Pittsburgh, Why Are You So Badass?

I am not a working-class poet.  I don’t really write much about working-class themes, and I grew up mostly lower-middle class.  My parents were raised working-class.   My mother was a refugee from Hungary, and my father was one of seven children of an Italian-American railroad worker and an Irish-American stay-at-home mom.  Even my stepdad was raised working class – one of ten children who got hauled to school off their parents’ farm by a truant officer in the fall and spring.  But all three of them labored and saved to ensure that their children would have an easier time of it.  Don’t get me wrong – I worked my ass off in high school and through college, but I had a car at 16 and we lived in the suburbs, and I got a fancy scholarship to a mediocre college in Long Island.  So while I’m committed to the study of working-class poetry and the role of the commons in poetry, I can’t claim to be representative.

I am, however, a poet of place.  In an interview I did with Nathan Spicer for The Southeast Review a couple of years back,  I said,

I believe that people consist partly of place—the places where they grew up, the places they left behind, the place they occupy at the moment. When a person relocates, even for a week, a day, an hour, she changes. It makes sense that environment will have an effect on the psyche, but I think a person also changes biologically. She breathes different air, eats different food, and her senses are processing different stimuli. So I try to recreate the influence of place in my poems; I try to capture the transformative nature of geography.

And I like to think about the influence of place on other other people’s poems, and how the politics of place plays a role in working-class identity and working-class poetry and working-class art.   And tonight I’m thinking about Pittsburgh, home to some of my favorite poets who took up the working-class torch:

Jan Beatty, Jim Daniels, Terrance Hayes, Leslie Anne McIlroy

In an interview he gave six years ago to the Tribune Review, Hayes explains the poetry scene of Pittsburgh:

I can go and hear a homicide detective like Jimmy Cvetic (read poetry). I can hear anybody read poetry. And anybody is bound to be in the audience. I can live in this strange, blue-collar neighborhood and have even the people riding their bikes at midnight come up to me and say, ‘Yeah, you’re a poet.’ And I was nobody. I was just a grad student.

I know Jimmy Cvetic.  He runs the poetry series at Hemingway’s Cafe.  Just talking about him and Pittsburgh, I slip into a sort of vernacular.  A neighborhood-speak that I remember not from my neighborhood, but from my family – my uncles who were firemen, who were raised working-class and who did the same things for their children that my parents did for me.  Yeah, I know Jimmy Cvetic.  He runs the poetry series down at Hemingway’s.  I read for him in 2010.  Nice guy.  Can be gruff as hell but a nice guy.  Don’t want to get on the wrong side of him.  You know he runs that boxing gym down on Third Avenue.  Did I ever tell you the story of…

 What is it about Pittsburgh that allows its working-class history and contemporaneity to blend so seamlessly with its culture of poetry?  The Pittsburgh City Paper and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette regularly publish poetry and reviews.  I can’t think of any other city in which two local papers give print to poetry, where the publications of the commons are the go-to publications for high art.

What is it with Pittsburgh?  Is it the juxtaposition of the (post)industrial landscape with the beautiful hills that spill into the rivers that cradle it?  It it the city’s embrace of its blue-collar history that enables it to also embrace poetry without pretension or anxiety?

I don’t know.  But Pittsburgh, you just keep doing what you’re doing, and I’ll come back soon.  (Make sure Mark Dignam and Bear Cub are singing when I get there.)

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1 Comment »

  1. kweyant said

    Yep. My undergraduate school, the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, is where I was introduced to working-class poetry!

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