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Finding Poetry in the Athleticism and Lingo of the Olympics

August 8, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Writer and professor Priscila Uppal is serving as "Poet in Residence" for Canadian Athletes Now, a non-profit group supporting Canada's athletes at the 2012 London Olympics. Uppal talks to Jeffrey Brown about her residency and where she's found inspiration, as well as sharing some of her poetry.
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, an Olympics story that for once requires no spoiler alert. This one focuses on the games and the words, the Olympics and, yes, poetry.

Priscila Uppal is a Toronto-based writer and professor at York University whose work includes eight collections of verse. She’s in London these two weeks serving as poet in residence on behalf of Canadian Athletes Now, a nonprofit group supporting that country’s athletes.

I spoke with her earlier today.

Priscila Uppal, thanks for joining us.

I can see I didn’t need to say which country you’re supporting. It looks like you’re having a good time.

PRISCILA UPPAL, poet: I’m having a fabulous time here at the Olympics. I think I have the best job.

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JEFFREY BROWN: So, what is the job? What does a poet-in-residence at the Olympics do?

PRISCILA UPPAL: I have wonderful days.

I get up and I get to attend events, some of the sporting, athletic events, and sometimes other celebratory events. And I try my best to find ways to write about the different sports, using some of the history of the sports, some of the wonderful vocabulary of the sport, in poetry.

And I get to celebrate the summer sports, the athletes, events at the Olympics, and the people that I meet from all over the world who are attending the Games and participating in them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, talk to me a little bit about that language of sports. Each sport has its unique terms and words. All of us as viewers are learning them. All of that is good material for you, I guess?

PRISCILA UPPAL: Yes, it’s wonderful material.

And it’s material a lot of poets have not tapped into, because it’s really like an entirely different language, as many people might feel when they’re experiencing those sports on air.

And I just love it because it’s really metaphorical. It’s very playful. Many of the sport terms are basically invented by teenagers and young people, as they’re inventing the actual moves of the sport. And so, there’s a lot of metaphoric possibility. There’s a lot of room for cleverness, for playfulness, but also sometimes for seriousness, for thinking about the sports and what they teach us and how I can put that into a poem.

JEFFREY BROWN: Can you give me an example of something playful, something you have had fun with?

PRISCILA UPPAL: Oh, I love the terms in beach volleyball, for instance.

They have a lot of terms that have to do with food, for some reason. So, ‘tuna’ is when someone gets caught in the volleyball net. But, also, they have this wonderful term for when a serve is sent over the net, and the two players, none of them goes after it, and so the ball just drops between them. And they call this ‘husband-and-wife-ing.’

JEFFREY BROWN: Husband-and-wife-ing, that is terrible and perfect, right?

PRISCILA UPPAL: It’s absolutely perfect.

And then we have seen a lot of crashes, unfortunately, in cycling. And when there’s a crash and gear flies off and water bottles end up on the street, they call this a ‘yard sale.’

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s great, too.

Well, poetry, of course, has a long, long history and tradition at the Olympics, ancient and modern, right?

PRISCILA UPPAL: It actually does.

There was an ancient poet named Pindar who wrote a number of odes to Olympic athletes. And even in the modern era, from 1912 to 1948, there were actually medals awarded for sport art in five different categories, and poetry was one of the five categories.

So you could potentially have won a medal in athletics, as well as art. And, in fact, two people did, an American and a Hungarian. And I think that’s a tradition that ought to be brought back. We should have gold medals for poetry.

JEFFREY BROWN: Not likely, I suppose. Is that getting much traction there?

PRISCILA UPPAL: I’m not sure exactly, but there are a number of people who think it would be a good idea.

The reason it was actually discontinued was because the artists were considered to be professionals, while the athletes were considered to be amateurs. And now that’s really quite reversed. So, I might be able to get more traction with that argument.

JEFFREY BROWN: I’ll say. Those worlds have really turned, haven’t they?

PRISCILA UPPAL: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. Could you read one of our poems for us?

PRISCILA UPPAL: This is called “Gymnastics Love Poem.”

“I can honestly say I’ve bent over backwards for you, executed front flips and twists and somersaults in your name. I’ve tumbled my way into and out of corners. I’ve kicked up storms and spun my wheels. I’ve learned to balance my heart on my sleeve while remaining flexible to all your judgments and opinions.”

“The art of loving is the art of vaulting through the air without a safety net and landing firmly on your feet. The art of loving is the art of iron crosses and crash mats and, when you’ve built up your strength, the seizing of rings.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Priscila Uppal, a poet in residence at the London Olympics, thanks for joining us.

PRISCILA UPPAL: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: And on our Art Beat page, you can watch Priscila Uppal read another of her poems. It’s called “Obsessive Compulsive Cycling Disorder.” That’s at NewsHour.PBS.org.