We Lack Steel, but Not Pig Iron

By Billy Ludt

Photo by Billy Ludt /The Jambar.

Walking along the Iowan flatlands, Jim Villani sticks his thumb out toward passing cars. A semi-truck comes to a halt and Villani enters the vehicle.

That was the summer of 1973. After graduating from Youngstown State University, Villani was headed to California. He intended on going to graduate school there.

The traditional folk tune, “Rock Island Line,” enters the airwaves. The countryside passes by, and the singer, in their rendition, details their haul — cows, pigs, sheep and mules. The chorus comes and goes, and the next verse graces Villani’s ears: “Well I fooled you, I fooled you. I got pig iron, I got pig iron, I got old pig iron.”

“Yeah,” Villani says. “That’s what I’m going to call my company.”

Thus the Pig Iron Press found its name.

On Sept. 19, 1973, the Pig Iron Press was born. Villani operated out of the bedroom and basement of his Boardman, suburban home. Two years later, the steel industry collapsed.

Initially, he published journals titled “Pig Iron,” a collection of submissions from various authors and poets. “Pig Iron” published annually for 20 years.

The term pig iron, Villani explained, comes from farmers who discovered that iron ore could be melted. Observing a boiling cauldron of iron, the farmers had no clue what to do with it. So, they poured it into the sand.

The trickling, cooling iron ore stretched outward. A farmer remarked that the iron resembled a suckling piglet.

The Pig Iron Press originally published poetry, fiction and other literary works. As time has passed, the Press has taken on other niche projects, such as a chiropractic textbook.

“I’m pretty much a one-man operation,” Villani said.

In 1993, Villani purchased a commercial building on North Phelps Street. After 20 years of operating out of his home, Villani moved the Pig Iron Press to downtown Youngstown.

“The press wanted to grow, but it couldn’t because it was too constrained in the house,” Villani said.

Two years ago Villani opened up Lost Pages, a used bookstore. Shelves upon shelves of books line the walls and wooden floors of the store alongside pictures and figurines of pigs. A set of stairs leads up to a loft filled with more books, records and magazines.

Owning and operating an independent publishing company was an idea Villani concocted while working at the campus publications.

“It was a relatively easy thing to do,” he said. “I could still do all kinds of other stuff. I said, ‘I could do this on my own — I could find some financing somewhere.’”

Villani caught wind of a gathering of small, independent publishing companies at Vanderbilt University.

He attended the event, met a lot of people and was convinced of the viability of his venture. Villani discovered that people were doing this all around the country.

“That’s basically what got me thinking you didn’t have to be a part of an institution to do this kind of activity,” he said.

The first book published by Pig Iron Press was “Angry Candy,” by John Pauker in 1976. “Angry Candy” is a long form satirical poem, criticizing consumerism.

“It was a great statement — clever and accurate and witty and entertaining,” Villani said.

The most famous work published by Pig Iron Press is “Still Another Pelican in the Breadbox,” by Kenneth Patchen. Patchen was one of the originators of the beat movement, and considered the first poet to read poetry with a jazz accompaniment.

Villani has taught composition at various educational institutions — often taking up residency for weeks at a time — and holds workshops in his workspace on Phelps Street.

Aside from his publishing work, Villani writes poetry and prose. When it comes to poetry, Villani emulates Walt Whitman and T.S. Eliot’s imagery. As for prose, he looks to postmodern writers for inspiration, citing Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion.

Villani holds positions at a state and local level in the Green Party as a central committee person. His shop is adorned with Green Party and he often holds local meetings in the workspace above.

“There’s room for a lot more interaction between the Green Party and the student body at YSU,” Villani said.

A week from today, Villani will be hosting his monthly poetry reading at the McKelvey Gallery in the Knox Building.