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.
From Emily Taylor: The Crown Ain't Worth Much (by Hanif WIllis-Abdurraqib) is a masterpiece and there are so many things to do with it & anything I write doesn't seem to do it justice tbh. this is after his poem after Fall Out Boy.
on finding your old converse from 2009
covered in rusty watercolor
from the wet sand of the baseball diamond
where you’d run in circles to ward off
the undiagnosed hyperactivity,
and under that, scrawled lists of bands
and favorite lyrics in thin Sharpie;
partially to prove that you were
a cool girl, even though you are neither
a girl, nor cool, at ALL, but also because
you didn’t think your own words
were good enough to clothe you yet.
These cocktails of punk quotes
your first found poem, your first toolbox
for expression, those were the years
of painting someone else’s words
all over your town, to write
on your wrist so the permanent marker
tingle replaced an old sting, you
were honestly a parody of yourself.
Since then, you’ve found words of your own
to protect yourself, but on those days
where your words aren’t enough,
you pop in your old headphones, lace up
your shoes, and remember the songs
you pulled apart with your two hands,
coaxing this new voice into your throat.
I spent a couple of weeks working on a piece about almost getting into a fight at a Violent Femmes concert. And I think, eventually, that will become more than just a story I tell people about how when physical altercations are aimed in my direction, or the direction of those I care about, I use testosterone-fueled language and the stereotypes people attach to my appearance to defuse them before there is anything more than emotional hurt.
But, as much as reading Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib makes you want to write about music (seriously, I just read his article on Bright Eyes and have had the first desire to listen to Fevers & Mirrors in about a decade), reading his collection The Crown Ain't Worth Much got me thinking more about his style and formatting than his subject matter. In particular, I love his poems that begin with "The Author Explains..." There's something about the honesty of the italicized text as he speaks to a specific person about something he feels deeply that makes me keep coming back and rereading them. It doesn't feel like reading poetry, it feels like overhearing someone self-omniscient perfectly explain his beliefs to someone eager to learn them.
That's not quite what I ended up with in this poem but it's what I was initially aiming for.
Sometimes, for me, the prompts I most enjoy are the ones that get away from me and produce something I wasn't expecting when I set out to write it.
The Author Explains To His Ex-Fiancee Why He Finally Cut Her Out Of His Life, And How It Has Nothing To Do With How His Boyfriend At The Time Hated Her
I've never had to choose
between love and family
And you were almost both
And it's hard for me to abandon either
But it's easy for me to dismiss neither and almost
And you were neither love nor family but almost both
And your taste was always so neither
And your hatred was so almost Christian but
neither Christ-like nor religious
you could almost swallow jesus when we talked
but then he'd get all hairball
and there's your savior in a puddle of sick
on the couch between us
You looking at me
like my tongue was a sponge
or you could pray my heart into a paper towel
And I would stare at you because you are not a cat
you're a grown-ass human
with a daughter the age we were when we met
and you have never had to clean up your own mess
and maybe you forgot that i am not on-call for you
I love a man
who has Old Testament problems
Like someone burned his city due to a misunderstanding
and his mother is a pillar of dust
Like his father wants him to save two of every memory they shared
so they have something to talk about in the future
but lord it looks like it will never stop raining
I know you don't understand what i see in him
Your neighborhood has been sunny your whole life
that time you don't speak about
from back before
you and jesus were on a first named basis
Maybe i love the strange weather in genderless eyes
and you are so content to sit in your california
and cast shade at our cold fronts
I haven't abandoned you
because i've forgotten what i saw in you
I simply can't stop seeing who you used to be
and how afraid she would be
of who you have become
An ongoing conversation between writers and the text that they're reading.