Sunday, April 04, 2010

Poetry Makers - Gene Fehler

Hooray! Today is opening day! While I'm not particularly fond of either of the teams playing today (my apologies to all the Yankees and Red Sox fans out there), I am a devoted fan of the game and the return of baseball makes my heart sing.

What does this have to do with Gene Fehler? EVERYTHING! There is no better poet to mark this day, as Fehler has baseball in his blood and poetry in his heart. Don't believe me? Here are two short poems from Dancing on the Basepaths: Baseball Poetry and Verse.
at the end
of the bench,
kneading my stiff mitt,
while Coach
runs out
of innings


at eleven,
in July's sweltering
we played on
and on:
Before we explore more of Gene's poetry, let's learn a bit more about him.

How did you get started writing poetry? What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
Gene: I was a late starter; I was thirty-three before I started trying to write poems. I heard a reading by poet Knute Skinner, mostly free verse narratives, and decided to try writing that type poem about some of my experiences. Once I started, I couldn't stop. So for years I wrote mostly free verse narratives for literary magazine markets.

What got me hooked on children's poetry (collecting it and writing it) was discovering the works of Lilian Moore, Myra Cohn Livingston, Aileen Fisher, and then too many to even begin listing. Now one of my favorite times is when I go to library book sales and find dozens of great books of children's poetry. It's terrific for me, but depressing to think that a library would get rid of such wonderful books.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
Gene: I guess because I have a childlike mind (whatever that means) and enjoy reading mostly children's books and young adult novels, I'm finding it increasing difficult to write for an adult audience (though I always hope what I write will be enjoyed by adults). I have three granddaughters, and I'd like to write the type of poems and books that they'd be pleased to read.

Who/what made you want to write?
Gene: Even as a little boy I had a love of reading. Growing up in Illinois, our town of 500 people had a public library that was open two hours on Wednesday night and two hours on Saturday. Every time it was open I'd be there to search out a stack of novels to take home. I guess it was only natural to want to write the kinds of things I loved to read. Though I was a late starter with poetry, I started writing fiction in college.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
Gene: I switched my college major from P.E. to English after my roommate introduced me to The Catcher in the Rye and Kerouac's On the Road. I actually taught poetry writing in colleges before I ever tried writing it. I rationalized that because some big league managers were successful even though they never played baseball themselves I could teach poetry without writing it. Most of my students wrote far better poems than I ever could have written at that time. I learned more from them than they learned from me. At least I learned a lot by trying to figure out how to teach others how to do it. Most of what I know about writing poems, especially for children, has come from years of reading so many great children's poets.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
Gene: One word: revision. I actually know some poets who can write a first draft that is close to being publishable. I can't. Everything I write goes through countless revisions. Every time I write a poem, I print it out right away. Every time I read it, I change something and print it again. Before I'm done I have so many different copies of the poem my wife jokingly accuses me of wasting paper. I agree with those who say a poem is never (or hardly ever) finished, merely abandoned.

As far as ideas for writing poems, my favorite way to begin is to think of these four words: "What I remember most" -- and go from there.

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Gene: I have an emotional attachment to most of my poems/books for a variety of reasons, but I don't like to choose any one over another. It would seem like trying to pick a favorite among my two sons and three granddaughters. I'll leave the task of "choosing a favorite" to my reader.

One interesting note: I wrote two books of interviews I conducted with more than one hundred former major league baseball players who played in the big leagues in the 1950s. I told them I was "a poet," and more than a dozen players sent me poems they'd written. I included some in those two books. One player told me, "It's funny that you would mention poetry, because next to baseball, poetry has always been my second love."

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Gene: My middle grade novel Never Blame the Umpire was just published by Zonderkidz in March 2010. The main focus of the book is how an eleven year old girl copes with her mother's battle with cancer. But the girl is also taking a poetry writing class. The book includes eighteen poems (written by this girl and a fellow student). The book also includes numerous "tips" for writing poems.

I'm currently writing a middle grade novel centered two ninth graders who have entered a national poetry recitation competition.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Gene: I'd have to say Robert Frost, partly because he's influenced me enough that I've taken the time to memorize more than sixty of his poems. I've never done that with any other poet.

Your favorite place to write?
Gene: When I started writing, my favorite place to write was in the bathtub. Now I do most of my writing directly on my computer. My computer is in one of my two main "library" rooms -- this one with my hundreds of poetry books and hundreds of young adult novels.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Gene: Frost's "A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom." Dylan Thomas' comment about poetry: "All that matters is the enjoyment of it."

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Gene: There are too many deserving poets for me to presume to choose one over another.

I've been reading Fehler's work voraciously since I discovered him, just one short year ago when his book Change Up: Baseball Poems was included in the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Poetry Kit. In thirty-six poems the young narrator describes his baseball-loving life. The collection begins in February with "Snow Baseball" and ends one year later with "Ballfield in February." In between there is anticipation, celebration, and a true reverence for the game. Here are two of my favorites.

Superstitions (p. 30)

Sammy chews fresh bubble gum
in every other inning.
Larry wears long underwear
as long as we keep winning.

Before each time at bat, Miguel
rubs dirt on both his knees.
Coach says a prayer each time Ted hits--
looks skyward and begs, "Please."

Bobby turns a somersault
each inning at first base.
Before each curve that Gabby throws
she makes a funny face.

Well, I'm not superstitious.
Not me. No, not one bit.
But now I'd better kiss my bat:
it's almost time to hit.

Fielder's Mitt (p. 6)

On my shelf my mitt,
stiff from winter's bench-
warming cold,
waits for spring,
for mud-scuffed balls
slapping past, taunting
"Catch me if you can!"
--a challenge
that thaws my mitt
for a chase
through any mud-warmed
in suddenly spring.
Teachers interested in connecting this book to writing can download an activity sheet that encourages kids to write their own book of sports poetry.

Gene has also written a free verse novel entitled Beanball. Here's an excerpt from the poem that describes the defining event of the novel.

Tim Burchard, umpire

It’s the worst sound I’ve ever heard
in all my years of umping.
Oh, I’ve heard plenty of pitches hit a helmet.
But this . . . this fastball, up and in.
This one hit bone, right in the face.
Not even a scream or grunt from the kid.
He went down like he was shot.

I know him.
I’ve umped and reffed
maybe a dozen of his games.
Not just baseball—
football and basketball, too.
The kid’s a great athlete, a natural.
That’s why it was such a shock to see him go down like that.

The screams come from everywhere:
bleachers, dugouts, infield, mound.
Even from me.
Luke "Wizard" Wallace's story is told by 28 different narrators. They include members of his Oak Grove baseball team, members of the Compton baseball team (the team Oak Grove was playing when Luke was hit), a number of Oak Grove High School students and teachers, members of Luke's family, a doctor and nurse at the hospital, and a number of other characters. There are many voices to keep track of at first, but they intertwine rather seamlessly to tell a most compelling story.

I'd like to leave you with one last poem. This one can be found in Center Field Grasses: Poems From Baseball. You'll find a number of terrific parodies of famous poems, all newly written with a baseball perspective. However, this poem from Part One is one of my favorites.

what I remember most
is my dad behind the rusted screen
back of home plate
"You can hit this guy!"
his voice not letting up
through four fast balls
(two misses swinging late,
two fouls on checked swings)

then the curve ball and the dying quail
into left-center,
the winning run sliding home,
my dad all smiles,
slapping backs in the bleachers
as if HIS single had won the game.
If this post has made you want to learn more Gene, do take some time to check out his web site.

Three cheers and a stadium-sized wave for Gene in thanks for being a part of the Poetry Makers series.

All poems ©Gene Fehler. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. What a great poet! And so timely. I've been planning a baseball story time and will definitely be including some of Gene's poems. I remember playing baseball/softball during recess and our annual field days. It was actually one of the things I truly enjoyed. Despite the sunburn.