A mystical collection of baseball poetry

The new poetry collection from Krystal Languell, Systems Thinking with Flowers, uses baseball as a backdrop to explore some very big ideas.

When I first met poet Krystal Languell, we talked about attending a White Sox game since the tickets were cheap and the food at “The Rate” is good. We’re both Chicago Cubs fans, but who can pass up a deal? Krystal had started writing weekly poems for Baseball Prospectus’ “Short Relief” column and she pulled me in to write for that publication’s tribute to Ichiro upon his retirement from him. We quickly became silent partners in the same mission: women writing poetry about the game we loved.

Krystal’s fourth book, Systems Thinking With Flowers, is the culmination of that weekly column. The book contains some of the most mystical poetry I’ve read and the entire first section uses America’s pastime as its backdrop. I talked to Krystal about her new book by Ella, the characters who influenced it, and what it’s like to be a woman writing sports literature today.

Rae Armantrout, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who selected your book for publication said in the foreword, “these poems reference baseball, but they aren’t about baseball exactly.” What did she mean by that? What are these poems about?

I think she means the reader doesn’t have to know much about baseball, or even like it, to appreciate the poems on their own terms. For me, what a poem is about is its subtext rather than the text. What can I use baseball to comment on? I see these poems as using baseball as the text or the vehicle to gesture at larger ideas. It doesn’t take a lot of digging to get at big ideas, like national identity, power, youth, potential, innovation, in this game. And then in the later poems, which are not about baseball, I attempt to carry those ideas and themes into other settings.

To start off the book you quote Ron Coomer saying, “Well, there’s a couple things you could do.” Talk about this quote and why you introduce him as “Former Cub and All-Star.”

I love this. To answer the second part first, at the beginning of every Chicago Cubs radio broadcast Pat Hughes introduces Ron with this phrase [“former Cub and All-Star”]. I chose to identify him this way to play around with the way we cite poets sometimes with a quick phrase like “author of XYZ.” On the one hand, it felt like inviting Ron into a literary context, and on the other, it introduces him to the non-fan. One of the things I love about listening to Ron call games is that he tries to maintain a patina of objectivity but often is overwhelmed by passion. That quote frequently precedes his explaining of him in no uncertain terms which thing he would do or recommend. It also reminds me that I (almost) always have choices.

One of my favorite poems in the book is “Baseball Poem Written by a Woman.” The title discloses the author’s gender of her and it reads like a tableau vivant. Can you discuss the choice of disclosing the author’s gender in the title? How does the title connect with the rest of the poem?

This poem was written early on in the project of baseball poems and describes a very silly scene in a Cubs-Cardinals game. In the TV clip, the announcers were describing one fan who a player had flipped over the short wall and disturbed her, but there was also a woman whose snacks were kicked out of her hands. I wondered if the announcers didn’t notice her because they were looking for people like themselves, and I decided to describe what I saw in that scene. It relates to a line in another poem that goes “women in the front office of my national pastime.” In that instance, I felt a female scribe was explicitly necessary to capture some details the male announcers missed.

You spend time in poems like “The All-Star Game is Stupid” criticizing baseball “traditions,” which of course are capitalist exhibitions. How can fans reconcile love of the game with the modern MLB?

I would like to know how MLB owners and executives can reconcile love of the game with the modern MLB. I’d also like a definition for “the modern MLB” because I think we don’t all agree on one. Philosophically, I’m in the “let the kids play” camp and I think a capitalist stunt like the All-Star Game can be made interesting if players are granted the freedom to express themselves within it. But that’s not what we see in an environment where unwritten rules and notions of respect rooted in outdated cultural values ​​are bandied about. I guess the All-Star Game is cool for kids and that’s great.

You also write, “See how good baseball is?” in “First Night in the Turkey’s Nest,” and in “Free Baseball!” I find a similar sentiment: “But doesn’t the magic do? Enough!” Why do you love the game? Is there a memory that stands out?

Baseball can unite people, which is why it seems so aggressive when people vehemently denounce it as boring. That magic is also the topic of “They’ll Never Throw Me Out,” which is about a mischievous Yankees fan throwing Cracker Jack into the opposing team’s bullpen at Yankee Stadium. I went back to NYC, where I’d lived for some years prior to Chicago, to give a poetry reading and the best part of the weekend was the camaraderie of the bleacher seats at the Yankees game. That’s not to disparage the folks at the reading, and is more about my ambivalence toward ideas of prestige and reputation in the poetry community. I usually prefer the anonymity of being surrounded by drunk people.

Baseball is the most nostalgic of all sports. As Brad Pitt said in Moneyball, “How can you not be romantic about baseball?” Is it ok to write sentimentally about the game? You definitely push these bounds.

Of course! There’s nothing wrong with sentimentality. Now, I’ll get tired of it if there’s no variety and the writing hits the same note in the same way over and over, but I’d say the same thing about any tone or mood. As Ken Burns has pontificated, part of that romance of the game is that the ultimate goal is to get back home. I am not known for my sentimentality, so your question tickles me. Using baseball as the subject matter for these poems gave me cover to be a bit more vulnerable than usual, and I included more voices and more emotion as a result.

You call out Addison Russell, former Cubs shortstop, in your Endnotes, calling him a “piece of s**t,” presumably due to the domestic abuse allegations levied against him. What does baseball need to own up to regarding its culture?

Indeed, MLB has a lot of work to do on its culture from top to bottom. I hope its leaders are capable of initiating and following through on the growth that fans urgently need to see. In addition to my sentimentality, I am also an optimist. Another secret. In the case of Russell, I think he should have been cut loose as soon as his lack of remorse was apparent. The bungling of the situation by the powers that be made a bad situation worse. MLB needs to communicate to female fans and potential managers and owners that they are welcome and will be valued and treated with respect. That is hard to believe when we see behavior like Russell’s, or Trevor Bauer’s, or Aroldis Chapman’s, tolerated and abuse of women accepted as the cost of doing business.

Can you talk about the language of the game and why it is of interest to you? You brilliantly play with ordinary phrases to highlight their sound and uniqueness—“arbitration numbers” and “investing in player development” come to mind.

These phrases in particular come from the business of baseball, which I kind of hate knowing about. But there keep being new things to hate knowing about, like NFTs and now all the fine print Ron has to read about sports betting and the odds for each game (blech!), so over the years I’ve come to reconsider these types of phrases and their potential for greater meaning. In poetry, we call this the materiality of language – -the many layers of meaning including the connotation, denotation, context(s), but also the sound and rhythm of language too. Maybe a good example of the materiality of language is how most people don’t like the word “moist” — it sounds damp and uncomfortable, and something about the sound of the word makes people feel that dampness in their body.

In “How Boring!” a young character says, “she likes boring things” perhaps referring to the game itself. Is it okay for baseball to be boring?

Absolutely! I like to take a nap in the middle of a summer ball game and wake up to the exciting conclusion. We all need more boring experiences in our lives. In real life, this young friend was responding to my apology that I only had boring adult coloring books and nothing fun for kids in my home.

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