“Roller derby is not a pretty sport.”
-from Talking Derby: Stories from a Life on Eight Wheels (Black Moss Press, 2013)
Since the rebirth of modern roller derby in 2003, the sport has been slowly jamming its way into mainstream culture, fighting a constant battle—it sometimes seems—against stigma and preconceptions, the most notable of which, is that roller derby is a staged, sexy throwback to the sports entertainment version that prevailed in the 70s and 80s.
Of course, those in the know are well aware that for every game-day polished, crisply uniformed skater who takes the track, hours of blood, sweat and tears have been shed to get there.
In her book Talking Derby (Black Moss Press, spring 2013), Border City Brawler skater Pain Eyre (AKA: Kate Hargreaves) takes great pains to present flat track roller derby in all its smelly, oozing, gut-wrenching reality. Most importantly, in its raw, honest glimpse behind the scenes, Hargreaves presents roller derby as a highly competitive, deeply challenging sport. It’s an approach that created a book that has garnered attention within the roller derby community (Scald Eagle, Bonnie D. Stroir, Luludemon, and Greorgia W. Tush all contributed blurbs), but outside of that community as well, especially within the literary community of which Pain is a part.
While most books about roller derby have been in some way instructive or explanatory (even Talking Derby includes a glossary), Pain Eyre’s collection dives straight into the action, giving readers an honest, almost autobiographical portrayal of the sport and its competitors.
Urged on by an acquaintance—Ladytron—who had the idea of starting a roller derby league in Windsor, Ontario, Pain Eyre got swept up in the derby revolution in August 2010. Hooligal, at the time a skater with the nearby Detroit Derby Girls but with roots in Hammer City, helped Pain and Ladytron and the other interested skaters in Windsor get things started, including providing important early coaching of the league. Aside from Hooligal (who now plays in Montreal), none of the skaters had derby backgrounds. Pain Eyre had virtually no skating experience.
“There was a bit of a learning curve,” she admits, noting that her last team sport experience had been soccer when she was 13-14 years old. “But it motivated me…it gives me motivation to exercise.” Like so many involved in this sport, Pain had little sporting background but was nonetheless overwhelmingly drawn to derby. By 2010, the sport was booming in Southern Ontario and Michigan State. Windsor, teetering on the border of both regions, was a prime location to start a roller derby league.
But it was also post-2009, after flat track roller derby’s Great Leap Forward, and roller derby was rapidly moving away from simply being a lifestyle sub-culture and into being a highly competitive sport.
“I’m lucky that I came into it at a time when the level of competition started rising rapidly, and I came into it knowing what it demanded,” she says of the atmosphere surrounding derby when she started. “Hooligal was a great coach right off of the bat, letting us know that if you weren’t willing to work, maybe it wasn’t the sport for you.”
With her background in the literary community, her base as a writer and her newly forming identity as a roller derby skater, it seemed inevitable that a book—or some form of literary endeavor—would accompany the transition.
At the same time that Pain Eyre discovered roller derby, Kate Hargreaves was just beginning her graduate degree at the University of Windsor. As part of her graduate assistantship, she was working for the literary journal, The Windsor Review, doing layout and design and other editorial duties. The managing editor of the journal, Marty Gervais, noticed that Kate was always coming in to the offices covered in bruises. Eventually curiosity got the better of him and he enquired about them. Intrigued by the sport, he encouraged Kate to start journaling about her experiences.
Those initial scribbles would form the basis of what would become Talking Derby.
The book is fascinating in its structure. As series of short stories (or more accurately “vignettes”) that traces the story of a skater through a series of practices, games and tryouts interwoven with intriguing pieces—sometimes just lists—that read like poetry (no surprise that in her writing life Kate is primarily a poet). While the book is seemingly episodic, there is a discernible arc, and with its focus on Pain herself, is almost autobiographical.
“I thought it would end up being a lot different from my poetry and it did end up becoming a lot different,” she says, admitting that there was no sense of what the final shape of the text would be going into it, and also that she’d never written short fiction. “It ended up coming out of those journals and being shaped through the writing and editing process into the form it took…I wanted it to function as a whole, but I also wanted it to be something that someone could pick up, open and read a few pages at a time.”
The opening story of the book begins in a practice space during a team scrimmage:
“Stale air weighs down the warehouse. 50 feet above our heads,
the grid of fans struggles to manufacture a breeze. A zebra skates
over the door, grabs the iron handle and lurches backward to roll
it open along metal tracks. The sun stretches his shadow across
the dusty concrete, toe stoppers to helmet, as he stands between
warehouse and daylight.”
It’s an opening that is pleasantly universal in its tone (for insiders anyway), but one that would seem a surreal entry point for an outsider. And during that scene, a few outsiders do stumble into the practice space and start taking pictures, asking, at one point, what it is they are watching. Right from its opening, the book rides that fine balance of speaking to insiders as well as outsiders.
Those early, personal, and visceral journalistic vignettes would shape not only the structure of the book, but the focus of it as well. “I wanted to give a five-senses experience about roller derby: what it feels like to get hit, what it smells like to walk into a dressing room….and talk about how derby impacts that sense. It’s so chaotic out there on the track; you’ve got hits and smells coming at you at the same time.”
The book is relentless in its physicality and despite the raw violence, almost sensuous in its description of the toll that the game can have on the body: bodily fluids spurt, bruises bloom. This is a celebration, sure, but also very much a reality check for those who question the voracity of the game. “One of the things that I wanted to get across was the actual physical experience of the sport and how difficult it can be,” she admits. And it is something that is clear throughout:
“A split lip. A bloody nose. A goose egg. An elbow to the ear.
Marker smears under the chin. Numbers smudge from arms
to cheeks. I’ve been hit in the face more times than I can count
on my wheels. I’ve tracked bruises tie-dying knees, butt, arms,
legs, hips. Black and purple, fading yellow to green. Bruises I
don’t remember receiving. Bruises that pang every time that flesh
“It’s one of my preoccupations,” she admits, about the fascination she has with the body and its functions. She has a second book coming out in the spring, a book of poetry tentatively called Leak that shares many of the preoccupations of this book. Pain Eyre does admit that roller derby gave this preoccupation a boost and even became an inspiration: “There would be bruises turning up (in my poetry) and aches and pains and bloody noses…it gave me a lot of material for sure.”
Writing Talking Derby was somewhat of a throwback for Pain, who actually made a hard shift from prose (even journalistic prose) to poetry only when she began taking creative writing at university. “You can never predict I suppose, even as adamant as I was that poetry was stupid,” she says with a laugh. She explains that it was only after being exposed to a lot of the innovative writing going on in the University of Windsor writing department that she saw the potential for poetry: “I realized that it didn’t have to be what I thought poetry was, and (I discovered) that poetry can be expressive in a wide variety of ways.” She sites Canadian poet (and innovative prose writer) Jenny Sampirisi as an influence, but also Susan Holbrook and Nicole Markotic who also helped introduce her to key poets in her reading life.
Pain Eyre’s breaking through of those preconceived notions of what poetry was mirrors the experience that many outsiders have with roller derby: They come in assuming one thing, only to discover an unexpected depth.
“I wanted to reflect the real sporting nature of derby,” she explains in regards to what she hopes outsiders will take from the book. “People who don’t know about derby will immediately assume that it’s not a real sport or that there is no athletic value to it.” Dealing with these preconceptions is a clear presence in the book, laid bare in one of the more traditionally poetic segments of the text:
So you play roller derby?
do you punch each other in the face?
on the track?
in the mud?
I hear you don’t wear pants
just cute little uniforms like lingerie football
is that true?
While the text does speak to outsiders, it is very much written from an insider’s point of view. Right from the very first Windsor-based book launch, Pain Eyre wasn’t sure how people were going to receive the book. But the reception has been positive and supportive, garnering a number of reviews and interviews, including on CBC radio. “When you get literary people who may not be derby people reading about it, that’s kind of neat,” she says of the positive reception she’s received from the literary community.
As everyone in the derby community knows, managing a derby-life balance can be challenging. Through her first three years of skating, Pain Eyre has grappled with this head on: “It’s sometimes tough. You realize that you’ve had three nights of practice and a game and two days of cross training and there’s a board meeting on Thursday and people are asking you where you have been.”
She used to be involved in a poetry night called TOAST in Windsor, and it used to be on the same night as practice: “I’d have to run out of derby, put on my backpack and jump on my bike; bike to the venue and throw my gear under a table and then jump up on stage and read poetry,” she says of trying to do it all. She’s also knows the toll that being involved in two all-consuming past times can be. “It’s difficult for my friends who are not part of the roller derby community…and that’s something that has been difficult, but I try to balance it.”
She remains deeply embedded in both communities. She remains a key member of the Border City Brawlers where she is immersed in a serious, competitive league nearing completion of a WFTDA Apprenticeship (she plays on the travel team in addition to one of the house league teams), but she remains deeply involved in the literary community as well, both through her writing and through her job as Production and Marketing Assistant for Biblioasis, a literary publisher in Windsor. She has clear goals for both. She’s currently finishing up the manuscript that will become her second book (and first collection of poetry), but also helping Border City navigate its second competitive season.
She is optimistic about the future of the sport (“I’m a little bit terrified about the juniors coming up, to be honest,” she says half jokingly), but also about her league and its travel team, who despite being on a bit of a losing streak this season, is playing better competition and improving all the time.
The book, which kind of has two endings, ends with a note of similar optimism. The second last vignette, “Take a Knee” traces the final game of a season and ends with skaters pulling up the track:
“Skates and helmets off, hair lank and wet, we knee pad clatter
across the floor, scratching at tape and rope. Tug. Collecting stray
programs from empty stands. Black shirts and blue, ripping the
last scraps of derby off the floor.”
It’s a beautiful final image of the track, physical and tangible. But the book adds one more vignette, a description of two snapshots: one of Pain Eyre at her first practice—awkward and uninitiated—and then another from two years later:
“Bigger knee pads. Stronger helmets. Uniforms and strategies.
But we still fall hard.”
The books ends with that dose of thudding reality: “we still fall hard.” For a text that has been so focused on the physicality of derby—of the barely controlled chaos that pushes play and punishes the body—it seems a fitting conclusion.