With A New Collection, Poet Jan Beatty Affirms Her Leading Role In The Pittsburgh Scene
Pittsburgh’s poetry community is large but tight-knit. One big reason is Jan Beatty, the award-winning poet and educator whose sixth collection was just published by the University of Pittsburgh Press.
“I think of her sometimes as a rock-star poet, that she just has this dynamic energy around her that’s rather infectious,” said Sarah Williams-Devereux, a former workshop student of Beatty’s now an administrative assistant in the Madwomen in the Attic program, based at Carlow University.
Beatty is a Carlow English professor who heads the Madwomen and directs the school’s creative-writing program. At 68, with her cropped blonde hair, motorcycle jackets and ornate rings on every finger, she cuts a distinctive figure. She’s been a key player on the local scene since the mid-1990s.
“Jan is one of the biggest beating hearts of the Pittsburgh poetry community,” said Emily Mohn-Slate, a former Madwomen workshopper who just published her debut collection. Mohn-Slate is one of many local poets, women in particular, who claim a debt to Beatty and the Madwomen. The Madwomen “changed my life,” she said.
“The Body Wars” continues Beatty’s three-decades-plus career spent exploring family, love, blood, sex, and raw emotion. The title poem portrays a woman who had stopped menstruating after the death of her father.
I walked into the woods bleeding, I
left the town and mourned.
Midnight in Alaska, still light and I
was alone, walking into the Sitka woods,
it had been 1 year since I’d bled, and
longer since I’d [expletive] anyone …
"I think of her sometimes as a rock-star poet"
The poem concludes with the narrator lamenting her own ignorance, “not even knowing my own wars – / the ones already fought, / or the many to still come.”
Other poems – many of them autobiographical to varying degrees -- address the power of nature, an encounter with an ex-felon at a late-night diner, and Beatty’s love of the American West, its landscape and outsized characters.
In “How I Became A Gunslinger,” she writes:
I couldn't wait to feel the metal pump action
Again, to point the barrel to the sky, to
hit, to miss, but to shoot.
A feel like money in my hands –
like solid heart complete –
the smell of dirt & leather,
& I didn't even know
what I was killing –
I just wanted it dead.
"She's not afraid to say the hard thing"
“She’s not afraid to say the hard thing,” said Kayla Sargeson, a former student of Beatty’s who now teaches at local colleges and universities. “I love how tough and how visceral and how sometimes challenging her poems are. As women, … we’re told, ‘Don’t say this, don’t say that, don’t say this, don’t say that.’ In Jan’s work, she says it.”
Beatty was born in Pittsburgh, and spent the first year of her life in the Roselia Foundling and Maternity Asylum, a Catholic orphanage in the Hill District. (She didn’t learn the identity of her birth parents for decades.) She was adopted by a millworker and his wife and grew up mostly in Baldwin Borough. At West Virginia University, Beatty studied social work, but a series of jobs at abortion clinics, maximum-security prisons, and a welfare office didn’t pan out.
“It was too, too intense emotionally,” she said. “And I would just cry a lot. I would cry with my clients, which is not the way you're supposed to do things.”
Beatty pursued poetry instead, taking classes at the University of Pittsburgh. To support herself, she waitressed all over town.
“I learned the most, I think, from that job,” she said. “I mean, you have to learn how to control your table. Be fast. Know what you're doing, you know, not take any crap from people. And those are important life skills.”
One of Beatty’s most popular poems is titled “A Waitress’s Instructions on Tipping or Get the Cash Up and Don’t Waste My Time,” which reads, in part:
Twenty percent minimum as long as the waitress doesn’t inflict bodily harm.
If you’re two people at a four top, tip extra.
If you sit a long time, pay rent.
Double tips for special orders.
Always tip extra when using coupons.
Better yet, don’t use coupons.
The poem, which appeared in Beatty’s debut collection, “Mad River” (1995), established a voice – unblinking, blue-collar, ready for conflict. Another of her widely known poems is “Shooter,” from the 2008 collection “Red Sugar,” in which she imagines putting bullets into a long list of men who’ve abused, exploited or insulted her: “I shoot the old man who followed my 11-year-old body on Smithfield St/because I smiled at him/because it was Xmas …. I’m shooting the cook who grabbed me from behind in the restaurant kitchen/the famous poet who said there are no great women writers …”
“I think people are afraid of everything,” said Beatty. “People are afraid to even have a disagreement with each other. And that really bothers me. It's like, ‘What's going to happen? So what if we disagree?’ I think that's a good thing. That's the beginning of life. … And it's like, let's go to the places that terrify us because there's gonna be something there that's really important, you know, to learn.”
“Jan has always been someone who is really unafraid of speaking the truth, and kind of doing what the poem requires,” said Emily Mohn-Slate. “I feel like over the course of her work she’s gone to some places that are kind of risky and sometimes scary.”
Ed Ochester, the longtime Pitt professor who runs the Pitt Poetry Series, said Beatty is the only student from his decades of teaching in Pittsburgh whose work he publishes. He called Beatty’s voice “a very human voice just in general, in a way that it’s sometimes hard for poetry to be, where people often are more formal. With Jan, it’s almost always as if she’s talking to the reader, and talking directly.”
"I think people are afraid of everything"
Beatty’s poetry has gotten national attention. Library Journal said that in her 2013 collection “The Switching / Yard,” Beatty “cannily captures a desolate American landscape, striking the pose of a skate punk kickflipping his board.” Most recently, “Jackknife: New and Selected Poems” was awarded the 2018 Paterson Poetry Prize. And “My Father Disappears in Flowers,” a poem from “Body Wars,” was published in the Aug. 13 edition of the New York Times Magazine.
In Pittsburgh, Beatty's influence as a poet is at least equaled by her impact as an advocate and educator. For about two decades, she was co-host of Prosody, a radio show that spotlighted the work of local and nationally known poets and writers, including Pulitzer Prize winners and U.S. Poet Laureates. (The show most recently aired on WESA; it was canceled in 2018.)
As a professor, most recently at Carlow, Beatty seems to have inspired countless students. “Her mentorship and her guidance saved my life,” said Kayla Sargeson. “Because I felt for the first time ever, there was somebody who, like, saw me, and not just this little punk who’s super-loud. But she saw me as a writer, as like a person, and she saw what I’m capable of.”
As a student, Sargeson worked as Beatty’s intern on the Madwomen in the Attic program. The Beaver Falls native went on to graduate school at Columbia College in Chicago, and is now an educator herself, teaching creative writing, composition and literature at Pitt, Carlow and CCAC.
The Madwomen program consists of semester-long poetry workshops for both undergrads and writers of any age from the community. It was founded in 1979. Beatty has led it for some 15 years.
A women-only program has multiple benefits, says Sarah Williams-Devereux, who has been a Madwomen student and instructor as well as an administrative employee. “You don’t have to worry about sexist voices coming in and saying, Oh no, don’t write about sex, don’t write about motherhood, don’t write about menstruation, don’t write about misogyny, don’t write about all of these sorts of things women have been told we shouldn’t write about, or weren’t worthy of writing about.”
Participants have ranged in age from 18 to ninety-something. Many have gone on to publish work in journals, and even their own poetry collections.
In the Madwomen, says Emily Mohn-Slate, “I found these other women poets who were also writing to make sense of their lives. They were also publishing their work, which was something I hadn’t done and I was afraid to do.”
Her first full-length book, “The Falls,” “wouldn’t exist without Jan and without the Madwomen,” said Mohn-Slate, who teaches high school English.
The Madwomen, said Beatty, remains a work-in-progress. Because the vast majority of writers over the years have been white, for instance, Beatty is making changes: Next semester, five of the 13 sections will be taught by instructors of color, she said.
Moreover, the program – till now a Pittsburgh-only, in-person phenomenon – just this semester began to go national. Mohn-Slate is leading a virtual workshop that includes poets from around the country.
“The mission of the Madwomen is to help women writers and I am all in,” said Beatty. “It’s a huge part of my life. … It's a place where women can speak freely and can write freely and be heard. And that's really hard to find.”