Bookstore and poet in war of words over reading

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Joseph-Beth Booksellers on the South Side welcomes a steady flow of authors to its store, from porno-film actors such as Ron Jeremy to prize-winning novelists such as Michael Chabon, but it imposed a different set of rules for Pittsburgh poet Jan Beatty.

After the store initially rejected a reading because it found her poetry too "erotic" for its family-friendly store atmosphere, it then offered compromises to permit her to visit.

Beatty said yesterday she has rejected the store's recent offers because the conditions amount to censorship.

What's making the Cincinnati-based chain hot and bothered is Beatty's new poetry collection, "Red Sugar," published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Some of the poems are sexually explicit.

Maria Sticco, publicist for the press, said that after she sent a copy to the South Side outlet's marketing and events coordinator, Maureen White, to set up a reading, she was told the poetry was inappropriate for the store's "family-friendly atmosphere."

"They said children might hear it over the store's sound system," Sticco said.

Although Beatty has previously read her work at the store, she would not be granted a reading from "Red Sugar" unless the store chose the poems, the publisher was told.

Beatty rejected that offer earlier this month. Friday, Michael Link, Joseph-Beth's publisher relations and event manager, proposed two more options to Sticco:

• A book signing without a reading.

• A reading with the sound system turned off.

Beatty turned those offers down as well.

"Look, I know about readings and how to behave in a professional manner," said the poet. "Plus, I've read there before and there was no problem.

"I don't understand them. I like the store and they say they support writers. Now they are censoring me."

Beatty added that Joseph-Beth is presenting best-selling author David Sedaris next month, "and he's pretty raunchy. Nobody's telling him he can't read there."

Joseph-Beth also held a signing event last year for porn-film actor Jeremy -- an occasion Neil Van Uum, founder of the bookstore chain, said he regrets. "I was terribly concerned about Ron Jeremy, and that decision came right down to the wire," he said Friday.

"But the fact is that [Beatty's] book is of a sexual, erotic nature that made our people uncomfortable. Their sentiment was that the reading was not appropriate for our audiences."

Also troubling Van Uum is a complaint about the Beatty ban from a Pittsburgh attorney, Leone Paradise, a student of the poet's Madwomen writing workshop.

"When an attorney is threatening me, that absolutely gets my attention. That's the fly in the ointment."

Paradise denies making any threat of legal action against the store and of being retained by Beatty.

"Certainly, I would make no threat," Paradise said. "There was no intent about any legal action. I called them as a person, not a lawyer."

When she called the store manager to learn more about the ban, Paradise admitted she identified herself as an attorney. "When I say I am a lawyer, I know people will answer my call," she said. "I just wanted information."

She added that Joseph-Beth has "every legal right to do what they are doing."

The author of three collections, Beatty, 54, of Wilkinsburg, won the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's $15,000 creative achievement award in 2000 and the Agnes Lynch Starrett poetry prize from the Pitt Press in 1994.

She is director of creative writing at Carlow University and appears regularly on the city's poetry reading circuit, including Joseph-Beth, where she appeared with another Pittsburgh poet, Gerald Stern, two years ago. Since the book release party April 18, Beatty has given a series of readings in Pittsburgh and at several Pitt branch campuses and has appeared on KDKA-TV.

"My position is that the store needs to contact me to apologize and to let me read with no strings attached," Beatty said.

Book editor Bob Hoover can be reached at or 412-263-1634.


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