Pittsburgh poet Jessica Lanay talks cool kicks, statement jewelry, and dressing for work | Pittsburgh City Paper

Pittsburgh poet Jessica Lanay talks cool kicks, statement jewelry, and dressing for work

click to enlarge A woman wears a orange suit with a yellow shirt
CP Photo: Tereneh Idia
Jessica Lanay

Name: Jessica Lanay
Pronouns: She/They
Title(s): Writer
Job/Work: Art Journalist / Interviewer / Poet
Instagram: @respectfuldecline
Humble brag: I never know when I am humble bragging or not.

How would you define your style?
Comfortable, simple, straightforward. I love ensembles that can be broken down and used in other outfits, and I like the feeling of having staple cuts that I can accessorize for different occasions.

Who are your style inspirations?
I would say my great grandmother, Willie Lee Neal, and my mother. They have very different styles, however! My great-grandmother would take her costume jewelry apart and reassemble the pieces into something new. She loved putting different prints together, like plaid chico slacks with a floral shirt, and then lots of costume jewelry.

My mom is more classic, lots of pinks and beiges, lots of linens and cottons, very feminine but very clean cut, almost preppy. For famous fashion I like Ciara and Rihanna’s outfits a lot. Ciara will do a lot of structured looks, she kills a nice suit. I enjoy Rihanna’s take on relaxed clothing, especially when she pulls off a ‘90s grunge meets urban look.

Do you have a favorite designer(s)? Who are they and what do you like about them?
One of my favorite designers is Ann Lowe. She was a Black fashion designer in the early 20th century. She passed away in 1981, I think. She designed Jackie Kennedy’s wedding gown and Olivia de Havilland’s 1947 Oscar gown. And even though I am not particularly interested in dresses or skirts, her work is just dreamy, so dreamy. I think about her a lot. In her obituary they said she “designed gowns” but never called her a fashion designer until recently.

Other than her, I don’t know much about fashion! I come from a long line of sewers and thrifters, the look and the fit means more than a name. Thrifting feels magical and you’re more likely to find original pieces: you just find that perfect shirt and go home and it goes so nice with those jeans.

Do you dress to write? If so, how and why? If not, how do you choose what to wear at events like August Wilson African American Cultural Center’s Lit Fridays?
I do dress to write, and my choice is always sweats or linen pants with a comfortable button-down shirt. Those are my favorite staples. I sit and pace, sit and pace when I am writing. Sometimes I randomly stretch, so flexibility and comfort are so important to me. I dream of a closet full of nice sweats and linen ensembles.

For Lit Fridays, the necklace and the shirt are where I place my attention. Because I am extremely interested in reaching national and international viewership, disabled, and elderly communities, Lit Friday is a digital program, so whatever is happening from the waist up is where the focus is. Nicely patterned, button-down shirts, nicely structured shirts, and colorful sweaters with large necklaces (which I have a wide variety of) are my go-tos.

I was thinking about how much I love to hear you speak and often you’ll put into words ideas and feelings that I am unable to articulate. How did you become a poet?
I think there is an astronaut to poet pipeline that no one is talking about. I wanted to be an astronaut when I was very young, but by the time I was 9, I was writing poetry and reading it to my mother and great-grandparents. My great-grandmother has trouble with literacy, and she would go practice reading at the Monroe County Library in Key West, and I would go with her sometimes. We would practice together. And because I come from a space where people are speaking multiple dialects of English and multiple dialects of Spanish all at once, I was always in between several ways to say things. The how of language is very important, it is a matter of life and death.

This mural! Why did you pick this location? I love the way it looks like you could walk into the mural especially with those wonderful colors on!
I lived in the Hill District at 521 Francis Street for three years while completing my MFA in poetry at the University of Pittsburgh. I was living there when my debut collection am•phib•ian won the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Prize. I cannot get over the fact that Toi Derricotte was the judge of that competition, and I cannot get over that that all happened while living in the place that August Wilson lived and wrote. I loved it and I often miss it; I go back every time I am in town.

Seeing this mural was my way of knowing I was a few bus stops away from home. This mural is on the side of the Black Beauty, one of the longest standing businesses in the Hill District. I was sad when I had to leave. The owner sold the duplex to a slumlord, and I couldn’t find another place in the Hill to rent. After that, I moved to Highland Park. It was nice, but it isn’t the Hill.

click to enlarge Pittsburgh poet Jessica Lanay talks cool kicks, statement jewelry, and dressing for work
CP Photos: Tereneh Idia
Jessica Lanay

Tell me about what you’re wearing today and what you love about it? How does it feel to wear it?
I have on a plaid button-down that is dark blue, white, and teal, with dark green sweats, a vintage red and pink Coca-Cola hat, and some orange, red, black, and white high-top Jordans. I have been wearing my Carrera prescription glasses lately. I feel pretty cool because I feel comfortable, like I am ready for anything.

You were recently featured in an event at Heinz Hall. What was the event and what did you wear?
Every year, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra holds Lift Every Voice, which is usually held during Black history month. It is an event meant to highlight Black artists and musicians from Pittsburgh. Because of COVID, it was held on October 22. I was there for the world premiere of a short film I wrote called As I Please. Njaimeh Njie was the creative director and Kathryn Bostic composed the score. The script I wrote was based on an oral history project I did with friends of mine from the Hill, what I wrote was based on their lives. (Thank you to Terry Baltimore, Myra Hill, Geneva Jackson, Frankie Harris, Jackie Halloway, Annie-Pearl Spotwood, Cozetta Newring, and all the ladies at the card game!)

I wore a Kelly green linen suit with a white blouse and a pearl collar. I had a backup outfit that was a camel-colored skirt with a tweed jacket and a gold blouse. I thought about chickening out of the suit. But my mom reassured me that the suit was the way to go, and I am happy that I listened to her!

Do you have any gifts from someone that you wear often or every day?
Yes. Jewelry. All of my jewelry has been gifted to me over the years by different family members.

Do you wear a gift to yourself that you wear often?
When I splurge, I splurge on good coats and sneakers, lol. Those are the gifts to myself that you can usually find me wearing.

Okay those kicks are so cool, please tell me more.
I love sneakers. Every year or two, I go on a frantic search for two pairs of sneakers that I must adore with all my heart, and I wear them until I walk through them. I am in my third year of buying two sets of sneakers, this is my first pair of my third set. I love surprising juxtapositions of off colors, maybe the colors can be called mannerist. My palette is often dark greens, mustards, dark blues, blue-greens, red for accessories and funny-colored prints.

I love that necklace. It reminds of the horns, moon and Ka, lifeforce energy symbol Kemetic yoga. What do you love about it?
I made it! I, very secretly, but I guess not anymore, make my own jewelry. Every few years I will make five to seven new pieces. I will keep around two for myself and sell or give away the rest.

What are you looking forward to as we approach the year’s end? What are you reflecting on and/or planning?
Reorganizing my time with my creative writing in the center and continuing to prepare for my qualifying exams for my PhD. It is hard, though. When you’re an artist, you often have multiple gigs. And people often want artists to use their skills for aims that sometimes deviate from what the artist wants.

And doing my half-year clothing check in; I regularly give clothing to Goodwill to encourage myself to keep exploring what I like about fashion.