This story is about loss, about coming to terms with what’s no longer there, except in memory. A lot of your last book of poems, Sad Math, addresses this, too. What makes literature such an apt outlet for this kind of loss, this kind of lasting, tragic sadness?
I used to include a humor writing component in an Intro to Creative Nonfiction class I taught, and as a prelude to our readings, I’d go around the room and ask each student: “What makes you laugh?” Not surprisingly, no two answers were alike, which supported my point: Comedy is hard.
Conversely, loss of any kind—a parent, child, pet, job, meaningful relationship—taps into what is universal, what is shared among us in our tribe of humans. And because literature has to be both universal and particular, loss seems to lend itself more organically as both subject matter and source of tension.
For the record, I laugh when people fall on the ice.
I love how patient you are in “The Thing With Feathers,” how you don’t reveal the key detail until the last act, changing everything. You’re mimicking the therapy process in that way, the twelve-step approach, that gradual revelation, and acceptance, of truth. What is it about other people that makes us find ourself, want to share that truth with total strangers?
In my previous life as a sportswriter, I used to travel a lot on airplanes: Name an airport; I flew into it. I talked to many, many strangers, and sometimes I lied to them about who I was, where I lived, what I did. Basically, I created a persona for myself and lived it during these brief encounters. Oddly enough, the lies were actually dreams I had for myself, which at the time seemed too foolish or grandiose to reveal to my closest friends.
Being with strangers, especially those who you’ll likely never see again, is a little like traveling to a foreign country. While in Barcelona, you might dance barefoot to flamenco music until 4 a.m., at which point you’ll go to breakfast with the handsome young guitar god—something you’d never do in your hometown. But it feels right for that place and time. So I think it’s like that for the narrator Ada in “The Thing With Feathers”; the “dear lady” is the right person in the right place at the right time. She’s Barcelona.
If hope is a small bird, nesting deep inside us, then what’s fear? What’s joy? What’s resolve, passion, timidity, and obsolescence? I love the idea of something so full of potential living inside of me, ready to fly away and take me with it. But now maybe there’s an aardvark in there, along with a gazelle, a tree frog, and a labradoodle. Help me out here.
Fear is a quivering jellyfish. Joy is a bottle of soda after you shake it—fizzed up and urgent. But I may be thinking in terms of what my friend Anne Panning calls “the thingy-ness of the thing”—an active imagery rather than the resonance of the abstraction that Emily Dickinson was putting forth with her declaration that “Hope is the thing with feathers.”
Then again, it’s likely that someday I’ll feel something in my gut that shouts “labradoodle.” If so, I’ll sure let you know.
You also write about baseball quite a bit, publishing a book, Sort of Gone, that surrounds the game, and there are also your years as a sportswriter. As a Cubs fan, I’ve known a lot of loss (nothing but, until recently), and find a kind of daily tragedy in it—not like losing a child, but something else, something romantic but constant. Why does there seem to be so much more literature about baseball than any other sport, at least in America?
Because, as Donald Hall says, baseball “is a place where memory gathers.” Which is nice and lovely and seems to suggest the “good old days,” whatever they were: good for some and not for others. I tend to reject the nostalgia that’s too often associated with baseball because nostalgia is the mother of sentimentality. Sentiment is good; sentimentality feels false, unearned.
For me, baseball is a game of silences, of stillness. There is as much standing around and spitting (too much, if you talk to someone who’s not a fan) as there is action, and it’s the standing-around parts that allow the writer, or anybody, really, to break and enter and construct their own narratives. In Sort of Gone, I mostly write from a third-person limited omniscient point of view through Al Stepansky, the fictional pitcher at the heart of my book. Very little of that book takes place on the field, within the confines of the diamond, and even then, the reader is in Al’s head rather than outside of him, watching the action the way a fan might. In writing the poems, I eschewed the romanticism associated with baseball, the notion of fathers playing catch with sons. While Al’s father does play catch with him, there’s nothing romantic or nostalgic about it. It’s brutal.
As your publisher, I’ve gotten to know you pretty well the last couple of years, as both a writer and as a friend. So, Freligh, if you ran into me at a bus stop, in a rainstorm, tell me what we’d do next, how that scenario would play out. (Note: You can write a fictional account, but a poem would be even better, hint-hint.)
We Won’t Meet at One of Those Places
Where cocktails are crafted by a mixologist
rather than a guy who owns the low-down
joint where he’s both cook and bartender
and sometimes bouncer in the event
a regular gets unruly and has to be
sent home to sleep it off …
That said, I do like good beer. Places with mixologists often have great beer.