It's 5 AM | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

It's 5 AM



Day Players in the Makeup Trailer


By Hayden Saunier


I'm sitting in between a dead girl and a prostitute.

I play a nurse ... no nonsense ... powder, touch of lips,

"those test results you wanted just came in"

and they'll be done with me. I shake hands

with the prostitute. The dead girl pulls back a curtain,

says "what the hell, there's nudity, so what?"

She's eighteen, grey-blue, naked and they're gluing

latex lacerations to her neck and shoulders,

building up contusions, painting gorgeous bruises

down her arms. She's never done a film before.

She wants to talk. She says she's hoping for a line;

that when they see her maybe they'll decide to let her

speak, create a flashback or a dream scene, shoot

a memory of who she was, alive. The prostitute

and I say nothing. We tilt our chins up for the brush.

The dead girl's voice trails off. They blue her lips.

I look reliable; the prostitute looks hard-mouthed,

sad-eyed sexy and the dead girl's looking dead.

We're done now, all of us. We're going on.




Ten years ago, Judith Vollmer attended a panel discussion on feminist writing where someone asked how many journals published male and female poets in equal numbers. Vollmer, a Pittsburgh-based poet and teacher, knew the answer was "hardly any." But she was intimately familiar with one exception: 5 AM, the bi-annual magazine she co-edits with Ed Ochester.


About 20 years ago, Vollmer, Ochester and three other poets launched 5 AM as an alternative to academic poetry outlets. Their model, says Vollmer, was the national magazine Poetry Now, which ceased publication in the early '80s. "We really admired it because it was produced in a European café-journal style," she says ... lots of poems, no ads, and a wide range of new and established writers.


In the late '80s, 5 AM itself stopped publishing briefly, then reappeared under Vollmer and Ochester. Today, the concept remains but readership has grown to about 1,000, up from about 300 just six years ago, says Ochester. Most readers reside outside the region, with subscribers as far-flung as France and Japan. And for the past few years, buoyed by nothing more than subscriptions (as little as $15 for four issues) and donations from individuals, 5 AM ( has covered its out-of-pocket costs, says Ochester, who also edits the Pitt Poetry Series and for years directed the university's writing program.


The spring 2006 issue, meanwhile ... tabloid-style, printed on heavy stock ... demonstrates the journal's devotion to diversity. The 72 poems are credited to 42 contributors, and half of them are women. Over the years, contributors have included scads of previously unpublished poets alike as Pulitzer-winner Rita Dove and one-time U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins.


The current issue includes Michael Waters, who as an editor ranks among the nation's most prominent poetry anthologists. But it opens with three verses by Yasbel Fernandez-Acuna, an emerging young poet from Miami, and closes with four by Jamie Ross, a painter living in remote New Mexico. "I think we're the first magazine that's really said to [Ross], 'Send your work, we like it,'" says Vollmer, an English professor at Pitt-Greensburg who's published three books of her own poetry.


Inside, there's "Bleeding in the Blue Night," a prose poem by Pittsburgh's Ellen McGrath Smith about menstruating while attending a nightclub rock show; a few pages later there's Ed Galing, an older Philadelphia-area poet whom Ochester calls "wonderfully cranky ... the Grandma Moses of poetry." Galing's "Night Duty" evokes the humor, humanity and pathos of Cold War-era guard work at a naval air station.


About 20 percent of 5 AM poets live within a few hours of Pittsburgh. Ochester and Vollmer strive to mix voices other publications might ghettoize: gay and straight, rural and urban, white and black. They neither exclude nor edit out imperfect technique ... but do celebrate a poem such as "Rx: 2005," Hayden Saunier's humorous rumination on pants that no longer fit, executed in the difficult villanelle form.


Also on the menu: political poems, which Ochester says more academic journals shy from, and work in the West Coast mode of Charles Bukowski, a genre which lost its home when Chiron Review stopped publishing two years ago. The latest 5 AM includes two longer poems in that vein by Westmoreland County poet Dave Newman.


The journal is a home-grown affair, run largely out of Vollmer's Pittsburgh home and Ochester's, in Armstrong County. But the diversified, non-academic approach seems to resonate.

"We get a lot of mail from readers telling us that 5 AM is the only poetry magazine they read cover to cover," says Vollmer.


Ochester offers another reader's variation on that critique: "The only magazine I can bring into the bathroom and read all the way through."