The rules of foil fencing are designed to mimic the danger of an actual sword fight.
My fencing instructor, a highly decorated Maître d’Armes from Paris, explains this to me and a handful of my classmates in a late-night West Philadelphia bouting session. It’s an unseasonably cool June evening, and I remove my mask to let the steam rise from my soaked brow. Maître’s whiteboard has a few key concepts scratched onto it in black marker.
intention to hit
attack in preparation
Chewing on my bottom lip, I contemplate these words and taste the salt-sweat from the 10 points I stole from my talented classmate minutes before. Sure, we continue to debate points and priority, but I feel I’m finally grasping these concepts; like I’m not doing too badly with the sport of foil fencing only eight months into picking it up. At least, I’m satisfied with how far I’ve come in such a short time.
Maître d’Armes clearly feels otherwise as he pulls us over to an impromptu rules session.
“Two hundred years ago,” he says, gesturing to the board with long, thin fingers, “the goal of fencing was death. So, the rules of foil are structured accordingly.” The intent to kill informs foil, a sport born in France as a training mechanism for a light gentleman’s weapon in the mid-18th century.
Whereas foil is chess, épée is checkers. Épée is about the force and speed needed to hit an opponent pretty much anywhere. Sabre is more akin to foil, but its rules are less about running a knave through with a sword and more about the use of the full blade. Foil fencing conjures the cunning and strategy required to skewer a dastardly challenger-–maybe a drunkard with a boastful mouth or a jealous lover high on absinthe. Foil is romance.
As a budding published poet, I envision circumstances like this frequently. For me, the call of foil is rich with a melodrama that’s unmistakable. No wonder I like it so much.
Foil fencing is about the pretend consequences of a dangerous act. Two opponents move toward one another, weapons drawn, each at the en-garde lines meters apart. A metal-infused vest called a lamé is the electrical point of contact where the tip of your opponent’s weapon must strike. The lamé is wired to a set of lights on one end with a cord reaching into your weapon’s tip on the other. You, as a human, become an electrical conduit for your own death-by-sword-point.
Poetry mirrors this—allowing you to feel the stabbings of love and despair, the highs of joy and euphoria of life. Completing the circuit of your own inspiration and extending ideas out into the universe, risking the pain of feeling what you need to feel in order to get it out onto a page.
When I fence foil, I hear Bizet and Puccini and sometimes the Darth Maul Theme Suite from Star Wars. Foil, in the words of Obi Wan Kenobi, is a more elegant weapon for a more civilized age. Its rules are designed to eliminate someone who dares throw down the gauntlet.
These kinds of stakes inform the emotional journey I take all the time as a writer of poetry—envisioning the intangible, the unreal, the imagined, and sometimes the all-too-real. Plumbing the depths of feeling and mortality and finding what could be with the tip of a sword, or a pen. Then, at the end of it all, taking off your armor, your gear—standing up from the page-–and coming back to the real world. Foil and poetry put it all on the line, for the sake of feeling. Both their rules are designed to bring you to the edge of life, to the brink of death.
For me, writing poetry is intimately connected to this idea of the mortal coil, of loving—of putting myself at risk for great emotional wounding and stepping back from it. Foil and poetry are designed to take me, the wielder of the weapon, to a place where I feel the illusion of no return. In practicing foil, I refine the process of weighing emotional consequences and dire stakes, over and over again.
Not every poet is concerned with writing about love and loss. Maybe foil won’t help those writers and I know this. Some folks write poems about fun things, like cats or daisies. Perhaps gardening is useful as a parallel practice for them. My own poetry and process is a bit more like getting carved up with a weapon—I write about relationships, sex, feeling disconnected and lost. Or of new love, as with Deus Ex Machina (The Thicket Magazine, 2023).
May the man behind the door be
the pink underside of a shell;
iridescent irritations that
swell against the world—the grain
of sand that becomes a pearl.
Poet Mary Oliver explored similar subjects of love and human fallibility through the framework of the natural world—mainly the forests and coastlines of North America. She famously turned to the woods for solitude, peace, and ultimately inspiration. Oliver’s Wild Geese (2004) gives the reader permission to love without fear, to want without guilt or embarrassment. Oliver knew so well that love is the real wilderness. You do not have to be good
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a thousand miles through the desert repenting
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Like Oliver, I know these are not easy topics to come back from. Sometimes I’m more successful than others in avoiding the fatal tip of love’s loss, dodging the sharp end of the blade. Fencing redirects me back to the mechanical, back to the craft, and out of my own head and heart.
In foil, priority, or right of way, is the idea that only one foilist can get a point during an attack, and a referee must gauge who looks most like they have that advantage. Stepping forward first with blade and foot are the clearest way to gain priority. Points and priority are applied based on the intent to mortally wound.
Would this strike have killed your opponent? That’s a point, then. Would this parry have saved your life and allowed you to riposte, killing your opponent? Another point for you, friend. And so on.
It’s a delicate dance to experience as a fencer, trying to understand if you or your opponent has the ability to score a point, and it can change on a dime. Being able to weather these highs and lows, this back and forth, has created a practice of safety and confidence around the emotions with my poetry writing. I know now that I can sink into dark, uncertain feelings to have an honest dialogue with expression, and return from the underworld with maybe a few residual bruises or a chipped nail (which, admittedly, is my fault anyway for putting my free hand anywhere near my opponent’s weapon.)
I am connected to wires, covered in thick fabric and plastic, wearing a metal mask and a tough leather glove—I face death without really facing death.
In an era where mental health and fortitude have come to the forefront of the arts process, putting a framework in place for navigating this mental self-care is critical. Foil, to me, is this protective parallel process of creating firm boundaries around what is real and what is perceived, in order to give me the freedom to experience it.
Still, I know I am biased. I am a foil purist. A hopeless romantic. It doesn’t help that my Maître d’Armes is also biased and finds foil superior to all other styles of fencing, mostly for these same reasons. Of course, as my Maître d’Armes would have it, I could be doing this a whole lot more successfully if I just relaxed my shoulders and kept my advances wider. And maybe if I figured out the difference between attack in preparation and counterattack, he wouldn’t have etched these concepts on the whiteboard again and again.
I know both are about the unfolding. The journey, not just the destination; building the muscle to wound and withdraw. I continue to hold gratitude that I’m able to do them again and again without significant injury or death—so long as I follow the rules in place for my own protection.