Pittsburgh's Literary Scene: Resilient Amid Tough Losses
Finales of the International Poetry Forum and the Gist Street Reading Series were hard hits, but Pittsburgh’s literary scene—made of indie publications, small press organizations and everything in between—continues to grow and receive recognition.
On a blustery, cold evening in early February, an attentive audience gathered at ModernFormations Gallery to attend The New Yinzer Presents reading series. Writer Alan Jude Moore, who traveled from Dublin to read that night, ascended to the stage, where he greeted the audience in a rough brogue and began with a poem from his latest book. Moore added to the already frosty night his vivid remembrances of similarly frigid dusks on the streets of Moscow. Although his words conveyed the deep chill, the audience was warmed by Moore’s good humor and loving incantation of each syllable.
During the last few years, a vibrant and very open literary community has developed in Pittsburgh. On any given night, there’s something interesting to attend. A network of committed individuals, indie zines, small presses and cooperative venues have coalesced into a dynamic scene on the cusp of national recognition.
Here are several names you may or may not be familiar with: Caketrain, The New Yinzer, Pear Noir!, Speed and Briscoe, Six Gallery Press, Autumn House and the Lilliput Review. Those are only a few of the organizations active in staging readings and promoting local writers.
Are we merely experiencing a perfect storm, a sort of critical mass of motivated people eager to spread the gospel of literature? Recently, the end of both the International Poetry Forum and the Gist Street Reading Series were tough losses to the city.
How much resiliency does the current scene actually have, though?
“Poetry groups, poetry magazines—they come and go like the seasons,” says Don Wentworth, publisher of the Lilliput Review. “Some of what has impressed me about Pittsburgh is there’s been a lot of staying power, in the small presses in particular. I wouldn’t call it infrastructure, but there are some centers we solidify around.”
“Sometimes too much infrastructure can be a problem,” counters Karen Lillis, author of The Second Elizabeth and the Karen the Small Press Librarian literary blog. “I get nervous when I hear about someone who is contributing a lot to the community talking about how, ‘Oh, I’m going to have to go and get a Ph.D. somewhere else.’ I’m like, ‘Oh no, don’t leave. You don’t need a Ph.D.—you’re doing great!’”
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.
“It’s really fun to see everyone congregate in the same space because you don’t always get to see so many people who all do the same thing,” says Scott Silsbe, managing editor of The New Yinzer.
Where does the scene go from here? Is this level of excitement and productivity sustainable?
“It’s only as sustainable as its individuals. In other words: You do have the university press and things like that, but when you look at the small press, the drive and the energy come from the individuals,” says Wentworth. “And what I sense is that we’re all on parallel paths. No one seems to be on the ego trip of ‘I want to be famous.’ Everybody just wants to get out there and get the work exposed.
“The energy that I see that’s being affirmed person to person, organization to organization is just that unselfish energy. If word gets out, and you attract new people—whether they’re writers or publishers—that’s the thing that’s going to keep it going.”
“Yeah, there’s a buzz going around as to whether it’s happening in Pittsburgh,” Lillis says. “You know, ‘Is it happening?’ So yeah, the answer is: Yes, it’s happening!”
At the close of the reading in February, host Holly Coleman let everyone know who would be reading there the following month, and with one final “Go Steelers!” chant, she said goodnight to the audience.
The crowd lingered as a Harry Nilsson tune came on over the speakers. Some approached the readers and expressed enthusiasm for the words that were shared that night. Everyone was smiling and laughing—authors and audience together.
(ModernFormations Gallery, 4919 Penn Ave., Garfield. Thurs., April 21, 8 p.m. $5. Info: 412/362-0274, tnypresents.blogspot.com)