Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Blast Furnace Special Edition: Pittsburgh Poems Project

Each year, Blast Furnace posts a special edition of the journal, and every other year that edition focuses on a Pittsburgh-based literary event, cause, or organization. This year, we’re pleased to feature the Pittsburgh Poems Project.
The Pittsburgh Poems Project was created by workers and volunteers at Literary Arts Boom (The LAB). Inspired by 826 Valencia, one of eight chapters across the country, the LAB is a creative, collaborative writing space offering free and low-cost out-of-school programming to Pittsburgh youth ages six through eighteen. Students practice and improve their inquiry and writing skills by participating in project-based workshops that incorporate art, technology, and communication. Its mission is “to inspire students to pursue their interests, find their voices, and tell their stories.”
At various festivals throughout the summer of 2013, poet/writer Stephanie Brea assisted other LAB staff and volunteers in the collection of poems about Pittsburgh from people of all ages across the city, with the goal of collecting at least 20 poems at each event, integrating them into the LAB archives and social media, and featuring them in a final publication. The hope was that the collected poems and audio recordings would ultimately populate interactive maps and archives in physical and digital realms.
Following is Blast Furnace’s interview with Stephanie about the Pittsburgh Poems Project.
What is your background?
I’m from Greensburg, Pennsylvania. I went to college at Arizona State and then the University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg. I studied English with a concentration in Creative Writing at Marymount Manhattan in New York, New York. When I was in high school there was a visiting writer who was giving a two-day workshop. I signed up, learned more about writing, read poems, gave feedback [on other’s writing]…it was empowering; it changed everything for me. If not for that I’d still be that girl writing in her Moleskin notebooks. Many years later, I had the opportunity to return to my high school as the visiting writer and run a similar workshop. When I saw the impact that I could have by providing the same access and opportunities, and that I could foster the same enthusiasm for creative writing, I was hooked.
What is your connection with the LAB?
I’m an independent contractor-volunteer who assists with the development and implementation of activities and lesson plans The LAB has been in existence for two years now, Paula Levin is [Lead Experimentalist] there.
What is the Pittsburgh Poems Project?
It’s a web-based project that was collaborative. Paula Levin’s vision was to modify one of the in-classroom Pittsburgh Poems lesson plans into a more mobile, interactive summer project. The plan was to make an online or Google map viewable on a computer or mobile phone. Grant funding for it was provided by the Grable Foundation. [The Pittsburgh Poems Project] was loosely inspired by author RichardPrice’s quote, ‘Where you’re from is the zip code of your heart.’
What did the project entail?
We spent all summer soliciting poems from a wide range of age groups and neighborhoods Poems were submitted on notecards and we had a teen editorial board comprised of high school students who narrowed the submissions down to one hundred poems of different themes and forms, and from people of a variety of ages and from diverse neighborhoods. After LAB volunteers transcribed the poems from the notecards into a digital file, I focused on the selection and order of the poems, while Paula focused her time and efforts on the design of the map-poetry booklet.
We wanted to prove that everybody has a poem about Pittsburgh and could write a poem about Pittsburgh. The youngest submitter was three and the oldest was over eighty.

The Pittsburgh Poetry Project map-poetry booklet
What was the end result?
We solicited poems at various locations throughout the city, including “Unblurred” First FridayGallery Crawl in Garfield, the Mini Maker Faire, and 91.3 WYEP FM radio’s Summerfest. The actual reading of the poems took place at the East End Book Exchange in Bloomfield. We sold the map-poetry booklet for two dollars each to cover the cost of printing, and different venues sold them, too, as well as Karen Lillis, who took them to local book fairs as part of her pop-up bookstand.
The order of the poems in the map-poetry booklet was carefully chosen by the editorial board.  The numbers assigned to each poem correspond to the order in which the poems were received. This number functioned as an identifier for the poem and poet, so the numbers on the map indicated the approximate neighborhood where the specific poet lived, with the poet sometimes giving input on a possibly more appropriate location for the number of their poem on the map based on its content.
Is there a plan for another Pittsburgh Poems Project?
In the future we may do audio poems, which would take more money and technology. We might do a second edition. We want to be able to eliminate the need to transcribe poems from the notecards, and have people contribute directly to the digital archive. This first time doing the project we learned what worked and the challenges. We hope to do it again!
Editors Note: The LAB is now housed at the Union Project, a community space in East Liberty ( Following are just ten selections of the many included in the Pittsburgh Poetry Project.

Michelle A.
Age: 25
Neighborhood: Bloomfield

Grit grime
come back.

Matt S.
Age: 30
Neighborhood: Troy Hill

Pittsburgh’s Streets—

Where the ghosts of my
ancestors mingle with
Carnegie and Frick

Brandon McC.
Age: 29
Neighborhood: Polish Hill

The city shines out across the water like promise itself,
a flaming white love letter to work-worn hands,
a cannon-fired kiss aimed at young dreamers,
and I say to it, "I love you too, Pittsburgh."

Emily D.
Age: 12
Neighborhood: Mt. Lebanon

looks like endless winding streets cramped with cars
smells like french fries wafting out of the tailgater’s cars.
sounds like cars vrooming, people talking, stadiums cheering
tastes like coleslaw and french fry hamburgers
feels like home

Chris W.
Age: 32
Neighborhood: Oakland

Old Buildings
Steel Shadow
Three Rivers

Tommy W.
Age: 34
Neighborhood: Regent Square

Geez Oh Man,
Stillers For Life!

Leah P.
Age: 24
Neighborhood: New Jersey

Pittsburgh: A Haiku

Riding the Incline
Pierogies on Every Street
City of Bridges

Sarah L.
Age: 24
Neighborhood: Northside

Pittsburgh Is

Pittsburgh is like an arm
around your waist, a lukewarm
beer on a tarpaper roof
and a postcard to your grandma.

Matthew S.
Age: 14
Neighborhood: Mt. Lebanon

looks like bridges
smells like food
sounds like cars
tastes like pizza
feels like winter

# 300
Nathan R.
Age: 4
Neighborhood: New Kensington

looks like big buildings
smells like roses
sounds like dad
tastes like pizza
feels like hot

Dov Ber N.
Age: 30
Neighborhood: Squirrel Hill

Saturday mornings
Tallis and kaputa
Everyone says good shabbos

Age: 51
Neighborhood: Highland Park

Blue and now green

On the cusp of
Being cosmopolitan