The People’s Poet: Billie Nardozzi

9 photos of Billie Nardozzi in a collage

The People’s Poet. Billie Nardozzi at home in Green Tree.

You see poetry is open
For the whole world to see
And you can make it into anything
You want it to be
– Billie Nardozzi, “What Is Poetry”

 

Call him Bard of the Back-Pages or maybe the Classified Chaucer. Lamar Advertising came up with Pittsburgh’s Premier Poet and that’s hard to argue with. Around The Orbit water cooler he’s “The People’s Poet”–you can use that one too.

If you don’t know Billie Nardozzi, you haven’t been paying attention…or maybe you just don’t get the paper. For the last twelve years, the image of Nardozzi’s familiar schnoz, deadpan stare, and business-in-front, party-in-the-back haircut has appeared weekly in the “Celebrations” section of the Post-Gazette’s classified ads, along with short original poetry and contact information.

“I got the idea from the sports pages,” Nardozzi tells us, “each column would have a picture of the writer along with the name at the top and I thought, ‘Why don’t I do that?'”

In 2006, Billie Nardozzi did exactly that. He began creating new poems-of-the-week that have run consistently–with the occasional couple months hiatus–ever since. Along the way, Billie has earned a devoted following who commission original works for special occasions and invite him to read at events.

“I try to keep it basic,” Billie says of his writing style, “I go through the same things as my readers…so many times someone will tell me ‘I would swear you were writing that poem about me.'”

This past December, Billie’s invitation for Christmas cards drew a whopping ninety-seven different holiday letters from fans. He’s so fond of these that a batch of favorites have been professionally laminated and were close-at-hand during our interview.

three poems by Billie Nardozzi as they appeared in the appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette "Celebrations" section of classified ads

Recent Nardozzi: “I Love ‘Shop ‘n Save'” / “Godzilla Meets The Lesbian” / “‘The 3 Bees’ (Bell, Ben, Brown)” (2015-2016)*

If you’ve ever put pen to paper and tried to convince anyone to read it, you know what a pain in the ass it is. This literary dilettante has dipped his quill into the worlds of short and micro fiction, comedy, theater, poetry, and songwriting. All of these came with their own unique forms of rejection and heartbreak…and ultimately led to the immediacy and answer-to-no-one world of high stakes blogging.

We’ll never know for sure, but it’s hard to imagine an academic poetry journal or glossy magazine printing one of Billie’s odes to Olive Garden, the Ellen DeGeneress Show, or his local Hyundai dealership; sentimental reflections on holidays, family, and friends probably wouldn’t fare much better.

So it is with tremendous respect–one writer to another–that we appreciate how Nardozzi found a way to self-publish his own original work and distribute it to the 300,000 or so circulation size of the Post-Gazette. Like the Bolsheviks and punk rockers before him, Billie Nardozzi took the means of production and found a way to do it himself, getting his expressions of positivity, fun, and the human experience out into the world…and kept on doing it for going on twelve years now.

Billie Nardozzi in front of a closet full of colorful women's blazers

Blazer light show. Billie Nardozzi in the world’s most organized closet.

Brett Yasko is a graphic designer and Billie Nardozzi fan who has archived the poet’s contributions to the Post-Gazette almost since the beginning*. He has a similar appreciation for the unorthodox approach to publishing:

I started clipping his poems out of the paper in early 2008. I read the poems but I was more interested in how [Nardozzi] was using the newspaper to put his work out into the world. I know some poets and I know how hard it is to get “published” and then once you do, the audience is often limited. He was sort of gaming the system and I dug that. The photo he used was great and I loved his freewheeling ways with quotation marks. I said to myself, “I don’t know what will ever come of this–if anything–but I’ve got to start saving these things.”

three poems by Billie Nardozzi as they appeared in the appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette "Celebrations" section of classified ads

“If I Met Jesus” (1/26/2010) / “What Is Poetry” (4/10/2012) / “The Turkey Bandit” (11/23/2015)

The story took an interesting turn this past fall. On a whim, Nardozzi walked into a local Lamar Advertising office and booked a billboard for personal use. If you’ve driven to Bloomfield, the upper Hill District, or Polish Hill recently, you know what I’m talking about. The big sign on Bigelow Blvd.–at the awkward five-way intersection with Herron and Paulowna–is unmissable. It features Nardozzi’s name, home phone number, the premier poet tag line, and one of Billie’s “one-liner” aphorisms (which change month-to-month).

What’s likely to catch your attention first, though, is the photograph of Nardozzi. In it, Billie’s top-heavy rock-and-roll hair has been teased into a curlier feminine incarnation, his nails are painted pink, and he’s wearing a decorative blouse and a pair of big rings. For those of us used to the black-and-white jacket-and-tie Nardozzi from the newspaper or his appearances on The Fetko Zone, this change in style was a bit of a surprise.

billboard with Billie Nardozzi's photo and the text "Put the 'freeze' on hate, and the 'heat' on love," Pittsburgh, PA

“Put the ‘freeze’ on hate, and the ‘heat’ on love,” Bigelow Blvd. billboard, November, 2017

It takes a lot of guts to do anything creative and put it out there in the world–the human race is not always kind to artistic expression. Attaching one’s real name and home telephone number ups the ante considerably. For an old-school Pittsburgher to address a cynical world with messages of love, peace, and good cheer, cross-dressed in ladies clothes, hair, and makeup on a twenty-five foot wide roadside billboard is about as daring a move as we can imagine.

As one might expect, not all the messages left on Billie’s answering machine are kind. He gets plenty of crank calls, along with a recurring lecture from a retired English professor on his use of quotation marks. None of these have ever been a problem, though. Nardozzi tells us the calls are “never threatening,” “I’m laughing along with them,” and “the good outweighs the bad.”

To underscore this last point, while we were talking in the kitchen, a nice-sounding caller named Jennifer left a lovely, heartfelt message of support and appreciation “from one artist to another.” Hearing the message clearly had Nardozzi beaming.

billboard with Billie Nardozzi's picture and the text "I wish you great cheer in the coming new year," Pittsburgh, PA

“I wish you great cheer in the coming new year,” Bigelow Blvd. billboard, January, 2018

Ultimately, Billie Nardozzi would like to publish a book of his work. He already has the pink and black design picked out as well as a to-the-point title, Poems and One-Liners by Billie Nardozzi. When the time comes, I’m pretty sure we can find him a book designer.

“I wouldn’t be mad if I never made any money,” Billie says of his investments in the Post-Gazette and Lamar, “If my words can make someone happy, that’s worth all the money in the world.”

There is absolutely no question that Billie Nardozzi’s words, spirit, and energy have brought joy to many, many people already. You see it in the handwriting on his Christmas cards, hear it the messages left on his answering machine, and feel it in the adoring comments on his FaceBook page.

Keats, Yeats, or any of them guys, Nardozzi ain’t. But then again, Robert Frost never wrote “Godzilla Meets The Lesbian” or “The Turkey Bandit.” Whether it’s more or less traveled, we don’t know, but here at the Orbit we’ll take the Nardozzi Road any time we get the chance.

Bonus video: Billie (neé Billy) Nardozzi performing “Super Bowl Steelers” with T.C. The Peanut Vendor on The Fedko Fone Zone, 2010.


* Reprints of Billie Nardozzi’s poems come from Celebrations, Brett Yasko’s archive of Nardozzi’s poetry as it originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and is used with permission of both Nardozzi and Yasko. Yasko also designed and published a printed book of selected Nardozzi poems of the same name. For more information, see: brettyasko.com/self-initiated/celebrations.

The French Fry Sculpture: John Raymond Henry’s “Pittsburgh” (in snow)

John Raymond Henry "Pittsburgh" sculpture (aka "The French Fry sculpture") in snow, Frank Curto Park, Pittsburgh, PA

John Raymond Henry’s “Pittsburgh” (aka “The French Fry sculpture”), Frank Curto Park, Polish Hill

To call reaching the awkward Frank Curto Park–on foot, in the snow–a “slog” makes every other legitimate slog seem like mere inconvenience. It’s just two miles from home, but the ascent of the Bloomfield Bridge, up and down through slick Polish Hill back streets, and then the final unpleasant half mile hike along busy Bigelow Boulevard on an uncleaned roadside walkway deserves its own taxonomy for journalistic hardship.

But we’ve had this one on the Orbit‘s big list for some time–and you don’t mess with a blogger’s list! French Fry Sculpture in snow the item reads and that’s what we were after. With this weekend’s first legitimate whitening coinciding with a gloriously obligation-free Saturday, well, the die was cast. We booted-up and made the super slog.

John Raymond Henry "Pittsburgh" sculpture (aka "The French Fry sculpture") in snow, Frank Curto Park, Pittsburgh, PA

Officially titled Pittsburgh, John Raymond Henry‘s giant public art piece is more commonly referred to by locals as “The French Fry Sculpture.” That’s clearly a bit of gentle fun-making, but it’s not undeserved. Aside from the zip code it happens to reside in–and possibly the Aztec gold that echoes the color of the “three sisters” bridges (and others) downtown–there’s just not that much that cries out as any reference point to our fair city.

On the other hand, the long squared-off yellow pieces collide in a cattywampus pile as if tossed directly from roiling oil bath to serving tray by a giant. These can’t help but abstractly resemble a certain delicious deep-fried side dish this city takes with perverse seriousness. Pittsburgh: you’ve been rebranded.

John Raymond Henry "Pittsburgh" sculpture (aka "The French Fry sculpture") in snow, Frank Curto Park, Pittsburgh, PA

According to PittsburghArtPlaces.org, Pittsburgh (the objet d’art) was “created as part of the 1977 Three Rivers Arts Festival Sculpturescape program. The work originally resided at the University of Pittsburgh near the Hillman Library” [before moving to Frank Curto Park the following year].[1]

The piece is very much of its time–and maybe that’s no coincidence. Henry seems to have in part defined that time as he was something a big name in the big public art world for a couple decades, starting in the 1970s. The artist has several dozen such “monumental sculptures” in public parks from Miami to Salt Lake, Washington, D.C. to Sioux City. Why, if you’re a second- or third-tier urban center without “a Henry,” you’ve probably got a lonely patch of grass and some bored public works crews.

Wooden Persephone Project sculpture in snow with John Raymond Henry "Pittsburgh" (aka "The French Fry sculpture") in background, Frank Curto Park, Pittsburgh, PA

The Orbit remains undecided. The piece has been well-maintained by its owners (the city), but that’s not to say it’s aged gracefully. It has a certain generic modern public art feel and a clumsy scheme that makes one all too aware of its joints. Looking at Henry’s other works (similar in aesthetics and scale, but often more visually successful) this one just feels like it doesn’t hit.

That said, as a blast of high-saturation yellow, it reads well against the lush green of the park in the warmer months, and still pops when surrounded by white snow and bare trees, as we see here. It’s something you can appreciate whizzing by in a car on Bigelow (probably the way most Pittsburghers have experienced it) and still rewards actually stopping in the park and giving it a walk-around. And hell, who doesn’t like french fries?

John Raymond Henry "Pittsburgh" sculpture (aka "The French Fry sculpture") in snow, Frank Curto Park, Pittsburgh, PA


Note: There ended being a lot more to talk about here than we first expected, including our harrowing egress from the park and the obvious questions Who was Frank Curto? What’s up with this “park” that no one can get to? and What about the wild turkeys that hang out there? It also turns out the space has a number of other public artworks, as well as a art garden project–you just wouldn’t catch any of this through the windshield. We’re going to save all these for a future Orbit story.

Sources:
[1] Pittsburgh Art Places entry for Pittsburghhttp://pittsburghartplaces.org/accounts/view/628
[2] Frank Curto Park wiki entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Curto
[3] John Raymond Henry website: http://johnhenrysculptor.com/