Rosaly Roffman Interviews, Part 1: Origin and Early Days

The workshop was started by Sue Elkind. The Elkind name was well-known in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Sue started writing relatively late in life, in her 60s, and she wanted a community around her. She was able to do that at the Squirrel Hill Library. She lived on Bartlett Street at that time. She was no-nonsense. You had to apply and she said what she thought. You would get honesty. You could also get rejected.

When Sue accepted a member she tried to mentor that person. The people who came were mostly beginning writers—mainly, but not all, from Squirrel Hill. Back then the format was different: We would pass out poems at the end of a session and come to the next workshop ready with comments or feedback. It was serious and people had to say if they weren't going to be there. If they were not serious or attentive they might be turned away.

This early incarnation of the workshop privately published two books, The First Decade (1988) and The Squirrel Hill Poetry Workshop Presents Pittsburgh and Tri-State Area Poets (1992). Although Sue was ill at the time, she is still listed as editor of the second book and had a lot of help from the workshop members and also financially from donors and the community. Laura Miller took the photographs.

The earliest member of this workshop I know personally was Charles Wilf, who joined in 1982. I recently had a talk with him and borrowed his copy of The First Decade. Mine is in box 3 of the Heinz collection boxes. This copy is inscribed by Sue to Charles’ parents. The book was edited primarily by H. Kermit Jackson, who managed a small publishing outfit and edited primarily a beautiful small magazine—I think on the subject of ice skating. He was a Pittsburgher. He started attending the workshop in 1981 at age 30.

Charles also gave me a 1983 article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about the workshop. The article, called “Budding Poets Bloom through Workshop,” describes 16 men and women gathering around a table to start the workshop at around 1 p.m. (We’re still meeting at the same time and we still meet around a table.) At one point Sue said, “Let’s get with it!” Sue explains that she holds the workshop as much for her own benefit as much as for struggling poets. Many of the traditional avenues for getting published that are specified in this article don’t exist anymore. Kermit says here too, “Poetry is easy not to write…A workshop keeps you working.”

I started attending in about 1984. Joan Latchaw, a student then and a Squirrel Hill resident, took me along with her to my first Squirrel Hill Poetry Workshop. Shirley Stevens and I started at about the same time. I would travel from Indiana, Pennsylvania, where I taught at IUP. For two years I lived in Pittsburgh at Forbes Terrace after my son graduated from high school. I had a seminar with Galway Kinnell and played kickball with my neighbor, Michael Chabon, who back then was a student and worked at Jay’s Book Stall.

The workshop was very lively with a diverse membership over the years—we’ve had teachers, playwrights, a biochemist, a former missionary, psychologists. The Squirrel Hill poets have had many adventures. Ours is not a classroom—but some of the members, even coincidentally, went to school together and met again in the workshop. Most of the members did not know each other before. I love the surprises that come up and our getting to know each other through our poems.

Sometimes there would be a Christmas party or other occasion where members would attend or sponsor a visitor or read their poems at a memorial service for a deceased member—some members even organized an occasional retreat. We had a number of readings and sometimes events, including memorial readings for H. Kermit Jackson, Georgeanne Rettberg, and Anita Byerly. 

All these years we’ve met in a library except for some periods in Sue’s house. At times when she was ill we’d have the workshop in her basement. The staff at the Squirrel Hill Library after its renovation had different ideas about the nature of the workshop. In 2010, we moved because we could not pay hourly meeting charges in the Squirrel Hill Library and didn’t want to change our workshop to automatically admit new members without screening. C.C. Mellor Memorial Library in Edgewood invited us to hold the workshop in their space. We gratefully accepted, although we still kept our original name.

When Kermit died in 2000, the Squirrel Hill poets called to tell me. At that time I was visiting family in Sag Harbor. I was asked to be the new convener/coordinator/facilitator of the workshop and I requested a small backup staff who would be present. I was still traveling from Indiana and not living in Pittsburgh full-time. “If the weather’s bad, that will be a problem,” I said, and then accepted that position as coordinator of the workshop on those conditions. Today, anyone can come and observe us as they could before, then send work. If they are accepted by a small committee of readers, the poet might have to wait to join because their name goes on a waiting list.

One of the wonderful things about the Squirrel Hill Poetry Workshop is the idea that if a person is as motivated as Sue was to write a poem, they can write a poem. People can be discovered. Occasionally there is a writing prompt or suggestion or a joint reading with another group or other collaboration. Almost everybody in our workshop has a book or two. I have written at least a dozen blurbs for people in the workshop. Sue’s was an interesting decision to have the workshop in a library, such a public place—and even initially to have a tutor who helped her with her poems before she started this workshop at age 64.

I have written poems about Sue. She was a fighter for her life, for overcoming her physical conditions. She would champion the poets who listened and worked hard and was a loyal supporter of their work. I attended the wedding of one of her children and that was a special occasion—of course a poem of mine came out of that. She taught us that you can write about feelings if they are authentic, even if you have to alter reality slightly for that purpose. She would see you through for the sake of what she believed was your poet’s integrity and good decision making. Once you earned her respect she supported you and your work as much as she could and became a friend.

Think of Your Life as Translation: Wedding to Wedding

The dishes under her eyes
tell the story of a banquet
where she ate and drank deeply,
and danced maybe her best dance
over and over again. Now cubless,
we thought she would break
as she circled each table
to give away the orchids and daisies
as little prizes to those who asked
for tokens. Red in this mother's dress
was subdued, but this was not a bitter
occasion—the bride wore green velvet
for her second time around,
and the groom in his 40s knew
as we all did, this party was to celebrate
that he wouldn't be alone in his dotage.
And so he gives these parents away,
and watches their slow whirling and whispering,
and unveiling of all the regular secrets
that nourish everyone in the name of family.

On behalf of new children,
blessings and celebrations,
think of your life as translation:
sun and moon, mother and father,
wedding to wedding and dance, dance.

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