Let us see the working man__some thoughts on the Poetry of Fred Shaw

—by your host

At one point in an interview he gave Marcus Wahlbring for Spry Literary Journal’s Behind the Line’s feature last year, poet Fred Shaw says, “I initially wanted to write fiction but failed miserably. However, some of the narrative poems that I’d read in Ed Ochester and Peter Oresick’s anthology, The Pittsburgh Book of Contemporary Poetry, caught my attention and became the angle I pursued in my own poetry.”  

Two things about that.

Number one, Fred Shaw represents:  Pittsburgh, reading everything and writing narrative poetry from his own experience in the argot (lingo) of the Rust Belt restaurant worker. As he has said, “the workaday speech of line cooks and dishwashers is the signature sound.” Indeed, Argot was the name of his first collection (Finishing Line Press, 2014).

And two, his second collection, Scraping Away (CavanKerry Press, 2020), continues the approach, giving faces, identities and appreciation to a multitude of working people. So many of his poems resonate with me, from the anxious narrator of “Argot,” worried that his artist intentions are subsumed in endless restaurant shifts to the stretching of ocean metaphors in “Scraping Away”—the delicious larceny of salvaging sea scallops from a dropped plate, first-time tasting food you can’t afford to buy, and holding on to hope for a life, despite the low-pay, monotony and exhaustion of the job. As Shaw writes in the poem’s closing lines, “pushing oceans” to “the worn down, far-off places of ourselves.”

There’s the elegy called “Toolbox,” a loving tribute to a father represented by a well-worn toolbox he has left behind: “His once-stenciled name/now faded to a smudge.”

And “Punk”, for both its nostalgia and embarrassment, underscoring the emotional complexities of Shaw’s work.

Teacher, literary critic and poet Fred Shaw keeps the work coming, in the form of book reviews for such publications as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh Quarterly, and new poetry. Here’s a link to a recent elegy about loss and discovery followed by a different kind of loss, called “Comfort,” at Vox Populi: https://voxpopulisphere.com/2023/02/21/fred-shaw-comfort/

Fred Shaw is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and Carlow University, where he received an MFA. He teaches writing and literature at Point Park University and Carlow University. His poem “Argot” is featured in the 2018 documentary, Eating and Working and Eating and Working. He lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and rescued hound dog.

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