Stephen Burt tells me to meet him in the lobby of the Target Center, next to George Mikan. He (George) will be wearing glasses and an old-timey uniform and will be posed mid-jump shot. He'll also be a bronze statue. When I get to the lobby (yes, my first time), I realize there's only one statue. I would have recognized Big George even without his glasses.
But that's Stephen Burt for you. He's into details. He has to be: He's a literary critic and a stats hound who follows a niche-market sports team in a niche league. He also happens to be the unnamed poet laureate of the WNBA.
In fact, that description alone would probably have been enough for me to pick Burt out of the Target Center crowd on our first meeting. He's kind of skittery and small and, on this day, weighted down by a flimsy canvas library bag slung over one shoulder. The bag is full of copies of his fourth book, Shot Clocks: Poems and an Essay for the WNBA (Harry Tankoos Books, 2006), a rousing, wry cycle of poems that celebrate the girls of summer and the fans who love them. It's hot off the press, and Burt figures that here, at the Lynx's 11th home game of the season, against the San Antonio Silver Stars, he's bound to run into people who will understand and appreciate the intersection of his two passions.
He may also be laying the groundwork for an act of either great bravery or utter foolishness: Before the Lynx tip off against the Seattle Storm on Tuesday, August 1, Burt will read his poems in an event room at the Target Center. It promises to be the kind of event that prompts recurring anxiety dreams and years of Freudian analysis. There Burt will be, presenting original verse to an itchy roomful of sugared-up children, perhaps in the shadow of two dozen Amazonian women in matching uniforms.
Burt, chair of the English department at Macalester, is getting good reviews for his other collection of poems to come out this year, Parallel Play (Graywolf Press, 2006), and has gained a reputation as a prominent young critic by writing in such journals as The Believer and the London Review of Books. Much, though not all, of his work touches on popular culture—or, as a positive review in the Washington Post puts it, "the flotsam and jetsam of American life." He teaches a course on comic books and is working on another academic book about adolescence and contemporary poetry.
He owes his fascination with the WNBA in part to his wife (a Connecticut native weaned on the reigning UConn women's team), in part to a strong sympathy for the feminist symbolism of it, and in large part, I'd have to say (after enjoying a couple of basketball trivia-filled hours together) to his talent as "a collector of obscure knowledge."
That obscure knowledge is valuable currency in the subculture that has grown up around the WNBA. Burt posts game recaps, analysis, and gathered bits of Lynx-related scuttlebutt on Women's Hoops Blog (womenshoops.blogspot.com), as well as on his own blog (accommodatingly.com). He also participates in a couple of discussion boards. Throughout the game, he sprints around the stadium and introduces me to a half-dozen or so people from the online community. (He knows where they tend to sit, but not necessarily their real-life names.) We meet two women—one trekked up from Omaha, the other from Colorado, just for the game—who had never met in person but report having IM'ed each other daily for about five years, mostly about women's hoops. It turns out Burt knows them, too, from the message boards.
"I included a rather optimistic poem about Vanessa in there," Burt explains to one fellow online fan, as he hands him a book. This gets a laugh, the inside joke being that Vanessa Hayden, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound center, is a player given to bouts of fine play and grand mediocrity. The poem, "Vanessa in the Underworld," also gets at the high highs and low lows of being a WNBA fan.
Past lowing shadows born to stand unseen,
We will look back gingerly at the strongest
Blocks we have ever observed, whose secrets demand
Our promise to return through this perhaps
Half-empty arena, whose glittering posts support
Itself in majestic frustrations: so far, so high.
"Hey! Foul! Peewee is throwing elbows in people's ribs!" Burt interrupts a conversation to shout at the refs. Then he looks around. "I try not to yell too much when there are kids around."
He says he's not the only one who works hard to preserve the family atmosphere at the games. There are tons of kids at tonight's game. Families with girls make up a huge portion of the Lynx fan base (and, yes, from what I see—or think I see—lesbians are pretty well represented, too). A dad behind us with three girls in tow explains that they come up from Bloomington to watch a handful of games every season. "I want them to see that you don't have to be a boy to play basketball," he says. "Which you might not realize from watching TV." Burt chats with the dad a bit, about girls, girls' sports, and just as much feminist theory as you might want to hear at a sporting event.
Even as he talks, he has one eye on the court and keeps his hands ready to pound out a rhythm or cup around his mouth. Sometimes he's the lone voice counting down the shot clock, even in this crowd of serious basketball fans; sometimes he's the only guy on his feet, even though, in tonight's desultory game, things have been looking bad for the Lynx since the middle of the first half.
At the beginning of the final quarter, the Lynx are down by 12. Burt and I have wandered down to the cushy chairs right behind the announcer to say hello to two other diehard fans. Burt explains that this is probably it. The Lynx just aren't championship material this year and they probably won't dig themselves out of this loss. A couple of years ago, this might have bothered him more, he admits. "But now I've got a new baby [six-month-old Nathan] and I realize that it's okay to miss a game. I'm not actually on the team," he laughs.
Then the Lynx start chipping away at that lead. Shots that had rolled around the rim in the first three quarters start to sink. The Stars barely get a chance to shoot. The Lynx trim the lead to 4, then 2. With 1:40 to go, Svetlana Abrosimova makes a breakaway lay-up to tie the game. The whole crowd is on its feet now. Burt is shouting and clapping unstintingly. Little kids are jumping up and down in the aisles. The scene under both baskets is starting to look more like a rugby scrum. Nobody scores for another 30 seconds of play, until Seimone Augustus, last year's number-one draft pick and newly minted All-Star, sinks six free throws in a row. The Stars can't hold on to the ball. Final score: Lynx 85, Stars 80.
At game's end, Burt poses a question he really wishes I'd ask, and I have to admit it's never crossed my mind: "How is a WNBA player like a poet?"
It should probably be no surprise that he's got a long, thoughtful answer to his own question, and it comes out in one burst. The gist of it is this: "They're both people who devote a lot of time and energy to something that is really valued in college and then they graduate and go out into the real world, where a very small number of them are able to keep doing it. Then they become part of this subculture that promotes the kinds of values I believe in."
They are also, Burt continues, people whose lives are lived in extraordinary details: putting the ball in just the right place, where your average person couldn't sink it, and putting words in just the right place, where you never imagined they could go.