By Michael Miner
Score One for Literature
"Sport literate" is a pro-vocative phrase because it raises a question: what do you have to have read to make the claim? John Tunis's All-American and Hemingway's "Big Two-Hearted River" belong on my list, and surely you have a list of your own. But William Meiners and Jotham Burrello aren't pushing a canon. The connections between sport and self-knowledge are ancient and profound, and they founded Sport Literate to publish new writing that explores them.
"Some people might believe we created this oxymoron of 'sport' and 'literate,'" Burrello told me. "People have this bias that sport means loud announcers and bars." He and Meiners know better. "We have a piece called 'Trip the Lights' in the current issue," Burrello said. "It's by a woman, a runner, diagnosed with glaucoma. We have a debilitating eye disease robbing someone of something she loves, something she identifies with freedom. She doesn't want pity for going blind, but how does she overcome this transformation? The essay ends with us seeing through her eyes, seeing how it is to run and run free."
Did she write it for you? I asked Burrello.
"I don't think so," he said. "Most of the cover letters we get say, 'I discovered your magazine. I had this essay.'"
Burrello and Meiners started Sport Literate a couple of years ago, when both were graduate students in fiction at Columbia College. "We both wanted to publish some work," Burrello said. "We thought we could carve out a niche writing about leisure."
The magazine started out as a hypothesis, a class project--"the first issue was very zinelike, 28 pages," says Meiners--but they believed in the idea enough to keep it going. They created a not-for-profit corporation, Pint-Size Publications, and rounded up some grant money, and now they're publishing 88 pages every three months.
"A lot of the magazine those first months was born at Cafe Avanti and Kerouac Jack's," said Burrello. "We both took the Paulina train, so we'd walk into Kerouac Jack's after class, and we'd sit there over beers. Bill had an idea for a magazine, and he wanted to put essays in it. I said, 'I know this great poet. She could help us out.' And then we said, 'Why not do interviews?' We called the interviews the 'Off-Season.' Our interest was with what some people do when they're not at their jobs. Our first subject was Chris Zorich. We talked to him about his philanthropy and how he collects comic books.
"The one debate we had was over publishing fiction," Burrello went on. He lost the debate, and they don't. Actually they do. "We say, unless you're dead or famous we won't run your fiction," Meiners told me, and under the heading "Famous Fiction" they've run John Updike, Ring Lardner, Jack London. Maybe this is their canon, slipping in the side door. "But most fictional sports things you come across are really cheesy," Meiners said. "For the most part I want to keep it creative nonfiction."
That said, not much writing falls outside their guidelines. The inside front cover of every issue lists 14 definitions of "sport" (including "amorous dalliance") and four of "literate." If you fit any one of them you're in. These definitions give their magazine enormous latitude, and Burrello and Meiners argue over how much they ought to take.
"Hell, we had one issue we were hurting for pieces, so everything kind of centered around food and cooking," said Meiners. "That was probably stretching it too far. One of the things I'd like to do is get back to sport. Maybe not the coverage of sports, but closer to what we started it out to be."
"I'm pretty sure we are the only literary magazine that focuses on the creative nonfictional exploration of sports."
A model essay was written by a professor at Michigan State for the winter '96-'97 issue. Michael Steinberg's in his 50s now, a long way from the New York streets where he grew up, and we find him sitting "nosebleed" high in MSU's "glittering new basketball/rock concert palace," ruminating "that it's been a long time since I've really enjoyed watching basketball." It isn't exactly basketball's fault, but things have changed. Very aware of the significance of what he's doing, Steinberg leaves the game with the score tied and five minutes left on the clock to go home and write.
Burrello and Meiners aren't making any money on Sport Literate, but neither are they losing a lot. Meiners, 32, lives in Indianapolis now and writes copy for Macmillan Publishing. Burrello, 29, teaches at Columbia College and makes educational videotapes at Indiana University in Bloomington. Poetry editor Jennifer Richter, a pal of Burrello's, teaches at Stanford. Circulation of Sport Literate has reached about 1,500, a third of it subscriptions. Most Barnes & Nobles across the country carry the quarterly, as do a few Borders and scattered independent bookstores.
The essay the founders are quickest to brag about won Sport Literate an honorable mention in The Best American Sports Writing 1997. In the tradition of "Big Two-Hearted River" and A River Runs Through It, literature that sojourns at running water to contemplate the ineffable, Frank Soos, a professor of English at the University of Alaska, offered "Obituary With Bamboo Fly Rod," a meditation on promise, decline, and death. "Here's a guy who's got a lot going on, a lot of balls in the air at one time," said Meiners. "On the surface it's about fishing with an old bamboo rod, and he's talking about being a teacher, having this fabulous student--a ton of things are going on. And he gets to it all quickly."
It's elegant writing on the biggest question--"How to be?" About all Soos can say with certainty is this: "Soon, it will be cold; the fish will regard my flies from the river's bottom with lazy suspicion. Here are days; there won't be any others." Burrello and Meiners have made the peculiar decision to indicate why the essays they print are in the magazine. They do this by telling us which of the 14 definitions of "sport" they think applies. They had a terrible time with Soos's essay.
Finally they chose to justify themselves by skipping "sport" altogether and going with definition four of "literate." The first three are "able to read and write well," "educated," and "literary," and the fourth is "someone with the above qualities." They had no reason to run the piece except they liked it.
The closing credits had barely ceased to roll when the telephone rang and A.E. Eyre was on the line. "Brilliant!" he exclaimed. "A monumental swan song."
I don't know, I murmured. I still don't. I've counted more genuine laughs in those credit card commercials Seinfeld does than in the whole 75 minutes of his final show.
"Anyone can leave them laughing," snapped Eyre, who certainly can't. "What we had here was a profound cultural statement."
But I don't feel closure, I protested.
"They had bigger fish to fry than your paltry closure," he explained. "I certainly feel closure. But then my intellect grasps history's broad sweep."
I envy you, I replied, because I'm sitting here still waiting for the subplot.
"Seinfeld provided closure for nothing less than the 20th century," Eyre pronounced.
I'm never sure how seriously to take my friend, who's a nincompoop. But he sometimes sees things others don't.
"Ever since the Battle of the Somme, irony ruled the roost," Eyre went on. "First it was the only sensible aesthetic response to the death of God. Then it seeped down to the hoi polloi. Now it's just a reflex slacker attitude. The last Seinfeld was brilliant because it decreed, 'Lock up the ironists! Sincerity reigns again!'"
Eyre was grinding an ax. Nothing is more pathetic than the sight of him essaying clever small talk. Time and again he humiliates himself by sprinkling incomprehensible bon mots. Because he's convinced immortality lies within the pages of Bartlett's, Eyre persists with his sallies. But he prays for the death of wit.
"Of course a cultural turn of this dimension requires the steel of the state to reinforce it," he continued. "In a free society there's no rounding up the ironists without probable cause. Which is why I've set aside the coining of epigrams to pursue legal reform. Good Samaritan laws make a promising start, but the New Freedoms I propose go above and beyond."
"Would you say every crime abets the breakdown of society?"
In some small way.
"Connect the dots! Every criminal must bear responsibility for every subsequent crime and pay the price."
So we prosecute the guilty not just for what they did then but for what others do later?
"Nothing happens in a vaccuum," said Eyre. "When you can't hang a criminal, hang his inspiration. It's a modest reform that, needless to say, greatly expedites closure."
Which is crucial?
"In the umbras of the penumbras of the shadows of the Bill of Rights," said Eyre, "I clearly discern a constitutional right to closure."
Except for mine, I said.
"Of a certain minimal dignity," he asserted. "Closure allows us to tie up the loose ends of history and toss the bag in the Dumpster. Ironists such as yourself prattle that the past will always haunt us. But any rock-ribbed closurist can assure you that it haunts us much less once old enemies are drawn and quartered."
To a journalist, Frank Sinatra was like fly fishing, or boxing, or the mob. The point of the exercise wasn't Sinatra, whose mystique stood beyond addition or subtraction. It was to prove yourself a man's man of a writer, equal to the competition.
An anthology of Sinatra journalism would showcase toreros demonstrating that they know how to work a great bull when they get one. Because there was never anything new to say about the man, the collection would be strewn with small flourishes. When Sinatra died I remembered a piece Bob Greene wrote for the Sun-Times Sunday magazine back in the early 70s. There'd been a crowded room somewhere, and Sinatra was in that room, and Greene was in it watching Sinatra. A beautiful woman made herself apparent to the singer as she passed by, then turned back to see if Sinatra was following her with his eyes. Which, Greene told us, Sinatra wasn't. How excellent of Greene to pick up on that, I thought at the time, confident Greene thought so too.
Ravenswood Hospital has changed its policy, guaranteeing that the next time someone's dying a few feet from the emergency room door the story will be different. In the meantime the ER staff would be wise to stay far away from the Frank Soos essay that observes, "Here are days; there won't be any others," and the rest of the teeming body of literature that questions the likelihood of second chances. And the media might want to take a close look at the mind-set of regulatory absolutism--of which zero-tolerance policies and mandatory sentencing are just the most prominent examples--that wishes to banish common sense and discretion from decision making.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jothan Burello photo by Lloyd DeGrane/ William Meiners photo by Larry R. Rainey.