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.

Poetry’s Uplifting Gormandizer: Scott Silsbe Serves Up “Muskrat Friday Dinner”

Poet Scott Silsbe standing in front of faded mural of Viet Nam veterans, Pittsburgh, PA

Think war is Hell? Trying reading this guy’s book! Just jaggin’–it’s good!

Inside, there are many, many nights of consumption–music and alcohol, laughter and greasy food. But also deeply personal reminiscences on childhood, past loves, missed opportunities, anecdotes of the day-to-day, awkward conversations. Yes, you’ll also find that great mother of all poetic downers–mortality.

Muskrat Friday DinnerScott Silsbe‘s just-released third collection of writing, contains all of these.

Some things are difficult. Some things we have to whisper.
Some things we don’t say at all. We have to keep it down.
Even if the laughter is all that’s keeping us alive or sane.

“Three Fragments” (excerpt)

A dirty secret: when poetry is recited at Chez Orbit, it generally involves both super-sized anatomy and the island of Nantucket–so we don’t have a lot of experience in the world of deep verse. Why? A prejudice, for sure: it feels like work in the same way some think about watching foreign films, or listening to twelve-tone music, or flossing. But it needn’t be that way.

Silsbe, who came to Pittsburgh at the turn-of-the-millenia to pursue an MFA in poetry from Pitt, expressly wants to get away from that kind of foo-foo academic writing and create work that’s direct, narrative, accessible, and decidedly not difficult. Muskrat Friday Dinner–from its title poem of a Downriver Detroit saloon staple to the rat-on-a-dinner-plate illustrations–delivers.

book cover for "Muskrat Friday Dinner" by Scott Silsbe

“Muskrat Friday Dinner” book cover, illustration by Paulette Poullet

“Poetry can be fun”, says Silsbe, “I wanted a book of good-time, drinkin’ poems that people will enjoy reading or hearing”.

Arty or arch, these short poems ain’t. That said, fun may depend on one’s sense of humor. But yeah, if you don’t get too worried about the condition of Silsbe’s over-worked liver, you can hopefully enjoy the vicarious thrill of waking up on the living room floor or arriving home with the dawn all from the comfort of your chaise lounge.

The book is so, uh, human-readable in fact, as to sometimes feel like a collection of journal entries, day-after tall tale-telling, or (very) short fiction–narrative, in plain English, and real. “I want to document the world around me,” Silsbe says, “The poetry should be personal so that it can be universal.”

If there’s
enough
money
get me
pork rib.

“Found Poem–Express Lane, Giant Eagle”

Silsbe’s experiences may or may not be truly universal, but they’re sure close. We’ve ridden in that car, ate that midnight meal, ended up in that tavern and didn’t know how or why. You’ve heard a record that felt like it was written just for you, longed for a person behind a second-story window light, seen the beauty in a perfect new snowfall…and then ruined it with your own need to slog through and get home to bed. Everyone past a certain age has received a phone call where he or she ended up needing a black suit.

Silsbe talks about individual pieces taking days–weeks, even–to get right. But the poems have an immediacy that feel like they were inked right then when the memory was still fresh–at the end of the night, or first thing the next morning–his head still throbbing and ears still buzzing.

It’d be nice to get some down so we don’t lose them. Stories grow soft with time. Though sometimes we fill in the gaps with juicier details to make the story better, making the story our own, with the hope we don’t lose the best parts, we don’t sacrifice the real story. As if we really know or care what that is.

“Old Writers Talking About Old Writers” (excerpt)

Us, we’re still buzzing too. Silsbe is right: it is fun to read a book of poetry (twice, even–we had to take notes!) and we’ll do again. Also interesting is getting inside the life of a person we kind of know [full disclosure: Silsbe was an acquaintance prior to the book’s release] vis-à-vis this tightly-edited, metered take on real experiences, Pittsburgh places we know, and people around town.

“There’s something in our makeup that craves to create a beautiful object”, Silsbe says in the poem “Ceremony”, “Essential to that is the knowledge that no thing we create can ever be without defects.” Defects? Yeah, well, maybe–sure. But hat’s off, Mr. Silsbe, you created some real nice stuff here. Thanks for letting us in to have a look.

My God, how I loved living on the earth.
There were those things that sustained me
all those years–the names of the clouds,
the vesper sparrows lined up on a branch,
her bedroom light on behind a red curtain.
I would circle the block just to see that–
knowing it meant she was in there, alive.
perhaps waiting for me, and perhaps not.
But there. And that presence was enough.

“Searchlight”

author Scott Silsbe dressed in suit and tie, drinking whiskey from a bottle in front of a wallpaper beach scene

Another day in paradise. Silsbe at “The Beach”. [photo: Scott Silsbe]

Muskrat Friday Dinner is Scott Silsbe’s third collection of poems. All three are available locally from Caliban Books in Oakland as well as “other fine booksellers”.  Those either preferring or requiring the magic of The Internet can achieve the same from Amazon.


Quoted poems taken from Muskrat Friday Dinner, White Gorilla Press, Belford, NJ ©2017 Scott Silsbe and used with permission of the author.

Easter Special: You Can’t Make an Omelet Without Finding Some Eggs

baby doll painted gold and hanging from telephone wires, Pittsburgh, PA

Golden baby, Lawrenceville

Matched ceramic salt and pepper shakers, ruby glass, bobbleheads, Hummel figurines, cookie jars–people collect all kinds of goofy stuff. Bakelite AM radios, Santas, and state plates, World’s Fair trinkets and glass insulators from telegraph lines. David from our West Coast rival Portland Orbit has some unique collections: cans of knock-off Dr. Pepper, eyeglass stems found on the street, other peoples’ grocery lists.

Easter may come only once a year, but every day can be the Orbiteer’s figurative egg hunt–which is really just the primordial collecting impulse–and it doesn’t cost a penny or take up any room on your shelves. Spotting is a lifelong and year-round habit: take the alley, poke behind the bushes, look down at the pavement and up in the telephone wires. [Oh, Golden Babies, how we pray we haven’t seen the last of you!]

Today, whether you’re a committed church-going, brunch-eating Easter reveler or full-on dance-naked-by-the-bonfire pagan, we celebrate some of the Orbit‘s favorite any-time/all-year-long city egg hunt targets.

protractor glued to metal driving barrier, Pittsburgh, PA

Pittsburgh protractor, Allegheny River Trail, Millvale

Pittsburgh Protractors are the easy money, chump change, fish-in-a-barrel of local urban collecting. In that way, though, they’re a great entry point–the gateway drug–to hardcore egg hunting. Either way, you have to respect the work of the protractor perpetrator(s) and we couldn’t not include the protractors in the list. There are just so damn many of the little plastic doo-dads glued all over the place that if you’re in bicycle-accessible city limits and keep your blinkers open, you’ll probably spot a few even if you’re not really trying.

ghost sign for "Arsenal Brand Meat Products" painted on side of brick building, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost sign: Arsenal Brand Meat Products, Hill District

Sal’s MeatsHipCo BatteriesMother’s Best FlourOwl Cigar. Who are these vendors and what is the business arrangement that traded a (presumably) single payment into a long-after-life of marketing products that may no longer be purchased?

The hand-painted, brick wall advertising of yesteryear was all put out of business (we assume) by the arrival of big, purpose-built billboards with their larger display areas, darkness-defying flood lights, targeted sight lines, and monthly rates. That’s part of what makes so-called ghost signs so enjoyable for the egg hunter: it’s pretty obvious that there won’t be any more of them[1], and what’s left is often fading fast.

brass marker showing the 46.0 high water mark for the March 18, 1936 flood of downtown Pittsburgh, PA

1936 flood marker, Blvd. of the Allies, Downtown

Waaaay back when, the very first story committed to these virtual pages concerned a cryptic message painted around two faces of an old brick building in Manchester. That [SPOILER ALERT!] turned to be a marker for the most famous rising of the waters in Pittsburgh’s history–the 1936 St. Patrick’s Day flood.

We’ve found a handful more of them around downtown and on the North Side, but surprisingly few considering the immensity of the event and the age of our building stock. That just makes the hunt all that much sweeter when we zero in on previously unseen prey.

Mary statuette in homemade grotto, Pittsburgh, PA

Front yard Mary and grotto, Arlington

The blessed mother, hands spread with her palms open in a welcoming embrace or–far less often–the pietà image of Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus or holding the once-and-future as a baby [see above]. Whichever way we encounter the statuary, this is Front Yard Mary [even if she’s in the side or back yard] and we’ll take her any way we can get her.

There are so many Marys out there that we’ve got separate future features planned for South Oakland, Homestead, and the South Side Slopes (at least), which hardly makes Mary the most difficult egg to hunt. That said, this is ostensibly an Easter feature…

painting of woman with three eyes by Clohn Art, wheatpasted to wood, Pittsburgh, PA

Clohn Art, Downtown

Clohn Art is the nom de plume–or perhaps nom de paintbrush–of one John Lee, whose crude extra-eyed men, women, and animal paintings are executed on the placemats of Chinese restaurants and unfurled brown paper bags. They’re found wheatpasted at construction sites, alley walls, and, in at least one case, a rusty bus shelter in Homestead.

Wherever we happen to see the artist’s distinctive little paintings, they always pop off the wall surface and bring a twisted smile to our merely two-eyed faces. Mr. Lee declined The Orbit‘s request for a feature interview [John: we’re still interested!] so we’re left to troll the back streets, hoping to grab another of those rarest of eggs: a fresh, new Clohn to nestle in the wicker basket.

teddy bear and plastic flowers left on curbside, Pittsburgh, PA

Reasonably happy-looking sad toy, Fairywood

Like some mangy old teddy bear, dropped casually from a toddler’s stroller and forced to spend purgatory face-down in the weedy berm, Al Hoff brought the concept of “sad toys” into this blogger’s life and then cruelly left us by the side of the road to fend for ourselves.

Stuffed animals with their fur matted, flattened, and filthy; a basketball, punctured and concave in an oily culvert; doll parts dismembered and jettisoned like the work of a Lilliputian serial killer. So much pathos in such tiny candy-colored doses! It’s almost too much to bear…almost. But when we find them–and these are truly both the most random and the most reliable, renewable resource of today’s eggs–we can’t help but bag them.

outline of previously-existing "ghost house" against larger brick building, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost house, North Side

Ghost houses–the imprint of one, now-extinct building upon its still-extant neighbor–is hardly a concept unique to Pittsburgh, but we’ve got the perfect environmental conditions to produce them here. Older building stock constructed right up against each other in a previous era when the density supported a pedestrian-based workforce, coupled with decades of “benign neglect” that demolished many–some falling all on their own–and landlords caring little about fixing-up the weird negative spaces on their vacant lot-facing windowless walls.

Like many of the other ova that occupy our oculi, ghost houses are special because–like a petrified forest, or the career of Steve Guttenberg–they’re the result of such a peculiar series of historic events, circumstances, and (non-)actions over a great period of time that we’ll likely not encounter the same perfect storm here again.

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Clarence the Bird pole art, Bloomfield

With Clarence the Bird, the egg hunt changes parameters. Like picking up pawpaws, where there’s one of his handmade, ink-on-cardboard Make the World Beautiful instances, there tend to be a lot. Find a Clarence and you can safely spread out–looking up and down at the adjacent-blocks’ neighboring telephone poles and bulletin boards–and you’ll likely spot more.

So far [to our knowledge], Clarence has stuck to the greater Lawrenceville-Bloomfield-Garfield-Friendship portion of the East End, but that may just be where we’ve crossed paths with his big wings and pointy beak. I’m sure if we do see his trail elsewhere, we’ll see it everywhere.

poems of The Dirty Poet taped to a lamp post, Pittsburgh, PA

Poems of The Dirty Poet, Oakland

To call locating the telephone pole and street lamp verse of The Dirty Poet “egg hunt” material is a little bit of a stretch. His Dirtiness (yes: the writer is a he) wants the short, dittoed poems he authors to be read, after all. They’ve been taped and stapled at eye level on prominent foot traffic corners for just that purpose.

Regardless, it’s still neat to run across the prickly prose and lurid lines of the Bard of the Backstreets, knowing that one is literally standing in the creator’s footprints, inhaling his boozy breath, and shimmering in what’s left of his groovy vibes. To you, Whitman of the walkways, Dickinson of the downtown, Angelou of the who are you? may we always encounter your offspring sunny side up.

Toynbee Tile reading "Toynbee Idea in movie '2001' resurrect dead on planet Jupiter"

Toynbee Tile (no longer present), Downtown

It almost feels like cheating to include the so-called Toynbee Tiles in the list–we ran a feature on the House of Hades tiles just last week. But when you get lucky enough to spot one of the remaining, legit, first-generation street pieces, well, it’s a good day indeed.

As we reported, it is The Orbit‘s conclusion that none of these still exist in metro Pittsburgh and we’re left with a pair of ersatz Hell-bound tributes. But you never know! What does Easter–and, by association, spring–offer but the arrival of new hope, possibility, and opportunity. It is a new season: the sun is shining, birds are chirping, and flowers are popping with their tiny blasts of color across late winter’s gray-brown backdrop. Go out there and get you some eggs!


[1] There are, however, several efforts out there to restore/repaint old ghost signs as new mural projects. There’s a big one on Penn Avenue in Garfield and several in Braddock that we know of.

Street Beat: Who is the Dirty Poet?

Three of The Dirty Poet's poems taped to a light post, Pittsburgh, PA

In the wild: The Dirty Poet’s work where most people experience it

You’ve seen his work. At least, you have if you’ve loitered around any less-than-respectable tavern, coffee shop, or music venue in Pittsburgh’s East End over the last decade.

Xeroxed in small batches–usually two or three bite-sized poems at at time–cut down to vertical half pages, and taped to light poles, left on bulletin boards, and passed hand-to-hand (if you know who to talk to), The Dirty Poet is an old-school bard of the boroughs, a tale-teller of the tarmac. Like the clergyman preaching to drunkards on Skid Row, The Dirty Poet takes the mountain to Mohammed with that very deliberate pre-Internet mass communication, the flyer and handbill.

The Dirty Poet sits on a set of Pittsburgh city steps with his face hidden behind an open copy of his book

The Dirty Poet: his head is always in a book

The Dirty Poet, who spoke with Pittsburgh Orbit on condition of anonymity, claims he is the best read poet in Pittsburgh. Admittedly, this is probably not a high bar, but it would be difficult to name any competition for this title*. “People read these poems that would never read any other poetry,” says The Dirty Poet, and he’s right.

The work is taken out of the English department, out of the bookstores and coffee shop readings, hell, you don’t even have to enter a building–it’s right there on the sidewalk. One needn’t have a college degree or even a library card. [Spoiler alert: you do need to be able to read.] By taking the poems directly to the streets, taped up on light poles, it’s as populist and mass accessible as it could be. Whether he’s reaching people hungry for an unslaked thirst for verse or just bored and waiting for the bus, they’re all [OK, some of them] joining the revival in this tent.

Photocopy of "It's Always Sunny in New Brunswick" by The Dirty Poet, taped to a light pole, Pittsburgh, PA

The Dirty Poet has also been at this a long time. Writing his whole life, he began the practice of pairing his Xeroxed literature with the other gig flyers, ads for weight loss studies, and rock band stickers that litter the street some fifteen years ago. That’s more time than most poets have cumulatively spent in grad school, getting rejected by literary journals, and giving up writing entirely.

In our conversation, El Dirtero spoke with obvious pride about the many chance meetings he’s had with readers as he’s plied his trade on the pavement. “Guys in their twenties come up to me and tell me they’ve been reading me since they were teenagers,” the Dirty One says, “I think I speak to a universal feeling of alienation.”

The Dirty Poet sits on a jersey barrier with the graffiti "Your vulgarity is a virtue"

The Dirty Poet: vulgar, virtuous

But what of the poetry itself? It’s loose, personal, true, vulgar, cynical, sly, smart-alecky, profane, and, yes, possibly (but not usually) dirty. It also doesn’t rhyme and it’s definitely not for everyone. “I write poetry to process my experience,” the Soapless Shakespeare tells us. Subject matter ranges from the topical (politics, gun violence, race relations) to observational (hypocrites of all faiths and isms, technology dependence, media and mass culture) to many personal anecdotes of characters and experiences throughout his life. The Great Unwashed assures us these are all true.

Three poems by The Dirty Poet taped to a light pole on Forbes Ave, Pittsburgh, PA

One final note: Pittsburgh Orbit was planning to reprint a couple of The Dirty Poet’s pieces here, but in the spirit of his work, we thought it only made sense to urge our readers to take the time, step outside, and check out the poetry where it lives, right on the streets of Pittsburgh. If you don’t see it, you’re not trying very hard. And if you don’t live around here, well, this is just one more reason to come pay us a visit**. The Dirty Poet will still be at it when you do.


* Billy Nardozzi, the “Chaucer of the Classifieds,” seems like the only legitimate competition for this title, but when you get into pay-to-play territory, the water gets muddied pretty quick.

** Those looking for a more substantial collection of The Dirty Poet’s work can find the collection Emergency Room Wrestling on Words Like Kudzu Press.