NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB, Premier League, Bundesliga, La Liga—if you are reading or dare say, published in Prairie Schooner’s Winter 2015, then you’re playing in the big leagues; say good-bye to the minors, enjoy your box-seats, and greet Natalie Diaz as the guest commissioner.
Although you’ve bought the ticket and the nine dollar hotdogs and the fifteen dollar drink, the rules might not be what you are expecting. The poems, essays, and fiction offerings in this issue run the gamut of sports: “The Cock Fighting Place” by Alberto Rios, “High School Yoga” by Kat Page, “To Prevent Hypothermia: a confession of a coxswain” by Fatimah Asghar, “SkateTown, USSR” by Amber Dermont, “Beyoncé at Shootaround” by Jon Davis and “Sangre! Sangre! Sangre!” by Nandi Comer—are not Casey at the Bat. They circle and bob and slap-shot into the top corner of the soul, with the power of sport as metaphor. Sport is the situation, the stories are diverse.
David Tomas Martinez’s poem “Sports Analogy” is a good example of how the works start with the premise, say, that high-school cliché PE coach/bully and move into a more into a more profound and personal space:
Even if there is no
I in team,
damn sure a
that never fails
lost in a
And the reader is off to the races, into a poem about marriage and joining teams.
Another fine example, in Eugene Gloria’s “The Yo-Yo Heir’s Lament,” the formal stanzas ride and fall, like a yo-yo, but contain the ability to tell a family story, “Now a good yo-yo is hard to find / and a good man who can master . . . ” The poem is filled with uncles and aunts and place names but somehow keeps a narrative, ending with, a strong game-winning buzzer shot, “with his menacing stealth and speed: / his yo-yo could literally take out an eye.”
Other writers included in this issue begin with their idols, and by using the modular/poetic/lyric essay form, cover as much ground as the Tour de France. Porochista Khakpour riffs masterfully and scores several aces while analyzing David Foster Wallace’s writings, “Federer as Irreligious Experience” going deep into the writer and tennis player’s rise and fall. Hannah Ensor’s essay “Mudita World Peace” is a grand slam of World Series winning modular-proportions. As she rounds the bases scoring philosophic points: race, religion, meditation, basketball, violence, global peace, consumerism, dharma, Zen, Emily Dickinson, celebrity, and tele-spectating are all discussed with insight and cunning. By looking at Ron Artest rise and fall as a basketball player, and his name and team changes, Ensor’s essay becomes a deep meditation into asking the question: “What even is a TV anymore?” And more importantly, how do we constantly engage with media and react emotionally without any personal risk? Like a YouTuber watching his team win the pennant over and over again, I’ve been re-reading “Mudita World Peace” to understand how the tenuous thematic links connect to form a powerful and coherent essay.
Maya Washington also takes a solid swing at the modular essay in her biopic of Bubba Smith, who played for the Raiders, Oilers and Colts, before going onto star in the Police Academy movies. Tainted with sadness, being trapped within the big black body, is a recurrent theme in both this essay and other pieces. In Kaveh Akbar’s “Dennis” the line, “The only cure for sorrow: more sorrow” (about Dennis Rodman) could represent a motif underlying the issue.
Diaz, in her modular piece that works as a preface “A Body of Athletics,” punches with skill and precision. The writing is brave and sure footed: “Mike [Shanahan, Redskins coach] knows what all white coaches know—there is value in a brown body, the way it endures, endures, takes, takes, and takes what it given.” And later, “You know the body differently when you break it, whether your own or someone else’s.” And then quoting and playing off Gene Hackman in Hoosiers, “I’ve see you guys shoot, but there is more to the game than shooting. There’s fundamentals and defense. I agree: Defense is the best offense, unless offense is the best offense. I’m tired of defending. I’ve got a lot of offense in me—this page is a kind of offense.”
While some writers use sports as a metaphor for real life, Diaz holds sports up as a mirror to reflect real life, then throws a hard-ball to shatter it. The works she has selected are hard-hitting and tender, making this issue of Prairie Schooner a game worth keeping and re-playing when you need a little hope.