SEMO expert on Faulkner produces book of sports poetry

Saturday, June 30, 2007
Robert Hamblin, a professor of English at Southeast Missouri State University, recently published a book of sports poetry titled "Keeping Score: Sports Poems for Every Season." (Aaron Eisenhauer)

Dr. Robert Hamblin is best known for his role as the director of the Center for Faulkner Studies at Southeast Missouri State University, a position which has made him a renowned scholar on the works of southern literary giant William Faulkner.

But Hamblin has another passion, one that may seem at odds with the world of elite literary scholarship -- sports. Hamblin loves to play softball and basketball (even though age has limited his activity), teaches a class on sports literature at Southeast and served for two decades as the poetry editor of Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature. St. Louis-based not-for-profit poetry publishing company Time Being Books recently published Hamblin's book of sports poems called "Keeping Score: Sports Poems for Every Season." He's also coached church league basketball in Cape Girardeau, organized the city's first girls' basketball league and was a member of a charter team of the city's slow pitch softball league. He also authored "Win or Win: A Season with Ron Shumate."

The professor and author chatted on his front porch with the Southeast Missourian on Friday, covering sports, his poems and the lack of respect academia gives to sports literature.

Matt Sanders: People usually don't associate English professors with sports fans. How did you develop such a love for sports?

Hamblin: I grew up in north Mississippi, and I loved baseball growing up. There's a poem in there about throwing gravel rocks up in the air and hitting them with a broomstick. I also had a Civil War monument across the road from my house, so when I had no playmates to play with I could always bounce the ball off the monument, and since it was curved you could get pop flies and line drives or ground balls depending upon where you hit the monument. And of course the caretaker would always come and chase me off.

Interestingly enough my favorite team was the Brooklyn Dodgers. Most people in that area, of course, were St. Louis Cardinals fans, a few Cincinnati Reds fans, no Atlanta Braves yet. But I loved the Dodgers and followed them all those years they never could beat the Yankees.

There's a poem in there about the shot heard 'round the world, the famous Bobby Thompson home run. I stayed home from school that day, my mother let me skip school to listen to the playoff game, and I cried when the Giants won the pennant.

I also played a little basketball, not much football, but I've always been a sports fan.

MS: How is sport literature perceived among literary types?

Hamblin: Sports literature is received like science fiction or detective fiction. It's kind of the poor stepchild of literary studies. There are many professors who think once you get past Shakespeare and the ultimate, of course for me, Faulkner, that other stuff isn't real literature, you can't have real literature that's popular, it's got to be elite. I've never bought into that notion. Literature is about everything.

I participated in the Oprah book club and her summer of Faulkner, and there was a lot of criticism of me and her for trying to get people to read Faulkner. Give the woman credit, she's trying to get people to read books, and not every book she promotes is great literature, but she's getting more people to read than any professor.

MS: Why would scholars be critical of that?

Hamblin: Academia sometimes, I don't think it's true of Southeast ... but every now and then in academia you get this elitist attitude that education is only for certain people, and ordinary people, like my father, who had a fourth-grade education, somehow those people can't read books.

MS: What makes good sport literature?

Hamblin: Great sport literature isn't about sport, it's about sport plus. It's sport plus race, it's sport plus gender, it's sport plus religion, it's sport plus history, sport plus American values.

Sport has been called the true American religion. We have churches and steeples, but most people rush away from our churches in time to see the kickoff.

MS: What aspect of sports have you tried to capture in "Keeping Score"? Do you include defeat as well as victory?

Hamblin: Oh, yes. Death, defeat, there's a poem in there about the death of the Evansville University basketball team [in 1977]. I remember hearing that announced on the radio, and I was very moved by that. There's been several teams: Wichita, Marshall, the American boxing team had been killed in a plane crash.

There's loss. There's an old teammate who writes me a letter ... he was going through a divorce. Swoboda [Ron Swoboda, former New York Mets outfielder] called me when Tug McGraw [former New York Mets relief pitcher, father of country singer Tim McGraw] was dying, and so I wound up writing a poem about McGraw, which he liked, by the way, Swoboda took it to him. My poem didn't do as well as his son's song did, about his dying father. I looked in the song to see if any of my lines were in it, and I was hopeful that Tim had used a line or two from my poem so I could sue him.

Sometimes it's a phone call, a divorce or illness, sometimes it's a game you see.

Hamblin has plans for poetry readings in the fall.

335-6611, extension 182

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