Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh, Allegheny County
Native Pittsburgher Jan Beatty has written several volumes of poetry, including Boneshaker (2002) and Jackknife: New and Collected Poems (2017).
Awards: Public Poetry Project, Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, Individual Artist Grant, Agnes Lynch Starrett prize, The Great Lakes Colleges Award for New Writing, Emerging Artists Award
Jan Beatty was born in 1952 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She was raised in a family that instilled a typical Pittsburgh blue-collar work ethic. After graduating from West Virginia University with a BS in Social Work in 1975, she struggled for years through jobs as a social caseworker, rape counselor, and waitress. She then sought to nourish her poetic studies at the University of Iowa MFA program and finished her degree at the University of Pittsburgh. Since, Beatty has published multiple books of poetry and has taught countless workshops and classes at many colleges. At the time of this writing, she teaches and host of the radio show, Prosody, in Pittsburgh.
Jan Beatty, a Pittsburgh poet, has been called the “blue-collar bard, noted for writing bluntly in passionate, sometimes raw language, of waitresses and junkies, miners and steelworkers, not to mention sex, drugs, and rock stars,” by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
On November 27, 1952, Beatty was born in Roselia Foundling Home where her mother, young and poor, placed her in the care of the adoption home. Soon after, her family adopted her. Beatty, like so many proud Pittsburghers, was raised in a working class family. Her father was a steel worker at Jones & Laughlin Pittsburgh Works, and her mother was a homemaker. Beatty also had a sister named Dorothy. Their home may have been absent of art, but her father’s stories were inspiration for Beatty. “He taught me about location, about grounding your listener in a time and place, thirty years before I would hear it in a writing class,” she stated in her personal essay, “My Pittsburgh.”
Her artistic nature also found comfort in the ever-present rock music during the 60’s, specifically the songs of Jimi Hendrix (with whom she proudly shares a birthday) and AC/DC. Her tough-as-nails disposition is indicative of where she grew up, a southern suburb of Pittsburgh named Baldwin. There she attended Baldwin High School. Her upbringing was not a nurturing environment for her interest in writing. A career in poetry was not reasonable or feasible in a working class household. So, in 1971, Beatty attended West Virginia University, from which she graduated magna cum laude in 1975 with a BS in Social Work. For the next five years, she worked as a welfare caseworker, but eventually became disheartened.
The following eight years of her life were spent doing odd jobs, moving from West Virginia to Maryland and then back to Pittsburgh. These years would later become fodder for her poetry. Having a degree in social work, she attempted a career as a rape counselor. She soon realized she was not cut out for it. Her clients’ stories stayed with her and haunted her. Although another job helping others was short-lived, she finally settled for working as a waitress. She said, “Waitressing was a good job in a lot of ways, a good job to write with, but I don’t want to romanticize it too much,” she said in an interview. Her favorite job was at The Balcony in Shady Side because of the nonstop music she could take in while working. Her experience as a waitress can be seen in her poem, “A Waitress’ Instructions on Tipping, or Hit the Cash Up and Don’t Waste My Time,” for which she received hate mail. A former professor of Carnegie Mellon University posed the question, “Who does Jan Beatty think she is telling us how to tip? …This is not even a poem.” Beatty reflected, “It became clear to me she was a bad tipper.”
After years of unsuccessful jobs, she decided to study what she enjoyed. So, she attended the prestigious University of Iowa graduate school for writing. However, the constant presence of academia was stifling, and so she sought relief working at a local biker bar. She said, “I need that,” as if the blue-collar work ethic of Pittsburgh within her needed consolation. “I consider myself a working-class person. My heart is working class. My favorite people are waitresses.” The stuffiness of the University of Iowa became unbearable and she became disenchanted at the prospect of studying there for any longer, so she returned to Pittsburgh.
Immediately upon return to her native town, she attended the University of Pittsburgh to complete her MFA in Poetry. While studying, she became the poetry editor of the Pennsylvania Review in 1988, one of the leading online literary publications in the world, featuring poetry, fiction, and book reviews. During this time, an influential “hero” of hers was Sharon Doubiago, author of Hard Country, an epic poem. One can easily see they both share a penchant for straightforward narrative poetry meant to transport the reader to a specific time and place.
In 1990, Beatty won the Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry from the Arts and Humanities Council of Tulsa, Oklahoma. In the same year she graduated with distinction and her MFA in Poetry. Still feeling the grasp of collegiate life, she began working at Western Penitentiary, this time tempering the job with a bit of academia in her role as a Creative Writing instructor at the maximum-security men’s prison.
Beatty became an instructor of poetry at Carnegie Mellon University in 1992. Jim Daniels, a friend, poet, and professor of writing at Carnegie Mellon had this to say about Beatty: “Everyone knows Jan, everyone likes Jan. She has a lot of heart and compassion for poets at all levels. Writing poetry is a lonely thing, and trying to reach out to a community from your personal place can be difficult. It’s always nice to see Jan out there at readings with her mysterious little smile taking it all in.” She worked there for two years and then headed writing workshops from Kent State University to Pennsylvania State University - Behrend to Indiana State University and many more. She also lectured at the University of Pittsburgh many times throughout the following ten years.
In 1994, she became host of Prosody, public radio show WYEP-FM, an NPR affiliate, where she interviewed poets and writers. Its guests have ranged from local Pittsburgh poets to distinguished nature writers, Barry Lopez and Terry Tempest Williams, and United States Poet Laureate Ted Kooser. At the time of this writing, Prosody is the only show in Western Pennsylvania where writers showcase their works and discuss them. In April 2003, she was honored with an Individual Artist Grant from Pennsylvania Partners in the Arts for her production of Symposium on Women Writers of Color on Prosody.
1995 marked the beginning of her publishing career. Her chapbook, Ravenous, was published by State Street Press in New York. That same year her first book of urban poetry, Mad River, was published by University of Pittsburgh Press and won the 1995 Agnes Lynch Starrett prize. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had this to say of Mad River: “[it] explored the realm of the body through poems of pleasure, pain, child abuse, incest and death.” According to Salem on Literature, her collection of poems “paints a complex picture of social life with clear, startling images.” Because of the visceral nature of her poetry, Beatty had trouble getting her work published until she met with the University of Pittsburgh Press, one of the few publishers ready to represent her work without any apprehensions. She notes that in many places writers are prohibited to speak about such topics; censorship being a constant enemy of hers. Although her poems are not for the faint of heart, Mad River became a finalist for The Great Lakes Colleges Award for New Writing the following year. Its judges are professors of literature and writers in residence at Great Lakes colleges.
Beatty is well-known for having instructed the Madwomen in the Attic Workshop at Carlow University in 1997. Then, she became the series editor for their publication, Voices from the Attic, an anthology of poems by workshop participants, published by The Carlow University Press.
In 2000, she earned the $15,000 Emerging Artists Award, a grant from the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust & Howard Heinz Foundation. In 2002, Beatty’s collection of poems, Boneshaker, was published. Some poems revisit her past as an adopted child. Judith Vollmer, a poet and director of the writing program at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, said this of her book: “Boneshaker is not a pretty book, but it’s a book with a great heart. Direct speech can lapse into slack narrative in a lot of writing that people call poetry, but Jan’s work naturally forces that obstacle aside. The music of the book is unpredictable and odd, and she continues to explore the questions she set out with in Mad River: love and loss, identity and class, and the persistence of anger inside fragile personal dreams.” One of her well-known poems from Boneshaker is “Cruising the Blue Belt” in which she sees a message in graffiti on an underpass along Route 51 to Pittsburgh. It says:
Things to do:
1. Kill Satan
2. Free Larouche
3. Buy milk.
At last! I thought,
someone who thinks like me.
She later makes it understood that “3. Buy milk.” is what interests her; it’s the act of making a to-do list and executing those plans. Finally, she implores the reader to post their own list and sign their name on an underpass, probably to inspire her and the rest of us to accomplish our goals. “I’m an optimist,” she says, “which people find hard to believe. But I really believe in the goodness of people. And I need to think that’s in the book. People think it’s a depressing book, but I think it’s an uplifting book, that it’s a ray of hope.” This poem is evidence of that.
In 2008, Red Sugar, her fourth book of poetry, was published. It has love poems, poems about her father, Pittsburgh, and blood. It’s about “a women as recorder of deeds, as recorder of history, as recorder of culture. [It] is a tug of war between the romantic and the brutal,” she said in an interview. It took six years to write, and she said it was because of “all of the cultural forces that tell us not to say those things, not to write those things. Especially as a woman, you’re supposed to be nice and sweet and blah blah blah. That’s still in operation in a large way in the world, and so, in that way, (the book) was hard to write. But I feel like it’s beyond time to say stuff like this.”
The University of Pittsburgh Press had this to say about Red Sugar: “In her third collection, Beatty travels inside the body to the blood that codes us, moving beyond the language of post-confessionalism into fourth-wave feminism, challenging notions of the 'romantic' and the 'brutal' and how they exist within us and between us. Beatty insists she is not a feminist poet, although she does describe herself as a feminist. She thinks that some feminists might be upset because she acknowledges that brutality can come from a woman. Her emphasis, however, is to focus attention on situations she thinks are often ignored.'
Beatty’s own creative process entails scrawling on any loose pieces of paper she happens to come upon and finding inspiration in anything from a line she reads to a conversation overheard in transit. She does a lot of writing in the West, in the mountains and deserts and woods. Also, she shares a studio with another writer where she gets work done. Even at home or in the classroom Beatty is always working on something. Beatty manages by immersing herself in her work, by making poetry her life.
In 2007, her love for rock music inspired her to instruct the Rock ‘n Roll as Muse Writing Workshop in Frostburg State University in November of 2007. For her, some influential bands are still The Band and The Doors. She even fell in love with a man who loves music. In 1992, she married musician Don Hollowood, owner of Hollowood Music and Sound Inc. in Pittsburgh.
In 2008, Beatty refused to read at Joseph-Beth Booksellers on the South Side in Pittsburgh because she would not be censored. An article in the April 22, 2008 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette stated, “the store initially rejected a reading because it found her poetry too ‘erotic’ for its family-friendly store atmosphere, it then offered compromises to permit her to visit.” She rejected all offers from the store who allowed Ron Jeremy, a legend in the pornography industry.
“People are afraid; people are cowardly,” she says. “They worry about funders and all of that stuff. Too bad. The bottom line is that I’m not trying to write shocking poems. If I was trying to write shocking poems, they’d be a lot more shocking than this. I’m trying to write about the body and blood and sexuality...That’s the norm. Ask anyone; she’ll have a story.” Failed attempts at garnering the support from Michael Chabon, author of the Yiddish Policeman’s Union, and personal essayist David Sedaris of Me Talk Pretty One day fame, have not diminished her refusal to speak there despite revised offers that still include censorship.
Beatty lectures writing workshops across the country, and has taught at the university level for over twenty years at the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, and Carlow. She is the Managing Editor of MadBooks, a small press that has published a series of books and chapbooks by women writers. And she continues to host and produce Prosody, as she’s done for over 20 years.
At the time of this writing, Jan Beatty lives in Pittsburgh, where she continues to write and publish poetry, directs and teaches in the Creative Writing program at Carlow University, and runs the Madwomen in the Attic writing workshops.
Mad River. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995.
Ravenous, Brockport, NY: State Street Press, 1995.
Boneshaker. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002.
(Editor) Voices From the Attic. Pittsburgh: Carlow University Press, 2007.
Red Sugar. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008.
Ravage. Pittsburgh: Lefty Blondie Press, 2012.
The Switching/Yard. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013.
Jackknife: New and Collected Poems. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017.
“My Pittsburgh” Pittsburgh Revealed, Photographs Since 1850. Ed. Janet Wilson. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997. 11-16.