Like the Greek poet Pindar, York English Professor Priscila Uppal, an internationally acclaimed poet and novelist, is penning poems for Olympians, playing with such sporting terms as “air to fakie”, “revert”, “stalefish air” and “peel”, and transforming them into accessible poetry.
She is the Canadian Athletes Now Fund – a non-profit organization dedicated to raising funds for Canadian athletes – poet-in-residence during the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, from Feb. 12 to 28, and Paralympic Games, from March 12 to 21. In between, she plans to head to the Arctic Winter Games, which run from March 6 to 13 in Grande Prairie, Alta.
Left: Priscila Uppal
“So much about poetry is having surprising language and using it in unique ways,” says Uppal (BA Hons. ’97, PhD ’04). So using snowboarding words like “crail air” and “elgeurial” will prove inspiring, challenging and fun. “The sporting language itself is so athletic, it has so many symbols and metaphors to play with. I’m really looking forward to working with the language.”
She has already written a haiku for every sporting category at the Games. That includes skeleton, luge, curling and speed skating. “I think people find it amusing when they hear them.” Her goal for the haikus is to surprise even the athletes.
“This is poetry that can be popular, can be accessible to more people,” says Uppal, who has penned six collections of poetry, including Ontological Necessities, which was shortlisted for the 2007 Griffin Poetry Prize. She is also the author of two novels, The Divine Economy of Salvation (2002) and To Whom It May Concern (2008). Recently, she edited the first-of-its-kind anthology The Exile Book of Canadian Sports Stories (2009).
Uppal stands at the intersection where sports and poetry interact. “It’s an untapped resource, sports language,” says Uppal. And people respond to it. Sport and art touch the majority of people in some way, but you rarely see the two coming together. Uppal thinks it’s a missed opportunity to communicate.
As poet-in-residence, she sees her position as intersecting with two traditions, public poetry for heroic figures and events, and the celebration of the local and everyday. “Poetry about the ordinary and poetry about the extraordinary,” she says.
Having a poet-in-residence writing about the Olympic Games may seem novel, but it is actually in keeping with a long, almost lost, tradition. That’s where Pindar comes in. He wrote odes to Olympians. And, there was a poet at the 2000 summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. But the other way it reaches into tradition is through the games themselves. During the Olympics, from 1912 to 1948, medals were awarded for five categories of art. Two people won medals in both an art and a sporting event. Uppal would like to see art return to the Games as Olympic events, as she believes it has a place there.
“It’s incredible, the power of sport and art to transform people’s lives, but we have to make the space available. This is a great intersection of sport and poetry…and maybe it will transform more lives,” says Uppal.
Take the Paralympics, for instance. These are people who were told they couldn’t do anything in their lives because of their physical disability, and they’re top athletes in their field. “It is extremely invigorating and exciting to watch them compete,” says Uppal.
Canadian athletes and artists, writers and poets share a commonality in their ability to transform and inspire, and they are all underfunded. Some of our Olympic contenders live with negative incomes, many rely on food banks and some have been known to live in their cars, says Uppal. At the same time, the country is having a health and obesity crisis, as well as a creative crisis. By bringing sport, art and funding together, there is potential to make a difference.
Her poems will be posted on the Canadian Athletes Now Fund Web site, as well as Uppal's own Web site, which will also list links to other places where her Olympic poetry can be found. In addition, CBC Radio One will air some of her poems.
The Canadian Athletes Now Fund has helped to fund about 80 per cent of the athletes at the Games. Donations made to the fund go directly to the athletes to help pay for such basic necessities as nutrition, training and equipment costs, and the donor gets a list of which athletes received their donation.
Uppal will read her poems directly to the athletes and their families over the course of the Games. “To me, it’s a wonderful, wonderful Canadian literary moment,” she says.
By Sandra McLean, YFile writer