Priscila Uppal will turn tennis into verse at the Rogers Cup

First she wrote poems at the Winter Olympics, then the Paralympics, then the Arctic Games. Beginning Friday, she’ll sit courtside at the Rogers Cup turning smashes and lobs into verse. And why not? If Wimbledon could have one, so can Rogers! Next year, you guessed it, Priscila Uppal will also wear the mantle of poet-in-residence at the Summer Olympics in London.

The Canadian summer athletes she met at the Vancouver games would have it no other way. When they saw how she immortalized Priscila Uppalthe speed skaters and skiers, lugers and hockey players, they asked: “You’re going to be at the Summer Olympics, right?” Every time they passed her, they’d chant: “Po-et, po-et, po-et.”

Right: Priscila Uppal. Photo by Jeff Kirk

This was music to Uppal’s ears. It took the York creative writing professor several years and the same kind of steely tenacity that fuels competitive athletes to find a sponsor for her as Winter Olympic Games poet-in-residence. The Vancouver Olympic Committee resisted all the way. But just when she was about to give up, the Canadian Athletes Now (CAN) Fund embraced her bright idea and invited her to take up residence in their Athlete House in the Shaw Tower overlooking the flame (see YFileFeb. 12, 2010).

Now she’s on a roll. And on a mission: To build a bridge between the arts and sports.

“They are always pitted against each other,” says Uppal, an acclaimed novelist and poet who is a big fan of sports. Both provide hope and inspiration, both teach discipline and promote health, one mental and the other physical. “It’s all about promoting happy, engaged living.

“I don’t want children to feel they have to choose between the arts and sports,” says Uppal, who, since the Olympics, has been giving workshops on writing sports poetry in schools and summer camps. “It’s important to break down prejudices and see how creative sports is, and how fun and acrobatic poetry is.”

Saturday, armed with laptop, notebook and pen, she’ll head for the media box at the Rexall Centre, to watch match after match of the women’s competition for a week. Her hair will be in pigtails and she’ll be wearing a volunteer T-shirt emblazoned with “poet” front and back. If she’s not in the stands, she might be chatting with fans under the Tennis Canada tent. By 6pm every day, she will e-mail her daily haiku or free verse for publication in the Daily Draw Sheet and in her Poet’s Corner.

Uppal will be doing more than writing poetry this time. She’s launched a sports poetry contest. “Even now, when you mention writing poems about sports, you get looks. Really? I’m hoping the contest helps reduce the bias against sport poetry. I hope people have a little fun.” She may invite Toronto Mayor Rob Ford to enter the contest.

She’ll publish a daily blog called The Art of Tennis, telling readers about books, movies, music and art about tennis. And guess what? She’s discovered a mother lode. A recent film, Wimbledon, stars Kirsten Dunst, and an old romantic comedy set at Wimbledon called Pat and Mike stars Katharine Hepburn. Elton John wrote a song called Philadelphia Freedom, dedicated to American tennis champion Billy Jean King, and Eric Clapton sang one called Anyone for Tennis. And, believe it or not, there are countless ditties dedicated to Roger Federer.

For something new, Uppal will put a suggestion box in the players’ lounge and ask them to submit Priscila Uppal, poet, at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Gameswords or themes they would like her to write about. “I figure I’ve got to up my ante,” she says about the added pressure to perform. “It makes me more creative.”

Left: Priscila Uppal, poet, at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games. Photo by Christopher Doda

Being a poet is similar to being an athlete, she says. “Tennis players have to go on the court whether they feel like it or not and play.” Uppal says writers have to do the same. “If I waited for inspiration, I might create only one thing a year.”

As much as Uppal is boning up on the players and the rankings, her inspiration will come from the live tournament, overhearing what fans say and seeing behind the scenes. “You can’t anticipate what’s going to happen. I love that aspect, that it’s unpredictable.” At least she knows the rules of the game, which she learned as a child at summer camp.

What will she write about at the Rogers Cup?

“In the position of poet laureate, you’re usually on the side of celebration,” says Uppal. “You’re writing about the most beautiful aspects of the sport. You’re writing about the athletes and fans, about passion and love.” Uppal’s poetry can be playful (“Luge Love Poem”: I luge you I luge you not I luge you) and funny, or metaphysical, even mournful. After all, she says, in sports there’s only one winner; the majority of contestants lose. “For all the celebration, there’s a lot of disappointment.”

After the Rogers Cup, Tennis Canada will publish a chapbook of her poems and give each player a copy. Last fall, she released Winter Sports: Poems (Mansfield Press, 2010) (see YFile, Oct. 14, 2010), a collection of more than 50 poems she wrote at the Winter Olympics, and is donating profits to CANFund. She hopes to produce a companion book after the Summer Olympics.

Her favourite poem from the Winter Olympics was “If I could Trade Bodies” about living life in a speed skating suit. The fan favourites were poems about men’s and women’s hockey, “Canada is the Hockey Ward”, in which she punned on the names of the players. That one was printed in the sports pages of the Vancouver Sun.

“It’s got to be the first poem ever published on their sports page!” exclaims Uppal. And it won’t be the last. Every time she’s interviewed on CBC or in major newspapers about writing sports poetry, she receives a flurry of excited responses. The Globe and Mail has just asked her for an exclusive poem about the Rogers Cup for its sports pages, and the Toronto Star reprinted her hockey poems Saturday in a feature about her gig as Rogers Cup poet-in-residence.

Her mission to bridge the arts and sports is gathering momentum. “To me, that’s one of the markers. I’m getting poetry coverage in sports sections,” says Uppal. “Let’s not think of people who read the sports pages as never reading poetry.”

By Martha Tancock, YFile contributing writer