Literary Boroughs #38: Pittsburgh, PA

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The Literary Boroughs series will explore little-known and well-known literary communities across the country and world and show that while literary culture can exist online without regard to geographic location, it also continues to thrive locally. Posts are by no means exhaustive and we encourage our readers to contribute in the comment section. The series will run on our blog from May 2012 until AWP13 in Boston. Please enjoy the thirty-eighth post on Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, by Michael Dittman. -Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor

A little more than a century ago, Pittsburgh was called “Hell with The Lid Off” for the way its steel mills and coke plants lit up the night sky with their fires and darkened the daytime sun with their soot.  In the late 20th century, however, Pittsburgh made the transition from a monolithic industrial economy to a more diversified workforce of health care, technology, and education.  Pittsburgh is a city of neighborhoods created by self-segregating immigrant workers.  Although today, you’re more likely to run into a Google engineer, an artist, or a home brewer who dabbles in fire art installations than a mill worker, each neighborhood retains a unique identity.

What the City is known for/what makes it unique:

Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, the arsenal of democracy, the unholy troika of Carnegie, Frick, and Warhol—oh, and I’ve heard there are some sports teams too…

Resident writers:

WD Snodgrass, John Edgar Wideman, August Wilson, Gertrude Stein, Jan Beatty Ed Ochester, Jim Daniels, Terrance Hayes, and Stewart O’Nan

Literary references:

Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys give voice to what Pittsburgh (especially the Oakland neighborhood) looks like through the eyes of the thousands of young men and women who attend the city’s colleges and universities.  August Wilson’s 10 play “Pittsburgh Cycle” raises the lives of garbage men and sharecroppers in the city’s Hill District neighborhood to the level of national mythology.  Stewart O’Nan’s Snow Angels explores the tragedy of the working poor in the small towns that surround the city while his Everyday People explores the troubled lives of a family in, what was at the time of the writing, the forgotten left-behind neighborhood of East Liberty.  Pittsburgh native Robert Gibb’s 100 poem collection The Homestead Trilogy, chronicles what was the slow decay of the Homestead neighborhood after the steel industry pulled up stakes.

Where to learn:

Pittsburgh is often held up as a model of successful recovery.  When heavy industry left town in the 20th century, the city moved proactively to reinvent their economy to one based on healthcare, technology, and education.  Today the city is home to a wealth of writing programs complete with heavy hitter faculty members.

The University of Pittsburgh MFA program offers a three-year degree with writers like Chuck Kinder and Lynn Emmanuel, multiple reading series, visiting professors, and the Hot Metal Bridge literary journal (named after one of Pittsburgh’s iconic truss bridges that span the Monongahela River—the city has more bridges than Venice, Italy).  The Branch campus of Pitt at Greensburg has hosted Cave Canem workshops (a foundation dedicated to addressing the lack of African-American representation in MFA programs) for the past four years.

The Chatham University Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing  distinguishes itself nationally by focusing on nature, environment and travel writing inspired by the work of Pittsburgh native Rachel Carson.  The program also sponsors the annual Bridges Festival and the Fourth River journal.

Cyberpunk Apocalypse stands on the other end of the continuum from the regimented MFA scene. Founded in 2008 in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood (now moved to the city’s North Side), by Pitt graduate Daniel McCloskey, Cyberpunk Apocalypse is a “cooperatively run not-for-profit organization dedicated to aiding and abetting writers and comic artists”.   Designed to put “zinesters, novelists, and comic artists on equal footing,” Writers from around the world can apply for month long residencies and take part in the organization’s myriad readings.  CA also has an active publishing arm.

Where to find reading material:

Pittsburgh’s bookstore scene has taken some hard hits lately. Jay’s Book Store, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, as well as the big-box Borders are all gone.

Luckily, the city is still home to innovative places like the Oakland neighborhood’s Caliban Bookshop.  This used store specializes in the kind of books that can induce drool, with countless beautiful first editions among the offerings.

Photo courtesy Big Idea Bookstore

In the Bloomfield neighborhood, The Big Idea Cooperative Bookstore & Café, “Your friendly neighborhood radical bookstore” hosts readings, events, fair trade food and drinks and free wi-fi.

In Oakmont, just a short drive from downtown, is the Mystery Lovers Bookstore, the official bookseller of The Pittsburgh Art & Lecture series and a destination even for non-whodunit fans with weekly readings, a huge annual Festival of Mystery that brings genre writers from around the country and the store’s restroom, painted to look like a prison cell and graffiti’d by visiting writers.

The name Carnegie (pronounced “car-NAY-gee” in Pittsburgh) is everywhere in the city, perhaps nowhere more obviously than in the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, established in 1895; 2.6 million patrons use the library every year

Where to get published:

Just ten years ago, the literary journal scene in Pittsburgh was predominantly the product of the colleges and universities.  Today Pittsburgh is home to close to 18 small press journals and a new breed of journals have spring up however adding to the vibrancy and opportunities of the city.

Caketrain is the brainchild of two editors who went University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg and then decided to stay and create a new literary magazine.  Focusing on more experimental work, the journal also sponsors an annual manuscript publication contest.

The New Yinzer was the first of these new mags to make a large impact.  Originally an online magazine, the “Yinzer” (a derogatory term for a native Pittsburgher) has branched out to books and reading series focusing on regional writers while hosting visiting National Writers as well.

Lilliput Review is a little magazine in every sense.  Dedicated to the short poem and measuring only 4.25 x 3.5.  The biannual also publishes broadsides featuring the work of a single poet.

Autumn House Press focuses on publishing fiction, non-fiction and poetry.  The Press also publishes Coal Hill Review, an online poetry and nonfiction magazine, and sponsors three national literary contests. Autumn House Press titles, with authors such as Gerald Stern and Sheryl St Germain, have seen praise from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and more.

Where to write:

Pittsburgh is chock-a-block with “third places”—locations where people gather outside of work and home.

Te Café in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood is a quiet spot filled with comfy chairs, the best tea selection in Pittsburgh and the clack of keyboard keys. They also host a variety of readings throughout the year. (Photo credit.)

Events/Festivals:

SPF, Pittsburgh’s small press festival that’s now in its third year, has done much in the way of bringing not only local writers and publishers together but also members of the greater small-press community outside of the city. Typically, SPF involves an entire month of special events and readings culminating in a two-day fair that features many small press vendors as well as open workshops and panel discussions. Attending the festival is easily the best way to immerse yourself in what Pittsburgh writers have to offer—and it’s a great time.

The 412 Literary Festival focuses on creative nonfiction and has featured Michael Ondaatje and others, while The Writers Festival at the University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg has traditionally been a free events, and features writers like Judith Vollmer and Joseph Bathanti.

Michael Dittman is a writer and teacher splitting his time between Ithaca, NY and Pittsburgh, PA.  His books include Jack Kerouac, The Beat Generation, and Small Brutal Incidents, and he’s always looking for new projects.  He keeps an arts and culture blog at hellogorges.com and will giving a TEDX talk in November at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, NY.  Follow him on twitter: @dittman and check out his other social media feeds at about.me/dittman.