Poet Michael Wurster organized his career around his passion.
Wurster grew up mostly in Iowa, loving poetry, and earned an English degree at Dickinson College, in Harrisburg. But when he moved to Pittsburgh, in 1964, Wurster was a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman.
“I was good at it,” he says. But it hindered his pursuit of poetry.
“One thing that I finally realized was that sales and poetry were not compatible,” he says. “Being a salesman is not something you can turn on and off. “
So in 1971, he took an office job as a welfare caseworker for the state. The hours left him time to read, write and teach – and his career switch would have deep implications for the next half-century of poetry in Pittsburgh.
Wurster, who is 78, just issued his fourth poetry collection, and first on a university press – a notable milestone for a largely self-taught poet who’s never been employed in academia. But perhaps his greatest impact has been as an educator and an advocate.
“Michael has been a tremendous force for poetry and for the arts in general here in Pittsburgh,” says Michael Simms, a poet and founder of Autumn House Press.
Wurster's influence can be measured at levels from the individual to the macro.
Two decades ago, Joan Bauer was an English teacher who hadn’t written poetry in more than 30 years, since she was a teenager. Wurster, she says, “was the person who really encouraged me.” She attended one of his classes at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, where he taught for 17 years, and became a regular at the monthly workshops of the Pittsburgh Poetry Exchange, a group Wurster co-founded in 1974.
“I was inspired and I kept going,” she said. “I was also very inspired by all the community work he did, and the way he organized events and how, what a vast knowledge about poetry he has.”
The hundreds of poets who’ve taken the classes and attended the workshop have included Joy Katz, who went on to earn a Wallace Stegner fellowship at Stanford University and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and who now teaches at Chatham University.
Wurster also staged readings, including one in the 1970s featuring a poet from the Hill District named August Wilson, shortly before Wilson left town on the road to becoming a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. In the '80s and ’90s, Pittsburgh Poetry Exchange readings were a regular feature at the original, South Side incarnation of City Books.
Wurster was also instrumental in closing the gap between Pittsburgh’s academic poets, based in university English departments, and self-taught poets like him.
In the 1970s, Wurster recalls, “[i]t was natural in Pittsburgh, and probably most other places, too, that the university poets had advanced degrees and knew that they were accepted poets by the poetry establishment, and the community poets were sort of like the rabble in the streets.”
Judith Vollmer is an award-winning poet who met Wurster in 1976.
“Michael always was the person who bridged that [divide],” says Vollmer, who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh – Greensburg. “He moved in both kinds of circles … He’s a mediator in that way, an artistic mediator.”
Wurster is white-haired and walks with a cane. He retired from his day job in 2001. But he continues to lead the monthly Pittsburgh Poetry Exchange workshops with a quiet, bemused confidence.
The workshop is held the first Monday of each month in a fluorescent-lit back room of the Brentwood Community Library. About a dozen poets attended June’s meeting to critique each other’s work; many, like Bauer, have been regulars for years.
All participants are welcome to give feedback; Wurster’s comments are brisk and concise. After Don Krieger reads his poem about suicides that opens with an image of a flag at half mast, Wurster, says, “I was so closely following this business with the flags, that it almost seemed as if the suicides were to direct us to these flags.”
Shaheen Dil reads her short poem “A Hint of Pink,” which reads, in its entirety: “Pink was never so pale as this shade / This hint of slivered radish on a plate, / translucent, glowing, a glimmer of flame."
“If this were my poem – ha ha ha! – here’s what I would do,” says Wurster. “I would eliminate the third line and I would retitle the poem ‘A Glimmer of Flame.’”
“Oh, I like that,” says Dil.
Wurster adds, “I love those first two lines, by the way, I think they’re terrific.”
Wurster’s stature in the poetry community was evident in early May, when about 100 people gathered at Carnegie Lecture Hall, in Oakland, to hear him read from his new book, titled “Even Then,” published as part of the University of Pittsburgh Press’ Pitt Poetry Series. The audience was a virtual Who’s Who in local poetry, including nationally known poet Toi Derricotte and Ed Ochester, editor of the Pitt Poetry Series.
Wurster’s own poetry is sometimes straightforward, recounting things like amusing anecdotes set on the South Side, where he has lived since 1984, or an ill-fated childhood encounter with angry yellowjackets.
But many of his poems are much stranger. One in “Even Then” is “Poetry, Song”:
See one holy thing:
the long pink feathers.
but dubious, faithful,
never dropping away
It creeps into everything,
so bright it hurts.
Write from a poet’s language:
and your smooth skin
Days of my steps on the earth.
“There’s something about his work that’s singular in American poetry. There are influences of surrealism and late modernism … but he’s very unusual,” says Judith Vollmer, the poet. “There’s a blend of the vernacular American experience: the neighborhood, the odd character at the workplace. The strange memory from an iconic childhood object. … And at the same time, the language is so slippery in the writing of the lines that lots of other things come in.”
Vollmer says some of Wurster’s poems remind her of cantilevers.
“The way he’s able to juxtapose the cantilevers, they’re very dreamy, and you can lose yourself in one line and then you’re into the next sphere almost,” she says. “So it’s like changing your brain.”
Critics outside Pittsburgh have taken note, too. In her monthly column for the Washington Independent Review of Books, award-winning poet Grace Cavalieri noted "Even Then," and wrote: "This isn’t a book of poems; it’s a living thing where people walk in and out of its paper; where we go on a magical tour of impressions; and where a poet says exactly the right amount of words, exactly as needed, to take us by surprise."
Wurster cites a wide range of influences, from Wallace Stevens and the Beats to surrealism.
“Surrealism for the reader involves the unexpected. And I like that,” he says.
Even fans of Wurster’s poetry admit to scratching their heads over some of his work.
“He has a gentle touch of minimalism mixed with absurdity,” says Michael Simms, the poet and Autumn House Press founder. “That’s his aesthetic, to just touch on a subject and make it come alive for a moment, and suddenly you are aware of how absurd life really is. Even the simple things become slightly weird.”
Wurster says he doesn't worry people won’t understand his poems.
“If the poem is a good poem, then some people will get it and some people won't,” he says. “I would hope that there would be a psychological unity to poems that are difficult so that people are affected by them.”
After all, as he told the audience at his reading in May, he doesn’t always understand them himself.
“When we think about all these poems that don’t make a lot of sense, we think that it’s perhaps some sort of secret code or secret language,” he says. “Someday I’ll figure out what it’s saying to me."