When Canadian athletes want to know who will medal at this summer’s London Olympics, they might follow the lead of the ancient Greeks did and consult an oracle – as in their very own poet-in-residence, Priscila Uppal. The author of nine books of poetry and York University creative writing professor will reprise the role she played as the first Olympic poet-in-residence to Canadian athletes at Vancouver, where she tested her own endurance and performance skills by pumping out two sports poems a day – one for gold medal winners, which she read at nightly presentations.
“I got pretty good at predicting who would win gold,” she laughs about the pressure of figuring out which sport she should focus on for that day’s poem. “The athletes would show up at Athlete House and ask, what’s the poet working on today?”
Uppal posted her daily output on the Canadian Athletes Now Fund (CAN Fund) website (as she will do in London) for fans who enjoy a lyrical twist on sports coverage, and donated the royalties of the resulting book Winter Sports: Poems to the charity that supports high-performance athletes. Their response to having their performances memorialized in poetry? “When I gave readings, they would go, ‘what are we supposed to do?’ They knew they liked the poems and they’d get excited so they acted the way you do at a sporting event: They’d cheer and hoot and rush to stage to hug me like I’d just scored.”
Dubbed Canada’s “coolest poet” by Time Out London, Uppal donned a Canada hockey jersey with “Poet” on the back in Vancouver and wrote about such topics as the sex life of snowboarders and confessions of a biathlete in full view of the athletes, sharing various drafts she was writing about them, revising, even discussing concepts, all to break down barriers between the arts and athletics and show that the two endeavours have much in common. Indeed, when Uppal first became a professor, she took a diving course to help her overcome her fear of speaking in public. “I’d think, which is scarier, speaking in front of 200 undergraduates or jumping off a high tower? Diving was always scarier – I’m afraid of heights.” But to her surprise, diving taught her something about poetry: “It’s very compressed, precise. It’s about extremely difficult acrobatic motion in a small amount of space and about elegance and symmetry and being incredibly economical.”
Since then, she has become an athletic Renaissance woman, taking fencing lessons (she likens the thrust and parry to essay writing), figure skating lessons (similar to the choreographed performance that results from playwriting) and more recently running 5k to half marathons (most certainly an endurance sport, like novel writing), marrying her passion for movement both on and off the page.
This summer, Uppal, who dyed her hair Canadian-flag red for London, will have the daunting challenge of elegizing the much larger summer games and Paralympics. The unabashed fan of sports (and especially its vocabulary) is thrilled by her own Olympian challenge: “I’m trying to imagine being in the athlete’s shoes or even being a pair of shoes. In poetry you can write from points of view that aren’t human that allows a new way of looking at things. I write from the point of view of equipment or being a parent or the sibling that often comes second to the elite athlete in the family or the Zamboni driver.”
While hockey star Jennifer Botterill calls Uppal’s poetry “gold medal material,” Uppal hasn’t quite reached the same level of fame as the subjects she elegizes. “I had this joke I used to share with lugers. I’m world class too and no one knows who I am. Poetry and luging are the same!”
To find Uppal’s daily poetic feed of Olympic poems, click here.