The famous Writers' Workshop game continues

BY IAN MARTIN | MAY 09, 2011 7:20 AM

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The history of the game is more J.D. Salinger than J.K. Rowling.

Much of it is done by word-of-mouth, and actual details are elusive. But what is known is unique, because some of the great writers of the 20th and 21st centuries have participated in a school year-end ritual that has nothing to do with the pen, paper, or keyboard.

The Iowa Writers' Workshop claims 17 Pulitzer Prizes and three recent U.S. poet laureates. But the thing most writers look forward to annually in the two-year program is an annual softball game between the poetry and fiction writers. This year's game took place over the weekend on May 7.

"The middle of winter, people will start talking about it sort of longingly, like 'Don't worry, man, we'll be all right; as soon as spring comes around, we'll be outside playing softball,' " said second-year poetry student James Longley at one of his team's many practices before the May 7 contest at Happy Hollow Park.

The game originated in the 1960s, according to 2009 workshop graduate Joyce Turner.

The poets were the first to dominate. To counteract that, some joked fiction program hopefuls had to include their batting averages on applications. When fiction won its first game in more than a decade in 2008, members of the faculty wept, said fiction writer Xander Maksik.

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But the results don't seem to be the priority of the game so much as the lack of writing.

Fiction writer Madhuri Vijay, originally from India, learned the rules of softball in the buildup to this year's game. Eventually finding her niche at second base, she continued to play, despite sustaining a softball-sized welt on her left thigh. Why? Because it's the best bonding the writers have during the year.

"[It's nice to be with classmates] outside of writing and talking about writing and thinking about talking about writing," she said. "This is completely different; this has no connection to it at all, and I think a lot of us find that refreshing."

But literary allusions still dominated this year's contest. The poets' team name, The Pleasure Domes, references Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 1797 poem "Kubla Khan." The fiction writers named their squad Infinite Best after David Foster Wallace's 1996 novel, Infinite Jest.

And then there's the heckling.

One of baseball's many traditions is dugout chatter, but with writers, there is an implication that one must be clever.

Jeering begins pregame. Both teams bring signs with personal insults at the other genres, such as "Bros before Prose" or "Poets get bald, fiction gets paid."

But after months of practice and preparing insults, there is a game to be played.

Baseball — or in this case its recreational cousin of softball — is a logical choice. Many poets, including Walt Whitman and Robert Frost, reference the national pastime. This, said fiction faculty member and 14-year game veteran Ethan Canin, is no coincidence.

"The patience, the eternal frustration, the importance of details, all of these things in baseball and writing are very, very similar," he said. "It's the thinking man's game."

Cleats worn with argyle socks, or cutoff khakis sliding into third base aren't uncommon at the game. But these same players make athletic diving catches, or — in the case of fiction's 2011 first inning — can hit back-to-back home runs at any time.

But no one will remember who played left field in last year's game or what the final score was. This year's 26-14 drubbing by fiction — its third-straight win — is unimportant. The game is not about the game, it seems, but about writers not writing.

"I don't like to play a lot of sports. I don't have a lot of time," Longley said. "[But] there's something to be said for a game where you can have a cigarette in your mouth while you're at bat."

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