Poet’s Spotlight: Jack Ridl on “The Losing Season”

Jack Ridl

Jack Ridl

The Coach’s Son Writes Poems

Instead of talking about a single poem from the collection Losing Season, I’m going to talk about the book as a whole. In a sense it’s a single poem, or maybe a novel hidden behind the poems. Whatever it is, it took almost forty years to complete. The first twenty of those were spent avoiding drawing on the whole world of basketball I grew up in both as a player—point guard—and as the son of a college, then university coach. Over and over again I’d be acknowledged with “Oh, you’re the coach’s son.” I was determined to forge my own identity.

I admit that forging my identity by deciding to be a poet was, well, it was not the most accessible route. But I was young and naive and had no idea about the poetry world. To become this imagined poet-self, I stayed far away from the world where I grew up, even when encouraged to “Write about what you know.”

I stumbled along for many years, a poem published here, another there, then two collections from a press no longer in existence (Dawn Valley Press) and then a collection, Broken Symmetry, from Wayne State University Press. It was that book that gave me the permission to say at least to myself, “You write your own poems.”

So after that collection appeared and after pushing back that whole basketball world all those years, I started to let it back in. I wrote a few poems coming from that experience, a few more, a few more. I sent some to Richard Jones at Poetry East knowing he would tell me whether they were poems or just well, just notes about what went on around a team, a coach, and all that comes with the American game. Richard said, “I don’t know all that much about basketball. These are not only not about basketball, these are poems. I’d like to publish some.”

For the next 20 some years the coach’s son went to work creating a small town, its high school, a long winter, a coach and his team going through a losing season, and what happens when specific townspeople hitch their mood to whether a team wins or loses. I must have written more than 100 poems and not one was about a game being played. All came from the experience of a kid living behind the scenes of a basketball team, and the realization that I had lived in a decidedly different world than most other kids.

Another surprise, the book was about a losing season. My father was a winning coach, a Hall of Fame winning coach, a coach who influenced hundreds of other coaches. Why about losing? Because when “we” won, it was a relief: I didn’t have to hear about my father being a lousy coach, read in the sports section or hear on the radio or television all that he did wrong, why he “should be fired,” that he was a “lousy bum.” The after-effects of losing, of losing even a single game, were what had the deepest impact on me. And so the poems came from that “place.” I made up the town, the people, the events, everything, everything except the consequences of losing. Those were in my memory’s bloodstream.

It’s America after all: if you don’t win, you are a loser.

Here’s a poem that didn’t fit into the book, but one that says a bit about “what it was like.” I owe so much about writing poems to this very image of practice, practice, practice. And to being a coach’s son.

       Coach’s Kid

Coach’s kind practices every day,
after school, into the long tail
of twilight. He dribbles twenty minutes
with his left hand, twenty with his
right; she shoots a hundred lay-ups,
fifty on each side; he taps the ball
against the backboard till his wrists
and fingers burn; he shoots fouls
until he’s dropped twenty in a row
barely rustling the net.  He works
the corners, moves around the key:
first a head fake, then the soft launch
of the one-handed jump, then
a quick dribble left, back right,
a swift shimmy of his shoulders,
then up for the arc toward the hoop.
He feels good. The sweat whispers,
“Push it.” His calves throb the cheers
he’s working toward. His breathing
is as calm as sleep. He steadies
his eye, fixes this wild dream
like a still photograph never knowing
it would hang on the rim and fall off.

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