The conversation I had with sports writer, poet, and Best American Sports Writing Editor Glenn Stout Monday twisted and turned informally. In fact, it was so bouncy that I was only able to transcribe chunks at a time. The conversation ran from Spaceman Lee to Theodore Roethke to David Halberstam. Mostly we talked about writing. Here are some of the most compelling excerpts from the First Ever Pitchers and Poets Interview.
On how he found Pitchers and Poets:
I don’t remember to tell you the truth. I was cruising on the internet for something and I saw a reference to it pop up. I like pitchers and poets so I thought “I’ve got to check that out.” Then I saw the “Death of a Pitcher” post, read it, and really liked that. I thought “I’m going to write that guy.”
On becoming a writer:
Well, there’s only 26 letters. And nobody’s that much better at putting them together than you are. I’m not in awe of the process that gets it done. When I grew up the notion that I would be a writer and would know people who were writers was like walking on the fucking moon. I thought that was just not accessible. Now that it is, I’m not intimidated by it, at least not many more. I deal with people now that I can’t believe I get to talk to, sometimes. I find out that they’ve read me and I just can’t believe it. But it doesn’t intimidate me. We’re all plowing the same field in some way.
I think a lot of writers put up needless road blocks. Artists in general will find reasons not to do things. A lot of doing it just entails sitting down and putting in the time. And in that way I feel like I share some things with people who are much better than I. IF nothing else, I put in the time.
On becoming a sports writer:
I got out of school in 1981. There were no jobs then. Nobody I knew had a job doing anything remotely close to what they wanted to do for 3 or 4 years. Of course back then there wasn’t the opportunity to do blogs. You couldn’t really do anything. You got a shit job doing something and you bitched and moaned and complained with all your friends.
This time is like that time, as time, where if you’re serious about writing you keep doing it regardless. A lot of times when I talk to younger writers I say that the one difference between being a writer and not being a writer is that the people who are writers are the ones who never quit. In a silly way, it’s almost that simple. Just don’t stop.
I just wanted to write. Sports writing was sort of an accident for me. When I was at the Boston Public Library I stumbled across a story about the Red Sox manager in 1907 who killed himself in Spring Training. The general attitude was that he couldn’t handle the pressure of managing the team, but something didn’t sit right with me about that. I looked it up in old newspapers, found out what happened, and wrote query letters tot the Globe and to Boston Magazine. Boston Magazine ended up buying it for $300 and the editor really liked me. So I became their Sports Columnist without having any previously published clips.
On the current state of sports writing:
I think the big problem with sports writing today, if you want to say that there’s a big problem with it (and you can argue that there is), is that too many people try to write like they talk on the radio. It just leads to columns that have no shape or form but just spew opinions. A really good column should have shape and form. If you’re just arguing about who should start at quarterback, they don’t
The thing about blogs – and I recently started my own and I appreciate them – is that very few people put the time in for either the writing or reporting on a blog that you would for a print publication. Not too many people have the discipline to do that for two, or three, or four days a week. Bu there’s a lot of great info in them, a lot of great data, occasionally some really good writing.
On David Halberstam:
I feel pretty fortunate that I was allowed to work with him. I met him before BASW when he came to the library to research “Summer Of 49.” I was kind of the unofficial curator of sports stuff at the time. He was business-like, but he didn’t try to big-league me or anything like that. He solicited my opinion about things. For a young writer to have somebody of stature pay attention to you at all was sort of significant. That’s the kind of thing that can really give you a confidence boost.
On his favorite baseball poems:
I really like the Tom Clark Poem “To Bill Lee. He’s a west coast San Francisco poet, kind of a neo-beat. I really, really think that Casey at the Bat is terrific, too. In a lot of ways I think baseball writing really begins with it. It’s got an amazing lead and there are moments in it with just great description, like “benches black with people.”
On his favorite ballplayers:
As a kid I was a huge Clemente fan, because I was a Pittsburgh fan growing up outside Columbus where the AAA team was a Pittsburgh farm team. I also like guys like Sparky Lyle. My first bat was a Yaz model. I always liked pitchers because that’s what I did. One of my first baseball memories is having a t shirt with a cartoon drawing of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris on the front.
I got my tonsils out when I was like 5, and I had my mom iron a number 9 on the back for Maris. I grew up in Ohio and the only big league baseball we ever saw at the time was the Yankees on the Game of the Week.
On his favorite poets:
Theodore Roethke. In particular, “Straw for the Fire,” a book of fragments from his notebooks was really influential on me. Also, James Wright. He is much more regional and I was from Ohio, so that has resonance. I also like Rilke in translation, especially the Michael Hamburger translation.
On reading poetry outside of Fenway Park on Opening Day for 9 years:
I was just a couple years out of college and I was into combining the things that I liked. That’s the goal, right? I liked baseball, I liked poetry. I was kind of involved in the local coffeehouse poetry scene in Boston. I got a little pig nose amplifier, started collecting poetry, and we just went out there. I’d send out press releases, TV stations would cover us, and newspaper columnists would cover us. It was kind of a kick in the head.
Believe it or not, one of those days I was up in the bleachers and Bill Lee was sitting right next to me. I showed him the Tom Clarke poem in my notebook, which ends something like “and then you went to China,” and he read it and said [does Bill Lee impression] “that’s a great poem!”
Just recently, I ran into him having breakfast here in Vermont. He didn’t remember the story – I think he’d had a lot to drink that day, I know I’d had a few – but when I mentioned the Tom Clark poem again, he said the exact same thing: “that’s a great poem!”
On his own baseball poetry:
I never tried to write baseball poetry per se. Those baseball poems that are on the website are the only ones that I ever wrote. I wrote thousands of poems and those are the only ones that I wrote about baseball.
I never, when I’m doing poetry, sit around and try to write about baseball. Sometimes it ends up about rocks and trees, or somebody walking down the street, or sometimes about baseball. Sometimes the ones that seem like they’re about baseball are really about something else, and some of the ones that seem like they’re about something else are really about baseball.
On writing poetry:
It’s all magic, it’s not like the other stuff. It’s not like the other writing. I don’t do as much of it now as I used to. It’s hard to do it when I’m doing this other kind of writing all the time, non-fiction. To write poetry you have to be in a different kind of head space. It’s being mindful of that interior voice. Just sitting around is a great thing to do to write poetry. Being a security guard or working at the library was a great place to write poetry. Lots of break time
I went to Bard College and the big guy there was Robert Kelly. He wasn’t really heavy handed. He was kind of those neo-Ezra Pound poets. I wasn’t but he could care less. Some of the best advice he ever gave us in a workshop one day was that “None of you guys should ever worry about being published. If you’re meant to be published, you’ll be published. So don’t sit there and worry about it.” I think that’s true. If the work is good enough, if you share it enough, someone will want to publish it.
Thanks again to Mr. Stout. Be sure to check out his latest, “The Young Woman and the Sea,” which was recently chosen as one of five nonfiction books to read this summer by the Wall Street Journal, and read his blog Verb Plow.