A Mystical Collection of Baseball Poetry

Krystal Languell’s new collection of poetry, Systems Thinking with Flowers, uses baseball as a backdrop to explore some really big ideas.

When I first met poet Krystal Languell, we talked about going to a White Sox game since tickets were cheap and the food at The Rate was 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 led me to write for that publication’s tribute to Ichiro after his retirement. 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 highlight of this weekly column. The book contains some of the most mystical poetry I have read and the entire first section uses the American pastime as a backdrop. I spoke to Krystal about her new book, the characters that influenced her, 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 refer to baseball, but they’re not exactly about baseball.” What did she mean by that? What are these poems about?

I think she means that the reader doesn’t have to know much about baseball, or even like it, to appreciate the poems in their own way. For me, what a poem is is its subtext rather than the text. What can I use baseball to comment on? I see these poems as using baseball as text or as a vehicle to signal larger ideas. It doesn’t take much digging to get big ideas, like national identity, power, youth, potential, innovation, in this game. And then, in later poems, which aren’t about baseball, I try to transpose these ideas and themes into other contexts.

To start the book, you quote Ron Coomer saying, “Well, there are a few things you could do.” Talk about this quote and why you’re introducing him as a “former Cub and All-Star.”

I love this. To answer the second part first, at the start of every Chicago Cubs radio show, Pat Hughes introduces Ron with this phrase [“former Cub and All-Star”]. I chose to identify it this way to play with the way we quote poets sometimes with a quick phrase like “author of XYZ”. On the one hand, it was like inviting Ron into a literary context, and on the other hand, it introduced him to the non-fan. One of the things I love about listening to Ron call the games is that he tries to maintain a patina of objectivity but is often overwhelmed with passion. This quote frequently precedes his unequivocal explanation of what he would do or recommend. It also reminds me that I (almost) always have a choice.

One of my favorite poems in the book is “Baseball Poem Written by a Woman”. The title reveals the gender of the author and reads like a tableau vivant. Can you discuss the choice to disclose the gender of the author in the title? How does the title relate to the rest of the poem?

This poem was written at the start of the Baseball Poem Project and describes a very silly scene in a Cubs-Cardinals game. In the TV clip, the announcers described a fan who was knocked over the short wall and disturbed by a player, but there was also a woman whose snacks were thrown out of her hands. I wondered if advertisers hadn’t noticed her because they were looking for people like them, and decided to describe what I saw in that scene. This relates to a line in another poem that says “women in the front office of my national pastime”. In this case, I felt a female scribe was explicitly needed to capture some details that the male announcers had missed.

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

I would like to know how MLB owners and managers can reconcile the love of the game with modern MLB. I’d also like a definition of “modern MLB” because I don’t think we all agree on one. Philosophically, I’m on the “let the kids play” side and I think a capitalistic stunt like the All-Star Game can be made interesting if the players have the freedom to express themselves in it. But that’s not what we see in an environment where we talk about unwritten rules and notions of respect rooted in outdated cultural values. 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 feeling: “But doesn’t magic work? Enough!” Why do you like the game? Is there one 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 subject of “They’ll Never Kick Me Out”, which is about a mischievous Yankees fan throwing Cracker Jack into the opposing team’s bullpen at Yankee Stadium. I returned to New York, where I had lived a few years before Chicago, to give a poetry reading and the best part of the weekend was the camaraderie in the stands at the Yankees game. This is not to denigrate people on reading, and rather it is my ambivalence towards ideas of prestige and reputation in the poetic community. I generally prefer the anonymity of being around 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 okay to write sentimentally about gambling? You are definitely pushing those boundaries.

Sure! 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 the same way over and over again, but I’d say the same about any tone or mood. As Ken Burns pontificated, part of this romance of the game is that the ultimate goal is to get home. I’m not known for my sentimentality, so your question tickles me. Using baseball as the subject of these poems allowed me to be a little more vulnerable than usual, so I included more voices and more emotions.

You call former Cubs shortstop Addison Russell in your endnotes, calling him a “piece of shit,” likely because of the domestic violence allegations against him. What does baseball have to admit about its culture?

Indeed, MLB has a lot of work to do on its top-down culture. I hope its leaders are able to initiate and sustain the growth that fans urgently need. Besides my sentimentality, I am also an optimist. Another secret. In Russell’s case, I think he should have been released as soon as his lack of remorse was evident. The mess of the situation by the powers that be has made a bad situation worse. MLB needs to let female fans and potential managers and owners know that they are welcome and will be valued and treated with respect. It’s hard to believe when you see behavior like that of Russell, Trevor Bauer or Aroldis Chapman tolerated and the abuse of women accepted as the price to pay for doing business.

Can you talk about the language of the game and why it interests you? You brilliantly play around with ordinary phrases to showcase their sound and uniqueness – ‘arbitration numbers’ and ‘investing in player development’ come to mind.

These particular phrases come from the world of baseball, which I hate knowing. But there are always new things to hate to know like NFTs and now all the fine print Ron has to read about sports betting and odds for every game (blech!) so over the years I’m on come to reconsider these types of sentences and their potential for greater meaning. In poetry, we call this the materiality of language – the many layers of meaning, including connotation, denotation, context(s), but also the sound and rhythm of language. Perhaps a good example of the materiality of language is how most people don’t like the word “wet” – it sounds wet and uncomfortable, and something about the sound of the word makes people feel this moisture in their body.

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

Absolutely! I love taking a nap in the middle of a summer football game and waking up to the exciting conclusion. We all need more boring experiences in our lives. In real life, this young friend would reply to my apologies that I only had boring adult coloring books and nothing fun for kids at home.

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