'Verse Envisioned': Pittsburgh poets in the PG, with inspired artworks

By Kristofer Collins

At the behest of Samuel Hazo, founder of the International Poetry Forum and former Pennsylvania poet laureate, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette began publishing poems on its Saturday Op-Ed page in 1993. Since then the PG has printed more than 1,100 poems by professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs alike. In this day and age the promotion of a region's lyrical arts on the pages of a daily paper is a rare thing indeed.


Pittsburgh Post-Gazette / Word Association Publishers ($19.95)

In 2013 independent art curator Rachel Klipa contacted the PG with a great idea. She wanted to curate an exhibition of artwork inspired by poetry, bringing together the usually separate worlds of the visual and linguistic arts in a Primanti's sandwich of tasty Pittsburgh creativity. Readers will decide which of these artforms is the cole slaw and which is the french fries. The result is "Verse Envisioned: Poems From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Works of Art They Have Inspired," a gorgeous glossy-paged anthology featuring 45 poets and 25 artists edited by Post-Gazette Op-Ed/Forum editor Greg Victor and Ms. Klipa.

An ekphrastic poem is one that attempts to describe or comment upon a work of art. Ekphrasis is a concept that goes back to Plato. The paintings of local artists such as John Kane, Mary Cassatt and Peter Contis have been inspiring our city's poets to climb to great lyrical heights for years. "Verse Envisioned" performs an inversion on this hoary old formula by enlisting the artists to create original works in response to selected poems. The key to a project such as this is for the painting (or mixed media work) to stand on its own as a complete work while at the same time being complementary to the poem.

Most of the artists included here have opted for a more or less literal translation of the poems' themes to the visual realm. Michael McSorley's "In the Kitchen," for instance, illustrates "Candied Yams," a tender and aromatic remembrance by Terrance Hayes - 2010 winner of the National Book Award for Poetry - of his mother's recipe and the "ruckus of / a rumbling house" in which the food was prepared, by sorting out cookware and ingredients into individual panels. Cara Livorio depicts the metaphor of a human heart as "a large sheet of metal / being flapped back and forth by a child / making the lightning behind the curtain / at a school play, posited by Micki Myers' "Echocardiogram," for her painting "Curtain Call."

"Verse Envisioned" is a conversation between the arts. The poets in these pages are concerned with local history, military service and misadventure, family, and the passage of time. They are a direct and clear-spoken bunch as represented by Lori Jakiela, Tony Hoagland, Jan Beatty and Yona Harvey, among others. This lack of pretension and uncluttered sensibility is something clearly shared by our visual artists, all of whom in these pages have created work that is relatable to the common observer.

In his introduction, Samuel Hazo worries that the general public sees "poetry as something limited to cliques, or as an esoteric indulgence for the few." By establishing the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as a place where people who are not likely to otherwise encounter works of verse can read and enjoy the handiwork of our poets, Mr. Hazo and all of the editors who have kept his dream going have helped put that apprehension to rest.

"Verse Envisioned: Poems From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Works of Art They Have Inspired" is on display at Panza Gallery, 115 Sedgwick St., Millvale, through Feb 27. A closing event from 5 to 7 p.m. on Feb. 27 will feature poets, artists and a talk by Mr. Hazo.

Kristofer Collins is the books editor at Pittsburgh Magazine.