P. Scott Cunningham:
On Februrary 17, 2010, Cleveland Cavaliers center Zydrunas “Big Z” Ilgauskas was traded to the Washington Wizards with the understanding that they’d buy out his contract, allowing him to return to Cleveland—the only team he’s every played for—in thirty days. Those are the facts, but what really led you to write your first ode to Big Z, Mike?
I had drafted Z onto my Fantasy Basketball team, to serve (as in his real career) as a reliable bench player. I admired his steady, drama-free style on and off the court, and I appreciated his loyalty to the city of Cleveland, long predating the days of LeBron James. More than anyone, he had earned the right to be a playoff contender, and yet this season he was done dirty, not just for business but to stroke egos. I got the hint when Z was benched to deny him a longevity award held by the team’s GM. The ultimate insult was being traded to Washington with the understanding DC would just buy his contract and drop him.
At the same time, a friend was talking about how common occasional verse used to be—that you’d open a magazine or newspaper, and there’d be poetry, usually doggerel and often terrible. So I put the two together and wrote, in high style, a rhymed-couplet appreciation of Zydrunas Ilgauskas to share with a few friends. And that’s where you come into the picture.
How the poem came to my attention is important too, I think, since you posted it in the message section of our fantasy basketball league’s homepage. Like a Facebook status, that text box is ripe for poetry. I felt challenged by your posting of the first Big Z: An Appreciation, and I couldn’t resist responding with something equally baroque. I too have a soft spot for Big Z. It seems like the world is always trying to screw him, but he just keeps his head down and does his job. Plus a doggerel poem about a Lithuanian giant has a lot of opportunity for comedy. At least I hope so, because otherwise I’m not sure what purpose the poem serves.
Your poem is definitely funny, but it’s also warm-hearted, and absurd in the best possible sense of the word. I think that’s where your love of the game and Big Z come in. It’s hard to write a careless poem anyhow, but it’s impossible to do it with a subject you care about. The last thing I’d want is the poetic equivalent of The Air Up There. And so many basketball poems seem to turn out that way.
What do you think the argument is for writing occasional poems about celebrities? Shouldn’t we be spending our time plunging the depths of our souls or writing love poems to our wives? Is there any qualitative difference, vis-a-vis poetic subject, between a nightingale and Big Z? “It’s hard to write a careless poem,” you say, but I wonder if that’s true.
I fear any answer I give to this one is going to be a glorified “Why not?” Almost all the debate over what is or isn’t a worthy subject for art is really a reaction to a preponderance of crappy art with that subject. Seeing as how these poems were born out of Fantasy sports—an exercise in statistics—I’ll assert that being a sports fan requires a certain healthy irrationality. The game is a closed system of rules, skills and finance. Some teams and some players are better than others, night after night, in plain numbers. Why put your heart into a team that will be damned lucky to win even half its games? Loyalty to a place? To family? Admiration of human achievement? The thrill of distraction and spectacle? Love? You can write a terrible poem about that or a great poem about that, but there’s clearly potential poetry in it.
I truly struggle with this question of worthy subjects, though. Which leads to (or from): why am I writing poems? I’ve written a lot of poems about Morton Feldman, an American composer who died in 1987 and whom most people haven’t heard of. And I’ll admit here that at some point I think I was writing about him because I thought he was a sexy subject. I believed that writing about him would naturally make me more poetic–much the same way that I’m sure George Herbert believed writing about God would make him more poetic. I do care deeply for Morton Feldman, but my point is that my motivation in making him a poetic subject is much more complex than my motivation for writing about Zydrunas Ilgauskas was.
So I wonder if I should be writing what comes easily—basketball poems, odes to porn stars, etc—or what comes with difficulty—Morton Feldman, Death, God, etc.
To oversimplify (once again,) I don’t think writing ever comes easily. Any ease of access to a subject, a form, even individual style comes with that much more conscious responsibility. When I write what I know, it’s easier to begin, but after that, my writing is accountable to what I know. When I write about an NBA star, even in a lighthearted spirit, everything I put on the page, I can get wrong. There’s no objective correlative for Zydrunas Ilgauskas; it’s just artifice I’ve put up around a really real thing. No pleading ignorance; when I change what I know to be, I better have a damned good reason.
Maybe that’s a part of why there’s so much bad poetry about basketball, sports, celebrities, and other present things. Writers skip right to invention and artifice, regardless of what they know or don’t. They want the vehicle but their connection to the tenor is phony or stereotyped, because they write Nate Robinson like they write God or Death or a Grecian Urn. Sure, on the page he can stand for something, but he can also dunk on your ass, or even read your poem. That’s a pretty wild situation.
How did we manage to get away from Wreckx-n-Effect’s “Rumpshaker”? Or did we just arrive there?
The argument for Big Z or Rumpshaker existing inside of love’s or nostalgia’s or envy’s objective correlative is that people our age are more likely to have an experiential understanding of these things than a Grecian urn, an object that I know nothing about outside of Keats’s poem. I think people like having the mise-en-scene of their lives interpreted for them. Or I certainly do anyway. I want to know what Rumpshaker Really Means to Me. And to You. Whereas I kind of doubt you give a shit about about trees and urns, or even god.
For the record, I do care about trees. Trees are awesome. Not really a critical point—I just like trees.
All metaphor—all lyric poetry—is cheating: a shortcut to speak more precisely and more deeply about the nature of things, based on what we know (and hope the reader knows.) And yeah, Zydrunas Ilgauskas is a much less convenient vehicle for anything not related to basketball. But it’s not so much the vehicle as it is the driver, and like you say, he matters to us, so we put in the extra work and perhaps accept a smaller audience. I think it makes us more careful and more generous. The story of David and Bathsheba and “Rumpshaker” are both about man’s all-consuming desire to zoom-a-zoom-zoom-zoom then a-boom-boom, but the former is a freebie allusion, while the latter has to be taught and earned. Not to detract from the beauty of so much poetry that invokes the sacred, but when’s the last time you really earned something you explained using god?
Um, never. Hence why I’ll probably write a Rumpshaker poem before a David & Bathsheba poem. Or if I do write a D&B poem, Rumpshaker will be playing in the background.
One thing we haven’t discussed enough is this idea of friendly poetic competition. I personally would not be writing poems if not for projects like this where we try to write poems on the same subjects. Of course, when I’m writing a sonnet, I’m technically communicating with Shakespeare, St. Millay, Berrigan etc. but of course I’m totally not. If I was the only poet alive on earth I wouldn’t be writing poetry—I’d be in an insane asylum.
Sometimes I think it would be better if the lay audience thought of poetry as a hobby or club-sport, something obscure to the world at large, but thriving within itself. Like fly-fishing, or curling. Hell, I’d give my left eye to see poetry get the love and attention curling gets every four years before fading back into a small community of enthusiasts.
Technology’s given us an interesting scenario, where it’s made revision and collaboration so much easier, but with the tech comes an ethic which prizes the bold loner. “The computer’s doing the heavy lifting; any artist worth his salt can DIY from there.” Which is funny, since it’s so close to the argument that technology has cheapened the creation and sharing of art. The way I see it, if I have a live-updated network of like-minded friends online, and I’m not collaborating with them, what’s the point?
Oh man, so true. Can you imagine what Keats would have done if he could have created Google Docs with Charles Browne? Or Elliott with Pound? Unfortunately though, I don’t think poetry can ever be a curling-type phenomenon, surfacing gloriously at the Poetry Olympics and then returning to delightful obscurity, because I think poetry is doomed to wrestle with the mainstream. Its substance is just too all-encompassing. With no disrespect to “chess on ice,” curling can’t place a similar claim to its centrality in the human experience over the course of recorded time. Don’t get me wrong—poetry will remain weird and obscure as long as film and video are around—but we also have to deal with this rich inheritance we’ve been bequeathed. Which is to say, contemporary poetry is Brewster’s Millions.
BIG Z: AN APPRECIATION
with an assist from Mike Stutzman
by P. Scott Cunningham
Surely the world shrunk the day you were born
bald as a marble statue of butter,
or from the womb of Pokémon torn,
named after that which can’t be uttered.
In a land of cleaving you were right at home,
a forest planted at 15 feet.
Every board was yours to own—
between the King and Price, the missing link.
Genetic mash-up worthy of Tolkein:
body by Tonka, soul by Rainbow Brite.
If Jameson is smooth, you’re Johnny Walker Green,
gently lurching into waiver’s night.
But thanks to Stern’s unwritten law,
sure to return for Ohio’s sake,
palming even Paul Bunyan’s balls,
missing the pedal on every fast break.
MY DEAD CENTER’S COME BACK
(with apologies to M.D.)
by Mike Stutzman
The instant before time started
running out, everything
was a center. Then history.
Expansion in a terrible hurry.
Away is the only direction
of these long dimensions; the place
where you were born
hasn’t existed for years.
Unwavering, you come back
to play for the home team. The same
numbers, same great bodies. If any of this
counts in the stretch, then defense
is the best fundamental. Meantime
we’re bought and sold, like we matter,
darkly. As if a purpose
might bring us back to center.
Far from the courts, wise men
discuss the laws, and with shaking hands
write again that first, silent letter
on your contract, the difference
between death and truth.
#11 – Zydrunas Ilgauskas, C
Minutes Played: 21,820