Interviews

Not Just a Game

Natalie Diaz. Photo: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

What stands out most about the new anthology Bodies Built for Game is how broadly it defines “sports writing.” Edited by former pro basketball player and poet Natalie Diaz and Lambda Literary Award–winning poet Hannah Ensor, the collection moves beyond game recaps and celebrity profiles, opening up the genre to poetry, personal essays, and short stories. The diversity of form, structure, and voice in this anthology broadens the language and narrative around sport and sports writing. (Diaz prefers sport rather than sports “because it connotes a structure of power rather than a pastime.) Whether addressing a wounded sense of identity that comes with injury or illness, exploring the ways in which sports can create family, or reckoning with the violence and oppression that are built into athletics, Bodies Built for Game poses the question: What is sport, and is it really “just a game”?

Bookforum sat down with Diaz to talk about the poetry of bodies, the limits of language, decolonization of sports, and what it means to be an athlete.

Bodies Built for Game is, broadly, about identity and sports. What inspired this collection?

The biggest inspiration was conversations I had with the writers. I asked them to think about what sport means to them, or who they feel they are in that space. I wanted to see writing that moved beyond the narratives of victory and explored what sport might mean in the larger context of who we all are in America. As I was writing and curating, I was thinking about Elizabeth Alexander's poem about Muhammad Ali, Quincy Troupe's Michael Jordan poem, all the hundreds of conversations I've had about sports with my brothers in front of the TV, and my teammates back at Old Dominion. I knew I wanted the book to be a question about not just the games but our participation in them.

Personally, poetry is one of many lenses I brought to the anthology. The movement and grace of athletes are often compared to poetry. I think what people mean is that athletic feats and performances are beyond language. Poetry is also attempting to capture something beyond language. Words are just our best effort to express what the body wants or fears or wonders. However, the first lens I brought was my own body and what it is, who I am, as a result of basketball. I wanted to think deeply about what game is, what sport is, and the ways we, as humans and athletes, exalt our bodies and also fail them. Sport is a great tool of control as well as a way to freedom. The game, any game, is one of the purest reflections of the lives we lead—sometimes we win, and sometimes we lose.

One of the early poems in the collection, Patricia Smith’s "Bolting into Throat," compares the current American sports landscape to the erstwhile sport of hunting enslaved people. How does this legacy of colonialism and violence inform our conception of sports today?

American bodies of power can only exist so long as they have a body to oppress and to diminish. Patricia is holding language accountable in its fullness and implicating all of us. The poem shows that this language is violent and was created as a violence against so many of us. When read in conversation with an NFL game where a black athlete gets concussed, or a tennis match where fans jeer Serena Williams, or at a park where a black child is shot for playing with a toy gun, Patricia’s poem reminds us of the underbelly of sport in this nation. We play in a way to reach out toward freedom, and yet we seem held or chased by the foundations of our state.

My question is, can any black or brown athlete win in the context of sports in a country built upon and with their destruction in mind? Why must we be gladiators or anomalies to receive love from our country and our fans? Why must we be seen as obedient and disciplined in order for us to stop being perceived as dangerous?

Fatimah Asghar’s poem “To Prevent Hypothermia” is a complex reflection on how a team can be a family. How has being part of a sports team influenced how you think about what family means?

Fatimah's poem shows one of the ways sport makes us who we are. The speaker is taking note of the ways her body is different from the others on the team, and how she is still embraced as part of that family. The intimacy that Fatimah describes is one of the things I miss most about being a part of a team.

I was lucky in that I began as a team—I was born into a family of eleven children and lived on a reservation among a community that was also my family. I think as if I am a team, even when I am alone. I walk through life always looking for a team or family—in moments, or in conversations, or in friendships, or in writers whose work I read.

For most athletes, injury is an inevitable part of life. What does injury mean to you as both an athlete and a poet?

Injury is sensuality, a way of knowing the body. The body becomes itself when it is faced with its demise, when it has felt boundaries of joy and pain. Porochista Khakpour and Meghan O'Rourke, among others, have expressed this in their work. The fullness of a body in a minute of suffering is a blooming most people will never know.

My friend Roger Reeves and I—he's a black poet and long distance runner—have talked about the idea of victory being a nearness to death in some ways, and what this has meant historically for athletes. We tend to chalk it up to clichés—“What doesn't kill you makes you stronger,” or, “Are you injured or are you hurt?”—but in reality, it is inexplicable. To hurt, to ache, and to continue. To imagine tomorrow, either on the court or free from it, in the face of the failure of our bodies, one of the greatest indicators of who we are.

People have been writing about sports as long as athletes have been playing them. How do you see this anthology working within—or against—this tradition?

This anthology is in some ways a return to historical writings as much as it is a leap toward what sports and athletics are always becoming. The NBA has created a shift in sports culture in that players are now beginning to shape the consciousness of the game. They’re reflecting on and reconnecting us with the consciousness of brown and black players, for whom sports have always been engaged with power, race, social conditions, freedom, and futurity. It’s my hope that the curation of these works will help us revisit old questions and build new ones, as we question sport in the ways we must also question our nation.

Sarah Neilson is a freelance writer and book critic based in Seattle. She can be found on Twitter @sarahmariewrote.