When I was eight, my parents sent me to basketball camp, and that One Year, I was good at it. Not prodigy good, but As Good as the other kids my age. So my parents planted a basketball hoop next to the end of the driveway. They bought me a ball. My uncle was connected to The Celtics, so I got to go see two games up close with my friends. Like, Bird/McHale/Parrish/Ainge/Johnson era Celtics. I realized I was never going to grow into one of these giants, so I lost my heart for the game. I still played HORSE with my friends, and shot free throws, and had the occasional half-court matches that were literal streetball. I moved on to tennis, which I became Good Enough in.
In reading Clint Smith's Counting Descent, I realized how many collections I've been reading this year contain basketball poems. The previous generation of poets that I read seemed more focused on baseball, and I think I'll get to that discrepancy in future posts. But basketball comes up so often, and in such different ways, that I decided I should devote a post to examining basketball poems. Not providing an essay of why *I* think basketball poems are important, but giving a series of questions and discussion prompts about when basketball appears and why. Again, not to provide answers but to get readers talking. I've chosen the following poems to focus on:
Clint Smith: Full Court Press
Hanif Abdurraqib: All The White Boys On The East Side Loved Larry Bird
Sherman Alexie: Defending Walt Whitman
Jon Sands: The Show
John Murillo: Practicing Fade-Aways
Janae Johnson: My Court
1. What do you know about basketball? I don't need to know the statistics you know. Do you know statistics? Do you watch the game on television? Do you play it? Did you used to play it? Why did you stop playing or watching? What basketball terms do you know? Do you have a favorite player? If you played, is there a move or position you were known for? There is no shame if you have no basketball experience. This is simply to remind yourself of your own knowledge before we go further.
2. Write a poem about your experience with basketball. It is perfectly acceptable for your experience to be "I have never cared about basketball, and don't want to think about it."
3. How is basketball important to the story in Clint Smith's "Full-Court Press"? Not just in general, but in the language he uses in the first two stanzas of Part 2, where the first stanza is a group of kids playing basketball, and the second is a group of kids sitting around after basketball.
4. Describe an experience where you were in a group of people whose primary relation is a game, sport, hobby, or fandom. Is the language different from your usual day-to-day vernacular?
5. In Hanif Abdurraqib's "All The White Boys On The East Side Loved Larry Bird", he talks about being referred to by a racial slur as a small price to pay/for my name in the newspaper. Discuss a time where someone boosted your signal but used dehumanizing language to do it. How did you feel and how did you react? Were your feelings and your actions at odds? Have you ever used language that you later realized was dehumanizing or insulting when your goal was not to hurt someone?
6. In Abdurraqib's poem he opens with how Larry Bird put his finger up to celebrate before the 3 even went in. Talk about a time when you celebrated prematurely. Did it work out for you?
7. In Smith's poem, a group of people come to his neighborhood and bring hate speech that they intend as both playful and hurtful. In Abdurraqib's he goes to someone else's neighborhood/school and they throw the same hate speech but with no playful intent. Which hurts you more: when someone brings hate to a place where you usually feel in control? or when you are vulnerable in a place you have no allegiance to?
8. How has hate manifested itself in an activity you love? Has has it changed your relation to the activity? Are you more protective of it? Less interested in it? Do you feel the need to love the activity but detach yourself from the other people involved?
9. In Sherman Alexie's "Defending Walt Whitman", he plays a fictional game of basketball with a famous poet. Bring a famous historical or fictional character into something you feel passionate about. It should not be a person already associated with the activity. So, you can't play basketball with Larry Bird but you could play Chess or Call Of Duty with him. You can't race against Florence Griffith-Joyner, but you can play Scrabble with her or work together to solve a puzzle.
10. Alexie talks about the high number of military people involved in the basketball games on The Reservation. Is there a demographic crossover in the activity that you love that isn't expected? Maybe there are a lot of comic book fans on your hockey team? A lot of divorcees and widows in your poetry slam community? Don't examine Why the circles in the Venn Diagram overlap, just celebrate all the people who show up in the middle.
11. Alexie's poems includes images of the players and what they look like both on and off the court, while Abdurraqib's focuses more on the terminology of the court, and the aftermath of the games. When it comes to an activity you're passionate about, what's more important: the paradigm of the activity or the people who participate in it?
12. In all three of the poems so far, personal culture has intersected with the culture of basketball. We all have some cultural identity that affects the way people see us: race, gender, ethnicity, age, religion, sexual orientation, different physical abilities, etc. Instead of just writing about how you think people see you and the activity you are passionate about, ask a dozen or so people you know, but you do not know through your passion/activity, to describe the type of person who participates in your passion/activity. How do their imaginings of the type of person who likes your activity differ from the way you see yourself?
13. In Jon Sands' "The Show" a group of sixth graders taunts him and his friend for being old people playing a young person's sport. Has someone else ever made you feel that you were too young or too old to love what you love? Have you ever been the person either mocking someone for not being age appropriate, or think you were kindly dispensing wisdom to someone that you believed was not age appropriate to their activity? If you've been both, have a conversation across those two times.
14. In Sands' poem, he was older being taunted by a younger generation. In Smith's, a group of older kids invite him to play. Talk about a positive experience you've had when someone from a different generation either invited you into their activity or activity-based clique or when they complimented your skills in a way that made you feel that you were transcending generations.
15. In Smith, Abdurraqib, and Sands's poems, the person playing has been driven to self-examination by an outside force. Forget those people. Why do you continue to do what you love?
16. In John Murillo's "Practicing Fade-Aways", he discusses both the times he is alone practicing basketball, and the time he is playing with others. When you were invested in your passion (which might be now, but might be in the past), did you practice so that you could look better when you participated in the activity, or was the practice what you loved but you did the activity to justify the time you spent practicing? Do you love the work or the performance? (Both is an acceptable answer, provided you can prove it's true.)
17. In the opening stanza of Murillo's poem, he describes a court that's been well-used and mostly worn away. Do you tend to find yourself attracted to an activity that's new or has recently experienced a resurgence, or do you like something that's not currently en vogue or at its peak relevance?
18. In the third stanza of Murillo's poem, a player he admired is stabbed to death. Has someone you were close to ever disappeared from the community built around your activity? It doesn't have to be tragic (though that's valid). Maybe they just got tired of it before you did. Or maybe they were so skilled that they moved up to a level you can't/couldn't achieve. How did their absence change the way you felt about the activity?
19. Janae Johnson's poem deals with the erasure of gender in basketball. As he never heard of Cheryl/just Reggie refers to two for the most famous, Hall Of Fame players in the game, Reggie and Cheryl Miller. There is a massive blind spot in fandom when it comes to gendered sports. Apart from the Olympics, womens' sports are rarely televised or commemorated in trading cards or video games. Write about a gender experience within your passion. Maybe it's an inspirational story, maybe it's about a time you messed up and didn't give proper respect. Go somewhere unexpected (as long as it's not problematic).
20. Gloryhounds are the worst part of team sports/activities. Even when they're talented, watching one person dominate a field is only fun for so long. What's the worst gloryhounding you've ever experienced.
21. All of these poems seem focused on the narrator's passion for the sport that they are playing in. Only Johnson and Abdurraqib's draw the larger world's mythology of the game into their poems (Larry Bird at the beginning and end of Abdurraqib's poem, the Millers in Johnson's). Write about an important moment in the activity that you love that doesn't involve yourself or someone you know personally.
22. Ok, now take the incident from Prompt #21 and draw it into your sphere of experience, either as metaphor, allegory, or parallel to your own involvement.
23. Write about the day you stopped being actively involved in this activity you loved. If it hasn't happened yet, imagine what it will take to convince you it's time to move on.
Clint Smith's Counting Descent is a lesson in poetic memoir. It hits the This Is Who I Am core of poetry from several different angles. It doesn't rely on tricks, or abstracts, or unnecessarily poetic language. It's straight-forward while still being complex and nuanced. You get a feel for the type of person the writer is and you want to know more about him. He's not broken, or horribly flawed, he's human, and growing up in a world that he increasingly understands, does not value parts of his identity as much as it values others'.
The prompts I've created all focus on identity. But not race. Even though race is a fundamental part of this collection. I want to be clear that this is not because I don't value poems about race. It's that writing about race is much harder than writing these prompts. You can Totally use these prompts to also write about race and how it affects you, but if you're not prepared for that, you can avoid it.
I might use some of these prompts to talk about sexual orientation and gender identity but those aren't implicitly written into an of the prompts I've come up with so far. That might change down the line, but right now, I would rather say "Confront a stereotype that you are unfairly labelled with" than "write about a time where being gay affected your life".
Something You Should Know: What was the first job that didn’t matter to you? What does that say about you and/or the job in question? Was it a person at the job that made it unpleasant? The customer base? A physical task? The general idea of the job? How long did you put up with it anyway? How did you finally get out?
What The Ocean Said To The Black Boy: There are bogus stereotypes for all us. Be they based on race, gender, orientation, nationality, hair color, height, weight, w’evs. Confront a stereotype that you’ve had applied to you. Refute it or embrace it. Definitely show, don’t tell with this one. Leave all the telling in the title.
For The Boys At The Bottom Of The Sea: Staying with the example from the previous poem, give advice to members of your community who the stereotype applies to. What qualifies you to give them this advice? Why should they listen to you?
The Boy And His Ball: Narrate a sporting event, concert, or show as if was the most epic, important piece of history ever recorded. Use a thesaurus and dense images (I don’t usually recommend this). It can be as sincere, surreal, or satirical as you wish.
Soles: Ok, here you go, the inevitable meta prompt about how writing is hard. Here’s the thing, though, you have to describe how challenging writing can feel, but you can’t talk about writing. Try not to go too metaphorically obvious: mountain climbing, sky diving, etc. Try and be creative: buying a house, navigating a strange city, fucking. But, um, if you do use any of those three, you totally have to give me credit in your manuscript.
Ode To The Loop-de-Loop: Address an intangible thing that frightens you. Investigate its purpose. Ask why it won’t leave you alone.
My Jump Shot Be: Write about a talent or trait that is singularly yours. Something you do like nobody else. Write a poem at least a page long where every stanza starts with a “My (talent) is like” statement.
Full Court Press: I think everyone has this moment. A friend or an older kid in the neighborhood says something to you that you should either be offended by, or should never say around adults. But no one taught you this. So you go and say this word/phrase/expression/idea in front of Someone Who Knows Better, and they Educate You. Who first gave you this phrase/word/idea/expression? Did they know it was going to get you in trouble? Did they assume you already knew to never say this to The Wrong Person? Is this something perfectly acceptable for them, but not you to express? Who told you you messed up? How did they try to make it feel? How did it actually feel? What is your relationship with the expression now? With the people/person who taught it to you? With the person who taught you it was wrong?
What The Cicada Said To The Black Boy: Pick an animal you identify with on a metaphoric level (e.g.: a snail if you like to hide in your house, a kangaroo if you’re an overprotective parent who gets in a ridiculous number of fights). What would that animal say to you if it spoke your language, and knew you identified with it?
Ode To 9th & O NW: Tell us about a street you lived on. Go all the way in. Let us feel like we know that street, that we should be as nostalgic or afraid of it as you are.
What The Fire Hydrant Said To The Black Boy: Do you ever feel like you’ve blended into the background? How about that, no matter how hard you try, you always stick out, like an ear with a bandage on it? Do you ever feel like everything around you depends on you for survival, but tries to make you clandestine? Find something in your environment that functions the way you feel you do. What can you learn from it? What would it say to you if it could speak your language?
Counting Descent: Use numbers and math to describe your family. Where they come from. What they do for their livings. How they relate to you. What you imagine or hope will happen for (collective) you in the future.
Keeping Score: Does your family, or coworkers, or group of friends have a game that you play frequently? Card games, board games, role playing games (outside of the bedroom, please), sports, puzzles, looking for certain types of cars or license plates on long road trips. Tell us about the game and if/why it’s important to (collective) you.
A Lineage: Who were you named for, and is it important to you?
Counterfactual: Write about a lesson you learned on a field trip, school outing, or road trip with the family.
An ongoing conversation between writers and the text that they're reading.