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Ed Ochester — influential poet, editor and Pitt educator — dies at 83

Ed Ochester
Courtesy of Ochester family
Poet, educator and editor Ed Ochester died this week at 83.

Jan Beatty was a waitress and a student at the University of Pittsburgh, but school wasn’t working for her. She dropped out of her first-ever poetry class — only to get an unannounced visit from her instructor, Ed Ochester.

“He came to the restaurant where I was working and said, you know, ‘What happened? You were good, come back,’” said Beatty, who some 40 years later is one of Pittsburgh’s best-known poets, with a national profile. “He was that kind of guy. He was just a great human.”

Ochester, for a half-century a key and beloved figure on the local scene as a poet, educator and editor, died Tuesday at age 83.

As a poet, he was known for his plain-spoken, often humorous approach that lightly wore its references, whether to ancient Roman history or the chickens at the Armstrong County home he shared with his wife, the late Britt Horner. As longtime editor of the Pitt Poetry Series, he was known for publishing a wider range of poets than was common in the field when he took over, in 1978.

“I’m not exaggerating, he changed the face of American poetry with his work at the University of Pittsburgh Press … making it a diverse list with women writers and writers of color and gay writers before people were talking about diversity, and that was massive,” said Beatty.

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“He changed the latter part of the 20th Century in terms of what we read, what we valued, what we saw as poetry,” said acclaimed, Pittsburgh-based poet Toi Derricotte.

In 1978, Derricotte said, she was teaching in Virginia when she sent Ochester the manuscript for what became her third collection.

"I was talking about being poor and Black, and I was talking about self-hatred — stuff people didn’t want to talk about and didn’t want to hear," she said. "And he was someone who was saying, 'Yeah, you can write about these things.'”

“He is the person that helped me find my voice. He’s the one," said Derricotte, who later taught at Pitt for decades alongside Ochester.

A statement from current Pitt Poetry Series editors Terrance Hayes, Nancy Krygowski, and Jeffrey McDaniel, read: "[W]e will be doubling our efforts to bring attention to all Ed Ochester did for us, Pitt poets, and contemporary poetry. His role in the career of poets such as Sharon Olds, Toi Derricotte, Billy Collins, Etheridge Knight, and countless others makes him easily one of the most significant poetry editors of the last fifty years."

Ochester was born in Brooklyn. He graduated from Cornell University and earned master’s degrees from Harvard University and the University of Wisconsin–Madison before beginning his teaching career at the University of Florida.

He came to Pitt in 1970. Under his guidance, Pitt Poetry Series published hundreds of titles, with a roster of luminaries that also included Richard Blanco, President Obama’s inaugural poet in 2013.

Books in the series were named winners or finalists for prizes including the National Book Award, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Ochester’s own collections of poetry include “Dancing on the Edge of Knives” (1973), winner of the Devins Award for Poetry; “Miracle Mile” (1984); “Allegheny” (1995); “The Land of Cockaigne” (2001); and “Unreconstructed: Poems Selected and New” (2007).

Derricotte said Ochester's poetry has been paid too little attention. “He will be recognized as a great poet,” she said.

Ochester also was the longtime head of Pitt's Creative Writing Program. And he was co-founder, with Judith Vollmer, of the semi-annual poetry journal “5 AM.”

Ochester retired from Pitt, and the Press, in 2021.

He is survived by his son, Ned Ochester of Pittsburgh; his daughter, Betsy Ochester of Pittsburgh; and his granddaughter, Quincy Sauter. Betsy Ochester is married to Mike Sauter, vice president for broadcasting at WESA's parent company, Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting Corporation.

The family said a celebration of Ochester’s life and poetry will be announced at a later date.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: