Pittsburgh’s self-styled Premier Poet answers the door in a shimmering, jewel-blue blouse, hair teased into a softer version of a mullet. He’s wearing understated make-up and a mild perfume, something between vanilla and baby powder. On his fingers, rings set with blue jewels catch the early evening light. He shakes my hand and tells me he’s ordered us a pizza. I’ve come straight from work and I’m starving, but what I’m feeling is more than gratitude or surprise: I’m realizing that a person I’ve been curious about is actually kind.
I’d been hoping to meet Billie Nardozzi for the better part of a year after being introduced to him via a giant pink billboard that read, Who is Pittsburgh’s Premier Poet? A month later, a new billboard appeared. This one featured a middle-aged person wearing hot pink nail polish and a black blouse with silver trim, smiling gently down at the passing cars.
Pittsburgh’s Premier Poet, it informed me, is Billie Nardozzi.
A new billboard went up each month. The color schemes were always different, but each featured Nardozzi’s smiling face, phone number, and a quote of the month. December’s billboard read, “May Your Christmas Have Blissness.” Every time I saw the billboards, they lifted me out of my crappy mood. I started looking forward to driving down that stretch of road.
I went down a Google rabbit hole. I learned that while Nardozzi dresses in women’s clothes and sometimes publishes his poems under the name “Rachel,” he prefers male pronouns. He’s lived in Pittsburgh all of his life. He skipped college and married his high school sweetheart (they later divorced), and got a job with the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. He retired in 2014 but cleans rooms at the Green Tree Holiday Inn Express a few days a week to stave off boredom.
In 2007, Nardozzi began publishing his poetry in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has a knack for grabby titles; my favorites include “What is a Mullett???” and “I Love Shop ‘n’ Save.” His poetry usually rhymes and incorporates creative uses of punctuation and capitalization. It’s not the kind of poetry I was taught to appreciate, but I appreciate it nonetheless. In the poem “If I Met Jesus,” Nardozzi cooks Jesus spaghetti, anxiously takes him to a church service, then buys him McDonald’s before watching him ascend to Heaven. I don’t think anyone but Nardozzi could have written that poem.
Nardozzi’s home is neatly eccentric. In the kitchen, a radio plays classic rock. The fridge is covered in tidily arraigned Beatles magnets. Archways on either side of the fridge open onto a sparsely furnished living room and a small dining room containing nothing but guitars displayed on stands.
“That’s my favorite,” Nardozzi tells me, indicating a spiky black Stratocaster.
I’m trying not to talk with my mouth full of pizza, so I just nod. I like the glittery pink acoustic one best. The songs on the radio, the Beatles magnets, the guitar collection — they speak to Nardozzi’s past life as a musician. Before he got into poetry, he tells me, he was in a band called the Rockin’ Brits.
“The Beatles, that’s my boys forever and ever,” he says. “That was my first love, music.”
His first poem was about the Beatles, too. He sent it to the now defunct Pittsburgh Press.
“I got a great response from it,” he recalls. “I went hmm … I may have something here. That’s what made me think I had a future in poetry.”
In 2006, Nardozzi began publishing his work in the “Celebrations” section of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. (He stopped in February 2018, after the billboards had been running for a few months.) Like everyone who submits to “Celebrations,” a section that typically features wedding and birthday announcements, Nardozzi paid to see his contributions printed. Each poem included a photo of Nardozzi rocking a mullet and either smiling or looking sternly into the camera. He also printed his home phone number and sometimes his address.
The poems caught people’s attention. One of them was Brian O’Neill, a Post-Gazette columnist. In a phone interview, O’Neill told me he kept getting notes from friends and readers suggesting he cover the poet, so in December of 2009 he called Nardozzi’s number and received an invitation to his home.
Back then, Nardozzi was still spelling his first name with a “y” and wearing men’s clothing. For his first interview with O’Neill, he wore a Christmas sweatshirt that read “I Believe in Santa Clause.” He greeted O’Neill with his characteristic warmth.
“He had this plate of donuts ready for me,” O’Neill recalls. “And he doesn’t even like donuts.”
Nardozzi’s work also caught the attention of local graphic designer, Brett Yasko. The two would go on to collaborate on a book of poems and a reading series.
“I kept seeing this photo of this guy with a mullet haircut staring blankly at me, and underneath was this poetry,” Yasko remembers. “I was just so curious about this face. I just started clipping [the poems] and putting them in a folder.”
After reading O’Neill’s column, Yasko was compelled to reach out to Nardozzi.
“I called him and — nicest guy in the world — I said, ‘do you mind if I come out and meet you?’ and he said, ‘sure.’ So I drove out to his house in Green Tree and he introduced me to his family and showed me where he works and his shed full of writing that he keeps in the yard. He’s just this really interesting, complex character.”
O’Neill and Yasko’s experiences with Nardozzi’s work are almost exact mirrors of my own. Nardozzi’s phone number appears on all of the billboards. I also called and left a message asking if I could interview him. When he didn’t call me back, I called again. He got back to me the next day and invited me to his house, saying he was more comfortable talking there.
After work, I drove from downtown Pittsburgh to the suburbs. I passed the glittering, copper-colored cube of WDVE-FM, Pittsburgh’s classic rock station, and turned onto a quiet street. Nardozzi lives at the end of a long driveway, in a small red house that feels isolated even though it’s surrounded by other properties.
After our interview, Nardozzi gives me a tour. He lives alone now and no longer writes in a shed in the yard. The room next to his bedroom has been converted into an office. He shows me a stack of poems, hand written on paper from a yellow legal pad. He’ll type them up and email them out, he explains. Beside his writing desk, two bookcases hold his jewelry collection, bright and glittering, like something Liza Minnelli would wear on the red carpet. The necklaces and rings are framed by Nardozzi’s collection of toy cars, their enamel bodies as bright as his billboards.
He also loves to show off his closets. First we go to the coat closet, where Nardozzi takes out a pink leather trench coat. The cashier at his local grocery store loves this coat, he tells me. He wears it when he goes shopping, to make her happy. The bedroom closet holds a neat row of brightly colored blazers, which he runs a hand over. On a top shelf, bottles of nail polish are arranged according to color.
The last thing he shows me is a mock-up of the billboard for May (at the time of our interview, it had not gone up yet). It is tiny and delightful, like something you’d put in a dollhouse or a model train village. The background for this one is sky blue. Above the quote of the month it reads, “Billie Nardozzi a.k.a (((Rachel))).”
Nardozzi smiles and sets the tiny billboard gently on the side table.
Around 2014, Nardozzi changed the spelling of his first name to “Billie” and started sending the Post-Gazette photos of himself in make-up and jewelry. In August of 2016, after spotting Nardozzi in a liquor store wearing eyeliner and a blouse, Brian O’Neill called him up for another interview. Nardozzi told O’Neill what he tells all reporters: he wasn’t trans; he just liked women’s clothes better.
“I threw away so many man clothes. Bye!” he tells me. “Let’s be honest, they’re ugly. I hate them. Women’s clothes are beautiful. It’s fun. I love it. I’m so happy.”
Nardozzi says his fans have been very supportive, particularly women. His family struggles with the changes, however.
“My family loves me but they’re kind of confused a lot of the time. They think I’m confused, but I’m not. When I go over for holidays, because of respect for them and not to create a negative atmosphere or argument, I don’t do too much. Out of respect for my mom, because I know she isn’t crazy about it. I think it would be selfish, knowing she didn’t like it. I love my mother. I don’t want to upset her. I’ll take off just a little. But not all. You ain’t taking it all away from me.”
And what about the billboards? Nardozzi says they were an impulse. Lamar Advertising, the company that produces them, is close to his house. He’d been passing their offices for years on his way to the post office. “I said, I should go down there and ask if they’re doing anything with poetry.”
Marissa Pietrantonio, the graphic designer who works with Nardozzi, says she’d never designed a billboard for a poet before, but finds Nardozzi’s enthusiasm for the project infectious. The people at Lamar were the ones who came up with the “Pittsburgh’s Premier Poet” tagline. Nardozzi supplies the monthly quotes and color schemes.
“It’s probably the greatest investment I’ve ever made,” Nardozzi says.
At this point, I’ve already decided not to ask how much the billboards cost. At the outset of our interview, Nardozzi told me he doesn’t talk numbers — he’s reticent about his age too. I do ask how long he’ll keep the billboards running. He laughs. “I guess until I’m broke. Until I have to make a second mortgage.”
“You can’t think of the expense,” he adds. “You can’t think of money when you’re striving for something. I always say this: You gotta lose to win.”
Writing odes to Shop ‘n’ Save, taking out billboards, collecting tiny cars and jewelry—that’s what Billie Nardozzi does. But who is Pittsburgh’s Premier Poet?
“He is a person who is earnest and joyous and sensitive,” says O’Neill. “He puts it all out there for you to take or leave.”
O’Neill sounds so affectionate when he talks about Nardozzi (he refers to the poet as “our guy”) that I assume they’re close friends. But when I ask about the nature of their relationship, O’Neill says it’s friendly but professional. “We don’t send each other Christmas cards.”
But it’s clear that O’Neill cares about Nardozzi. Like many, he’s kept tabs on the poet’s life through his Post-Gazette publications for years. He recalls the day a coworker brought him one of Nardozzi’s poems, which appeared to be a cry for help. O’Neill was so worried he called Nardozzi up to make sure he was okay. Nardozzi assured him nothing was wrong, though O’Neill still worries sometimes. The most important thing to understand about Nardozzi, he says, is that he’s genuine. “What you see, like it or not, is what you get.”
He adds: “As far as poetry goes, he’s never going to get a MacArthur or a Pulitzer, but it is heartfelt. People who are his fans just respect his honesty.”
Yasko sees Nardozzi as a Pittsburgh poetry icon. “He really has touched a lot of people…. You could walk down the streets of Pittsburgh and you could stop people and say, ‘Name me a poet from Pittsburgh.’ I’d be curious to see how many would say Billie Nardozzi and how many would say Terrance Hayes, Yona Harvey, or Jim Daniels.”
Yasko, who is currently in pre-production for a documentary about Nardozzi, sees him as someone in possession of “a controlled sort of narcissism,” though he adds: “That’s not a bad thing, though! It’s endearing. You can’t help but love that kind of narcissism. His agenda is very much to have you notice him and be heard. A lot of people with those desires cover it up. Billie is very genuine. He’s not trying to b.s. you.”
Ultimately, Nardozzi shifts in and out of focus for me. He seems both utterly transparent and vulnerable, and at the same time, unquestionably guarded. I keep wanting to figure him out, to pin him down. But of course that’s impossible. No matter how protective or affectionate or curious I feel, I have to remind myself that I hardly know this person.
As to Yasko’s narcissism theory, I believe it, but only because it’s true of every writer I know, including me. What else makes us think other people want to read the stuff we brew up in our skulls? And there’s so much rejection out there. You have to be a little bit of a narcissist to survive this career.
Then again, true narcissists are obsessed with themselves to the exclusion of everyone else. I don’t see that quality in Nardozzi; he’s too concerned about the well-being of other people. Before I leave, he insists I take the rest of our pizza, a bottle of water, and two chocolate cupcakes, cool from the fridge. Throughout our interview, I’d kept thinking he must have been a good parent. I think his kids’ friends must have liked him.
There’s a Curtis Sittenfeld quote about a person whose losses have, against all odds, made them kinder. Under his cheer and bright eccentricity, there’s a graceful sort of sadness to Nardozzi. I don’t presume to know or guess what he’s lost, but haven’t we all lost something?
Or maybe I’m just projecting. It’s always tempting to make people — especially larger-than-life figures — into what we want them to be instead of listening to what they have to say about who they are.
Here is what Nardozzi has to say: “The first word — I’m honest. Honesty is a big thing for me. I love to make people happy. That makes me happy. I am what I am, and I’m not ashamed — of how I look, and what I am, and who I am.”
Lead image: Billboard advertising the poetry of Billie Nardozzi a.k.a. (((Rachel))). Photo by Emily Nagin.