Brice and Other Pittsburgh Poets Perform Live at Riverstone Books

John Maurer

-John Maurer

Despite a wet, drizzly evening outside, there was nothing dreary about the poetry reading at Riverstone Books on Forbes Ave in Squirrel Hill on July 13. Held in the stunning, gallery-esque back room reading space of the bookstore, the evening’s slate of poets included Charlie Brice (being celebrated for his new collection of poetry, The Ventriloquist); Judith Alexander Brice; Jim Daniels; and Matthew Ussia (pinch-hitting for ML Liebler)

Nearly every chair was filled and according to event planner, Eowyn Randall, there were dozens of attendees via the reading’s live feed. Charlie Brice was the host of the evening, introducing the other poets there to celebrate his work and share some of their own.

(LtR) Jim Daniels, Judy Brice, Charlie Brice, and Mattew Ussia

Matthew Ussia (introduced as a failed death metal singer turned poet who is currently a professor and director of Duquesne University’s first-year writing program) kicked the evening off. Ussia provided a sampling of his occasionally absurdist, but consistently poignant, poetic verse. He began with a poem titled At the Moment He was Conceived. He followed this poem about conception with a poem about death. While perhaps a dark turn, Out to Lunch showcased Ussia’s ability to balance the comedic and fantastical with the macabre and existential, and was met with applause and an uproar of laughter. The unique and versatile voice of Ussia’s poetry can be seen through his imagery of a corpse set in rigor mortis wedged between a toilet and a bathroom wall, followed by Ussia imagining the reader ordering a tuna melt after his own death and him feeling that situation as unfair, or in his own words, “bullshit.” His third poem, Stepping in Dog Shit at 5:12 AM While Naked at 43, (inspired by one of Charlie Brice’s poems), was sobering yet lighthearted, as Ussia relives a bar crawl in Toledo from 30 years earlier.

Judy Alexander Brice, retired psychiatrist and both wife and proclaimed ”favorite poet” of Charlie Brice, has published more than 80 poems and penned three collections and a chapbook. Judy read a yet unreleased poem titled First Grade which detailed all the things she learned in first grade outside the classroom – from a fixation on her teacher’s “cantaloupe-sized breasts” to navigating the school’s intentionally flooded bathrooms and the gum under the desks that stuck to her clothes  – all led to her fond memories of walking to and from school with her friends, one of whom, Jenny, stopped walking with her and attending class due to brain cancer. This poem showcased Judy’s unique ability to make you look at one narrative while she puts together a larger arc of story that, as a reader, you won’t realize until the last stanza or line. Judy’s work was also introduced as often utilizing her “acquaintance with illness within herself and others.” These skills were on full display in her poem In Search of Comfort, which explored loss, grief, and illness as the poet experienced them during the global COVID-19 quarantine with turns of phrase that clearly resonated with the audience. Even after the event in conversation, Judy expressed her empathy to all of those who suffer.

Jim Daniels is a Detroit native who has spent the past 40 years in Pittsburgh and is the Thomas S. Baker University Professor Emeritus at Carnegie Mellon. Daniels read from his most recent book of poetry, Gun/Shy, as well as a selection of newer standalone poems. In a villanelle titled Private Room, he discussed his daughter falling ill in high school and juxtaposes her worry about dying with the dying of embarrassment that she, like most teens, experienced around her parents at that age. Daniels’ ability to not only put the reader into his shoes but to make them walk in them as well is uncanny. He brought the reader into the hospital room and made the reader feel like they were sleepless on the ground at the foot of his daughter’s hospital bed sick with worry. Watching Daniels pull on the audience’s heart strings with this poem of great personal vulnerability was something to behold, as many wiped away tears and applauded the poem. It was quite clear why he is widely regarded, according to Charlie Brice, as “one of the best poets in the country.”

Charlie Brice
The evening’s centerpiece was poetry written and read by Charlie Brice. Two-time “Best of the Net” nominee and three-time “Pushcart” nominee, Brice was introduced by Ussia as being “in beast mode” referring to Brice’s recent run of publications; an impressive eight books in just the past six years. Brice began by reading Cleaning Up Cat Puke Naked at Seventy, which won first place in the Field Guide Poetry Contest in 2021 and was also the poem that inspired the earlier performed work by Ussia. This poem describes the tumultuous process of trying to find one’s identity not only as a youth but into adulthood as well and asks you to view coming-of-age as more iterative than linear. This narrative is then paralleled with an image of the narrator, feeling his greatest certainty in life at 70 years old, cleaning up cat puke. This certainly wouldn’t be the moment most would expect Brice to point to given his incredibly accomplished career, but that’s exactly what gives the poem its incredible impact and lingering curiosity. Vietnam Again, read by Brice, showed off his ability to effortlessly interweave compelling narrative with incisive and evocative imagery and intricate phonetic styling. This poem discussed the author’s choice not to enlist during the Vietnam War on grounds of conscientious objection. He also compared this experience with that of his friend, Owen, who enlisted and, after practicing gutting a human being at bootcamp, showed up at the narrator’s front door gone AWOL on his way to Canada. It was a heart-wrenching narrative poem about a politically feverish period of American history which Brice reflected on after the reading with a heavy sigh, saying “there was no winning."

In total, the poetry reading was a fitting celebration of Charlie Brice’s work and yet another great example of the quality verse being crafted in Pittsburgh. Credit should go to Riverstone Books, Eowyn Randall, and the talented slate of writers for such a wonderful event.

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