priscila-uppal

Poem: Race Walking Soliloquy

You might think I cut an odd figure

walking at the speed of a tram or wild turkey

across squares in the park or along the highway.

I’ve had my share of truckers honk,

housewives offer me rides in their station wagons

as squirrels scurry off bewildered.


I’ve walked across towns, cities,

whole island countries. I’ve kept my form

through blinding heat, pelting rain, and the rare

meteor shower. I’ve held myself back to deal

with the ground in front when it would have been

easy to run. I approach the future

as if it expects the soles of my feet.


There are no admonishments to walking

through museums, basilicas, or in the event of fire.


Walking is not the slower way to go from

Point A to Point B:

it’s the exact impression of

Point A to Point B.


It is the art of getting somewhere with as little

fanfare as possible to be the one who

achieves the singular view.


You only get the full spread of the feast

when you’re the first to the buffet.

***

For Ann Peel (former World Champion Race Walker and my running partner).

Check out other sports poems by Priscila Uppal inspired by the London 2012 summer Olympic Games.

This poem came up recently in conversation, so I dug it up. After many years I still ask myself: Do I love it as a stark (brutal?) observation on the dissolve of progressive ideology in the face of ritualized institution, or do I hate it for the self-righteous abasement of certain women I know and call friends? There is punk rock in this but where and how?

Priscila Uppal from Live Coverage (Exile Editions, 2003)

Ontological Necessity

I’d like to bruise this earth
with mental missives until it cracks. If a volcano’s brain
contains each eruption, we too must have these splits,
those dungeon pits inside us.

The harvest is nuclear.
My mouth, an octagon; my chest, an FBI file.
Stem cells grow off my neighbours balcony, fall into my tea.
Cancer paid my tuition. On and on the hurricane
spies and trades. No one watches television
for the stories. Our universe is fresh out of those.
The galaxy yawns and pops pills

Dear Self,
How am I to know if You are still alive?

Test me, you reply

Priscila Uppal

What a way to end my undergrad! Met and spoke with Priscila Uppal in the very last class of this crazy four year journey. She signed my copy of her book, Winter Sport. She’s a fascinating poet, professor, and person overall. Today’s one good thing.

Also, I’m going to miss this particular class, the professor (who has been so amazing – we learned just today that he supervised Priscila’s PhD!), and the the people in it, who have bonded over perhaps the most unusual thing anyone could possibly bond over – contemporary Canadian poetry. Our professor is retiring and he brought the class champagne. 

Made with Instagram
Paralympics: Not Just Another Sporting Event

My father stood out even though he could not stand. He was the only single father raising two children in my entire elementary school. He was also the only quadriplegic father in my entire elementary school. The school built a ramp to accommodate his parent-teacher and recital visits. Every school I went to from then on built a ramp for my father. It’s amazing to me how in only a few decades ramps and elevators and other mobility aids are now considered standard in our urban architecture. My father was the first to use several ramps in Ottawa—which meant, literally, that doors could be opened for him.

And my father needed doors opened for him. He likes to joke that he isn’t “challenged” to open a door—he can’t open a door. But at one time the entire world felt open to him. My father was a Junior Project Manager at CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency), the first South-Asian in his position, a young and handsome go-getter in charge of development projects on eight Caribbean islands. My father was fiercely intelligent, athletic, and world-travelled. He was also a husband and a father of two small children aged three and two, when one day, while working in Antigua, he was taken out on a sailboat which tipped over. He swallowed contaminated water, which attacked his immune system in the form of transverse myelitis (a neurological disorder caused by an inflammatory process of the spinal cord). Within forty-eight hours my father was a quadriplegic.

At that time in the 1970s in Canada there was no debate as to whether or not my father could realize his professional and personal dreams. It was assumed he could not. His life would now be one ordered around doctor’s appointments, medications, hoists and commodes. He would retire at age thirty-seven from CIDA and collect a meager pension. His wife, unable to withstand the stress of taking care of an invalid, ran away, abandoning him as well as my brother and me. For a short period, we children were sent to live with others while my father figured out how and what he could do.

What he couldn’t do under his new circumstances could easily fill a notebook. But what he could do was significant. My father learned he could be dedicated and frugal and resourceful and exert mental strength and stamina. He could teach his children the value of a healthy body and a healthy mind. He could do his best to ensure they cultivated their talents and abilities to create opportunities that could lead them away from a life of poverty and despair into one of hope. My father is the most stubborn person I have ever met. I have learned much from him. In many ways, I think of him as a hero.

Just as many people who will witness the Paralympics over the next two weeks will think of these men and women not just as athletes—and I would like to stress that they are elite athletes, the best in the world at what they do—but also as heroes. Not because of what they can’t do. But because of what they can do.

And what they can do is amaze us with their athleticism, their dedication and perseverance, their spirit, but most of all, I think, their stubbornness. Their examples of how to turn stubbornness into hope. Even into joy.

Because of who my father is, I cannot watch the Paralympic Games without thinking of him and the sacrifices he was forced to make in his life, as well as those he chose to make to raise his children. The Paralympic Games, the second largest sporting event in the world, is not just another sporting event. It is a showcase of what we can do when we set our minds and hearts on what others believe are impossible goals.

I look forward to sharing the games with you while I’m here in London where, fittingly, the Paralympic Games were invented. And London seems to be looking forward to the games as well. Thousands of people lined the streets to show their support for 580 people who took the flame on its 24-hour journey from Stoke Mandeville hospital where the first Paralympics were held in 1948. Over one billion people tuned in to watch the Opening Ceremonies. Many events and venues are already sold out. The Paralympic Games offer an opportunity to change and challenge bodies, minds, perspectives, fields of research, and communities. So please join my dad and I as we cheer for that.

***

For more about her father, as well as a primer on the Paralympics, including how they differ from the Special Olympics, check out “My Father as Olympian,” the opening dispatch from Priscila Uppal’s time at the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Games.

Wheelchair Warriors: Murderball

Photo by Tim and Selena Middleton

The majority of the people here at Olympic Park have never seen Paralympic sport before. While it is just as exciting as other more conventional and recognizable sport competitions, Paralympic sport does sometimes require explanation for the uninitiated. At the venues, before events, videos inform audiences about the various disability categories and rules of the games and races, which leads to more knowledgeable and engaged spectators, which can then lead to enthusiastic long-term fans.

One of the ways many people in North America first became aware of Paralympic sport was when the documentary Murderball (2005; directed by Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro) was nominated for an Academy Award. For those who haven’t seen it, although it follows the path of Team U.S.A. Wheelchair Rubgy on its way to the Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece, there is also a great deal of focus on Team Canada’s Wheelchair Rugby Team as well, since Canada emerges as a significant rival after the larger-than-life Paralympic legend Joe Soares, in a fit of rage at being cut from the U.S. team due to the decline in his abilities that naturally occurs with age, decides to coach the Canadians. Labelled a traitor to his country by the American athletes, Joe Soares lives, breathes, sleeps, yells, spits, punches Wheelchair Rugby (or, as it is sometimes called, Murderball, which was invented in 1977 by Canadians by the way—the first international tournament took place in Toronto in 1989) to the extent that he is oblivious to his own insensitivity to his long-suffering wife when they go out to dinner to celebrate their wedding anniversary and he toasts Team Canada instead of her. (He apparently asked the directors to cut this scene, which they refused to do, as it revealed so much of Joe’s character and his obsession with the sport.)

And what a character he is. As are many of the other young men one meets throughout the documentary through the lens of full-contact rugby, played in custom-made manual wheelchairs, which look like metal war vehicles, on a basketball court. This is not a sport for the faint of heart. It’s fast-paced and ruthless as the teams crash into each other, frequently toppling those inside of the wheelchairs, as they attempt to carry a ball over a line. It’s also mentally challenging, as these athletes trash talk each other incessantly (as does Joe from the sidelines) and are not above personal jabs. Bruises on the outside and the inside are part of the game.

Off the court, one discovers the same range of personalities you might find in any group of young men, including a cocky one, a sensitive one, a funny one, and even a playboy. You also learn some surprising things about the private and personal lives of these disabled young men. According to one young man, picking up women in a wheelchair isn’t that difficult. Apparently, they are comforted by the non-threatening exterior, which allows for more meaningful conversation to flow more naturally from the beginning. Once they are assured of the fact that sexual activity is still possible, they welcome the experimentation the novel circumstances involve.

But the most surprising claim, and one which I have heard already this week by several Paralympic athletes, is given the opportunity to have one’s able body back, many would outright refuse. The disability took their lives in new but also valuable directions. Being on a Paralympic Wheelchair Rubgy Team has introduced them to new friends, it has allowed them to travel and see the world, to represent their country, and to be a role model in their communities. Who knows if they would have so many strong friendships and unique experiences if illness or accident hadn’t interfered in what they thought was the course of their lives. This is important to keep in mind, I think, while we watch Paralympic sports, because it makes us question any feelings of pity we might harbour for the challenges of the athletes. They don’t want our pity. They want our applause.

I have tickets to Wheelchair Rugby on September 5th. The documentary has prepared me, in part, for what I’m about to see. (And perhaps I will actually see one or two of these same athletes compete for Team U.S.A or Team Canada.) It has also made me appreciate how cruel turns of fate can sometimes lead you to interesting places. If not for my own experience of disability through my father, I’m not sure I would have proposed this project or written many of these poems.

***

Don’t miss “Three Views of a Ramp,” a poem written by Priscila Uppal inspired by wheelchairs, sports, and podiums.

Poem: The Archer Reconsidered

About archers, it’s now evident, they were wrong.

The Old Masters; how little they understood

its human position; how it takes place

while someone is eating ice cream or opening an umbrella, buttoning a coat.

How, when the visual artists are nostalgically, anachronistically drawing

the bows massaging muscles on clay, there are those

on the green who seizing the day, walking confidently

to the edge of the line:

They seem to have forgot

that the dreaded path is 70 metres in length,

and an arrow must wind its aerodynamic way through

testy winds and unrelenting rain while the sun blinks

innocently behind the trees.


Were I to sculpt The Archer, for instance, I wouldn’t turn

to Moore or Bourdelle as models. Too far they are

from the disaster, and too close by far to the course.

For one can’t hear the mark, the battle cry—

aim an important failure; one would require

a canvas of 70 metre length, or better,

something amazing, a boy or girl going about the day

when out of the clear blue sky an accurate pain

hits its mark; and forced to locate its mysterious source

we can no longer stroll calmly on.

***

Henry Moore’s abstract sculpture, dubbed “The Archer,” stands outside Toronto’s City Hall in Nathan Phillips Square. Émile Antoine Bourdelle’s “Hercules the Archer,” resides in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Check out Priscila Uppal’s other summer sports-themed poems.

Olympic Hangover

It was the same at the end of the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games: physical and emotional exhaustion, mental collapse, sore stomach and headache. As well as some vivid wonderful memories, some blurry ones, and some complaints and regrets.

So let me offer you a few complaints and regrets and a few of those wonderful memories:

Regrets and Complaints:

  1. Tickets: This was no “People’s Olympics.” The crackdown on scalpers or ticket exchanges of any kind made it nearly impossible for anyone to find tickets. I’ve never seen anything like it. There were empty seats in every venue but no tickets to purchase because the seats were reserved largely for sponsors who didn’t show up. If tickets were released, they were released quickly online and only available to European residents. This meant that foreigners who were used to arriving on site and buying tickets from scalpers were left in the cold. Although I had been very lucky in the lottery at acquiring tickets, I now know that I should have tried to find more tickets ahead of time. I hope this is not a trend for future Olympics, as it made it virtually impossible for regular people—not connected to the sponsors, the royals and not David Beckham—to attend events. When it was made illegal to exchange or even give tickets away outside the venues, you knew you were dealing with a closed system.
  2. The Olympic Flame: Let’s put this under “This was no People’s Olympics” as well. Perhaps the most beautifully designed Olympic cauldron ever, the flame was kept inside the Athletics Centre. Not only could you not access it if you had no Olympic tickets, but even if you were in Olympic Park you could not access it unless you had Athletics tickets—the most coveted tickets of the games.
  3. BBC coverage: Now known widely as Biased British Coverage. Aat first I was thrilled to have non-stop BBC coverage of all the events in my flat, as, unlike CTV, they don’t treat their viewers like they are attention deficit five-year-olds who need tweets and graphics to become interested in the events. But I was dismayed by their “only British athletes” coverage (with the exception of “celebrity athletes” Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt) and their continual rejection of coverage of any of the Olympic scandals, including the flagrant corrupt judging of several boxing matches, as well as questionable judging of some of the wrestling, fencing and synchronized swimming events, or the ticket fiasco scandals.

Wonderful Memories:

  1. Everyone should find a way to experience the Olympics live at least once in their lives. First of all, it’s a fantastic way to meet people from all over the world. Even when you don’t speak each other’s languages, you smile and gesture and take photos. I know it sounds cheesy, but the entire atmosphere is friendly and warm-hearted and so full of good energy that it almost makes you believe that the world is generally a decent place to live, and that people are striving to better themselves and prove that humans are capable of all kinds of things we never thought possible. The British, in particular, were very warm, enjoying being the centre of the world again, as they believe they should be.
  2. What an array of sports I was able to see live: swimming, archery, judo, fencing, basketball, boxing, Greco-Roman wrestling, synchronized swimming, race walk and the marathon. Each gave me an insight into and experience of the sport impossible to achieve through television or movies. I watched Michael Phelps, arguably the greatest Olympian ever, swim. I watched the first historic Olympic women’s boxing match—I don’t care if you approve or disapprove of women’s boxing, if men are permitted to box, women should be permitted to box, and if you could see it live I think you would marvel at the skill involved in the sport and how you don’t even process gender except for the odd ponytail peeking out of a helmet. I watched a new world record get posted for race walk in an exciting surprise finish. Honestly, I enjoyed every single match and event, and walked away knowing that I had just witnessed the top people from around the world doing what they are best at—something I have always found immensely inspiring.
  3. The motto “To Inspire a Generation” is an important one. Many nations around the globe are experiencing a health crisis. We need to get young people, in particular, moving physically. We need to inspire them. Competitive sports teach lots of valuable life lessons: how to set goals and work towards them, humility, resourcefulness, physical prowess, mental toughness, how to deal with failure and success. As a professor, I see far too many young people who are out of shape and depressed, and who have never learned to deal with disappointment and therefore fold at the mention of it. If everyone could participate in a variety of sports, I am convinced there would be a sport for everyone. In London, apparently, the gyms and sports organizations are already being flooded by calls from parents and others looking for information on how to learn handball and field hockey and wrestling. This is a real legacy of the Olympic Games.

I hope you have all been enjoying the poems and dispatches throughout the Olympics. I will resume this blog again once I’ve had a chance to nurse my hangover and prepare for the Paralympic Games (the poems and blogs will run from August 30th to September 9th).

Please don’t forget that the LRC is running its own summer sport poetry competition. Why not pick a favourite Olympic sport, or sport moment, and try to capture it in verse yourself? This is the legacy that I hope to create with these blogs—the bringing together of sports and art for beneficial and exciting exchange.

Poem: The Yam Theory

Once coincidence gives way to occurrence

science turns probabilities to theories.


For sprinters: The Yam Theory.


Phytosterol, plant hormone,

stimulates the production of cell growth.

In turn, cell growth

Stimulates the production of Actinia A.

Actinia A

Stimulates the production of fast-twitch muscles.

Fast-twitch muscles

stimulates the production of sprinters.


No coincidence, Jamaica, a land rich in yams,

has produced a bumper crop of runners

for scientific inquiry.


At mealtime

Jamaican boys and girls

are served second helpings

of the story:

Eat your yams

so you can grow big & tall

& fastest in the world.

***

Read more of Priscila Uppal’s daily London 2012 Olympics-inspired poetry, or check out her interview with Margaret Webb (while jogging, of course!).