The year’s grittiest literary reading here will likely be one this Sat., Oct. 16. And by no accident, the event marking the publication of a new anthology of writing by and about work and workers takes place at the site of the infamous Homestead strike of 1892.
The Battle of Homestead Foundation sponsors this event marking the publication of Working Words: Punching the Clock and Kicking Out the Jams (Coffee House Press).
It is the only book published this year with a forward by someone nicknamed "Rivethead."
The editor of the feisty, 540-page anthology, meanwhile, is M.L. Liebler, a poet, literary activist and community organizer who teaches at Wayne State University, in Michigan.
Liebler has noted in interviews that literature representing the working class is, like the working class itself, typically discounted in academia and in the media. He built the anthology partly to have something to teach.
It’s a book of forthright, accessible writing, set in factories, kitchens, mill-town streets and shoeshine stands. The material, most of it from after World War II, doesn’t distinguish between high and low art. The poems-and-songs section, for instance, hires Bob Dylan and Emily Dickinson along with Philip Levine, Amiri Baraka and Eminem.
The short stories put Willa Cather (and her Pittsburgh-set "Paul’s Case") and Stephen Crane on the payroll alongside former veteran auto worker Lolita Hernandez, Clifford Odets and John Sayles (who’s a novelist as well as a filmmaker). A story by Hong Kong native Xu Xi follows a girl who works in a massage parlor.
And a section devoted to nonfiction calls on legendary activist Dorothy Day, Woody Guthrie and even Michael Moore.
No surprise given Liebler’s roots, the book’s got a decided Michigan and Detroit edge. Even one of the Pittsburghers represented, poet and novelist Jim Daniels, is originally from Detroit. (The book’s subtitle references the MC5.)
Other Pittsburghers with work in Working Words include protest singer-songwriter Anne Feeney and poet Jan Beatty.
Along with Beatty and Liebler, the Oct. 16 reading features poet, author and retired registered nurse Jeanne Bryner, who grew up in Ohio; and Ohio-based poet and performer Ray McNiece, whose "Grandfather’s Breath" begins:
You work. You work, Buddy. You work.
Word of immigrant get-ahead grind I hear
huffing through me, Grandfather’s breath,
when he’d come in from Saturday’s keep-busy chores,
fending up a calloused hand to stop
me from helping him, haggard cheeks puffing
out like t-shirts hunge between tenements,
doubled-over under thrity-five years a machine
repairman at the ball-bearing factory, ball-bearings
making everything run smoother --
especially torpedoes. ...
The free reading takes place at 1:30 p.m. Sat., Oct. 16. The Pump House is located at 880 East Waterfront Dr., Homestead, just upriver of the Waterfront shopping district, where work of a different kind is done.