- "Off the Rim"
Layups. Fast breaks. We had moves we didn't know We had. Our bodies spun On swivels of bone & faith, Through a lyric slipknot Of joy, & we knew we were Beautiful & dangerous.—Yusef Komunyakaa, "Slam, Dunk, & Hook"
1. Layups. Fast breaks.
When I was nineteen, the only thing that mattered as much as playing basketball was watching basketball. Indiana University in Bloomington, 1991, and the center of my campus was a monolith called the HPER—an acronym for School of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation. But for me, it was the name of the first basketball facility where I could play as long and as often as I wanted for free.
The HPER was miraculous: rows and rows of basketball courts, and at any time of any day, there were people playing. Most days those people included me. Addressing Bertrand Russell's question: "Can human beings know anything?" in Philosophy class? For me, Bertrand Russell was no Bill Russell, and discussing his hypotheses couldn't be as interesting as playing basketball. Calculus quiz today? I'll be quizzing some buster on how his ankles feel after I show him the chain rule of my crossover. Barely staying in school? That's okay, my three-point shot is like butter now, and that's got to count for something.
English was the only subject I was able to manage reasonably because the professors left grading and attendance to the already overwhelmed graduate assistants. So, for most of those classes, all that was necessary for a decent grade was to turn in the essays. The exception was the class that should have been the easiest: Introduction to Creative Writing. [End Page 500]
2. We had moves we didn't know / We had
Creative Writing was a class populated by the same students who turn up in every workshop:
1. A pale, nervous young woman who wrote diary entries about death and being sideswiped by love;
2. A mumbler who never looked up from concocting phallic similes involving coffins and lipstick;
3. An athlete (this time, a football player) looking to leapfrog Shakespeare for his English credits by writing haiku about the rigors of the field;
4. Me, minority with a pen, fulfilling the quota.
I was the personification of William Matthews's poem: "eighteen and miserable so I wrote a poem / and it was, of course, miserable. " Even though the instructor said I was well spoken, I didn't know anything about poetry. A line break may as well have been the necessary rest between wind sprints, as far as I understood.
But I was drawn to the idea of creativity. Even though I didn't know anything about trying to create artistically, I knew that creativity was an intangible that you either had or didn't have—like knowing when to cut for the bucket or when to fade to the top of the key. The thing that differentiated my poetic moves from the others in our class was that my writing was somehow spiced with Black Arts rhetoric. After all, I was the token minority in class, just as I was the token nearly every place except the basketball court.1
It was my workshop leader who first suggested I speak with Yusef Komunyakaa. When I asked how to spell his last name, she said, "Don't worry about it. Everyone calls him 'Yusef.'" So I read his poems in our class text, New American Poets of the '90s. To be honest, the poems didn't much impress my raw poetic sensibility. Other than "Venus's-flytraps," the narratives seemed like Adidas Top Tens, K-Tel hand-clap beats, or headbands: old school before old school was a good thing.
I later realized his poetry has a polyphonic swing, a lyrical motion through narrative that is so incredibly intricate that it seems simple—the same way a layup isn't all that impressive unless you take into account how many thousands of coordinated muscle movements are necessary for success.
3. swivels of bone & faith, / Through a lyric slipknot
I hadn't been to a professor's office yet, and I knew nothing of office...