At first blush, the pairing of a poet and a sportswriter sounds counterintuitive. Upon further reflection, it's still counterintuitive. But on the first evening of the 2008 and composition titled "Sestina Aguilera." Beginning with the image of Christina Aguilera's blue tongue, Guenette envisions steam escaping from the pop star's shell when she is dropped into a pot of boiling water, posits her invention of the word agnostic in the 19th Century, notes that she cannot be folded in half more than seven times, and along the way references Robert Browning, Iceland, Siberia, Gitmo, Vegas and the Nobel Peace Prize. It is a wild surreal batch of imagery and sensation frapped in a blender with the lid off. Wisconsin Public Television staff were on hand to record the event for its new online programming, which means at some point in the near future you'll be able to view and hear his reading in all its inventiveness.
Following Guenette, I had the privilege of introducing Dave Zirin. I noted that his new book, A People's History of Sports in the United States, peels back the myths that shroud our sports history and forces reads to reconsider what they think they know about it. In the best muck-raking tradition, Zirin comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable by rescuing discarded heroes from the brink of anonymity and calling to account the hypocrites, cheaters, thugs and exploitative corporate giants who have too often hijacked sports. And so on.
Zirin was greeted with the sort of cascading applause that the best sports journalists deserve but too few enjoy. When it subsided, he began by noting the power of poetry as a political medium, citing the example of Muhammad Ali's verse as a segue to his brief discourse on sports as a vehicle for resistance to the status quo. From here, he launched into quite an impressive litany of examples illustrating the hypocritical intolerance of dissent by sports czars who endeavor to suppress political expression by athletes and fans on grounds that politics and sports must be kept separate -- yet who use their own leverage as sports barons to support conservative political candidates and issues.
"Sports is beautiful," he observed at one point. "I love sports." Growing up in New York, he played baseball and basketball and was a fan of Gotham's sports franchises. A complex sequence of events circa 1991 triggered Zirin's skepticism of sports, and led him to question his assumptions. Another series of events five years later led him to begin research for A People's History of Sports in the United States. The more research he did, the more he recognized that the accepted history of sports had been distorted.
Zirin's agile capacity for critical analysis was on display in full as he engaged the audience with illuminating examples from his book and from the contemporary sports landscape. In speaking truth to sports, he fights to take them back for fans who have grown impatient and disillusioned by each successive doping scandal or felony charge, by every gleaming new stadium built on the backs of taxpayers despite the strong probability that they will be demolished when a franchise bolts for another city.
As I observed in my introduction of Zirin, it's unfortunate that the delirious roar of 80,000 exulting fans is never directed at even the best sportswriters, who never enjoy the opportunity to do their work at midfield or center court and thus never get to look up and see fans doing the wave in appreciation for what they write. A People's History of Sports in the United States is a game-winning three-point shot from midcourt at the buzzer, a 98-yard interception return in sudden-death overtime, a bottom-of-the-10th grand slam in game seven, a 12th-round knockout that punctuates an epic bruising bout. In addition to calling many sports figures to account, he resuscitates the reputations of others whose accomplishments have been stunted and all but erased by the violent intolerance of racism, sexism and homophobia. And he replaces our sports history in a social and political context, where it belongs.