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Voice of a Poet: Thoughts on Ed Ochester’s Changing the Name to Ochester

Scott Silsbe


One bright Sunday morning in early May I went through my collection of books, grabbed about twenty volumes, loaded up the car, and headed south to visit my parents in North Carolina.  It was an easy drive--pretty much a straight shot southward--I made good time, and by Monday morning, I was out on their screened-in porch in the middle of the woods with a book of poems in my hands.  All around me animals were making their chattering noises and in the next room I could hear my mother listening to a mix of Kinks songs I had made her.  The book I was reading was one I’d been meaning to check out for years--Ed Ochester’s Changing the Name to Ochester (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1988)--and though I was kicking myself for not having read it earlier, I was also euphoric because I was reading a great book of poems.

Sometimes we stumble upon greatness.  Or else we hunt it down, look hard for it, and succeed in our search.  Sometimes greatness finds us.  One of the nice things about working for a used bookshop and having a generous boss is a free book now and again.  That’s how I got my copy of Changing the Name to Ochester.  A tall stack of contemporary poetry books came into the shop and, sifting through them, I found the Ochester book, and my boss John said I could have it.  Before he gave it to me, he read a few lines from a poem called “The Odds” that referenced a young John who was logging manuscripts for Pitt Press at the time.

I’d seen Ochester give a reading before.  I vividly remember him reading his great four-liner “Monroeville, PA” that goes like this:

                       One day a kid yelled
                       “Hey Asshole!”
                        and everybody on the street
                        turned around

And I’d met Ochester at a party once before.  Or at least I was in the same room with him--I don’t recall if I actually talked with him.  We were at a condo in Trafford, PA.  My new friend Bob was leaving town, going to California to try out an MFA program in poetry.  This was about ten years ago and I don’t remember too much about the party.  Bob remembers me bringing a loaf of bread.  I remember my friend Brandon talking with Bob’s friend Dave about different versions of songs by The Rolling Stones.  And I have a hazy memory of being in some kind of basement or garage where Ochester was smoking Pall Malls or maybe cigars with another guy, sitting on milk-crates or some other kind of make-shift chairs.  I knew who Ochester was then, but I didn’t know his poems.




Mostly what I knew about Ochester at that time was his work as an editor.  Back in 1978, he took over as the General Editor of the Pitt Poetry series.  He published a lot of great books while he was at Pitt Press.  In his first ten years alone, he ran such barn-burners as Stuart Dybek’s Brass Knuckles, Michael Burkard’s Ruby for Grief, Larry Levis’s Winter Stars, Etheridge Knight’s Essential Etheridge Knight, and David Rivard’s Torque.  I can’t imagine it was an easy task following in the footsteps of the legendary Paul Zimmer, who had edited the Pitt Poetry Series before Ochester.

There are many things to like about Changing the Name…  Sitting on my parents’ porch, I became enthralled with the great beauty of Ochester’s run-on sentences.  He’ll run a poem over three pages and not stop for a period--not even at stanza-breaks--until the last line.  Or else he’ll do that trick that always makes me think of Hemingway (and a horse-racing scene in A Moveable Feast), where he’ll follow up a nice sprawling run-on with a sharp, succinct shorty of a sentence.  There’s something honest about that form--as if the speaker has something important to tell you, has to communicate it as quickly as possible, but then, breathless from the outpouring of words, has to recoup with something smaller, more compact, but to the point.  There’s a nice example of a run on/shorty in the title poem of the book, but I really like this short poem, so I’ll cite this one in its entirety:


                        Three White Kids Singing Doo-Wop

                        What did I ever need besides
                        my blue modified pegged pants
                        with the white saddle stitches and
                        a skinny black belt, and Bobby Tarantino,
                        the drummer, with his black boots with the real
                        sharp spic heels, and George Cava in pants
                        so tight he needed “a shoehorn to get into them,”    
                        waiting in the sunlight in spring
                        in front of the Bohack store
                        on Myrtle Avenue for the bus
                        to take us to school, while we do little shuffle
                        steps and dips and sing in the strong sun?
                        What does anybody really need?

                        Doo-wop a bam sham boom sha bam.


One of the things I love about Ochester’s poems is his great ear for the line.  This means two things to me.  First of all, it means that he knows how to put a line of a poem together so that it packs as much punch as possible.  Not only does it sound good and have great meaning in context of the rest of the poem, the way that the line is broken allows for multiple readings, giving the line a more profound resonance.  Secondly, the way the lines are constructed in his poems feels very natural, not forced at all.  This is partly because Ochester’s poetic voice is so strong.  It reminds me of a workshop I had once with Tony Hoagland, where Hoagland said, “When you read a poem, it’s like you’re knocking on a door to see if anybody’s home.”  There is consistently someone home in the poems of Ochester and one of the ways we hear his unique voice come through the poems is with the careful construction of each poem, each stanza, and each line. 

This is probably already abundantly evident with the two poems I’ve referenced so far, but my favorite thing about Ochester’s poems is his sense of humor.  Maybe it’s because I’ve read so much cryptic and/or weepy poetry in the past, but I find Ochester’s poems to be incredibly refreshing because they’re not only interesting and profound, they’re also just plain entertaining and fun to read.  After my boss gave me my copy of Changing the Name…, I brought it to my weekly band practice to show my friends Bob and Kurt, and Bob read the wonderful poem “Duke” to us over our Yuenglings.  Here’s “Duke”:


                        It took him years to get out of the mailroom
                        at Whitehead Metals but he did it,
                        made 70 bucks a week in posting,
                        and though he finally got his figures neat
                        he always had trouble remembering which was sheet and
                        which was slab, and confused the ID’s of pipe with OD’s,
                        and sometimes stared at the numbers on the PO’s
                        in his ham fists for minutes before
                        he subtracted the poundage from the cards.

                        One day when the boss was out Jackie Olson yelled
                        “Hey--Duke took the Mrs. to a movie last night,
                        The Ten Commandments. How’d you like it Duke?
                        D’ja understand what it was about?”
                        And we waited while Duke turned his huge head
                        like a buffalo with its horns down and said
                        “yeah, I liked it, it was about
                        the beginnin of the Catlic religion,
                        up yours.”


That poem is part of a sequence of poems in the book about working at Whitehead Metals in New York.  Those are some of my favorite poems in the book.  I get the sense that they were written by Ochester years after he moved away from New York, the characters that populated his workplace still lingering in his head.  Another interesting thing about Changing the Name to Ochester is how Ochester’s past life in New York and New Jersey commingles with his life in Pennsylvania.  So that we get references to Coney Island and Bleeker Street and The White Horse Tavern alongside poems mentioning Frick Park, Bellefield Avenue, and The Three Rivers Shakespeare Festival.  Pittsburgh is a very different Pittsburgh through the eyes of a transplant like Ochester--as opposed to a native--so I feel Ochester’s Pittsburgh poems have a unique flavor to them. 

There’s something fresh or genuine about this collection, even now that it’s twenty-three years old.  Reading it for the first time in 2011, I somehow felt surprised with every page I turned.  And it had my mind racing about poetry and people and places even after I set the book down.  And it made me grateful.  Grateful for poems, grateful for thoughts, and grateful for time, which--as Ochester says--is everything.  And it is.


Scott Silsbe was born in Detroit.  He now lives in Pittsburgh where he sells books, plays in bands, watches local sports, and edits The New Yinzer.