Sports, Stories: Talking to Eric Smetana of Stymie, the Sports Literary Magazine

Stymie started just a few years ago as an experiment in literary sportswriting. Today, it's something much bigger and better.
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Stymie Magazine is a kindred spirit to The Classical: a publication focused on exploring sports from different angles, from the edges to the mainstream, through excellent storytelling. Where the two publications diverge is in form. Stymie primarily looks at sports through the lenses of fiction and poetry. We recently talked to Erik Smetana, Stymie’s founding editor, to find out what makes him tick and what makes Stymie special. 

The Classical: Describe the magazine for those of us who are unfamiliar with it.

Smetana: We look for work on sports and games in the form of fiction, nonfiction essays, and poetry. We’ve featured things like stories about origami plains having aerial fights to things that are more straightforward. We even reprinted a Daniel Orozco piece about a potential serial killer who likes to take a run every day.

We’re open to anything and everything that relates to sports and games as long as it ties back to a literary base.

Where did the idea for Stymie come from?

Stymie started back in ’08. At the time I was writing a lot of golf fiction, and there wasn’t a big market for it, so I thought, ‘Oh, let’s start an online journal about golf fiction.’ It was an awful idea. But we ran with that for about two years before coming to the conclusion that it didn’t make sense. There wasn’t really a reader base for that sort of thing. So we broadened the platform in 2010 to include all sports and games. We went through a re-launch in 2010, and that became the Stymie we know and love today. So far, we’ve been pretty happy with the results.

How have readers responded to the journal so far?

It’s been surprising in a lot of ways. It started with a relationship with ESPN. When we re-launched in 2010, we got noticed [by ESPN] through word of mouth and one of [ESPN] The Magazine’s editors reached out and profiled us. We actually co-sponsored a fiction contest. So the only sports fiction that’s ever been published in [ESPN the Magazine] was through a contest Stymie got to be a part of, judging those pieces and collecting those pieces.

From that, our reader base has grown. We’re hitting positive numbers for a bi-annual literary journal—into the thousands of readers. We launched our website in 2010 and we have regular content on there, and our readership there is up in the thousands every month. Going from something that wasn’t read by anyone other than my friends and family, several years back, to people seeking us out for publication is an amazing thing.

Why are fictional sports stories important?

Sports stories are about more than just the sport. I think when you read a good piece of sports literature or sports fiction or sports poetry it’s about locating an emotion that we all have or we all feel. Sometimes it’s about a relationship: a parent and a child or love and loss. Fiction really gets to the core of human emotion and human response. Sports are something we all know and share, and sports fiction gives us a chance to connect in ways that other types of fiction don’t.

Stymie? What is that anyway? How did you come up with that name?

Growing up I had dreams of becoming a sports professional that never panned out. Stymie was a favorite golf term, and as we grew and expanded we didn’t want to lose the readership we already had so we stuck with it. [Ed: Stymie as defined by “A situation in golf in which an opponent's ball obstructs the line of play of one's own ball on the putting green”]

I take it your favorite sport is golf?

Golf and college football.

What are your teams?

The University of Missouri. My Tigers are now part of the SEC! So that’s an interesting kind of change. The Georgia game a couple weeks back was both exciting and a sort of knife in the chest.

I also get a little crazy around March, when the basketball tournament starts. And I’m a die-hard Cardinals fan. I’m St. Louis born and raised.

Do you have a favorite “Glory Days” moment from your youth?

When I think about my big sports moments they’re always about getting injured.

That’s good. We actually have a series at The Classical all about getting injured.

Well, I’ve got stories about everything from getting tossed from a golf cart to being thrown by a giant linebacker and breaking a tailbone.

What’s your favorite sports story, either fictional or non-fictional?

I’d have to say The Iowa Baseball Confederacy. It’s by W. P. Kinsella, the same author who wrote Shoeless Joe, which is what Field of Dreams is based on. The Iowa Baseball Confederacy is another one of those fantastical stories. It’s about a baseball game that takes place between the Cubs and the Iowa baseball team, and the game was basically the greatest baseball game in history but it isn’t in the record books, and so it’s about that conspiracy.

So where do you hope Stymie will go from here?

I tend to think really big and sort of reach for the stars but thankfully [the other editors] are able to talk some sense into me. We’ve talked about a book imprint that would produce one or two books per year. We’ve talked about going to a strictly print format instead of this electronic format we’ve had. We’ve talked about a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to compensate contributors. But right now our latest shift is to focus on daily content on the website. We’ll have new content five days a week—fiction, poetry, interviews, that sort of thing—whereas in the past it’s been more sporadic. For the next 12 months we want to really drive the website readership. We’re always looking for feedback from our readers and we’re always looking for new voices.

You can check out the excellent story “I Run Every Day” by Daniel Orozco—about a potential serial killer who enjoys jogging—and read the rest of Stymie’s free archive on their site.

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