Poetry From Below

Mark Nowak on his "people's history of the poetry workshop."
Black-and-white portrait of Mark Nowak.

Mark Nowak worked at Wendy’s for most of the 1980s. He is the author of three books of poetry—Revenants (2000), Shut Up Shut Down (2004), and Coal Mountain Elementary (2009, with photos by Ian Teh). He used to play in goth/industrial bands. He once wrote a poem that juxtaposes a journalist’s account of Ronald Reagan’s suppression of the 1981 PATCO strike, a 1930s Westinghouse worker’s oral history, and a grammar textbook. Back when there were still Borders bookstores, he helped unionize the one in Uptown Minneapolis. By his own account, he nearly got kicked out of his MFA program in the late '80s for writing docupoetry; after he called in the help of the ACLU, he was allowed to finish the program without attending the workshop, thus leading Juliana Spahr to joke that he helped invent the low-residency MFA. He founded and directs the Worker Writers School, which facilitates poetry workshops among trade unions and labor organizations. He won a Guggenheim.

From reading and talking to Nowak, you get the sense that these experiences are equally formative. He doesn’t see his history as “raw material” to be plundered, as writers who grow up working-class are often encouraged to do. (You also get the sense that Nowak’s Coal Mountain blog, which documents dangerous conditions in resource-extraction industries worldwide, matters to him as much as his books of poetry do, or more. It shares a title with one of them.) To William Carlos Williams’s remark that people die miserably for lack of what is in poetry, Nowak responds with the question: “[W]hat do poems die miserably every day from?” and suggests that, perhaps, they die from lack of “what is found in women and men working at an interstate exit fast food restaurant.”

Nowak’s new book, Social Poetics (Coffee House Press, 2020), is a history of community writing workshops. For anyone remotely interested in the topic, it is an invaluable archive of an otherwise little-documented field. But since Nowak has led workshops for workers in the garment, domestic, and auto industries, among others, in the United States and South Africa—for a sense of how these workshops unfold, read this detailed New Yorker profile by Hua Hsu—that history is also deeply personal. 

For those of us whose poetics is more formalist, more aestheticist—more bourgeois, as I think Nowak would say—he states an alternative case strongly. For Marxist poets, he is a model of rigor and seriousness, of praxis and theory working together. For any reader whatsoever, he is a hell of an interesting guy, as this Q&A demonstrates. For this interviewer, he was, finally, a thoughtful, gracious, thorough, and generous conversation partner. 

What led you to write a “peopleʼs history of the poetry workshop”?

The first influence was certainly the work of historians E.P. Thompson and Howard Zinn. In Thompsonʼs The Making of the English Working Class (1963) and Zinnʼs A Peopleʼs History of the United States (1980), I began to see how radical histories and “history from below” could shed important new light on, and provide a model for, understanding the tremendous contributions of those whose histories had been forgotten, erased, or repressed from our cultural knowledge, from what we are taught in schools and universities.

The second influence was IMPA and the worker-controlled factories across Argentina that I visited with my wife in 2004. When the economy crashed in Argentina and factories around the country were shut down, working people had the radical idea to occupy these factories and run them themselves. For someone like me from the Rust Belt, this was a mind-blowing idea. At IMPA, cultural groups helped to support the workers in securing, protecting, and running the factory. So once the factory got up and running again under worker control, IMPA gave the cultural groups spaces inside the factory. And, as I’d been facilitating poetry workshops in public schools and prisons, I thought, well, why not try to host them in trade union halls and factories and other workplaces, too? Those places where my father, where my grandfathers and grandmother, had worked their entire lives.

You do a lot of work with members of trade unions, and one of the few encouraging developments on the American political landscape, in the last few years, is a new militancy among workers. Weʼve seen a wave of strikes among teachers and other workers, new unionizing drives, a lot of people joining their unions or revitalizing moribund ones. How is this new energy manifesting in your workshops?

I’m so excited about what’s been happening the past 10 years. My work with trade unions started back in the early 2000s, helping workers organize a Borders bookstore in Minneapolis and then facilitating poetry workshops at Ford plants in Minnesota and South Africa in 2006. But it’s really been the past decade when the possibilities began to increase as social movements like Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, #NoDAPL, the red wave of teacher strikes, the growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (of which Iʼm a member) and the campaigns of Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and others have created an atmosphere in which the work I do is no longer seen as a complete outlier. And within the workshops, these issues and movements are central to our conversations and the poems we write.

Christine Lewis, a leader of Domestic Workers United and our longest tenured member of the Worker Writers School, actually recruited a worker at Golden Krust, a local Caribbean fast-food restaurant, during a conversation about Eric Garner and social protest while waiting for her order to come up. And he’s been a member of our workshop for three or four years now. Itʼs a story I retell in Social Poetics.

One thing that doing community arts work has made me more conscious of is how much we instrumentalize art. People always want to know whether arts workshops in prison help reduce recidivism, for example, or whether accomplished prison writers or artists can use that experience to get jobs. We seem uncomfortable with the idea that oppressed people might like to make art just because. Do you notice this pressure, this discomfort, with just doing art for its own sake? How do you push back against it, if you do?

Well, for us it’s neither “art for art’s sake” nor those more liberal, quantitative measures. We are using the writing workshop for explicitly anticapitalist reasons, for building new solidarities. As a worker center–based social movement, the Worker Writers School seeks to build new solidarities between domestic workers, taxi drivers, retail workers, street vendors, and other workers through the analysis and creation of poetry. Yes, weʼll explore the tanka and the palindrome in our workshops, but weʼll do so as part of a conversation about workplace rights, about organizing, about the need for a working-class social transformation. That these two parts go hand in hand is the foundation of our creative writing workshop at the Worker Writers School. Hence, our influences are drawn from radical traditions: the poets from the workshops after the Attica rebellion, the haiku of interned Japanese Americans during World War II, the poetry of Etheridge Knight and Mahmoud Darwish and Sonia Sanchez, etc.

Recently, we hosted a weekend retreat for our worker members up in the Berkshires. During the two days of workshops, I brought in guest artists Barbara Smith and Joseph Bruchac. Barbara spoke about cowriting the Combahee River Collective Statement and about cofounding Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press (and she brought lots of books from the press to pass around). Joe led us through an empowering poetry workshop and told us about how heʼs taught prison poetry workshops in 38 states. I would add that he has published some of the most important anthologies of prison writing in the history of the United States, too. And in the past few years at our fall assemblies on Governor’s Island and at The Peopleʼs Forum, a new social movement incubator in New York, we’ve had classes and conversations with Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Fred Moten and Stephano Harney, Bill Ayers, Patricia Smith, Bhaskar Sunkara (the editor of Jacobin), and many others. So we’re quite a bit different in that we see the poetry workshop in consonance and collaboration with worker education, with Marxist education, and as part of a much larger political project. 

The concept of “conjunctions” is a load-bearing one in this book. Why is it important for you?

One of the things I try to do in Social Poetics is to trace the history of certain words central to our contemporary poetry workshop community and to find in them traces of anticapitalist practices, socialist practices. A big influence on me has been Raymond Williams, and in this instance, his book Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1976). Like Williams, I try to trace the history of terms like workshop, consonance, and conjunctions to find in their histories a guide to how we might transform our literary practices under capitalism into more socialist practices. To briefly summarize from the book, I use the term to help think through the work I did trying to “conjoin,” if you will, writers and workers in the early 2000s in an organization I founded, the Union of Radical Workers and Writers (URWW), who helped unionize a Borders bookstore in Minneapolis—one of only two unionized big-box bookstores in the country. This new conjunction of workers and writers, became a model for me for thinking of news ways that the poetry workshop could function in working-class communities and within the new global social movements that were just then beginning to emerge—from the Zapatista’s insurrection to NAFTA (1996), the “Battle in Seattle” (1999), the formation of the World Social Forum, etc. Could poetry and the poetry workshop, conjoined with and within these movements and the movements yet to emerge, be something different? A more social poetry and a more social poetics in conjunction with these new movements?

Why poetry for these workshops, as opposed to other media—what’s the connection between language and solidarity-building, or what does patterned/shaped language offer that task that nothing else does?

I feel like this is a question poets talk about so much more than anyone else. Maybe it’s because we’re told so often as a society, and sometimes by poets themselves, that poetry doesn’t matter, that poetry doesn’t get anything done. I read a lot about music, and I almost never see a musician asked, Why music? Why not ballet or painting? So I think that’s an important thing for us as poets to ponder.

For me, poetry is the field in which I’ve lived my life for the past 30 years. I love how it fits in your pocket. I love how writers and readers, for example, can find such intensity in a three-line haiku. We’re working now with the haiku at the Worker Writers School, looking at everything from 30 translations of Basho’s frog haiku and Victor Hernández Cruz’s “Versions of Basho in Spanish” (from his magnificent book, Red Beans) to the Japanese American internment camp haiku to Amiri Baraka’s “Low Coup” and Sonia Sanchez long-term engagement with the form. Workers had the chance to read with Sanchez at the PEN World Voices Festival last year, and her work continues to deeply inspire us.

Right now, we’re working on the theme “Haiku in Transit,” and everyone is writing haiku on their way into and home from work. We are trying to use those moments—on the subway, on the bus, on the ferry, etc.—to document, from progressive and radical working-class perspectives, the perspectives of domestic workers and street vendors and retail workers and others, what these moments mean to us in poetry. Poetry allows us to carry a notebook in our pockets, put down those prework or postwork experiences in a 5/7/5 structure, chronicle it, then share it at our Worker Writers School readings and events around the city and through social media as well. 

What are some of the things you’d tell a poet who is looking to join or start a community workshop?

It’s a great question. But I’m not sure I really have an answer because it’s absolutely different for everyone. It’s like that question that always comes up at readings and book events: what’s your writing practice? And people will say things like “write every day the first thing you get up,” but of course you can’t do that if you’re a parent or caring for an elderly or ill family member or have a sleeping disorder or whatever the case may be.

I had this very strange period at the end of editing my new book where I could only listen to Listen (1983) by A Flock of Seagulls. It was nuts! I’ve never even liked that band! But for some reason, it was the only thing that worked, putting it on repeat and listening to it at a very low volume for hours and hours and hours a day for several weeks. Now, I would never give this as editing advice to anyone else! One thing I would say, however, about community workshops: triple-check your motivations. There are red wheelbarrows full of the wrong motivations to do this kind of work.

For me, the motivation of my workshops of the past 20 years has been to test how this thing we do in poetry workshop—sitting around a table and discussing words, images, histories, et al.—might be useful to working-class social movements. Could this way we wrangle over vocabulary, line breaks, our histories, and our lives provide a useful tool for expanding our solidarities? And for me, I would add that this past decade or more of research into what I’ve taken to calling, borrowing from Zinn, “a people’s history of the poetry workshop,” has proven extremely important to my understanding of workshops in the community. Poetry workshops like those during or immediately after the Watts rebellion, the New York City teachers strike, the Attica uprising, the Sandinista revolution, the antiapartheid trade union poets in Durban, and others, have given me a new, more socialist, and more revolutionary history of the poetry workshop, a history that has been erased or repressed or censured from most of contemporary literary history. I think it’s a perfect moment right now for us to revisit, revise, and revive these insurgent workshop practices.

Originally Published: March 30th, 2020

Phil Christman is the author of Midwest Futures (Belt, 2020). He teaches composition at the University of Michigan.