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Allegheny County Poets Laureate Interviews

Jody DiPerna

Jul 21, 2020

City Of Asylum Names Four Poets Laureate For Allegheny County

As part of City of Asylum's All Pittsburghers Are Poets initiative, Allegheny County now has a Poet Laureate. Actually, we have four.

"It is pretty non-traditional," said Erin Roussel, the Special Projects Manager at City of Asylum. "'All Pittsburghers Are Poets' is really trying to recognize that this is a city that has long been a home for poetry -- there are a lot of poets who live and work in Pittsburgh. Instead of just selecting one poet, we decided to select four different poets who are at different places in their careers and who are also engaged with different communities."

Because of this structure, each poet was selected by a unique panel of judges, each chosen for their expertise in specific areas. And because of this inclusion, the Allegheny County poets laureate blow the doors off of the fusty old ideas of poetry as something reserved for your dog-eared Norton's Anthology.

Poet Laureate Celeste Gainey, though not a native Pittsburgher, has called this city her home for the last nine years. Appropriately enough, she was called here by poetry.

"What brought me here was poetry. I am very grateful to the poetry community and the people who have really championed my writing and have been my cohort in workshops," she said. For Gainey, the appeal of the laureateship was an opportunity to serve the literary community and also the larger city and county.

"[I]t seems to me there is a call, there is a call for artists to raise our game, in a sense," Gainey said of creating art in this unparalleled age. "I had this idea in mind about the idea of living in the Anthropocene age. And now, we can add to that, this inequality -- the racial disparity that has been with us always but is so magnified at this moment. And then the pandemic. So what does our writing look like now?"

Like Gainey, who is influenced by her years of lighting television and film productions and whose 2015 collection is titled, appropriately enough, 'the GAFFER,' Emerging Poet Laureate, Paloma Sierra, brings her expertise and love of the theatre to her work. She is earning her masters in Theatre at Carnegie Mellon and her work was selected for New York Theatre's Soundbites, a festival for the best 10-minute musicals.

Sierra's work also combines elements of Latin culture, troubadour traditions, spoken word poetry, musical theatre and opera. It is at the intersection of poetry and the magic of the stage is where her work really breathes.

"The project I hope to do as a laureate is still in the works," Sierra told the Current. "I'm hoping to bring a little bit more light to poetry as applied to theatre. Talking to playwrights who write poetry for the stage -- plays or choreopoems or poetic plays or verse dramas -- every type of theatre that involves poetry."

Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Sierra first wrote poetry in Spanish. Now, she writes in Spanish, and English, and sometimes she blends the two, embracing both. The work accepted by the Soundbites festival is, in fact, bilingual.

With the inclusion of Sierra and ASL Poet Laureate, Mj Shahen, these poets are writing in languages other than English. Mj Shahen is deaf and writes her poetry in American Sign Language.

Shahen said she first started her journey as a poet when she went to deaf camp as a teen, and where, for the first time, she was around deaf artists, musicians and storytellers. It is where she fell in love with the medium and craft of ABC ASL poetry.

Specifically, an ABC story is a format within ASL. It is poetry and story-telling and performance art all at once. The structure uses the handshapes of the ASL finger-spelled alphabet in sequence. You can see Shahen's ABC poem, 'Deaf Child of Hearing Parents' here.

This poem takes the listener through Shahen's own infancy and childhood in Aliquippa. Shahen went to an oral school, which meant that the kids were forbidden to sign; they were forced to wear hearing aids and forced to speak. She pointed out that this was back in the 1960's and things were different. Doctors pushed this type of education and there were few options for her parents. Most hearing parents didn't know any better.

It all left her feeling oppressed and dispossessed until her family moved and there was a deaf neighbor on their street. Shahen would go hang out with him, and she was free -- her hands would fly in conversation.

Explaining this portion of the poem through a translator, she explained, "The P -- that's the handshape -- I'm using it for seeing people. I see people walking and they're deaf. That's the deaf community. Then Q is guilt. I'm signing guilt. Guilt because hearing people, they take the advice of doctors and they force their child to wear the hearing aids, they force them to speak. It's not really successful. It's not. It leads to language deprivation -- the child is language deprived."

For those of us in the hearing world, Shahen's work shines a light on an art form previously unseen. The poet laureateship gives her an opportunity to be this sort of bridge between the hearing and the deaf and she hopes to get involved in high schools where hearing students are learning ASL.

More importantly, though, she'd like to be able to share her art with deaf students.

"I'd like to show the oral deaf children that they have their own language. They have it inside them. They do. Deaf kids have their own language inside them," she said.

You don't have to be a master of iambic pentameter to enjoy the poetry of these gifted story-tellers. The Youth Poet Laureate, Vincent Folkes, like many young poets, found his way to poetry by first writing lyrics. The work of the 19-year old from Mount Washington thrums with shapes of some of the best, most exceptional rap artists.

"Russ is a big influence on me because he speaks about self-sufficiency, ownership and passion for whatever life path a person chooses to take. Nipsey Hussle is as well, because he talks about these things -- strength, discipline," Folkes said.

His poem, 'The People' drives the reader through each line, Folkes tempo and cadence coming every syllable:

"So what they do / They kill our spirits / And divide us up / Cis, het, black, white / Dead men, telling everybody how to live their lives / That ain't right / But still we rise"

None of this would be happening without the financial backing from an Allegheny Regional Asset District Radical Impact Grant.

"All of these poets received a prize for being named and thanks to this RAD grant, we have money to continue to support their work as they do this programming. So when they read, they will be compensated for their work and they will work with us to create programming. There is a service element and also we want to continue to support them as artists in continuing to develop their poetry," Roussel explained.

What that work will look like moving forward? It's hard to know, but Gainey has a few thoughts of what all four artists working together might be able to do.

"We're diverse. Some of us are people of color. Some of us are queer. Some of us are old. I like that because I think that nothing is cast in stone at this point," she said. "I see us working together and creating what I like to call a freeway effect -- so we're all headed in the same direction, but we all have different lanes that may have different emphasis."

Photo of Celeste Gainey by Renee Rosensteel

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