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Baseball is heavily and romantically played in American literature, from “Casey at the Bat” and Bernard Malamud’s The Natural through Gish Jen’s The Resisters. Martín Espada turns that beautiful green diamond on its head when he writes about brown people’s baseball experience in this week’s poem, “The Trouble Ball.”
At the moment, we are hip deep in the playoffs. The World Series starts Oct. 20, and the teams are sure to have men of many ethnic backgrounds rounding the bases. Jackie Robinson integrated the league when he started at first base for the Dodgers at Ebbets Field in April 1947, but before that day, baseball was lily white and aggressive about keeping it that way.
Espada’s poem, “The Trouble Ball,” tells the story his father told him, about going to his first American baseball game at Ebbets Field in 1941 as a new immigrant. Eleven-year-old Frank Espada had gotten off the boat from Puerto Rico not long before he and his father went to see the Brooklyn Dodgers. Little Frank wanted to be a professional baseball pitcher. In Puerto Rico, Frank and his family watched games with players from the minor leagues and the Negro leagues, and Frank idolized Satchel Paige. Paige named his pitches, one he called Bee-Ball because he said it was so fast it buzzed, and nicknames like Midnight Creeper and The Trouble Ball.
The Trouble Ball was a change-up, a pitch that looked for all the world like a fastball, but one that would stall and drop. “It makes the batter swing early and look like a fool,” Espada said on the full interview on The Writing Life. But he named his book after the pitch because “on a whole other level, it refers to other troubles. There was no greater trouble, at that time in history, and for that matter, there may not be today, than the trouble of race and the trouble of racism.”
Little Frank, sitting with his peanuts in the cheap seats at Ebbets Field in 1941, expected to see his hero Satchel Paige and the other great Negro Leaguers he’d watched in Puerto Rico. But when his father whispered to him in the stands that Black players weren’t allowed to play in the big leagues, it became a defining moment. “It was a discovery that resonated well beyond the ball field itself, and had implications for my father for the rest of his life,” Espada said.
While he did play pretty good baseball, his father instead made his living as a photographer who documented the Puerto Rican neighborhoods around him, and as a community organizer, to fight against predatory landlords, to lead marches for safer streets, to register voters. And his son, Martín, became a poet who documents trouble around the world, in hopes of changing it.
“I think memory is absolutely essential to us as a society, and poets have a role to play in restoring the collective memory and retaining the collective memory,” Espada told me in an interview.
And while many share a nostalgic fondness for baseball, Espada tells the field of dreams story from a different angle, so our collective memories also include the trouble in America.
Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer
The latest installment in our occasional series of blog posts from members of the HoCoPoLitSo board...
I’ve been a HoCoPoLitSo board member for several years now, but I am only now brave enough to make this confession: Poetry always scared me a bit. As an English major in school, I avoided poetry – I took the required Introduction to Poetry class during my senior year because I put it off ‘til the very end. I was afraid.
But during the last few years, I’ve had real contact with (and real context for) poetry. What I’ve come to accept is simply that when I read or hear a poem, either I get it or I don’t get it – either I feel something or I feel nothing. And that’s good enough.
When Martín Espada came to Blackbird Poetry Festival in 2011 and read “Imagine the Angels of Bread” I definitely, most clearly, undeniably felt something. Oh yeah. When Patricia Smith performed with the Sage String Quartet just last weekend, I didn’t just feel something – my mind was blown to pieces. And when the pieces found each other again and returned to whole, it looked different. Changed.
All of this made me think about poetry and my fear of it. This thing that made me tremble in fear had been making me feel things all my life. It had introduced me to new ideas and paths, it had comforted me, it had fired me up, and it had given me peace.
My family moved to the U. S. from Korea when I was ten years old. During the first months of my life here, my fifteen-year-old cousin taught me the alphabet using the Dick and Jane primers (which are poetic in their own way). It was also this cousin who introduced me to Shel Silverstein several years later, when she thought I was finally “ready” for poetry. I remember quite clearly how I loved the repetitive sound in this particular poem, “Ations”:
If we meet and I say “Hi,”
That’s a salutation.
If you ask me how I feel,
If we stop and talk awhile,
That’s a conversation
And all these ations added up
Silverstein’s poems were my first introduction to the idea of playing with words to create meaning – and to make people laugh.
Next “poetry” came in the form of Macbeth in the tenth grade at Wilde Lake High School right here in Columbia. That Mr. Berkowitz was a tough teacher – he made us keep a journal documenting ALL of the imageries in the play. This arduous task illuminated all the instances of amazing things that words could do – like striking fear in the reader when Lady Macbeth speaks:
[…] Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood.
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, […]
Macbeth sealed my fate – I would study English in college.
When I was in college, I discovered “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and it has become my favorite poem – the one that I keep in my pocket on Poem in Your Pocket Day every April. It speaks peace to me.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
When I started teaching, Taylor Mali’s “What Teachers Make” gave me a sense of justice. On those days when I felt knocked down by unreasonable students, failing students, mean students, nice but underprepared students, Mali’s poem gave me hope.
You want to know what I make?
I make kids wonder.
I make them question.
I make them criticize.
I make them apologize and mean it.
I make them write.
I make them read, read, read.
I make a goddamn difference.
When a few years ago, my father died of cancer, I turned to Emily Dickinson, whose poems I had never been able to understand. Her poems seemed like words that were almost randomly strung together with dashes. But I realize now that I never “got” them because I never needed them before.
So We must meet apart –
You there – I – here –
With just the Door ajar
That Oceans are – and Prayer –
And that White Sustenance –
I’m not a poet. And I don’t even claim to be a poetry lover. All I can say is that poetry has been in my life – it had been sneaking up on me now and then to guide me, to help me, and to change me. And guess what? It has been doing it to you, too.
HoCoPoLitSo board member
The latest installment in our occasional series of blog posts from members of the HoCoPoLitSo board.…
When it comes to HoCoPoLitSo, I follow the money via the checkbook, the budget, and the ticket sales. I also do the tax returns. In short, I’m the Treasurer.
I’m also an unofficial driver for HoCoPoLitSo. Since we like to provide the personal touch, the board members and the staff share the task of picking up or dropping off our authors at the airport or the DC Metro. It surprises me that so many of our authors, including our own Lucille Clifton who lived in Columbia, don’t drive at all.
I admit that if I lived in DC, I would seriously consider abandoning my car, but I wonder sometimes if there is something innately poetic about not owning a car or holding a drivers license. Whatever their reason for not driving, the benefit of the poetic lack of license is that it gives us another opportunity to interact with our visiting authors.
While some save their energy for the audience and just wish to ride quietly (as did Martin Espada), others prove quite talkative. On our way to the Wheaton Metro, Naomi Ayala remarked about how green Columbia was so I explained Columbia’s Open Space concept. In turn she told me about her favorite Ethiopian restaurant in Adams Morgan.
Linda Pasten carried on a charming conversation with me despite the nail-biting circumstances of running very late as I drove her along winding back roads from Montgomery County to Columbia one rainy Friday. She surreptitiously glanced at her watch and humored me gently as I chattered away, trying to distract her from my perhaps ill-founded decision not to use the beltway.
Playing chauffeur is well worth the experience and, as Treasurer, I have to add, the cost of the gas. So I guess I’ll keep my car and the job.
By Kathy Larson
Treasurer, HoCoPoLitSo Board
Just in time for National Poetry Month, the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society’s award-winning cable television program, “The Writing Life,” a writer-to-writer talk show, can now be seen at YouTube. Take the opportunity to hear poetry read and discussed by the poet themselves and to listen to the stories behind novels their authors recount as selections are read. In a series produced by HoCoPoLitSo, distinguished writers interview featured guests, asking questions about craft and process.
Follow the link at http://www.youtube.com/user/hocopolitso or type in “Hocopolitso” on YouTube’s search box to be introduced to writers from around the world. Check back often as episodes are being digitized and uploaded for viewing.
From seven Maryland Poets Laureate to five Nobel Laureates and twenty-two Pulitzer Prize winners, more than 100 poets and writers have appeared on HoCoPoLitSo’s cable television series since 1986. Guests range from edgy emerging writers to the most distinguished names in contemporary letters, such as Amiri Baraka, Mark Doty, Rita Dove, Martín Espada, Donald Hall, Joy Harjo, Edward P. Jones, Paula Meehan, W.S. Merwin and National Poet Laureate Phil Levine.
Several of these half-hour shows have been honored by the National Hometown Video Festival and the BRAVO network’s “Arts for Change” Award. “The Writing Life” is produced at HCC-TV on the campus of Howard Community College. “The format is ingenious …. (One) comes away with the privileged feeling of having eavesdropped on a private conversation between two artists talking shop,” says critic Geoffrey Himes.
Select editions of “The Writing Life” are available at Howard County Public Library, HCC Library or at www.howardcc.edu/twl or for purchase from HoCoPoLitSo.
Enjoy a sample, Nayomi Ayala talks with Martin Espada in a 2011 episode of The Writing Life: