Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

March 30, 2009

Frank Messina, Bard of Flushing

The Mets Poet doesn't find baseball a constraining subject: The diamond contains multitudes.

Vincent Valk

Frank Messina finds inspiration in the tragicomic existence of his fellow die-hard New York Mets fans. We Mets fans, "strugglers, outsiders, dreamers" in The Mets Poet's words, not only have to live with the ignominy of being a New York back-page sideshow, but have recently contended with two epic September collapses, the latest of which ended in a world championship for the hated Phillies. This after "Marvelous" Marv, the Miracle of '69, the triumphs and disappointments of Doc and Darryl, The Worst Team Money Could Buy, and losing a World Series to the Yankees. The up-and-down history of New York's second team sometimes feels, to a fan, like it mirrors real life, a sentiment Messina captures in his poetry, much of it collected in Full Count: The Book of Mets Poetry.

Frank Messina. Photo by Christian Hansen.
"The Mets fan is a romantic, a hopeless romantic. A living poem."

Frank Messina. Photo by Christian Hansen.

Messina is more than just a Mets poet. He has published several books of non-Mets poetry, and tells Gelf he was unsure of writing a book of poems about the team until he realized that "baseball is life" (emphasis his). In the following interview, edited for length and clarity, Messina riffs on life as a Mets fan and poet, and the challenges and rewards of writing about baseball. You can hear Messina and other baseball writers read from and talk about their work at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Thursday, April 2, in New York's Lower East Side.

Gelf Magazine: Do you write poetry about things other than the Mets/baseball?

Frank Messina: Yes, of course. I tend to write about what I know. Baseball happens to be one of the things I know.

Gelf Magazine: Many of your poems seems to focus on stories—are they autobiographical?

Frank Messina: Most of my poems are born from actual experience, whether it be love, success, failure, loss of loved ones, illness and tragedy, traveling around the world, the mystery of life, failed relationships, crazy women, beer, jazz, or discovering the soul of America—particularly with regard to people that I meet and in situations I've found myself. In that sense, they are autobiographical. However, the process is indirect. I'm not attempting to write autobiographical poems.
That said, I've found that my most successful works reflect personal experience. A few of my 9/11-related poems are now part of the curriculum at the University of London and are included in historical film documentaries. Those poems were born from a particular experience in my life. And for some reason, my baseball-related works are now gaining attention. They too, are born from personal experience as a sports fan, a Mets fan. As life becomes a series of entanglements, the poetry, the art we create reflects those entanglements. It's impossible to avoid. Most effective fiction writers draw from personal experience. In my case, the work is nonfiction, by which I mean the truth. However, that said, there's risks in writing poetry, risks in being honest. You may reveal something about yourself, whether intended or by chance.

Gelf Magazine: Favorite all-time Mets player? Favorite all-time team?

Frank Messina: My favorite all-time Mets player is Keith Hernandez. "Mex" was one of the most offensively clutch players in Mets history and surely their best first baseman. He had a reach that seemed to extend beyond his physical capacity. He covered first base similarly to how Carlos Beltran covers centerfield, with incomparable grace. Keith Hernandez also appeals to me as a human being; a truthful, sensitive human being who understands the game as much as anyone and isn't afraid to tell it how it is. I believe he is a tremendous service to the team as their commentator for SNY-TV. He refuses to candy-coat, refuses to restrain himself from calling out the obvious flaws in the modern ballplayer.
My favorite team was the 1986 Mets. They were the rowdiest, most determined and detestable group of players, ever. I was 18 years old and I thought my friends were the rowdiest kids in town…until I saw the Mets. The team had the best top of the lineup in Mets history with Dykstra, Backman, Hernandez, Carter, and Strawberry. They had the best bench and the best pitching, including the greatest pitcher in Doc Gooden, who came off a stellar 1985 year. No one even came close to them in 1986. They dominated and humiliated everyone, hands down.

Gelf Magazine: What are the challenges in writing poetry about such a specific topic? Do you ever feel like you'll run out of ideas?

Frank Messina: When the proposals to compose a book of "Mets poetry" came in to me from several publishers, I began to panic. My feeling was, why write about the Mets when there's so much else to write about? In fact, for me, going to a ballgame used to be an escape. I would come home after a three-week performance tour in Europe and hit the games day after day. It was a way to get out of my own head and put my head into the game of baseball.
However, then it dawned on me: Baseball is life. Once I started writing poems about being a Mets fan, the rest was fairly easy. Some of my favorite pieces are about the characters in the stands. I devote an entire section to them in the book. Maybe they'll recognize themselves and get angry at me for describing them with brutal, honest detail. They're like an extended family. You have your "cute cousin," your "weird uncle," your annoying "in-law". They're all there at the game. The entire spectacle of a baseball game is a cornucopia of inspiration for poetry. Just visiting the hot-dog stand becomes a story, an event, a poem. Then, of course, there's the game. And there are an infinite number of scenarios in baseball that can be captured and formed into poems. Some of the poems in the book don't even mention baseball or the Mets. Yet they have everything to do with being a Mets fan, a struggler, an outsider, a dreamer. The Mets fan is a romantic, a hopeless romantic. A living poem.

Gelf Magazine: What kinds of events in the game do you find lend themselves to poetry?

Frank Messina: There are two types of events in the game that lend themselves to poetry: the surprising and the mundane.
The eight-run rally in the bottom of the ninth can be equally worthy of poetry writing as the on-deck batter taking practice swings under the sun.

Gelf Magazine: Baseball has probably been written about more than any other game. What is it about the game that seems to make it so attractive to writers?

Frank Messina: Writers in particular are drawn to baseball for its historical and intrinsic attributes. The game of baseball has so many deeply rooted ties to the heart and soul of America. The father of American poetry, Walt Whitman, once said, "I see great things in baseball, it's our game, the American game." And that was when baseball was only a child. Now, over a hundred years later, baseball has become synonymous with our own childhood and adolescence, particularly with regard to the father-son relationship in American culture. It's the first sport we learn as kids. For me, as a writer, the fondest memories I have of my father are of his coaching my "farm team" when I was a kid and later watching baseball games at the park or on television. For many people, there would be no relationship with their fathers if it wasn't for baseball. That soulful stuff eventually finds its way into art, film, theater, and poetry.

Gelf Magazine: Do you have any favorite poets? Are there any who have particularly influenced you?

Frank Messina: I am fond of many poets from various idioms and culture: American poets Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Alan Dugan, Jack Kerouac, Sonia Sanchez, and Charles Bukowski; Chilean poet Pablo Neruda; Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran; Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca; English poet William Blake; and Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh. When I was about 16, I discovered Lorca, Gibran, and Whitman. I noticed a theme ran through their work, "the corresponding breeze"—a benevolent tempest which, for me, symbolized the very essence of life. It clicked and I became a fan of poetry. Then I attended many poetry readings in New York City and New Jersey and discovered jazz poets such as Sonia Sanchez and Yusef Komunyakaa, and, later, my mentor, Alan Dugan.

Gelf Magazine: Has anyone associated with the Mets read your poetry?

Frank Messina: Yes, some that I know. No need to mention names. I've been writing, publishing, and performing for 20 years, so I imagine there's others. And, of course, former Mets outfielder Endy Chávez thanked me publicly on TV when I read a piece dedicated to him entitled "The Leaping Gazelle" on the outfield of Shea Stadium for an episode of Mets Weekly. That was very cool.

Gelf Magazine: If a Mets player were to read your poetry, what would you want them to say? What would you expect them to say?

Frank Messina: It's always nice when someone thanks you. And if one is compelled enough to buy a book, all the better. Other than that, I don't expect anything from anyone—baseball players, people on the street, or the president of the United States—besides being decent people and doing a good job.

Frank Messina on SNY-TV's Mets Weekly

Gelf Magazine: What topics, aside from baseball, do you find yourself drawn to as a poet?

Frank Messina: Most of my poetry deals with people—the human condition. I'm fascinated by history and sociology. As intelligent as we are, we make the same mistakes. We're like a bunch of children running around without parents—always discovering and re-discovering, repeating the same mistakes, tripping over our feet.

Gelf Magazine: Which player do you think provided you with the most material? Why?

Frank Messina: I wrote a series of poems about Pedro Martinez last year. However only one piece, "The Blue Glove," was published in Full Count. I also kept a few under close wraps because they were so deeply personal. I lost my father in 2005 to cancer. We were very close, especially in the last five years of his life. It took me a long time to recover from the loss, and I'm still not sure if I've fully recovered. When I heard Martinez's father was ill, my heart went out to him. I read an article that quoted Martinez as saying he was very close to his father. So, when his father passed away late last season, I wrote a few poems. They're just too heartbreaking, though.
That said, I knew there was not much to expect from Pedro in the weeks after the loss of his father. However, my best year so far in my life was the year after my father died. I was totally on top of my game, had great confidence, and tremendous luck. I think Pedro Martinez is going to get signed to a one-year deal by a team and have one of the most inspiring years in his life.

Vincent Valk

Vincent Valk is online editor for Chemical Week magazine.

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- Books
- posted on Mar 30, 09
david amram

Thank you for a thoughtful and enjoyable interview with one of our finest and most original young ports, fran Messina.
since 1004, when i first met and worked with him, accompanying his poetry with my my music across the USA and England i have always found him to be original and follow his own path.
It is wonderful to see him get a chance to rach a huge audience and turn them on to poetry!!
Other young writers will see tyat THEY can also go their own way and follow their hearts and work tirelessly for what they feel they have to share, as Frank as always done!

Bravo per tutti!!

David Amram

- Books
- posted on Mar 30, 09
david amram

To the Editors of Gelf Magazine

My computer jumped before i could finish (and spell check) my message.

Here is the note again..........

- posted on Mar 30, 09

Thank you for posting Vincent Gelf's thoughtful and enjoyable interview with one of our finest and most original young poets, Frank Messina.
Since 1994, when I first met and worked with him, accompanying his poetry with my my music across the USA and England, I have always found him to be original and someone who follows his own path.
It is wonderful to see him get a chance to reach a huge audience of those who love baseball, and turn THEM on to poetry!!
Other young writers will see that THEY can also go their own way and follow their hearts and work tirelessly for what they feel they have to share, as Frank has always done!

fifty years ago when Kerouac and i did the first jazz poetry readings ever done in public in NYC, Jack always spoke about the "diamonds in the sidewalk", referring not only to what glistened from the pavements, during our late-night/ early morning walks thru the streets.

He was also referring to the beauty that surrounds us that we take for granted. The simple everyday things like the game of baseball, al of which are art forms in their own right, which are precious and also a good source for artists of all genres to embrace as A POINT OF DEPARTURE!!

That's what Frank has always done in all his work, and his collection in this new book about his love of the game reflect his autobiographical approacn. which is refreshing and original.

He also has a great way of working with ALL musicians

When I heard him work with his large band Spoken Motion, he knew how to put it together.

It is always a treat for all musicians to work with him

Can hardly wait for VOLUME TWO!!

Bravo per tutti!!

David Amram

- Books
- posted on Mar 31, 09
B. Kim Lee

Can't wait to read the book. This Messina character sounds like he knows how to hit a homerun. Is he single?

Article by Vincent Valk

Vincent Valk is online editor for Chemical Week magazine.

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