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London calling Priscila Uppal, poet of the Olympics

London calling Priscila Uppal, poet of the Olympics

Priscila Uppal landed in London earlier this week armed with pen and notepad, laptop and backpack ready to commit the Summer Olympic Games to verse.

Once again, the York English professor is bridging the arts-sports divide as poet-in-residence. Sponsored by Canada Athletes Now (CAN) and other benefactors, she will make poetry of the games and the Olympians – two poems a day, published online.

You could call Uppal an old hand at this. Since CAN embedded her with the Canadian athletes at the 2010 Vancouver Winter and Paralympic Games (see YFile), she has also versified the Arctic Games and the 2011 Rogers Cup in women’s tennis at York (see YFile). It was her idea from the start, a novel way for this jogging sports fan and acclaimed poet and novelist to cross-pollinate two usually disparate worlds – arts and sports.

Priscila Uppal reads poetry at CAN Fund Athlete House in Vancouver 2010

She has immortalized speed skaters and lugers, hockey teams and skiers. Now she’s going to do the same for swimmers and divers, rowers and runners. It will be the first time she has ever attended the Summer Olympic Games and, for that matter, the Summer Paralympics, which she is also covering poetically. London will be a different experience for her than Vancouver. In London the venues are far apart, not centralized, so she’s going to travel by tube to take in events, but not hang out as much with competitors.

Every day, she will post one poem on the CAN website and one on the Literary Review of Canada website. She will read her poems to athletes and – for something entirely different – to spectators watching events on giant screens in London’s Hyde Park. “My backpack will be filled with poems I can distribute. It’ll be fun. Most people will be in a good mood, not rushing to work. It’s a perfect situation for flash poetry or mob-style poetry.”

Like the athletes competing, Uppal has been in training. She’s boned up on all the sports and created an enormous binder full of rules and vocabulary associated with each one. It will help stimulate her poetry-writing muscle so that she can perform every day and be ready for the unexpected – like the luger who died on a practice run at Whistler. Some poems will blaze with glory, others will fall flat, she says. “It’s all part of the process.”

As she has done in the past, Uppal will also be writing about books, film and visual art featuring summer sport for the Literary Review of Canada in her Poet's Corner blog. She’s going to start with a piece about a book written by French literary critic Roland Barthes asking what is sport and why do humans participate in it. Look for meditations on The Bone Cage, a novel by Angie Abdou about a swimmer; Will Ferrell’s comedies and why sports are funny; Haruki Murakami’s writing about running; and Murderball, a documentary about paraplegic rugby players.

Next spring, Uppal will publish a collection her poems in Summer Sport: Poems,  the companion volume to her Winter Sport: Poems published by Mansfield Press in 2011.

Here are the first lines of a poem Uppal wrote at the request of the British Embassy one year before the Summer Olympic Games were to kick off:

London Calling

Is it just me, or have you noticed
the growing legion of rowers along the Thames,
singles and doubles, fours and eights,
cutting up waves on the way to Trafalgar Square,
where, it is rumored, gymnasts tumble from one embassy
to the next, balancing on beams, vaulting off
to trampoline up to Big Ben to set the clock


Republished courtesy of YFile– York University’s daily e-bulletin.