Reason #2 to Love Pittsburgh: Gist Street Reading Series

by jbloodwell

(As mentioned here, I’m enumerating reasons in random order, but giving them consecutive numbers (as opposed to “Reason #6,387 to Love Pittsburgh”).)

Pittsburgh definitely punches above its weight class when it comes to the literary scene. A lot of that is due to the universities: the deep-pocketed Carnegie Mellon University brings in some jaw-dropping readers every year, and the University of Pittsburgh and Chatham University (nee College) both have MFA programs that both bring in and incubate talented writers.

But it’s sort of de rigeur for universities to pull the weight. The really impressive thing about the city’s literary community is the Gist Street Reading Series. Independent of the universities, and with only a tiny bit of funding from the Pennsylvania Arts Council, Gist Street is a local, homegrown phenomenon. The set-up’s simple: the first Friday of the month, two writers—one fiction, one poetry—read from their work in a loft space in Pittsburgh’s Uptown neighborhood (a tiny, isolated, somewhat sketchy neighborhood just on the cusp of Downtown). It’s BYOB—and B.Y.O. Food, Dessert, Anything You Want to Eat or (Preferably) Share with a Bunch of Strangers. As the Series’ slogan goes, “It’s not about suffering.” And it’s not: there’s always ample eating, drinking, and conversation.

And, remarkably, it’s always, always filled to capacity. Stories abound of people getting to the space twenty minutes before the slated start time to find a sign taped to the door: “We’re Full. Sorry.” I’ve been shut out forty minutes before the reading was supposed to begin.

Tonight I got there well ahead of time. It was the annual cookout, done in tandem with a small press of note. Last year it was McSweeney’s. This year it was Michigan-based Dzanc Books. The full line-up of readers is here. All were excellent; for my money, Jeff Parker’s selection from “False Cognates” stood out, but its being funny and straightforward probably helped. As much a part of the experience, however, was the food. It was a feast. Pittsburghers can cook, or at least Gist Street loyalists can. Many, many delicious items were eaten, by me, tonight.

But I am sort of beating around the bush. I must admit a deep bias I have in favor of Gist Street. It involves the raffle they hold at each reading.

Upon entering, each person writes his or her name on a slip of paper and tosses it in a basket. At the end of the reading, names are drawn for a variety of prizes. Each reader puts up a copy of his/her book. There is locally grown produce. Sometimes someone will offer a homemade ceramic piece, or a hand-knit scarf (which a friend won once).

Tonight, I won a most excellent prize: a medley of vegetables from the garden of Sherrie Flick, one of the Series’ founders and organizers (and also a published novelist and flash-fiction writer (what a combination!)). (In the box: a cup of blackberries; two carrots; two radishes; a zucchini; green onions; two plums; a tomato; and a small pepper-ish sort of thing.) Of even further note, though, is that this marked the third time I’ve won something in Gist Street’s raffle. (I won a galley copy of Cathy Day’s The Circus in Winter, and a copy of Dean Young’s Primitive Mentor (which is sort of a raffle within a raffle, for me, because I am utterly stymied by most poetry and Dean Young is on the very short list of poets whose work tends to make sense and please me more than it baffles and irritates me).) It’s to the point, now, where I expect to win something when I go, and am kind of miffed and incredulous when I don’t.

Anyway, consider this a full-throated, whole-hearted recommendation of the Gist Street Reading Series. Even subtracting out the great prizes I’ve won over the years, it’s a great experience and a definite credit to Pittsburgh’s literary community.

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