Pittsburgh transformed into a mecca of literary scene

Thriving community of small, independent presses fed by stream of locally trained and transplanted writers

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Two years ago, Adam Atkinson, a high school creative writing teacher, was driving on the interstate to his job in Midland, engaging with his colleague Scott Andrew in what he called a bit of "gap analysis."

"We would talk and talk and talk about what we wanted Pittsburgh to be for us, looking around to see what isn't there and what could be there," said Mr. Atkinson, an exuberant 26-year-old graduate of Carnegie Mellon University who, in addition to his teaching job, moonlights as a comic with the Irony City Improv Troupe.

"We love it here and we're young. I'm a writer and Scott's an artist, and there are so many great independent small presses here, but there's no easy entry point for any of us to know about each other."

So Mr. Atkinson and Mr. Andrew decided to make one: Open Thread (www.openthread.org), which they describe as a kind of clearinghouse/aggregator/gathering point for the region's thriving, if Balkanized, arts and literary scene.

The time seemed right: in an era when the Internet has decimated the corporate publishing industry nationally -- McGraw-Hill announced two weeks ago it was laying off 550 people -- small, independent presses are thriving in Pittsburgh, which has developed a reputation as a congenial, affordable place for writers and artists.

Last weekend, with financial backing from The Sprout Fund, Open Thread launched the first annual Small Press Festival, drawing nearly 400 people to Carnegie Mellon University's Miller Gallery for readings, screenings, seminars, bookbinding workshops and to purchase reading material not necessarily found at BarnesandNoble.com and Amazon.com -- at least not yet.

Upstairs on the Miller Gallery's second floor, while a "re-edit" of Dolly Parton's "Jolene" throbbed in the background, visitors examined beautifully bound books published by Caketrain Journal and Press (www.caketrain.org), Encyclopedia Destructica and The New Yinzer.

Their names may sound vaguely hallucinatory, but there's a clear vision at work here.


Friday: The Diner Divas: Writers with Bite

Host: Sue Rumbaugh

Venue: Ritter's Diner, 5221 Baum Blvd.

Time: 3-5 p.m.

Description: Sue Rumbaugh, of Carlow University, presents a spectacular afternoon of creative nonfiction at Pittsburgh's most greasy, gratifying diner: Ritter's.

Cover: free

Friday: TNY Presents -- That '70s Night

Host: The New Yinzer

Venue: Brillobox, 4104 Penn Ave.

Time: 8 p.m.

Description: Join The New Yinzer for the glammest night of the summer. We're gonna get a little funky and a lot punky! Performing live will be David Bowie (Colin & The Shots), Neil Young (House of Assassins), Foreigner (Weird Paul Rock Band) + the local supergroup Decision Way All-Stars (featuring Paulette Poullet, along with members of Great Ants, Harangue and Thee Shopkeepers) will kick out some sweet, sweet 1970s jams!

Cover: $5

Other events throughout the month will include the launch of new publications such as the Tri-State Chapbooks from Open Thread and Encyclopedia Destructica, and the newest issues of INCITE! and Pear Noir.

For more information, go to www.spfpittsburgh.com.

"We brought 40 copies of our books and we sold 18 titles over the weekend, which is really good for an event like that," said Amanda Raczkowski, one of Caketrain's founders. Sales figures like those won't pay the rent, but that's not the point, she added.

"We have day jobs which help us survive, but Caketrain is about being a part of the literary community and letting new writers' voices be heard."

Fed by a steady stream of students from creative writing programs at the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon and elsewhere, Caketrain and other alternative publishers, many of them graduates of those programs, receive thousands of submissions each year on their Web sites and through writing contests.

Autumn House Press, which, along with Creative Nonfiction, is one of the city's two "established" nonprofits -- with a paid staff, a budget and a national reputation -- gets more than 1,000 submissions a year, mostly through contests that they sponsor.

"I think small presses are the future," says Sharon Dilworth, Autumn House's fiction editor and an associate professor of English and creative writing at Carnegie Mellon. "Everyone else is concerned about money, but small presses are concerned about publishing."

Independent publishers and "underground" small presses have always thrived in cities like Boston, Seattle and San Francisco, where the landmark City Lights Bookstore began publishing unknown writers in the 1950s and author Dave Eggers started McSweeney's in 1998 in reaction to the increasing conservatism of trade publishers.

Now, Pittsburgh has joined their ranks -- in sharp contrast from just a decade ago, when the number of small presses could be counted on one hand. Today, there are at least 18, according to Small Press Pittsburgh (http://smallpresspittsburgh.wikispaces.com/), a Web site founded by Karen Lillis, a recent transplant from New York. Ms. Lillis' third book, "The Second Elizabeth" ("a meditation on language and naming," she says), has just been published by Six Gallery Press, based in Friendship.

Ms. Lillis said she was also shocked to find that there were at least 26 reading series in Pittsburgh.

"I was like, what?" said Ms. Lillis, a native of Charlottesville, Va. "I remember before I came here in 2005, this poet out of Buffalo told me, 'Yeah, there are some poets there, but I'd never move to Pittsburgh for the poetry.' But people are coming here, and not because they're being pushed to do so."

In fact, the city has always had a thriving poetry scene. Pittsburgh Poetry Exchange, Taproot, Squirrel Hill Poets and Madwomen in the Attic -- a longtime writing workshop based at Carlow University -- are just a few of those jamming the local literary calendar with readings and journals.

"There's so much talent out there it's breathtaking," said Michael Simms, president of Autumn House, which he founded in 1998 to fill the gap after big publishing houses dramatically reduced their poetry lists.

"After our poetry contest, I personally went over 700 manuscripts, and 100 were good, 50 were excellent and 33 were extraordinary," he said.

Alicia Ostriker, an award-winning poet based in New York, is reviewing the finalists, he added.

Minneapolis remains the capital of alternative publishing in the eyes of many -- boasting such nationally known houses as Graywolf Press, Milkweed Editions and Coffee House Publishers, along with The Loft, a nonprofit literary arts center. But Pittsburgh is more than holding its own as a literary mecca, Mr. Simms claims.

"One of the reasons I moved here with my wife from Austin in 1987 was that there are more practicing and publishing writers per capita here than almost anyplace else," he said. "You've got all the writing programs, and while the International Poetry Forum did end this year, it was a major national draw for 40 years."

True, Minneapolis is "extraordinary. Next to Pittsburgh, it's probably the best place for a writer to live," he said, laughing.

Despite the damage wreaked on the printed word by the Internet, many of these smaller presses couldn't exist without the Web. It's where fledgling writers find them, and many presses publish e-books, blogs and online "zines." But these independents also remain committed to books that boast beautifully designed covers and typeface, printed on quality paper stock.

"There's something incredibly tactile about having a book in your hand," said Ms. Raczkowski, whose press publishes about four titles a year in runs of 100 to 300 copies. Each one contains a careful selection of writing that, she says, matches Caketrain's particular aesthetic -- writing that explores the possibilities of language rather than plot. They accept only about one out of every 100 submissions, her colleague, Joseph Reed, said.

"We do this for love," said Ms. Raczkowski, who, like Mr. Reed, holds a "regular" job during the day and works on Caketrain at night and on the weekends.

While an alternative press calls up romantic visions of dissidents at the barricades waving seditious pamphlets printed in the back of some truck, Caketrain's books are printed by a company in Nebraska, "who have actually gotten more reasonable with pricing as they've upgraded to more modern equipment," Mr. Reed said.

Others, such as Encyclopedia Destructica, an artists' collective based in Lawrenceville, make their own books, using their own printers. The press holds frequent bookbinding parties at its studio and has issued 20 hand-bound journals since its founding in 2005, featuring new and unfinished works.

Encyclopedia Destructica -- whose name originates from a line of dialogue in an episode of "The Simpsons" -- is the brainchild of Chris Kardambikis and Jasdeep Khaira, both Carnegie Mellon graduates who decided to remain in Pittsburgh after graduating five years ago.

Mr. Kardambikis is headed to graduate school in Scotland in the fall. "I plan to return," he said. "This is an amazing city for artists. Not just because it's got cheaper rent than New York, but the people in the community here, whether it's music or writing or art, are incredibly supportive, more so than a lot of other places."

"I was told by folks when I came to CMU that I would not be living in Pittsburgh after I graduated," added Mr. Atkinson. "They said I wouldn't be spending any summers here because all Pittsburgh wasn't a place with a future or a place worth investing yourself in, it was just the place where CMU happened to be. Well, as you can see from this event alone, they were completely wrong about that."

Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949. First Published July 27, 2009 4:00 AM


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