Chatham University

Innovation & Research

Creative Writers delve deep into the heart of ‘the Burgh'

By Rebecca Clever, MFA student

Graduate students in Marc Nieson's class visited Carrie Furnaces 6 & 7 in Rankin

Carrie Furnaces. Photo by Rebecca Clever

Graduate students in Marc Nieson's class posed at the Yayoi Kusama's 'Repetitive Vision,' c. 1996 exhibit at the Mattress Factory, North Side.

Infinity Dots Mirrored Room, Yayoi Kusama, 1996. Photo by Rebecca Clever

Nine graduate students at Chatham University recently had the opportunity to get to know Pittsburgh more intimately. As enrollees in a two-week, intensive field seminar, with syllabus designed by instructor Marc Nieson, and entitled On Rivers, Rust, and Renewal, they learned that the 'the steel city' is much more than its moniker, appointed nearly a century ago.

"The overall course had a pre-meditated design," said Nieson, who grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and has only been in Pittsburgh six years. "My instinct was to expose students to a cross-section of varied Pittsburgh neighborhoods, as well as individuals and organizations who are passionate about what they're doing here. To generate not only experiential creative writings, but also a sense of civic intimacy and investment.

"I'm not from Pittsburgh originally," he added, "and by no means an expert on local landscape, history or lore, so it seemed the best way for me to lead the seminar was as an outsider, riding shotgun with the students; as a facilitator more than teacher."

As such, the class kept extensive journals and took photographs, and traveled by university van to neighborhoods such as Braddock, Rankin, Homestead, Springdale, Bloomfield, Garfield, East Liberty, Mount Washington, North Side, and the Hill and Strip districts, where they met and talked with local authors, business people, and residents dedicated to their respective communities.

In addition to these field trips and tours, reading assignments were integral to spurring ideas and discussions throughout the course. Students read poetry, fiction and non-fiction/memoir, such as Andrew Carnegie’s The Gospel of Wealth Essays and Other Writings, Thomas Bell’s Out of this Furnace, Albert French’s I Can’t Wait on God, and other excerpted texts applicable to the landscape. During the seminar itself, they visited the Rachel Carson Homestead, Frick's Clayton House, the Carrie Furnaces, the Mattress Factory, City of Asylum, and even PNC Park for a Pirate's game.

"I didn't come into the class with any expectation, I don't think, but I certainly didn't expect to get the chance to visit the Carrie Works or to learn as much as I did about the city's history," said student Ben Gwin, of Titusville, New Jersey. "I thought I had a fairly firm grasp on the labor history and the Fricks and Carnegies and Mellons, but I did not. The cracks between the different boroughs and patches of small town character of the city are full of fantastic possibility for fiction and essay, and I hope I can produce work that will do justice to the make-up and texture of Pittsburgh."

"The course is not just a trip to see tourist attractions but to talk to the local people and learn from them about the history, the culture and the daily life of that region," said Songyi Zhang, a student from Guangzhou, China, who currently lives in Shadyside. "There're a lot of opportunities for us…to get involved as volunteers and interns. That's so different from where I come from. For example, we don't have many non-profit organizations.

"There're so many things on the trip that move[d] me," she continued. "I admire the people we talk[ed] to. Their devotion, determination, and hope to make a change for the community are really admirable. Somehow the pictures of the Braddock Carnegie Library, the urban farm and the gravel streets in Braddock keep flashing in my head. I guess I think a lot about what industrial revolution has brought to us, generation after generation."

"Clearly, one can only scratch the surface in two short weeks," Nieson said. "Still, my hopes are that this seminar opened a door for students' future exploration and involvement, offered community, and confluence."


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