How to Write a Poem About Baseball
By Julian GewirtzOctober 24, 2015
Bialosky writes across many genres: her 2011 memoir History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished Life was a New York Times bestseller, and a third novel, The Prize, was published by Counterpoint in September 2015. She is an editor at W. W. Norton, and she has guided to publication recent books by poets as diverse as Eavan Boland, David Baker, and Major Jackson.
When we met at Norton’s offices on an August afternoon to discuss her own new poems, Bialosky told me that she aims to write work that will be accessible to people who ordinarily might not read poetry. The poems in The Players, out earlier this year from Knopf, are elegant and resourceful in reflecting this aspiration. Probing the experiences of motherhood and childhood in clear, musical language, the poems alternate in tone from ludic to elegiac; Bialosky is able to mimic the slang of baseball on one line and mourn her son’s vanishing boyhood on the next. She writes, “The boy goes for the catch, / slips and falls. / We don’t slow down. / We don’t slow down.”
JULIAN GEWIRTZ: The Players is a book that is filled with the language of baseball. It’s everywhere — it’s the first thing you see on the cover, and of course the title could be read to mean “baseball players.” So I’m curious to hear when you first encountered that language of baseball and the world around the sport? Was it through your son, or was it earlier?
JILL BIALOSKY: The Players does indeed refer to the baseball players in the book’s opening sequence called “Manhood,” but it is also meant to evoke the players within a family and within a community. To answer your question, I first encountered the language of baseball as a spectator at my son’s games when I was close up and witness to the chatter both amongst the players and the coaches and the spectators. It’s like a chorus! As he became more competitive in high school and competed in tournaments, there was more time to sit there and observe and become a part of the insular universe of baseball. It’s almost as if, when you’re there at the fields, in the stands, time stops. There’s nothing but baseball to think about. I liked that aspect of it because it allowed me to forget about the pressures of work and commitments and be present. One day, I was listening to the way the coaches and the players spoke to one another and also the way that the parents, friends, and spectators in the stands spoke, from coach talk, to player talk, to the chants and cheers from the stands — the whole language of baseball — and I got inspired and took some notes on my iPhone. I tried to capture some of that language. And that’s how the poem that opens the sequence, “Chatter,” came about. There is poetry and music in the vernacular and I wanted to capture that language.
I felt energized by it. I never really know ahead of time as a poet what is going to happen, where I’ll find my subject matter, and I try to give myself freedom to explore what is exciting me at the moment. After writing “Chatter,” I had the idea that there is this community in baseball, and the baseball field in some ways can be representative of the American family and the American landscape. In earlier works of mine, I created contemporary myths of girlhood, motherhood, and there was an edge and subversive quality to those poems. I think some of “Manhood” was born out of that idea: what if I explored these voices? I can’t remember now which voices came first for me, but I think when I hit on the idea of the communal voice, the “we,” the entire poem, “Manhood,” opened up for me.
To be honest, I sat on this for a long time. I had these poems and I was nervous about the work, because I thought, “Can I really write a poem about baseball?” But I showed parts to some readers and there was real excitement, and I felt that, well, maybe this is okay to continue to go further into this world. In poetry, once I hit on something that has energy and vitality, it all starts coming together. You never know when that’s going to happen.
I want to ask a little bit more about that inhibition or anxiety that you mention you felt in writing about baseball. Where more specifically do you think that was? Was it a sense of being part of this private community and not wanting to turn it into something that you were writing about? Or was it a sense of a cultural problem?
I think it was, first of all, as a female poet, it felt a little subversive in a way. But I kind of liked that.
I am married to someone who knows everything about baseball, so I was a little nervous about making sure that I got things right. I’m not sure I totally did. A couple people have pointed out a few technical errors! [laughs] And I wanted to be cautious about exploring a world so close to my son’s. I think there’s always some anxiety for me in what I want to do next as a poet. I felt strongly that I also wanted the book to be accessible. I thought about that a lot, reading current poetry that’s being published and written by particularly younger poets who are exploring more abstract, fragmented, or stream-of-consciousness poetics. I think that this book was in a way a reaction against that, because I felt very much that, though I have respect for poetry concerned primarily with language and sound, I wanted an audience that would be outside of the poetry world too. So that was on my mind as well. People who say that they don’t read poetry or that they don’t “get” poetry perplex me. I feel a certain responsibility to want to add to that conversation — that, in fact, poetry can be quite accessible.
I want to come back to that idea when we discuss your work as an editor, but first, to stay on The Players for another moment, you mention the “we” that you use. I would love to talk a little bit more about that choral persona you adopt, the plural speakers, whether they are different archetypal figures (“mothers,” “fathers,” “players,” etc.) or even this mythic “we” that you are tapping into, a big American “we.” When you made what you described as your breakthrough in writing about baseball, was it in a section where you were writing about one of the groups of which you are a part, or was it in writing about some of the people you were observing?
I think it was the poem called “The Mothers,” or “The Fathers.” One thing that struck me also, being on the baseball field, is that there’s time for conversation amongst parents and friends. Time slows down. It struck me that there were similarities in the ways in which mothers were responding to their sons, and the way in which fathers were responding to their sons, and the differences between the mothers and the fathers. So the poem for me is also about gender. The competitive nature of baseball, and some of the brutality of language, the fierce component of winning, I began to wonder how much of this is instilled in boys and how much of that carries over into other areas of life. As a woman who also was recalling my own coming of age, it seemed drastically different. The poem marks the transition in some ways of boyhood to manhood and how these voices shape us. Some of the idea of the collective voice came out of that. I was thinking about the choruses in Greek plays, and I found that group voice seductive, especially for the grand landscape I chose for the poem.
Just thinking about this for the first time, the idea of the collective voice, I remember when I left the Iowa workshop, the “I” was a big part of contemporary poetry. I think it was Jorie Graham who began to suggest that the “I” might be quieted in poetry. So then we saw this big shift where there was no “I” at all, and I’ve always been aware of that. In my own poetics, the “I” is not necessarily the poet; it’s the adopted voice. So the “we” was another way of distancing the poetic voice from the self, which I find freeing as a poet.
This book is more playful in a way than some of my earlier work. There’s more of a sense of irony, definitely in the sonnet sequence. I do find — and you probably know this too as a poet — that the experience of a poem changes depending on point of view. Finding the voice and the point of view is how a poem starts to come alive and take on dimension.
I went back and reread some of those early poems from The End of Desire. Those are in many cases deeply first-person poems about sometimes difficult, intimate experiences. I was struck in reading this new book that it is playful, as you say; that some of the poems are ironizing a point in life where things are better. I wonder if that resonates with you. For me, reading this, I felt a sense that although difficulties remain, you reach a point where you have a son who is a great athlete, and you’re exploring how poetry can respond to a joyful occasion like that.
Maybe. I’m not sure that “better” is the word I would chose, because the experience of loss and grief, and the dark eroticism born out of those experiences in The End of Desire — I think the hue is still there in The Players, but different, as you say. I also think that the book itself is elegiac — mournful — in the sense that I recognized that many of the emotional concerns in the work had to do with emotionally preparing for my son to be launched. I didn’t realize this as I was writing the poems, more as I was putting together the body of work and seeing it as a whole. I do think of it as elegiac — the passing of childhood, boyhood to manhood. It’s a gift as a parent to be able to witness that. Before then, you only witness it within yourself, and I’m not sure that we can always be that self-aware about how we develop from one stage in life to another. But, as a parent, you have that opportunity to witness it.
And you do reflect on those changes in your own experience in the “Interlude” section, where you look at some of the books that have shaped your development and how you received an emotional education from them. I wonder if what books were to you, baseball is to your son.
You’re right. Books were a source of solace and intellectual engagement for me as a child and adolescent. One of the things that I have learned about baseball through my son is that it really is an art form. I was interested in looking at it from that perspective — how does that kind of rigorous baseball training impact a boy? Not just my boy, but boys in general. It is an art and requires using the body in rigorous and skillful ways. There’s talent there. I am not an athlete, so to me it was stunning to realize the amount of skill that’s required. I did come to appreciate that and wanted the poem to convey some of that commitment and artfulness.
There’s a Greek ideal you’re tapping into there, refining the body through an aesthetically pleasing practice, like the discus throwers and the early Olympic games. And you seem to discuss these boys’ bodies changing on the field as their movement toward a more ideal form.
I definitely began to see it like that, almost like a performance with spectators and performers. It’s truly beautiful to watch the players come to the field at the beginning of an inning and to see the ritual of the warm up as the players throw the ball to other players around the baseball field. It’s a team sport, but it is also an individual practice — the training involved off the field. I enjoyed writing “The Girls,” the poem in the sequence about the girls [watching the games]. That poem grows out of my own childhood. I had a boyfriend when I was younger who played softball, and I would go to his games. Later, as an adult observing the girls going to my son’s games reminded me also in some ways of that younger self that is the spectator to the boy-man performer. Again, some ideas of gender come up there. I do think there is an eroticism and electricity to the game.
Sure. And darker dynamics, too, I’d imagine. I would love to spend a moment looking at a canonical poem on this idea, James Wright’s “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio.” I think it would be very interesting to hear what you think of that poem after spending so much time thinking and writing about boys playing another sport, another game.
[Turning to the copy of “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio”] Certainly James Wright saw the eroticism in football. It is so manifest in the poem, “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry.” I remember studying this poem when I was an undergraduate at Ohio University — James Wright was a big figure at that time. The big moment or turn in the poem comes in the last stanza in the line the references the sons who “grow suicidally beautiful,” which transforms the entire poem, because you don’t expect that oxymoronic phrase. “And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.” It really is quite terrifyingly beautiful. I do think there is that undercurrent of eroticism in football even more than baseball, because football is a contact sport.
Although you point out something interesting in a poem about baseball from the book before this one, called “Rules of Contact.” I see that poem as an investigation of how touch is so carefully regulated in baseball, much more than in football, where with Wright’s “gallop terribly” we have a sense of total collision. Touch is also much more meaningful in baseball, where the act of touching can make or break the whole game — whereas in football everybody’s touching everybody all the time, and what stops the play is not whether you can make contact with somebody but rather what you can do with that contact, whether you can bring them down. And then I was thinking about what that feels like as a spectator, a mother.
As a spectator, it’s thrilling to watch the great plays, the way that a player would slide into home or steal a base. I like the transgressive quality of that kind of activity, that kind of performance. I could never slide. I can’t even imagine that concept of how you physically do that — you’re using your body as this vehicle to get on base. Baseball is obviously a physical sport, and I think being a woman that was one of the things that I began to see sitting there for so many hours. I tried to imagine the impact of what that would be on the body and the stakes heightened as the boys get older and have aspirations to play in college or are hoping to get recruited. There’s a lot of politics going on as well, parents currying favors with the coaches, for instance. I wondered how that form of competitiveness and aggression and politicking was shaping these boys off the field as well. Again, this is where gender comes into play and the idea that the boys are “recruited” in a way, or trained toward this form of competitiveness and aggression. It’s rewarded on the field, as well as in life off the field. As a young girl coming into her own, that wasn’t available to me and I was struck by it.
I think you see that in the Wright poem, too. There’s this way in which the town is an entity structured around this playing field, where these boys become both the mascots and the sacrifices for the whole sad, spent community. To me, that is what is so overwhelming about that “therefore” — that it’s because of the first two stanzas that the terror of the third stanzas emerges.
And also the title, “Autumn Begins in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio,” as if the beginning of the football season is where things begin for the town. It’s like that in competitive baseball as well. So much of it is also about the family, how “the players” within a family structure act out their own dramas through the arena of the sport. That became fascinating for me as a writer, to find a vehicle where I could ground some ideas about motherhood, fatherhood, boyhood, and gender. The way in which we find our subject in poetry is a gift. It can be hard to land on something that feels slightly original, because there are only so many themes available.
And you’re balancing that search for originality with the search for intelligibility or accessibility. I want to go back to what you said a moment ago, about seeking with this book to write something more accessible, that somebody who normally says “I don’t do poetry” can access and a book that can bring people into poetry. Has that always been the impetus behind your writing, or is that something that as you’ve been working here at Norton has emerged as an increasing priority for you?
That’s an interesting question. When I’ve given readings from The Players, mothers and fathers in the audience have approached and said, “I felt every minute of what you were evoking in those poems,” and this has been different for me than when I’ve read from other works. I’ve hoped that my poetry would be able to include other ordinary experiences. When writing about a particular experience, the desire and expectation is that somehow other readers will fall into the poem in that way. I do think that I became more conscious of that, as a citizen in the world. One of the pleasures of being an editor is that I’m not in academia. I’m not saying that to be disrespectful of academia, but it’s different. I see poets who teach have a different experience, because they’re dealing with students and, if they’re working in graduate programs, with students who want to be poets. There’s a discourse and curriculum involved and evolving and I don’t have that discourse available to me in the work I do as an editor. The experience is private and individual, between poet and editor. As a poet, I’m removed from the academic arena of poetry, perhaps in the ways in which other poets like Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, and William Carlos Williams, poets who engaged in careers and livelihoods outside academia were, and although I’m just speculating, I think that some poets who are in academia are writing perhaps to please their constituency within that particular community rather than to please the reader in the world outside academia.
In the work that you do as an editor, then, how do you think about audience? And how does that differ from the way that you might think about audience when you’re alone writing a poem?
I think it’s very different. As an editor, I may be one of the poet’s first serious readers. My job is to think about how a reader will enter into the experience of the book itself. You can look at a manuscript poem by poem, and think about whether every poem is serving itself and the book as a whole in the best way possible, but then you also have to think about the zeitgeist of the book itself and for instance, how the title of the book is serving it and as an editor one must champion the work and its concerns moving forward. I do firmly believe that volumes of poetry should be read almost like a novel and by that I mean chronologically from page one to the end and that most poets are sure-footed about this when constructing a manuscript. In most books there are usually a handful of key poems, signature poems that define or anchor the work as a whole. I think that most poets would hope that their readers would read it that way, from beginning to end. It always amazed me when I would sometimes give talks and some people would say that wasn’t their experience.
As if every book were a “selected poems” —
Right. And then I had to explain that, no, that’s really not how poets think of it. In other words, as an editor, I’m trying to translate what I think the poet has achieved. And oftentimes I ask the poets when we are preparing catalog and jacket copy if they would write me a paragraph description of the book. And now I’m even thinking that before they submit the manuscript to me it would be great to have that, because it’s illuminating to read and see the work through the poet’s own concerns. Some find that to be an excruciating exercise, but it helps to frame the reading of it, in the same what that when we browse in a bookstore we read jacket copy as an entry point to the work itself. I suppose that with the kinds of poetry we publish at Norton, if you were not able to frame it, then it wouldn’t be a book for us. It would be maybe a book for a smaller press or a nonprofit not as concerned with audience.
Do you do that for yourself? You also publish with a commercial press. Do you find yourself saying, “Let me factor this into my own writing process or even envisioning what I’m doing as I’m working on a book”? Or is it not that explicit?
I don’t think initially it’s that explicit, but I do think it is important to me. I want to hit on subject matter that I hope can bring in an audience. Some poets would say that the language is the most important thing to them. But I think that it has to be both the subject matter and the way in which the language serves and transforms the experience into an art form. One can’t exist without the other.
I sometimes do this trick when I read manuscripts that come over the transom: after I’ve read a manuscript or maybe 10 pages, I put it aside and I ask myself what’s memorable. Many times you can’t remember anything you’ve read. It’s almost like you’ve read some beautiful lines of poetry, but there’s nothing anchoring it. Language for language’s sake probably wouldn’t define what Norton is doing.
I was interested in what you said about how the book should be like a novel, a story with through-lines that you can read from start to finish. You also write novels, and you have a new novel, The Prize, coming out. Taking, first, you as the writer, how is composing in those two genres different for you? I imagine you were working on The Players and The Prize at the same time.
I actually don’t really work on them exactly at the same time. With The Players, for instance, I remember writing the sonnet sequence one summer. Then I refined it over time. There’s usually a birthing process that takes place, where I am focused on one project. With something that you’ve worked on for a while, you need to step back and see it with fresh eyes. There can be a dulling sensation, that you can’t quite see it anymore and it doesn’t have any spark for you because you’ve read it so many times. But putting it away and not looking at it for a month or two, or even three or four months, can be instructive when you return to it. And during that time, if I’m working on a novel for instance, I’ll shift and work on poetry. I can do that — shift from one project to the other relatively quickly. Fiction and poetry are specific art forms — they require different forms of concentration. In a poem, the concentration is on the line, on word and sound and phrasing and rhythm. Fiction is more free-flowing in its attempt to bring forth a larger narrative, though after I have a draft I look at the language and parts of the narrative fairly closely. I feel lucky to be able to write poetry and prose, because they invigorate each other even though they require different forms of concentration and craft. I didn’t attempt to write fiction until I left the Iowa workshop. I suppose there was envy and competiveness involved. I was envious of the audience fiction and prose garners and of course, I’m a vigorous reader of novels and I felt I had a story to tell. It was an ambitious undertaking — teaching oneself to write a novel, and my first underwent many transformations.
On the editing side, you also edit fiction and nonfiction. How do you find editing prose and editing poetry relate? Do you view them similarly, and is it more difficult to switch from one to the other?
Editing poetry takes quiet and concentration, I find. There’s the sense that you need to read the whole manuscript and think about it and then work on the page itself. I’m publishing poets who are at a point where they often don’t require a lot of editing — although, for example, right now I’m working on a poetry manuscript that I think is too long and where I think that there are poems that maybe don’t need to be in this particular book and are fighting against another and diluting the power. That can be a valuable conversation to have with a poet. Not necessarily because he or she will always accept, but having the conversation introduces a way for the poet to rethink. Another manuscript I read by a poet we’ve published before came in technically perfect. But it felt a little bloodless to me and that was challenging to find words to explain that experience. As an editor, I don’t necessarily have the answers, but I am here to pose the questions. I depend upon the writer to come up with the solution. I don’t think as a poet I could do that with my own work.
That was going to be my next question, actually — I’m curious what the experience of being edited yourself has been like for you, particularly with poetry.
It’s really wonderful. I’ve been lucky to have early trusted readers read the manuscript before I sent it to my editor. That was instructive in the sense that, at that level, I’m still refining the poems. And I always tell writers that they should not show a manuscript, whether it is fiction, poetry, or prose to an editor until they have exhausted it, authorized it, if you know what I mean. You want your editor to see it close to a finished form.
Making line edits, that kind of thing?
At that stage, the poems are still taking shape and form. I love that process. But when you have your editor say, “I think this is a breakout work for you, Jill,” that is thrilling. I didn’t have the right title at the time I sent the manuscript to my editor at Knopf — I think I was calling it “The Guardians,” which I’m glad now that I changed. [laughs] Deb and I knew I hadn’t found the title yet. Finally I came up with “The Players” and it was wonderful to talk to Deb and be able to hear her say, “Yes, that’s the title!” That’s what I hope I do with my authors. It’s rewarding when you know you’ve nailed it, so to speak, when the book couldn’t be called anything other.
As I’m trying to envision what it must be like to edit and write both poetry and fiction, I immediately think of how the scale of audience is so totally different. What “accessibility” means is so different, too. I’m curious if you can envision how poetry might really become a more accessible art — not just a collection that sells a few thousand more copies than the norm, but large audiences consistently being drawn to poetry. Do you think that will take a different kind of writing, or a different culture?
I think that it might be a little of both. What’s interesting about the poetry world is that, to some degree, the prizes seem to matter more. It’s great to win a prize for fiction, too, but somehow fiction has more of a built-in audience than poetry. When a book wins the Pulitzer Prize, suddenly it’s probably selling double or triple the sales from before. Then, because the poet won this prize, the poet is featured in The New York Times and poems are reprinted, and then it seems as if there is an audience out there. With that said, I continue to feel hopeful, because I’ve witnessed it first hand — the way in which people who have never really read poetry before can be excited by a poem and then find that it’s something that they need in their lives.
Julian Gewirtz is a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University.
Julian Gewirtz is a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University. His essays and reviews have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and The Washington Post, and his poems are published or forthcoming in AGNI, Boston Review, The Nation, the New Republic, Ploughshares, and the Yale Review. His first book of nonfiction, Unlikely Partners: Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of Global China, is forthcoming from Harvard University Press.
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