Austin Allen’s Pleasures of the Game (Waywiser Press, 2016) won last year’s Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize. I took some time to catch up with Austin and get his thoughts on poetry, games, and the Hartford Whalers.
To start with a “big question”—the title of the book is Pleasures of the Game. The cover features baseball cards. The first section, containing most of the book’s many sports poems, is called “The Games We Made.” Clearly, ‘sports’ is the book’s showcase theme. But you also have other types of poems. You’ve got love poetry; you’ve got poetry that invokes mythology; and then there’s the last, long poem in the book which explores an unsolved murder. How do you see sports/games connecting all of these threads? Or do you?
As I was reading the finished manuscript, I noticed that the word “game” kept cropping up. I saw I’d ended up with a theme, even if I hadn’t started with one. I also liked the idea of working “pleasure” into the title, because so few poetry books emphasize that up front.
There are only a handful of sports poems in the book, but they’re stacked close to the beginning—plus there’s that cover image. Quick tip for poets: if you put a bird or volcano on the cover of your collection, no one will ask if the whole book is about birds or volcanoes. But if you put baseball cards on the cover, a surprising number of friends will ask if the whole book is about baseball.
If the book is all about games, it would be in the sense suggested by the opening epigraph, a stanza from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám that ends: “Make Game of that which makes as much of Thee.” I was also probably thinking of other writers’ remarks about games: Auden’s description of poetry as “a game of knowledge,” Whitman’s “in and out of the game watching and wondering at it,” etc.
Even though there’s a long tradition of poetry about sports, from “Casey at the Bat” (which your poem “In Mudville” alludes to) to Marianne Moore’s “Baseball and Writing” to Terrance Hayes’s “Derrick Poem (The Lost World),” I feel like “the sports poem” is still a rare breed. I wonder if it has something to do with the old stereotype that poets don’t care about sports, or if it’s something else. As a guy who’s clearly a fan of both poetry and baseball, what are your thoughts?
I was a passionate sports fan as a kid, but as I hint in my poem about the Hartford Whalers, I mostly stopped watching and playing sports as a teenager. One reason was that the Whalers, my local team, moved away. Another was that once I hit puberty, I turned almost overnight from a passable athlete into an awful one—uncoordinated and terribly self-conscious. I came down with the ballplayer’s version of stage fright and never quite got past it. Luckily, the experience eventually inspired a batch of poems that deal with failure and the comedy of failure.
Writing about sports is one way you buck convention in this book. Another way is by writing metrically. A big part of what I loved about Pleasures of the Game was its confident use of form. It’s not something we’re seeing very much of right now. There are a lot of opinions on this, but why do you think so many contemporary poets eschew form and meter? And why have you chosen to write in it?
Thank you for saying I’m bucking convention with meter—obviously, it used to be that meter was convention. But it’s been somewhat unfashionable in recent decades, even as plenty of poets have continued to do outstanding work in it (among those writing now: A. E. Stallings, Joshua Mehigan, Marilyn Nelson, Don Paterson, Amit Majmudar, Matthew Buckley Smith, Ryan Wilson, Caitlin Doyle, Jenna Le, Eric McHenry…).
I think most current poets avoid meter because most current poetry teachers avoid teaching it. That’s too bad, because it’s just a musical device—a very beautiful and pleasurable one. There’s also a strange, lingering superstition in the poetry world that writing metrical verse makes you some sort of Reaganite conservative. This idea grew out of the literary politics of the ‘80s, and unfortunately, like the Reagan era itself, it’s still with us in some ways. But it doesn’t make sense either as politics or criticism, and it’ll pass.
I don’t know why I use meter myself, except that it’s what comes most naturally when I’m trying to structure a poem. “Formal” and “free” verse are just different approaches to making verbal music, and I’ve had more luck with one than the other.
I noted earlier that Pleasures of the Game has a number of poems dealing with what I’ll loosely call “mythological” subjects. There’s Greek mythology, there’s a poem about Scheherazade, there’s Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. I’m thinking about how part of mythology’s function is to provide models for morality, standards of behavior. I’m also thinking about how pro athletes are so often made into role models, especially by young boys. Maybe I’m carrying this too far, but do you imagine some overlap between mythology and contemporary sports? Like, the World Series as The Iliad? Derek Jeter as Achilles?
I don’t think that’s going too far. Sportswriters have often drawn those kinds of comparisons, but so have a number of “literary” writers. You mentioned Marianne Moore, whose mythologizing of athletes was only partly tongue-in-cheek—I think she really saw some of them as heroes in a sense. Late in her life she became friends with Muhammad Ali, who was certainly a courageous activist and icon. Most athletes, of course, are neither role models nor villains; they’re human beings who happen to have a special talent. It’s just the stadium lights that make them seem mythic. But I’m interested in the kind of heroism (or at least wisdom) that springs from defeat, so I’ve written about a different side of sports mythology: neurotic Roger Maris, Mighty Casey striking out, and so on.
Finally, since this is The Good Men Project I have to ask—what does ‘being a good man’ mean to you? Does your understanding of “good manhood” manifest itself in your poetry in any tangible ways?
Being a good man is always a matter of aspiration, like being a good writer. I’d like my poetry to manifest goodness in both senses, but whether it does or not is for others to judge. That’s a great question and I’d love to hear your own answer.
Charlie: I guess for me ‘being a good man’ partly means messing around with the conventions of masculinity. That would be the social justice answer—using the privileges our culture affords men to help deconstruct sexism and the toxic systems that perpetuate it. That’s definitely something I try to do in my poetry, since everything I write seems to wind up dealing with masculinity on some level. And often it’s a queer masculinity—gay soldiers in All the Heat We Could Carry, gender fluidity in my forthcoming book. So I suppose for me “goodness” means challenging structures and expectations. Huh. Never thought of it that way before.
Austin: Yes, and we’re living through a time in which no one is happy with “the conventions of masculinity”—least of all the men who strictly obey them. Everything is fair game for subversion, including the basic language we use to talk about manhood. And subverting the “structures and expectations” of language is something poetry is well positioned to do.
It definitely is. Oh, and thanks for the shout out to the Hartford Whalers. A brief, tragic period for those of us who came of age in Connecticut in the ’80s.
Austin Allen’s Pleasures of the Game is available from Waywiser Press. His poetry has appeared in The Yale Review, 32 Poems, Southwest Review, The Missouri Review, and other outlets, and has been featured on Verse Daily. His criticism appears frequently via Poetry Foundation. He has taught as a Lecturer in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University and is currently a doctoral student in Creative Writing at the University of Cincinnati. More at austinallenwriting.com.
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Photo courtesy of the author