On God is Round, Metaphors, and Soccer

nami-1430508One of the things that has always been a mystery to me, as an American and as a soccer player and fan, is why soccer has been so long to take hold in the USA. I grew up “on the pitch.” I began playing the sport as a small child and quickly learned to love the movement, grace, skill, and camaraderie the game requires of all its participants. Mexican journalist and Professor of Literature Juan Villoro, in his book God is Round: Tackling the Giants, Villains, Triumphs, and Scandals of the World’s Favorite Game, (Restless Books, 2015), summates this, and so much more, in a compilation of essays about soccer and what the game and its traditions represent in the South American culture.

For South American soccer fans, and for the fans of Juan Villoro, who is not just a writer but also perhaps the most prolific, well-known, and well-respected writer and analyst of the game in Mexico and beyond, God is Round might be merely a collection of his works that readers are happy to have, keep on a shelf. But, I think, for the US American picking up the book, God is Round becomes a road map of sorts, a guide that not only explains the what of the game in South America, but also the why, the how, the passion.

I happened to be reading the book (for the second time) during the COPA Americano. In reading the essays in tandem with the events of the tournament, I developed a much deeper understanding of not just the game, but the teams, players, and the whys of the events that unfolded on the pitch.

As Villoro insists, the soccer field is an allegory of space and time and each match becomes a reflection of what is happening in our society. In taking this view, we can then begin to see how not only soccer, but all sports, and indeed, all past times can become a real reflection of who and what we’re becoming and who and what we are—as individuals and as a group.

Villoro’s writings in God is Round are these short clips, almost flash non-fiction, or poetic descriptors, of usually a small moment in a game, or a play, or about a move, or a player who makes a signature move. In these moments, Villoro is a poet who translates the soccer moments into something altogether more. God is Round is a work in translation (taken from Spanish to English by Thomas Bunstead), it is a collected works, and Villoro does repeat certain ideas, events, and subjects from time to time, essay to essay. These lyrical essays are about so much more than the game of soccer. Villoro attempts to unveil the connective tissue that lies beneath every play on the field, every match result. He aspires, in his vignettes, to capture the very essence of what it is to be human on this planet. It’s a broad gesture, but oh, so very close to being accomplished here. Yet, as a whole, God is Round accomplishes something remarkable.

Reading God is Round now, as we head into the Olympics, and as soccer becomes a more present and pronounced sport on the US athletics scene, makes me wish I had not only read it sooner, but also paid more attention—to the game, to the language, the sport of it all.

God is Round is, at its very least, a rare collection of good essays about soccer and, at its very best, a guidebook to understanding the ups and downs, mastery and disaster, irony and splendor, of what we love, fight for, appreciate and claim in this game called life.

Maura Snell is a poet and soccer fan, and the Poetry Editor for The Tishman Review.

To the poets who submit to TTR, here’s a little about my process …

Dozen EggsAs I read your work in consideration for The Tishman Review’s print issue, I’m hearing your poem being read by Major Jackson or Naomi Shihab Nye.  Or sometimes, depending on my mood, Billy Collins. Recently a few of my grad school friends have popped up there too. I know it sounds strange. It is strange. But I still do it. That’s how I hear it, and I’m not sorry. Have you ever been to one of Naomi Shihab Nye’s readings? She’s powerful the way a summer wind is powerful—a force, but a pleasure to be among. As a listener I feel as if she knows every word she’s reading so intimately that she can’t help but bathe in it. It’s part of the magic of her readings. And if you’ve ever had the chance to be in the room when Major Jackson reads, you know what he can do with words. He plays a poem like a saxophone—employs his own embouchure, careful of timbre and vibrato.

As poetry editor here at TTR, I read at least three-dozen poems a day. I know that’s not much compared to other editors of bigger rags, but it’s still plenty. Early on as a poetry editor I realized that if I wasn’t careful and didn’t take the time to hear each piece as much as I held and read each piece, I could easily dismiss the work far too soon. I don’t know who you are when I read your poem. I don’t know if you’re young or old, where you come from or where you’re going. I don’t know if you’re a man or woman, or if you’ve been in war or at war, or have lived life as a hermit tucked in the mountains. I don’t know your publishing history or your education, if you’re married with ten children, or share your life with a small handful of people. I know nothing but the words you give me.

So I began to imagine the words sent to me were sent by the poets I admire most, and by the people with whom I have shared my great love of words. It’s like opening an email from a friend who’s saying, “Maura, you have to read this!”  It’s made the journey of putting together an issue so much more.

I am aware that reading this little tidbit of how I digest your work might be a bit appalling to you. I mean, how do I know which voice to insert in the poem as I’m reading it? What if you are NOT a woman and I have Naomi Shihab Nye in my head that day? Or what if the poem is about witnessing a crime and here I’ve got Billy Colllins being ironic and insinuating in my ear?  It’s not that simple. I often interchange voices, too. I read everything submitted at least twice, and while I don’t keep notes on whose voice I’m hearing with each reading, I like to think that the right voice inserts itself at the right time. For instance, I recently accepted a piece by the poet and educator Joey Kingsley for the April 2016 issue. A line from her poem “Mimicry” reads,

“Once,

in the rippling face of the lake, I netted a dead bass,
one floating eye measuring the clouds like a sundial,
a catfish stuck halfway down its gullet, barbed as a rose,
its smile full of daggers.”
“Mimicry” is a startlingly rich piece, filled with cuts and grace and earth. When I hear Major Jackson reading it in my head, it’s quiet, nearly a prayer. But when I hear Naomi’s voice in my head, the poem shimmers like sunlight on water, its movement changing from grounded and dense to almost dreamlike.

Why am I telling you this? It’s such an odd practice, to intentionally hear voices in my head, but I think it’s important for you to know that MAJOR JACKSON is reading your work. NAOMI SHIHAB NYE is too. Recently, I started doing this with my own poems as well. As I write, and as I revise, I imagine one of my idols standing at a podium somewhere with a few hundred eager listeners gathered, reading the poem I have just written. It’s usually galling, like a good dousing of icy water, and makes me continue to work and revise. But sometimes, though rarely, it makes me giddy. You know what I’m talking about. You’ve been there, too. The moment when you know you’ve written something that’s really good. Your heart skips a beat and you’ve got that extra kick in your step just after you’re done.

This may or may not help you understand my process, but what I’m trying to say is that when I read your work, I am imagining that it is a great poem. A poem read to me by some pretty impressive writers. It helps me see your work as you see it, even though I know nothing about you. And it helps me to respect the work as it should be respected. Being an editor is hard, especially when it comes to selecting pieces for the magazine. I can’t accept and publish every piece sent in; there just isn’t enough room. But when I read a poem, I hold it up in what I think is the very best light. I am sure (and possibly not even in a parallel universe) that Major Jackson, Billy Collins, Naomi Shihab Nye, and a handful of my grad school friends are imagining you reading their work, too.