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Poetry and Basketball

The latter half of my youth revolved around hoops, orbiting wide rings, listening out for the net’s swish, attempting to make more fluid, more instinctive, ‘mo’ butter’ the complex body geometry of knowing instinctively how far you are from the ring at any time, how much palm-thrust and fingertip is needed to sail the basketball through. At 17, I developed exercise-induced-asthma, thus ended my hoop dreams. It was a painful breakup. I stopped watching my team play, felt betrayed by my body and tried to forget myself; I read books. Years passed before I felt comfortable enough to watch a game, and even longer before I stepped onto a court, knowing I was a shadow of my younger self.

The return came after a clip I stumbled across on the net: slow motion footage of a 360 dunk. A kid, half ogre, half figure-skater twirled upwards through a thorn-bush of arms, and everything seemed to make sense, I’d found a new way to connect with the game. It was a number of things: to dunk so gracefully meant time spent perfecting craft. To rise against opposing arms was a quest to define oneself against history. To twirl upwards, suggested style and such daring… The slow motion footage was a controlled, precise, timed. In short, I’d found poetry.

I started playing again last summer, every Wednesday, 6pm. I found a herd of nerds with ball in their history, who spend far too much time as I do hunched over a laptop. Roughly of equal physical fitness; what we lack in talent, natural flair and lung capacity, we make up for with gusto and enthusiasm. I was surprised at how easy it all came back, whirl winding hands, fade-aways, weak screens, all the bad habits my coach failed to grill out of me. In October, the poetry class I attend began again, every Wednesday, 6pm. I had to make a difficult choice. I miss the nerds. They also play on Saturdays at 11, but those sessions are less attended and lack something of the after-work-release that comes with the Wednesday sessions. Every time I go to class I’m aware of my decision. Verse and basketball bounce around my head and I try to find similarities between them; I’ve begun to think of the process of composing a poem, as a coach might stitch a team together. There are five positions…

1) The Point Guard. Usually the best handler and passer, the guard is the playmaker, where everything begins. I liken this position to the ‘Idea’ behind a poem, its heart. What is being said, what’s the topic? What subject is engaged?

2) The Shooting Guard. Typically the best shot, able to hit long range, to drive the ball toward the net and create shots off the dribble. I imagine this to be the structure of a poem, its skeleton, the scaffold that drives the idea forward, giving it shape, sometimes forcing flourishes of language.

3) The Small Forward. Typically, shorter, quicker and leaner, considered the most versatile of all the main positions, a role which is sometimes the power forward of the shooting guard. For me, this is the breath, the sound, the vocabulary of a poem. Sometimes a poem is just this; its musicality drives as much as its form.

4) The Power Forward. A role similar to the centre, the power forward is down, fighting and forcing through. I imagine this to be the imagery, metaphor, smile, alliteration, assonance, metonym, those cliché filthy tricks we shy away from using in contemporary…

5) Last but not the least, the Centre. Usually, this is the tallest player on the team, who plays close to the baseline, catches the rebounds, blocks shots, scores closest to the basket, it is the most pivotal position of all the five. In poetry, this is the transformation, the spirit, when a poems leaps over language, over the geometry of what has come before to show something new and unexplained.

I was published in the Salt Book of Younger poets. The anthology was released last year ago and the editor, Roddy Lumsden, called to request one more poem from me, one we’d critiqued in the class. He specifically asked for ‘Portrait of Prometheus as a Basketball Player’, a poem where I imagined the fire stolen from the gods to be shaped as a basketball, and Prometheus dunking light into the world. On the phone, before agreeing, I paused, and took a long moment to smile.

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