Last week was the one year anniversary of the beginning of Vancouver’s Olympic Games, and amid the CTV retrospective montages and renewed media commentary about the tragic death of luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, there seemed to be no better time to finish Priscilla Uppal’s Winter Sport: Poems. During the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games, Uppal was the first ever writer in residence of Canadian Athletes Now, and Winter Sport: Poems explores that experience through a collection of poems written from numerous perspectives and in a range of styles. The book also includes three essays; an introduction entitled “Dreaming Other People’s Dreams,” and two concluding pieces, “Play Like a Paralympian,” and “The Arctic Games Experience.”
During the Vancouver Olympics, the literary blogs I read were jammed with Canadian writers denouncing the games. The complaints ranged from well-informed critiques to vitriolic rants. Though some artists disagreed with the games because of their negative impact on Vancouver’s large homeless population and because of VANOC’s efforts at censorship, others attacked athletes as shallow and stupid, and denounced the Canadian patriotism that the games inspired, sometimes because it was prompted by sports, and sometimes because people are proud of Canada at all.
In light of this overwhelmingly negative reaction to the games from the Canadian writing community (or at least, those whose blogs I read) I was surprised when several writers recommended that I read Winter Sport: Poems. It seemed peculiar that a community that so disliked the games and sports as a concept would be interested in a book of poetry celebrating those same games and sports, but Uppal’s poems are as lean and masterful as the athletes who inspired them. The book is a fast-paced journey over haikus, around love poems, past abecedarians, through free verse, and off of lists. Uppal approaches her topic from the perspective of the athletes, the spectators, or uses sports as a metaphor for some other unrelated topic. The poems are clean and sharp, and markedly different from anything I’ve read recently. This could be because Uppal’s topic is different. Rather than another book of poetry narrated by a disembodied, contemplative, and passive voice, Winter Sport: Poems is anchored in the material world yet lithe and light, weaving from page to page, topic to topic, with the ease and grace of a skier navigating between moguls. Uppal’s subject is active, and so is her language, making Winter Sport: Poems an engaging and breathtaking read. Though poetry about sports is hardly new, Winter Sport: Poems approaches it from a fresh perspective. The book is devoid of syrupy or masculinized romanticization—it takes risks, it experiments. Winter Sport: Poems made me remember for the first time in a long time the thrill of being in better touch with my body when I had a more balanced and active lifestyle, a physical reaction few books that purport to write the body elicit. Winter Sport: Poems is moving. Its poems move, and it will move you, emotionally, physically, mentally, or in all of these ways.
Uppal’s essays are also challenging. Her introduction highlights the similarities that amateur Olympic athletes and artists share, such as a dedication to a money-sucking career that is only sustainable through ever-dwindling government funding and public support. “Dreaming Other People’s Dreams” challenges the stereotypical boundaries we draw in high school, the jock kids vs the art kids, and points to ways that each group can better understand the other, as well as the benefits that come from that understanding. Halfway through a one-year English MA, I wish there was more discussion of physical health in academia. Academic institutions neglect not only the physical benefits of balancing school with an active lifestyle, but also the ways in which being more active can improve our emotional lives and academic performance. Have a chat with any honours, MA, or PhD student, and you’re not unlikely to find someone who is sleep deprived, living off junk from the cafeteria, who doesn’t have time to plan or cook healthy meals, who is plagued by stress and stress related physical problems, who is frequently ill, and who has no time to exercise or who has to sacrifice study time to do it, causing them to worry. I resent that academic success often means neglecting your health. These issues are rarely discussed and I have only had two professors who ever explicitly addressed them in class (one was also a yoga teacher and the other used to be a nurse), and I’m in year six of my academic adventure. But to wind back into bounds on my topic, Winter Sport: Poems also explores how athletes benefit from getting in touch with their artistic, expressive side. This introduction challenges readers who may be inclined to dismiss athletes or organized sports, asking an audience who considers themselves open-minded to reconsider their attitude towards sports, towards athletes, and towards what they think qualifies as passion and creativity.
Unfortunately, “Dreaming Other People’s Dreams” does not address the negative effects of the games on the B.C. arts community, such as VANOC’s efforts to censor artists before and during the games, or the massive funding cuts to the arts in B.C. that coincided with the Olympics. While these things are not necessarily related to the relationship between artists and athletes, they certainly drive a wedge between us, and it would have been interesting to hear how Olympic athletes interpreted these events. If athletes and artists are similar, then how might we address these issues together? If artists should be open minded and accept athletes as making a contribution to culture, then what responsibility do athletes have when their largest competition railroads the artistic community? Uppal, a creative writing instructor, also asserts that creative writing students who are also athletes bring better stamina and dedication to the difficulties of writing. I think this argument unfortunately perpetuates and us vs. them attitude. Many writers who are not athletes have enormous dedication to their craft, and many of us have non-sport related difficulties in our lives that motivate us and that have taught us how to endure suffering and overcome obstacles. I’m sure athletes make fine creative writing students, but to assert that they’re more motivated or have better perspective than those of us whose main interest is in the literary arts is a bit suspect. It might also be alienating for the many writers who have never been engaged in sports, and who have spent their lives being told, either by our culture or explicitly by individuals, that being athletic is good while being artistic is bad. Asserting that athletes make better writing students seems to strip writers of the one environment where they can expect their contribution to be valued over the normative ideal of competitive athleticism.
Despite the outpouring of aggression towards the Olympics that I mentioned above, when the Paralympics began there was either radio silence, or people posting videos and encouraging messages about the games. While people feel comfortable criticizing able-bodied athletes, they seemed less willing to lambaste hockey players with no legs, or skiers who are blind. Uppal’s essay “Play Like a Paralympian” also asks us to reflect on what we consider to be a tolerant attitude towards individuals with physical disabilities. Uppal, through her own experience of her father’s disability, articulates how paralympians do not wish to be considered charity cases or to be congratulated for making a good effort. These are elite athletes with remarkable physical skills and dedication to their sport, and reading Uppal’s essay it suddenly seemed patronizing that so many denounced the Olympics but applauded the Paralympics. “Play Like a Paralympian” was touching and thought provoking, like the rest of Uppal’s muscular book. The final piece, “The Arctic Games Experience,” summarizes the competitions and atmosphere of these games, which I had never even heard of before.
Priscilla Uppal’s Winter Sport: Poems is a compelling and provocative look at the Olympics that challenges us to rethink the relationship between sports and the arts. Since Uppal hopes to be the writer in residence at the upcoming summer 2012 Olympics in London, I look forward to seeing how her next book on the subject of sports will continue to push literary boundaries.