collection are more successful than others, making for a sometimes lopsided read – but the poems I found to be successful are the ones that are still tumbling around in my head. I found the ones that were grounded in the plot or in the emotional journey of The Perfect Bastard to be most thrilling. And, as a queer non-binary wrestling fan, I found a lot of what Johnson writes about to stick directly to my heart. To be seen in a sport that has traditionally excluded you is something that cannot be understated.
You do not need to be queer or non-binary to find something to love in this book. Johnson’s poems are a love letter to the sport after all, utilizing metaphors that any wrestling fan will notice and love – metal chairs, ladders, backyard wrestling, the ring itself. But going into this book, don’t expect to read at the fast-pace of a fight – this is a book that demands attention, to be slowly and thoughtfully consumed. And like the most epic of matches, The Perfect Bastard (Curbstone Books 2, September 2023) will be sure to stick.