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Pittsburgh poet's new collection explores race and identity

A man in a red sweater sits at a table.
Joshua Franzos
Autumn House Press
Cameron Barnett's poetry explores race, history and current events through a personal lens.

As a child, poet Cameron Barnett was diagnosed with the cardiac irregularity known as a heart murmur. Though it was a cause of anxiety for his mother, Barnett said, it turned out he didn’t have the condition after all.

But he still had something: a rich metaphor.

“I’ve always kind of grown up with this story, almost like a ghost story of something that wasn’t,” he said. He asked himself “ could this become a metaphor for, you know, some of my other poetic preoccupations about, race, relationships, understanding self and others? And how can it kind of cast a long shadow over all of these, you know, complex issues in society?”

The Pittsburgh-based poet explores such questions in his second collection, “Murmur,” published last month by Pittsburgh-based Autumn House Press. His first collection, 2017’s “The Drowning Boy’s Guide to Water,” was a finalist for an NAACP Image Award. With “Murmur,” Barnett dives deeper into his experience as a Black man grappling with American history and current events.

A book cover depicting a heart made out of the word "murmur" typed repeatedly.

The book’s 48 poems touch on everything from slavery and the 1921 Greenwood massacre to his grandfather’s military service during World War II on behalf of a country where he was still a second-class citizen.

The poem “My heart is” begins:

the color run—a 10.5-sized organ
double-timing the pavement. My heart is the color
of description, the color of reports and dispatch and in the area.

My heart is the color why did he run? My heart is
the color of the cop feared for his life. My heart is
the color cops see when they see fear.

In “Clotilda,” Barnett reckons with the 2019 discovery of the last slave ship that sailed to the U.S.: “Charred wreck of old white men’s bets — say it with me: American / finds itself in the muck once again.”

“That, too, is sort of a way of just thinking about this painful history that constantly comes up,” said Barnett of the ship’s recovery. “You flash forward to the 2010s, and we have just such a spate of violence against Black bodies. And the same thing happening every time — the violence, the outcry and the eventual acquittal. So the murmur was a way to sort of speak about and hold the emotion and the weight of all of that.”

Barnett, who was born in California, grew up mostly in Pittsburgh. He took up poetry in earnest while studying at Duquesne University. He earned his master’s of fine arts in creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where the professors included such acclaimed poets as Terrance Hayes, Toi Derricotte and Dawn Lundy Martin. In 2019, Barnett won a Carol R. Brown Achievement Award as an emerging artist, and he’s currently serving as the Emerging Black Writer in Residence at Chatham University.

He’s also passing poetry on to younger generations. By day, he teaches world history and language arts to middle schoolers at his alma mater, the Falk Laboratory School, in Oakland.

“I have a big, long unit of poetry for seventh-graders,” he said. “And every once in a while, I'll use a poem of mine. Sometimes I'll take my name off of it just to see what the kids think.”


“Some pretty harsh criticism sometimes,” he said. “It's always fun to reveal to them that I'm the author behind it and watch their faces drop. But it's all for the learning experience and showing them, you know, what they might be able to do in their own poetry, too.”

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: