Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Do You Believe?

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Do You Believe?

OK, I've had enough sports hype now. The imperfect storm of media frenzy over the Saints-Colts Superbowl, in which overpaid large American guys in body armour crash into each other during a war game over an inflated pigskin, and the Olympics, in which underpaid athletes from around the world vie for medals that will win them Tiger's leftover brand affiliations, has reached the point of inanity with an extra "s."
Maybe I just don't Believe. In honesty, I think the Olympic torch thing was an inspired idea, giving many small communities something to celebrate in a dreary winter, but the games themselves...
Does anyone not suffering from an overdose of TV commercials really think that our total of medals or Canadian athletes that "podium" (apparently now a verb) actually signifies how good a country Canada is, or even how good our athletes are? What if our athletes who use performance-enhancing drugs aren't as good at hiding their traces as those of more sophisticated nations? The shame! If we don't win gold in both the women's and men's hockey event, will the world end before 2012? I think not.
Part of the reason this snowstorm of sports media gabble bothers me more than usual is that, while we're paying mega-millions in one way and another to host the Olympics, truck snow to the mountains, and buy 72" HD monitors to view the Superbowl, Canada in its usual stealth mode is quietly strangling its non-sports culture. In a couple of months, federal funding to every periodical with a readership of under 5,000 will end, effectively sinking many of the journals which provide an early warning system of new ideas and talent. Heck, the Tories couldn't even be bothered to keep Parliament open because it might distract from their sports-watching and culture-slashing activities.
How is it that sports, which I fully admit can be fun and worthwhile to participate in, and occasionally a pleasant distraction to view, has become so over-valued, while culture -- which actually has more to do how we experience life and imagine ourselves -- plays the orphan child out in the blizzard, nose pressed against the Tim's window? I think there's a few reasons.
1. The results of most athletic pursuits (except maybe cricket) are immediately obvious. One side scores more goals than the other; one runner finishes the race first. Unless officials detect rule-breaking, the winner wins. No sophisticated analysis or post-graduate education is required to extract the meaning from a game of hockey or football, which is probably why most of the colour commentators sound like they've been give complete brain-ectomies -- hello, Don? The arts take some time and experience to fully appreciate, and sometimes they challenge our assumptions about identity, nation, and all those other things left unquestioned by the SuperBowl, unless the half-time band plays "Who are You?" again.
2. The unholy tie-in between big-time sports, television broadcasters and advertisers who can't resist tired tropes like "our financial analysts go all the way to the finish line with your portfolio!" has produced huge revenue streams for many people, not least the elite athletes. As a result, a high school drop-out running back in the NFL earns approximately 1000 times what an overeducated running-mouth performance poet or playwright does. When money talks, culture is supposed to shut up.
3. As a US reader named Mara reminded me, I shouldn't foget about the influence of betting. Enormous sums are risked in venus riasing from office pools to on-line betting services. Few people will risk cash on whether my next poem will be seminal or merely ephemeral. See point #2 about money.
So I'm getting all ready for the big weekend with a 12-pack of beer, corn chips, salsa and the Words Aloud documentary about poetry festivals in rural Ontario. I've invited Stevie Harper over, but I don't know if he'll show up. What are your plans?


Nice to hear from a Who Dat! supporter. I visited New Orleans before Katrina and loved the place for its historic architecture, unique people and very lively music and arts scene, not to mention the food. Based on what you say, I wish the Saints well. My issue's not with them specifically, but with the whole sports-are-so-important trend that seems to have colonized North American minds. Being from Toronto, I can't imagine what it's like to have a major sports team in the finals for anything!
John Oughton

Greetings from south of the border, JohnO! Generally, I'd be in full agreement with you on this, but the New Orleans Saints pose an exception to the rule--and one well worth considering.

New Orleans, which has more than its fair share of artists, depends overwhelmingly on tourism to survive. The levee breaks following Katrina (note that the post-K flooding after the levees failed was the disaster, not Katrina itself) left enormous damage not only to entire neighborhoods, but also to those neighborhoods' extremely deeply-rooted cultural and arts traditions. Many writers (and others) remain scattered outside of the city itself. The Superdome, where the Saints go marching in, served as quasi-womb for some, quasi-tomb for others. The Saints' juggernaut is lifting all boats: musicians, hotels, restaurants, artists who work in the hospitality industry to pay their bills, even the t-shirt vendors and graphic design shops who successfully wrested back our communal cry of "Who Dat" from the NFL's marketing tentacles.

New Orleanians are rabidly fanatical about their culture, customs, and traditions; the Saints have always been both underdogs and highly identified with the city and all it represents. The first Saints game after Katrina was an enormous event, one which was nationally televised and which put the nation whose government turned its back on us on full notice that we were not dead and not giving up. Whatever we think about the NFL as a gross money-making machine, the unquantifiable morale boost that this Saints team has given the city (as well as New Orleanians living elsewhere and frustratingly alienated from their beloved hometown) surely helped propel it into the playoffs and the championship.

In a sense, we've had our Superbowl already--winning the NFC Championship "at home in the Dome" before a national TV audience which used to mock our team openly and chastise our city's poorest victims for not having the money to escape. Victory is sweet, but ours is a moral victory. The Saints are just the metaphor.

Who Dat!

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

John Oughton

John Oughton is the author of several books, including Time Slip: New and Selected Poems, published by Guernica Editions.

Go to John Oughton’s Author Page