Unspoken Words | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Joseph-Beth Booksellers is carrying local poet Jan Beatty's new book, Red Sugar. But Beatty seems unlikely to read her work aloud at the South Side venue: The author of intense and sometimes graphic poems about sex and violence says restrictions the store wants to place on a reading are "totally unacceptable."

Beatty is as high-profile as local poets get. She heads Carlow College's creative-writing program and hosts and co-produces "Prosody," a long-running literary interview show on WYEP-FM. Red Sugar is her third volume on University of Pittsburgh Press, and she reads frequently in public, including previous appearances at Joseph-Beth. On April 15, Beatty was interviewed about Red Sugar on KDKA TV's morning show Pittsburgh Today Live.

But the store balked at another reading after seeing Red Sugar, whose first poem, for instance, finds the narrator at a peep show, watching a performer, "legs spread wide to pink / exposing the history of Occidental morality with a small shaved V of wild red ..." In early April, an e-mail from the store to Pitt Press publicist Maria Sticco said that "[t]he material was just too explicit and we need to maintain a family-friendly atmosphere."

Subsequently, Joseph-Beth offered Beatty a reading if it could choose the poems, which she refused. It then offered a book-signing event without a reading, and a reading without amplification, both of which Beatty turned down. Chad Showalter, director of promotions for the five-store, Cincinnati-based chain, said that the problem is that the store's public-address system is audible throughout the building, including the children's section.

Poets have previously agreed to similar restrictions at the store. In February, at an Autumn House Press event at Joseph-Beth, poets Sheryl St. Germain and Patricia Jabbeh Wesley agreed to avoid poems with coarse language in exchange for amplification, says Rick St. John, executive director of Autumn House (where Beatty is a consultant). "[T]hat policy didn't seem to present a problem to those poets at that point," says St. John. However, he defends Beatty's work. "Jan's work is raw and edgy, but it very much transcends the details of its subject matter," he says.

Beatty insists on a reading without restrictions, plus an apology from the store. "I would never agree to terms of censorship for a reading," she says. But, "as a writer, I would, on my own, take the audience and venue into consideration."

Last year, Joseph-Beth hosted a book-signing with porn-film actor Ron Jeremy. "Ron Jeremy was a difficult decision at the company," says Showalter. The event's content was also restricted. Jeremy and his publicist "understood our concern" about providing a "family-friendly" atmosphere, says Showalter.

Showalter said Joseph-Beth remains committed to showcasing local authors, including Beatty. "I'm disappointed that we haven't been able to work something out yet," he says.

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