Pittsburgh: Poetry & Place

During a meeting of our student creative writing group today, I had the pleasure of rediscovering this poem:

Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh is a fat lady jabbering at the bus stop.
She mistakes me for someone who gives a damn,
For a native son of her gray industrial breast.
She blesses her Bucs, her Steelers,
Her father, God rest his soul, was a Hornets fan.
She mistakes me for someone who gives a damn,
Her blue scarf twisting like the broad
Monongahela,
Her blue face lined like a jitney’s street map.
I’d tell her I’m not from this place:
These severed tired neighborhoods,
These ruthless winter tantrums,
But her long winded stories numb me.
She is persistent as snow, as boot slush &
Thinsulate,
As buses rumbling like giant metallic caterpillars .
She lights a Marlboro and it means
Spring will burn quick and furious as a match,
Summer will blaze.
When she tells me No one is a stranger in
Pittsburgh,
do I believe her,
My frosty fairy foster-Mamma,
My stout rambling metaphor?

~Terrance Hayes

This poem was given out to the group by my colleague and fellow advisor, Emily Watson. The theme of her exercise was the idea of place and how it could work in creative writing. She encouraged the group to write either replacement poems or just to write about places they knew or had strong connections to. She also included “A Primer” by Bob Hicok and Three Yards by Michael Dorris. It was a really great exercise and I think I’m going to steal it to use later in my creative writing class.

I love “Pittsburgh” because I’ve spent a lot of time in that city and I think the poem captures the complexity of the place. My husband’s hometown, I admittedly had complicated feelings about it. It’s impossible to drive in. On certain days, in a certain light it still looks like a steel town. A bit dingy. A bit dirty. The houses are carved out of the hillsides and look like the might fall into the river at any minute. At the same time, the grace of the bridges arching over the water of the rivers and the view of the city from the top of Mt. Washington are beautiful. You can’t beat a sandwich from Primanti Brothers and I like the hills.

My biggest personal struggle with Pittsburgh is something I think Hayes touches on his poem: the feeling of being an outsider. Pittsburgh is a big city but the people who live there are deeply loyal and that loyalty binds them. There is always a sense of displacement when you find yourself in a new place, but some places are easier to break into than others. I recognize I may be projecting a bit onto the poem considering that sometimes when I think about my early encounters with the city, my chest still tightens. I also recognize that some of the trouble I have with Pittsburgh is that gut deep loyalty to a place is somewhat alien to me. I didn’t grow up in the same place and I have several different houses that I associate with my childhood. I think it’s important to get out and live in other places. You never know what’s out there until you leave and it’s not like your hometown is going anywhere. This is a direct result of the way I was raised because my parents left their hometowns and never went back.

I have tried writing about Pittsburgh several times, but each time ends in frustration. I think it is because I’m trying to balance past and present feelings, which is tricky. I think this is also why I admire the poem Hayes wrote so much. He manages that balance.

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