On Writing, Olympic Edition with Priscila Uppal

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Priscila Uppal (photo credit Jeff Kirk)

Priscila Uppal is bringing together two seemingly disparate worlds — worlds that might not be as different as they first appears: athletics and literature.

After having already served as the Canadian Athletes Now Poet-in-Residence for the Vancouver Olympic Games, Priscila is now reprising her role for the summer games in London.

Priscila, who originated the position of Poet-in-Residence, talks to Open Book about what athletes and writers can learn from one another, how she's preparing for her role in London and what it is like to be part of one of the biggest sporting events in the world.

For more information about this innovative program, you can visit Priscila personal website, as well as the Literary Review of Canada's Poet's Corner page, which will feature updates throughout Priscila's stay in London.

Open Book:

Tell us about your position as poet-in-residence at the upcoming London Olympics. How did this unusual arrangement come about?

Priscila Uppal:

I’ve always been a lover of the arts and sport and I started to question why it was that while I have participated in and supported sports my whole life I so rarely wrote about it. Was sport a minor topic, not worthy of literary consideration? Was the arts community uninterested in or actively antagonistic towards sports? I decided to design and propose a number of projects and activities which would bring the sports worlds and arts worlds together, including a symposium called Bodyworks, which brought together elite and professional athletes, professional artists and researchers; I edited an anthology of Canadian sports stories; and I proposed to Canadian Athletes Now a poet-in-residence position for the 2010 Olympics and Paralympic Games which saw me writing and publishing daily sports poems in celebration of winter sport and reading poems to athletes, fans, and supporters, culminating in the publication Winter Sport: Poems (Mansfield Press).

In the last two years, these projects have only gained momentum. I was asked to design a poet-in-residence position for the Roger’s Cup Tennis Tournament 2011, to run sports poetry competitions and writing workshops for youth, artists and athletes, and now to resume my position with Canadian Athletes Now for the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics.

OB:

What can the worlds of sports and arts learn from one another? Are they necessarily divided?

PU:

I think the two worlds could learn a lot from each other. Breakthroughs in art and science occur through experimentation and risk-taking, and yet it’s been fascinating for me to discover how narrow-minded many members of the arts community are when it comes to thinking more creatively about how sport culture and sports practice might influence or contribute to arts culture and practice. Both worlds share passion, dedication, discipline, endless repetition, an interest in aesthetics, elegance, precision, clarity, order, symmetry, beauty, the spirit of rebellion, the testing of boundaries, pushing limits and something I like to refer to as pain management skills.

We should be arguing how we both can contribute positively to culture and citizenship, rather than arguing, particularly during political campaigns, for one over the other.

OB:

Tell us a bit about your experience at the Vancouver Olympics and Paralympics. Was there anything about your time there that surprised you?

PU:

The wonderful thing about the Games is that you are surprised every single day by human potential. I found its various forms endlessly inspiring, and it made me want to push myself further in nearly every aspect of my life. It’s hard to complain when you are meeting people who work out 19 times per week, who showcase tremendous discipline, and tremendous passion to test their limits, who have overcome injury and disability and in many cases heartbreaking poverty and who show such humility in the process. (So many were quite bashful of their status as number two or six in the world, whereas I told them I would be ecstatic to produce documentation of my number two or six world poetry ranking!)

OB:

You're publishing frequently during the games. Do the strict deadlines intimidate you at all?

PU:

Yes, it’s a bit scary, but part of the project is to parallel some of the experience of the athletes. I’ve been a professional writer for years, I’m trained for this, and this is my opportunity to showcase some of my skills and talents. The athletes are in an incredibly vulnerable position and I respect this, so I must make myself vulnerable as well. The performance aspect is key to the project. I must demonstrate inventiveness, mental strength and endurance. Therefore I will be writing and publishing two poems per day.

I must also try to write a poem for every sport category. And I can’t bore my audience. I want to give them an exciting, surprising and satisfying experience of the games.

OB:

Do you have a favourite event at the summer games or anything else you're particularly looking forward to in London?

PU:

In 2002 my first novel The Divine Economy of Salvation came out and I had just secured my position as a full-time professor at York University. I was nervous about all the public speaking I was going to be doing, so in order to control the nerves, I decided I would do something that scared me even more: I signed up for springboard and tower diving lessons at the University of Toronto. I am afraid of heights, so every week, instead of feeling scared to give a reading at a festival or to lecture on books to a couple of hundred undergraduates, I would tell myself that Thursday mornings were far scarier: I was going to jump head first off a five-metre tower. I have been mesmerized by diving ever since.

Honestly, though, I’m looking forward to all the events. There is nothing like elite athletics to display the magic interplay of the human body paired with the human mind.

OB:

What's next after London?

PU:

First of all, the book which will showcase the poems I will be writing in London, which will be called Summer Sport: Poems (the companion volume to Winter Sport: Poems). I will need to edit the poems, write my contextual essays, and see the book into print. I will also be publishing a memoir next year called Projection, with Thomas Allen Publishers, set in Brazil, about reuniting with my runaway mother and my Brazilian relatives after twenty years. I have also been working on plays, including Six Essential Questions, which was featured this summer in the Factory Wired Festival at the Factory Theatre.


Dr. Priscila Uppal is a Toronto poet, fiction writer and York University professor. Among her publications are eight collections of poetry, most recently, Ontological Necessities (2006; shortlisted for the $50,000 Griffin Poetry Prize), Traumatology (2010), Successful Tragedies: Poems 1998-2010 (Bloodaxe Books, U.K.), and Winter Sport: Poems; the critically-acclaimed novels The Divine Economy of Salvation (2002) and To Whom It May Concern (2009); and the study We Are What We Mourn: The Contemporary English-Canadian Elegy (2009). Her work has been published internationally and translated into Croatian, Dutch, French, Greek, Italian, Korean and Latvian. She was the first-ever poet-in-residence for Canadian Athletes Now during the 2010 Vancouver Olympic and Paralympic games as well as the Roger’s Cup Tennis Tournament in 2011. She will be resuming her position for the 2012 London Summer Olympics and Paralympics. Time Out London recently dubbed her “Canada’s coolest poet.” For more information visit priscilauppal.ca

For more information about Winter Sport: Poems please visit the Mansfield website.

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