Billy Nardozzi: Pittsburgh Poet, Local Legend

May 18, 2011

A while back, we teamed up with Pictory magazine and asked readers to submit photos and stories about local legends. You can find Pictory's curated showcase over there; and an ongoing blog feature here.

This image of Billy Nardozzi came to us from Brett Yasko, a Pittsburgh designer. Technically the photo isn't great, but that's part of the story.

Several years ago, an unusual face began appearing in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, over and over again. It wasn't a mugshot, it wasn't an columnist's headshot. It was the face of Billy Nardozzi.

For years now, Nardozzi has paid — almost monthly, if not more — to have his poetry published in the newspaper. Each poem is accompanied by his photo, always the same photo. And for a long time, no one really knew who he was.

Graphic designer Brett Yasko discovered Nardozzi's poetry in the classifieds section typically reserved for "engagements, marriages, births and shout outs to someone turning 40 ('Lordy, lordy, look who's 40')," he writes in his submission.

"I started clipping and saving these poems years ago not really knowing why," he says. "They just seemed interesting to me."

The poems run the gamut: They often address current events like terrorism, texting or, most recently, the royal wedding. They often contain life lessons (on the importance of apology); explanations (what is a mullet?); homages (to his to wife, to his father, the Steelers, to Pittsburgh itself).

"Its hard for me to understand what it is," Yasko says on the phone. "It's not typical of what you think of when you think of poetry. There's a realness to it, and he's not trying to fool anybody."

Readers started noticing, and so did the paper. In 2009, Brian O'Neill wrote a feature on Nardozzi's past, poetry and his mullet. For Pittsburghers, O'Neill explains, Nardozzi's poetry is divisive: Some love it for its simplicity, innocence and reliability; there's a certain intrigue that it can't be found it on Twitter or online, or anywhere else in the country. But others criticize it, almost for the same reasons. Either way, people read it.

Nardozzi himself is a pretty unassuming man, says Yasko, with a simple life and not too many friends. He packs bottles into cases for the Liquor Control Board; he married his high school sweetheart and has three kids; in the '80s, he and his brother used to play rock covers, callings themselves "The Nardozzi Brothers," which might explain his hairstyle. "He wants attention, definitely," says Yasko, "but at the same time doesn't go about it the same way a writer would."

A newer feature to his poetry is a phone number found at the bottom. Nardozzi invites feedback, and often, he gets it. Some will call with stories of how touched they are; other will call to say it's time for a haircut, O'Neill writes in the P-G. After clipping out poem after poem, Yasko, too, finally decided to call Nardozzi.

Each year, Yasko publishes a small book on a local Pittsburgh writer. Most recently, he featured Nardozzi. "My dream for him is to find a real publisher," Yasko says on the phone. "Since he's gotten this attention, he's become more prolific." You can now find Nardozzi's poetry in the paper every Tuesday. That is, if you live in Pittsburgh.

"He's a real local, underground, DIY legend here in Pittsburgh," says Yasko. Around town you might see Shepard Fairey-style Nardozzi stickers, "What Would Billy Nardozzi Do?" bracelets, etc. There's some irony to the cult following, but at its core, there's also a communal admiration for the fixture that Nardozzi has become.

Questions of talent and virtue aside, Nardozzi took matters into his own hands — just to get his words out. And in doing so, has become legendary, even if just for a small community.

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