Life-long educator and poet Doralee Brooks named new Poet Laureate for Allegheny County.
By Jody DiPerna
Doralee Brooks, the new poet Laureate for Allegheny County, wants to highlight and spotlight poetry’s intersections with other art forms — with music and with the visual and performing arts. This convergence of the poetic with hard-lived life, everyday occurrences of beauty, and all the ways that Pittsburghers make art feels like an appropriate reflection of Brooks’ own lifelong journey with poetry. It also suits the position to which Brooks has been named.
Brooks also believes poetry is for everybody and hopes to engage her fellow Pittsburghers in the space where art meets the quotidian.
“I think that poets are listeners, and they are observers. We’re very watchful and maybe that’s why we are able to make material of the everyday, because we’re attuned to the importance of it,” she said.
In the summer of 2020, as part of their “All Pittsburghers Are Poets” initiative, City of Asylum established the first poet laureate for Allegheny County, Celeste Gainey. They also named MJ Shaheen, ASL poet laureate.
As with the poet laureate for the nation (a position currently held by Ada Limon), there aren’t many codified duties, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t much work to be done. Poets laureate are generally given the freedom to shape the position based on their own interests and inclinations.
Brooks said that she wants to focus her time as laureate on regional poetry and poetry about Pittsburgh, as well as those poetic intersections with other forms of expression.
“I think we have such a rich heritage in Pittsburgh of poets,” Brooks said. “I want to highlight what we have, and I want to promote that. I also want to show how the other arts are also a part of the poetry. I’m very interested in those connections.”
A lifelong teacher and mentor, Brooks holds an MEd from the University of Pittsburgh and an MFA from Carlow University. She is Professor Emerita of Developmental Studies at the Community College of Allegheny County. She was also a fellow of the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project, a national writing project for teachers of kindergarten through college with an emphasis on the practice of writing instruction in every discipline.
It was while she was working on that project that her life intersected with Toi Derricotte, a tremendously influential poet who is a professor emerita in writing at the University of Pittsburgh. Derricotte, along with Cornelius Eddy in 1996, founded Cave Canem as the home of Black poetry to remedy the underrepresentation and isolation of African-American poets in academia and in writing workshops across the nation.
“Toi consulted with the (Western Pennsylvania Writing) project, to help teachers think of themselves as writers, and also to encourage writing in the classroom. That’s what the writing project is all about — no matter what you teach, writing is a part of it. We started writing poetry in workshops at the writing project,” Brooks said.
Derricotte invited Brooks to join Cave Canem in 1997.
“It was all part of my development as a poet, which was a very, very slow process,” Brooks said.
Brooks is as passionate about reading poetry, as she is about making it and teaching it. Derricotte is an influence on her work, as are poets like C.K. Williams and Elizabeth Bishop, both of whom, like Derricotte, are keen observers of the small moments that add up to life. Being able to feel another person’s struggles, or joys, or just moments of quiet solitude, pull Brooks into the medium. That is the magic of poetry.
“You are able to enter other consciousnesses and other places. You’re not limited by your life and you can experience the lives of others,” she said.
Brooks has retired from teaching at CCAC and currently facilitates writing workshops in poetry at Carlow University. Her work has appeared in journals such as Voices from the Attic, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, Uppagus, Dos Passos Review, and Paterson Literary Review. Her chapbook, “When I Hold You Up to the Light,” won the 2019 Cathy Smith Bowers Poetry Prize and was published in 2020 by Main Street Rag.
Brooks hopes to bring her love for the medium, and her lifelong love of reading, to her role as poet laureate.
“Poetry is my life — reading and writing is, in some way, experiencing life. It is the fullest way of being alive. You know, that’s what poetry is for me,” Brooks said.
Are you an Architect?
by Doralee Brooks
I recall a line from Ok, Mr. Field, a serialized novel,
as I drive past the now shelled-out row houses on Bennett Street.
Only the exteriors remain.
My college friend, Charles, lived here and complained
when the neighbors didn’t keep up.
In the story, it’s all about the house— house lonely house summer house
white-stucco house on a mountain in Cape Town
that in Hopper solitude overlooks the sea.
In Charles’s room, a paper lantern floated over the bed like a blood moon,
and Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life streamed from the walls,
filled every sensation of space.
Back in the day.
Before the Joneses raised the stakes,
and everyday people learned the language of the A.R.M. the balloon-payment.
Before I ever heard someone say house-poor, too much house
Before Detroit evolved beyond Motor City, Motown, blue brutality, Black uprising,
Became the name for collapse.
Before McMansion was a joke—narrow lawn no furniture ghost street no one home—
and the promised invites just another Americanism
such as how are you; have a nice day.
This article has been republished by the generosity of the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.
Jody DiPerna lives, reports and writes from her home in Pittsburgh. She is an award winning
journalist and one of the founders of the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Currently,
she is researching a book about the importance of reading, writing and literary life in Appalachia for West Virginia University Press. She conducted one of her finest interviews in a rural laundromat.