Frank Messina: An interview with the 'Mets Poet'

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Wednesday, October 3, 2007

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Frank Messina: "Some of the greatest poetry has been born out of failure and the depths of adversity in the human experience."
photo: David Shankbone

In the early Olympic games, athletes used to run a mile and then recite a poem. The first poet-in-residence of an English football team, Ian McMillan, remarked that football chants are like huge tribal poems. Generally, though, sport and poetry have never seemed natural companions in human enterprise. Until the New York Mets baseball team suffered in 2007 arguably the worst collapse in Major League Baseball history. To describe the anguish fans felt, The New York Times turned to a poet, Frank Messina. "Nothing was really representing the fan's point of view," Messina told Wikinews reporter David Shankbone in an interview. "There's a lot of hurting people out there who can't express what happened."

And to those who read the Times last Saturday, Messina wants you to know his father never apologized for raising him as a Mets fans. "I never asked for his apology, and he never apologized, nor did he owe us one. I was misquoted in the New York Times."

Messina's parents taught him about opposite ends of the spectrum of life. "My mother was supportive even when I made mistakes. She taught me to never give up no matter what vocation you choose in your life." Whereas Messina's mother taught him to never give up, his father taught him how to die with grace. He passed away from cancer in 2005. "I got to see a man who accepted his fate. He was like the Captain of the Titanic. My mother was also calm. I was the one freaking out inside. I saw someone who had acknowledged his own demise, accepted it, and died at home. He was a tough old guy. It takes a lot to accept that; it takes a very strong person. Some of the special moments toward the end was sitting with him and watching baseball games."

It is baseball that has garnered Messina attention now. He has performed in 32 countries and 40 states, and in 1993 he founded the band Spoken Motion, a spoken word band. What is striking about Messina is that his work has branched two worlds that often don't interact: downtown coffeehouse denizens of poetry and the denizens of Shea Stadium. It is Frank Messina who has personalities as diverse as Joe Benigno, the archetype of the New York sportscaster at WFAN, reflecting on love and poetry. "No one would question a poet writing about love for a woman," said Benigno, "but when you’re a fan of a team, the emotional attachment is even stronger...." Benigno sounded similar to avant-garde writer and musician David Amram, who said Messina's poems paint "the stark beauty of the streets, the pain of 9/11, the joy of everyday life, the mysteries of love all fill the pages of this book. It's a feast of images and sounds that stay with you."

I spoke with the person Bowery Poetry Club founder Bob Holman called the "Rock n' Roll Poet Laureate" recently in Washington Square Park:


DS: You have received a good deal of attention recently.

FM:Even though I'm not Michael Jackson or somebody, when people come up to me and introduce themselves and say, 'Hey Frank, my name is John,' I say, 'Hey John, my name is Frank' and they laugh. It's a funny phenomenon.

DS: What goes through your head when that happens?

FM: I understand it. I've gone to readings and concerts. I look at it as human interaction. Over the years I have performed in 32 countries and 40 states. I've been doing this professionally since I was in my twenties, and before that since I was sixteen doing little tidbit poetry readings in coffeehouses. The band I started in 1993, Spoken Motion, received a lot of recognition as a spoken word band born out of the New York spoken word scene. I worked with some great musicians and performed around the world. I remember signing my first autograph to a kid when I was 25 years old. As time went on, I came out with books and CDs, and I became used to that kind of thing. To me, the ultimate feeling of success as an artist, is to move somebody enough where they thank you. When someone comes up and says, 'Frank, thank you, your work is great."

DS: You have a long career in poetry, but as of late the attention you have garnered is for the Mets-inspired work. How do you feel about having a lot of your work overshadowed by the Mets work?

FM:It's ironic. Some of the greatest poetry has been born out of failure and the depths of adversity in the human experience. Walt Whitman, the first great American poet, wrote about the Civil War. He went looking for his brother, George Whitman, after he a telegram telling him his brother was injured in the South. When he started out his poems were about beating drums, and blow, bugle, blow. Real patriotic. Then he started to see the real horrors of war. He was able to tap into the human condition and the situation at that time. Eventually when he found his brother he had resolution.
I experienced that kind of adversity during 9/11 being a civilian volunteer. I loaded ferry boats in Jersey City across the river to deliver goods to Ground Zero. I turned to Whitman to find some understanding of what is happening in the world right now. When I wrote my 9/11-related poems, that was true adversity. I realize baseball is just a game.

DS: Can you recite a stanza that expresses how you feel right now?

FM: This was a piece that the Times only quoted one stanza, but it's about preparation for a battle, and being prepared to either rise to the occasion, or go down:

Do you know what it's like
to be chased by the Ghost of Failure
while staring through Victory's door?
Of course you do, you're a Mets fan
caught in a do-or-die moment
in late September at Shea

As one that's battled hard
through many a broken dream
Let me say, "in order to rise to the occasion
you must be willing
to go down with the ship",
Have no fear, no hesitation,
for Winning shall be it's reward!

Don't let them get in your head!
you've kept it up this long
You're a Mets fan in late September
and you'll fight til the glorious end
Cheer the team today;
(your boys in orange and blue)
Let them hear you shout
as they fight for what's mightily due

(copyright Frank Messina; reprinted with permission)

DS: Sports fans aren't known as patrons of poetry. Have you had interaction with 'new readers' through your Mets work?

FM: This one person who I never met took a picture of me and sent it to me in an e-mail. The e-mail said, 'Frank, I have never bothered you during the game, but I just wanted to say thank you for your work and thank you for making some sense of the successes and failures and I wish you much success with your work.'
Last year in my section at the stadium I had a banner that read We Know'. That's all it said. Then earlier this year these shirts started to come out that said, "Poet says We Know". It was amazing. We didn't use the banner this year, though, because we didn't know. The team wasn't so far ahead that we knew. Last year we just knew we were going to the playoffs; we knew we were going post-season. This year we weren't sure. We were walking on eggshells.
There was a woman, a season ticket holder and a die hard fan. She was staggered by the loss last year to the Cardinals. Last year she came up to me during one of the games late in the season; she was so happy we were going to the post season. By that point we had clinched it. She handed me a shirt she bought at the stadium and she gave me a big hug. With tears in her eyes she said, "Thank you, Mets Poet, thank you." It's cool...it's like another family.

DS: Moments like that must make you realize you have touched people who aren't normally touched by poetry.

FM: It's opened up a new fan base, so to speak. For the last year SNY has broadcast footage of me with my poems, so quite a few fans known about the 'Mets Poet'. I have never called myself that, by the way. The back of my jersey says 'The Poet' because growing up that was my nickname. My brother was a runner and they used to call him The Birdman--Birdie--and they called me The Poet. It was a natural thing, but I never coined myself as 'The Mets Poet.'

DS: Jack Nicholson once said, "The fuel for the sports fan is the ability to have private theories." What are some of your private theories?

FM: The fan is always right. No matter if he is wrong, he is right. The fan always has an opinion. That's why we have talk radio and people call Joe Benigno and Steve Somers and Mike and the Mad Dog all day long. That's why we have 24/7 sports-related talk. If you were to come from another planet with only three hours on Earth to find out what human beings are like, to discover how dynamic life is as a human being, you would take them to a baseball game. A season is like a life, but a game is like one day in that life. A season has its beginning, its renewal, its innocence and its arch into maturity into the season. Panic sets in when it hits the middle-age of the season. Will it we have success, or will we have failure. At end of season, fans have to accept whether we have failed or whether we have achieved victory. Kansas City Royals fans know at the beginning of the season that, more than likely, nothing is going to happen for them. As Mets fans, we want to win, but we never expect it to be easy. It's always going to be a fight; it's always going to be hard.

DS: The second-class citizen in a first rate city idea that is found in one of your poems.

FM: Yeah, you're going to get pushed around. People are going to disagree with you. It's not going to be easy. You're going to have to take a lot of pills, take an extra drink, go to the gym an extra day to run off some energy.

DS: You and poet Ron Whitehead embarked on a "War Poets" tour of Europe. You as a pro-war poet, and Whitehead as a pro-peace poet. Forgive the crude terminology; I realize there is probably nuance in there. In the over four years since that tour has your outlook evolved at all?

FM: I've never been for any war. I try to avoid altercation on any level, be it emotional, physical, or political. But there are some wars I think that are necessary. History has shown this. Was this one necessary? I don't know. Twenty years from now we'll have to figure that out. I hope that we've all learned something from it.

DS: What is your feeling toward the Iraq War now?

FM: It's a mess. It's a mess. We went in to get a job done, get Hussein out of there, liberate the Iraqi people as was dictated in the 1998 Liberation Act that Senator Lieberman helped draft and President Clinton put out there. President Bush, Congress and the American people supported going in there. I'm not going to backtrack: I did support going in there, and even as an artist and a poet, and as a freak, I made a decision, that it was time to take this guy out. I spoke with many Iraqi Americans who live in my neighborhood who also supported that. Lebanese and Iranian friends I have supported it. One of my childhood friends, Adel Nehme, came out of Beirut, Lebanon around 1972. We met in kindergarten and we've been friends ever since. He was someone who escaped that turmoil. His family brought him to New Jersey specifically to pull him out of that hell, like the way my father took us out of the gangland hell of the South Bronx. Like any father would do, to protect his family.

DS: Do you still feel the Iraq War is protecting us, and that the original reasons you supported it are still valid?

FM: It's a mess. The original reasons? Yes. Looking back, hindsight is always 20/20. Unlike many artists, I have vocally supported the war. Many artists who support this war won't say that. Ron Whitehead is a dear friend. We have mutual respect for each other but we disagree on a lot of issues. Nevertheless, there's only one man I want fighting in the trenches of life with me, and that's Ron Whitehead.

DS: When you look at the state of the world, what five descriptors come to mind?

FM: Chaos. Yearning for peace. Confusion. Desperation. Hope.

DS: And are you hopeful?

FM: Yes.

DS: Where do you get that hope from?

FM: My faith in the human spirit. I think people are inherently good.

DS: Joe Benigno said, "No one would question a poet writing about love for a woman, but when you’re a fan of a team, the emotional attachment is even stronger, because women come and go, but your team never changes." Do you think that analogy really holds, because you are attracted to the Mets, and you are attracted to women, and the players on both of those teams in your life change.

FM: Loving a baseball team is having to put up with the imperfections, the routine of what kind of mood is it going to be today. It doesn't come down to whether we are going to win or lose, it comes down to: is the player going to perform this way? Or , is the pitcher going to be ambivalent? Am I even going to have enough strength to watch this game? Am I going to wash my hands? Am I going to lay in bed all day? What am I going to do? The game becomes a reflection of true life in that way.

DS: The difference is that you know what to expect from the players on the Mets. They have defined roles and there is some certitude. With women, as the players change you don't know what they are going to do; whereas in baseball the players have roles and you know what to expect of them.

FM: It's a dangerous proposition being any fan, but particularly a Mets fan, because you are going to have to accept you will fall in love with imperfection. When you fall in love with a woman, you are accepting them for all their flaws, those elements that make them human, worts and all. And I accept my team worts and all. They have given me a great deal of joy, a great deal of entertainment, exhilaration, and a hell of a lot of pain like in any fan. This isn't the Brady Bunch, this isn't Leave it to Beaver. Few things are, if anything.

DS: You were the recipient of the 1993 Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award. In 1996 I met Ginsberg at the Naropa Institute in Boulder. I asked him about NAMBLA, the North American Man/Boy Love Association. He told me to follow him into the bathroom. As I stood there he peed and told me he wasn't for having sex with children, but that he thought that age-of-consent laws were outdated, that he knew what he wanted when he was fifteen and that he thought everyone does at that age. He said he wasn't for sex with children, but that it should not be illegal to have sex at that age. When you accepted the Ginsberg award, did you have an issue with some of his political stances?

FM: I was too young at the time to realize what he thought. I never knew what went on behind closed doors with Allen, and aside from meeting him a few times, I never knew him on a personal level. I accepted the nomination, like young people do each year, because of his poetry, not because of his politics. I was proud. That is what the award was designed for. There are laws in this country for a reason, to protect children and to protect people from predators. Whether Allen was a predator or not, I don't have any idea.

DS: All evidence is that he was not a predator, but that he was a voice for change of age-of-consent laws.

FM: To me, it's a non-issue. Put your hand on my kid and believe me, it's all over for the predator. That's my policy. When someone's 18, that's the deal. I'll stick with the law on that one.

DS: What's a lesson your mother taught you?

FM: To never give up. She was supportive even when I made mistakes, as a good mother will do. In school my parents were called up a lot. It was not easy being a parent of Frankie. Teachers were constantly calling. I was disruptive, I would talk out of line, I was a class clown. She taught me to never give up no matter what vocation you choose in your life. My mother was never critical of my poems and writing. We're good friends and she's a lot of fun.

DS: How would you choose your death?

FM: Either in battle or laying in bed with family around me.

DS: Have you ever had a moment where you saw your death?

FM: Yes, a couple of times. Once I was on one of those small planes flying to Pittsburgh last year to see the Mets, actually one of those 25-seat airplanes flying out of Newark in a lightning storm. We had ascended over Newark and the plane was struck by lightning. There was no panic on the plane at all, but something, we knew, was terribly wrong. I saw a flash of light when it hit the plane and a fellow across the aisle said, "Did you just see that?" and I said that I thought we were struck by lightning. He said it felt like something got ripped off the plane. There was so much turbulence. The stewardess came out with one of the co-pilots, who announced we were struck by lightning, but that we were going to continue the flight. There was a moment there, I think a good 30 seconds, where I was certain the plane was going to break apart.

DS: Did you have any realizations?

FM: I thought, this is it. This is it. There was acceptance. When my father was diagnosed with cancer in June of 2005 and I got to see a man who accepted his fate. He died two months later. He was like the Captain of the Titanic. My mother was also calm. I was the one freaking out inside. I saw someone who had acknowledged his own demise, accepted it, and died at home. He was a tough old guy. It takes a lot to accept that, it takes a very strong person. In this culture we value life very much, and some people look at death as a failure, but it's going to happen to all of us. My theory is to help yourself, and help others in life.


Sources

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