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On basketball & poetry.

Poetry is a way of living—a human activity like baking bread or playing basketball.
(Robert Hass)

baskebtallI started playing basketball again last week—just shooting around at the Vanderbilt rec center to get some exercise, take my mind off things for a while. I’ve been saying that I want to play basketball more, but I never followed through on it until last weekend.

Lacing up my black basketball shoes from tenth grade, I felt perfectly at home. I remembered, though, how basketball hadn’t always been a safe place—playing for a coach who said terrible things to me, no matter how hard I worked. Shin splints at the start of every new season. Running plays wrong because I couldn’t remember what to do. Stomping out of the gym to my dad’s truck after painful practices.

But there was always a real love behind it, always some sweetness that I still can’t ignore. Basketball also meant the good exhaustion after sinking ten straight free throws to end practice. It meant the sweet note from my dad that lived in my bag to remind me to work hard and that he and my mom were proud of me. It meant being part of a team cheering before a game in the locker room. It was the music and rhythms of shoes squeaking on the hardwood, plays being called, the exact dribble before a layup. It was the net’s gentle click marking a perfect shot.

Now, far removed from high school basketball, I feel the comfort that comes from knowing how to do something technical. Shooting a jumper from the elbow comes back to me naturally, and I check off a list I didn’t know I remembered as I shoot over and over—tuck in your elbow. Bend your knees. Hold the follow through.

There is craft there, and there is grace, in both senses of the word. I can give myself grace for missed shots when I play now. And basketball’s movements—everything light, requiring gentle technique—feel lovely to me. As my arms start to ache and my shots fall short, clanging off the rim, I think of basketball like writing. I know how to set up a metaphor, how to make a series parallel, how to match form and content. Somehow, though, like when I was in high school, even the slightest bit of pressure can ruin the craft I know well. Writing poems, for now, is basically my job—my whole life revolves around reading them, writing them and critiquing them. And often, even things I know how to do fall apart because of the intensity with which I approach them.

And then I’m back to the craft of a layup. Over and over again, the ball hits the backboard, goes in. There is no pressure here. I miss tons of shots, but it’s usually because I was shooting too much with my arms and not with my legs. For the next shot, I correct it, and the ball sails through the net.

Walking back to my car, I start to wonder what writing would feel like if I took the pressure off and rested in what I know to be true about poetry. Paid attention to the real love behind trying so hard to succeed. What if I wrote like I played basketball, crafted sentences and metaphors like I can craft a jump shot? What shots would I make if I slowed down, brought everything I knew together and let the ball fly?

Tuck in your elbow.
Bend your knees.
Hold the follow-through.

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