“Social Poetics” Uncovers the Poetry of Everyday Workers

Mark Novak’s new book documents how worker-written poetry promotes international solidarity among workers

Harris Feinsod March 13, 2020

Clockwise from Top Left: Alando McIntyre, a writer in Mark Nowak’s Worker Writers School (WWS), gives a reading of his poem, “Langwige.” WWS writer Seth Goldman reads his elegy for driver Doug Schifter at the New York Taxi Workers Alliance protest outside New York City Hall in August 2018. The 21,000-member alliance demand a measure that would put a cap on city ride-share services. London. A flier advertises the Bookstore Workers Organizing Forum, which Nowak attended in Minneapolis in 2004. (Photos courtesy of Coffee House Press, Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

Cab­bie Seth Gold­man joined mem­bers of the New York Taxi Work­ers Alliance (NYT­WA) out­side New York’s City Hall in August 2018 to read an ele­giac poem he wrote for Doug Schifter, a liv­ery dri­ver who killed him­self in his car in front of City Hall ear­li­er that year. In an emo­tion­al note Schifter post­ed on Face­book, he claimed gig econ­o­my taxi com­pe­ti­tion left him finan­cial­ly ruined,” despite work­ing 100 – 120 hours a week.

You can’t get away from your six­teen-hour days,” Gold­man mourned. Up the FDR rid­ing home in your filthy car / Doug could only dri­ve so far.” After six dri­vers took their own lives in 2018, Goldman’s ele­gy affirmed the mes­sage of NYTWA’s leg­isla­tive cam­paign: The next day, pres­sured by the 21,000-member union, New York City Coun­cil passed the nation’s first cap on ride-share ser­vices, tem­porar­i­ly halt­ing the issuance of new licenses.

McIntyre wrote poems in a service-sector patois he calls a “broken, ever-morphing, syncopated language.”

Gold­man is not the only work­ing-class New York­er seed­ing the ter­rain of social strug­gle through pop-up poet­ry read­ings. In Manhattan’s near­by Union Square Green­mar­ket in May 2017, for exam­ple, immi­grant farm­work­ers from upstate stood on wood­en crates and per­formed sur­re­al­ist poems styled after the poets Pablo Neru­da and Nan­cy More­jón. A man named Anto­nio read a poem in Span­ish in which the sea­sons reverse, spring odd­ly lead­ing to Invier­no triste y des­o­la­do” (sad and des­o­late win­ter), demon­strat­ing his frus­tra­tion with the grow­ing season’s intense con­trol over his work­ing life. The event inter­rupt­ed the pas­toral trans­ac­tions of buy local” shop­pers by soap­box­ing the very farm­work­ers who grew and picked the local harvest.

Gold­man and Anto­nio both par­tic­i­pat­ed in the Work­er Writ­ers School (WWS), found­ed by poet and activist Mark Nowak, who has offered cre­ative writ­ing work­shops with trade unions and social move­ments since 2005. In Nowak’s stir­ring new book, Social Poet­ics, he doc­u­ments how writ­ing work­shops can embold­en work­ers who, to para­phrase Trinida­di­an his­to­ri­an and writer C.L.R. James, seek to chron­i­cle their own strug­gles to regain con­trol over their own con­di­tions of life.”

Social Poet­ics braids togeth­er his­to­ry, lit­er­a­ture and auto­bi­og­ra­phy, offer­ing an account of Nowak’s career as a rad­i­cal edu­ca­tor, with deft inter­ludes of Marx­ist cul­tur­al the­o­ry and lit­er­ary crit­i­cism. He spot­lights many work­er-poets from his own work­shops and pre­vi­ous­ly pub­lished antholo­gies, and the first chap­ters offer a daz­zling glob­al his­to­ry of writ­ing work­shops from below.”

Until the ear­ly 1900s, Nowak writes, the term work­shop” meant an “‘ungentle­man­ly’ space” of man­u­al labor and dis­tinc­tive­ly work­ing-class col­lec­tive polit­i­cal activ­i­ty.” Today, the writ­ing work­shop has been care­ful­ly dis­ar­tic­u­lat­ed” from this idea. After World War II, uni­ver­si­ties cre­at­ed Mas­ter of Fine Arts (MFA) pro­grams in cre­ative writ­ing, obscur­ing the his­toric rela­tion­ship between work­shops and the work­ing class­es. As such, Nowak argues, the idea of work­ing-class poet­ry” became wrong­ly iden­ti­fied with the rem­i­nis­cences of white male teach­ers who worked shit­ty fac­to­ry jobs dur­ing sum­mer breaks.”

Nowak grew up in a work­ing-class fam­i­ly in Buf­fa­lo, New York. His moth­er was a cler­i­cal work­er and his father became vice pres­i­dent of his union at a West­ing­house assem­bly plant, shut­tered in 1985. After work­ing at Wendy’s in his twen­ties, Nowak enrolled in an MFA pro­gram at Bowl­ing Green State, a cre­den­tial that allowed him to teach at the Col­lege of St. Cather­ine in Min­neapo­lis. There, he par­tic­i­pat­ed in orga­niz­ing (espe­cial­ly the book­store union­iza­tion move­ment) and went on to author three vol­umes of poet­ry. The most recent, Coal Moun­tain Ele­men­tary, was high­ly acclaimed. It doc­u­ment­ed abus­es in the glob­al min­ing indus­try by jux­ta­pos­ing pho­tographs, indus­try pro­pa­gan­da, news cov­er­age of Chi­nese min­ing acci­dents and haunt­ing tes­ti­mo­ni­als from sur­vivors of the 2006 mine dis­as­ter in Sago, W.V., there­by call­ing into ques­tion the company’s occu­pa­tion­al safe­ty rhetoric. Nowak pho­tographs a com­pa­ny sign declar­ing safe­ty pro­tects peo­ple, qual­i­ty pro­tects jobs,” while on the oppo­site page an anony­mous min­er recalls: And all this stuff start­ed blow­ing down on us, coal dust, soot, ash, mud. It was just like vol­cano stuff.”

As Nowak’s poet­ry attract­ed increas­ing crit­i­cal acclaim for these doc­u­men­tary poet­ic meth­ods, he sought new strate­gies to ampli­fy — rather than appro­pri­ate — the lan­guage of work­ers, and to trans­form the idea of work­ing-class poet­ry.” In 2005 at the Chica­go Cen­ter for Work­ing-Class Stud­ies, Nowak drew a few Team­sters and mem­bers of the Inter­na­tion­al Broth­er­hood of Elec­tri­cal Work­ers Local 134 to join his new writ­ing group. Frank Cun­ning­ham, a life­long con­struc­tion elec­tri­cian who attend­ed, lat­er pub­lished his poem, Inside the Sky­line,” in the Sat­ur­day Evening Post. It describes an ascent through the skele­tal frame of a sky­scraper-in-the­mak­ing, Shak­ing inside the River­side skip / As it clanks upward.”

In 2006, Nowak repeat­ed his work­shop at a clos­ing Ford plant in St. Paul, Min­neso­ta. Den­ny Dick­hausen, a four-decade vet­er­an of the plant, recalls a deter­mined evening at home (with­out tele­vi­sion) to pour his thoughts into his poem, My Life at Ford.” It concludes:

I say it’s a crock.
I grew up, I grew old at Ford. 
I bled at Ford.
I feel used up.

Dick­hausen, who was pho­tographed as the very face of indus­tri­al decline in local news about the clo­sure, became one of the most elo­quent spokes­peo­ple for the laid-off work­ers. He cred­its the work­shops with help­ing him give pub­lic form to his pri­vate thoughts, which he had long record­ed in lit­tle note­books while at work.

The Ford group was a break­through for Nowak, who then envi­sioned a work­shop to pro­mote cross­ra­cial, glob­al sol­i­dar­i­ty among work­ers. He filmed Dick­hausen and oth­ers read­ing their poems at the fac­to­ry, then took the video to South Africa, where he played it dur­ing work­shops with mem­bers of the Nation­al Union of Met­al­work­ers of South Africa at Ford plants in Port Eliz­a­beth and Pre­to­ria, cre­at­ing a transna­tion­al poet­ry dia­logue” about shared work­ing conditions.

One work­er in Pre­to­ria who Nowak calls Com­rade Jus­tice expressed skep­ti­cism at first, point­ed­ly ask­ing, What is poet­ry going to do for me when I’m retrenched?”Yet, he became fas­ci­nat­ed by a hand­out poem he took home, which he said helped him see how impor­tant poet­ry is for work­ers. The work­shop proved suc­cess­ful: Pre­to­ria work­er Phile­mon Madila’s poem, Myself,” respond­ed to Dickhausen’s poem with shared trep­i­da­tion of being fired and a sense of sol­i­dar­i­ty among the pre­car­i­ous. Oth­er Pre­to­ria Ford work­ers craft­ed a wry, col­lab­o­ra­tive poem about career advancement:

To get a high­er position
You have to climb Malu­ti Mountain
Cross the riv­er Nile and Kala­hari desert
And talk the lan­guage of angels

Oh! What a Life!

Togeth­er, these work­ers explored new strate­gies of col­lec­tiv­i­ty through poet­ry — writ­ing togeth­er, har­mo­niz­ing their voic­es, find­ing shared refrains, and, through Nowak, shar­ing their expe­ri­ences with dis­tant work­ers they for­mer­ly viewed as poten­tial competition.

Nowak has since expand­ed his reper­toire with col­lab­o­ra­tive forms like ren­ga, a Japan­ese chain poem. The nan­nies, taxi dri­vers and fast food work­ers in his ongo­ing work­shop, through the free-speech non­prof­it PEN Amer­i­ca, com­posed a ren­ga of tiny moments from their work­ing lives. Invit­ed to read at the PEN World Voic­es Fes­ti­val, the writ­ers moved through­out the audi­ence to demon­strate how work­ing-class voic­es sur­round us, as in these stan­zas by cab­bie David­son Gar­rett and a domes­tic work­er named Hazel:

I some­times think I’m a poor under­dressed vagrant
As I walk past the ritzy, well-heeled robots on Madi­son Avenue. (Gar­rett)

Sit­ting in this Brown Stone house in Brooklyn,
sip­ping hot Chai Rooi­bos, warm spicy tea, 
while the clothes are wash­ing think­ing hap­pi­ness comes from con­tent­ment. (Hazel)

Nowak’s work fol­lows in the tra­di­tion of Langston Hugh­es, whose 1947 essay, My Adven­tures as a Social Poet,” turned away from lyric poems of indi­vid­ual expe­ri­ence to the poet­ry of social com­mit­ment, poems that stop talk­ing about the moon and begin to men­tion pover­ty, trade unions, col­or lines and colonies.” Social Poet­ics relates the his­to­ry of this tra­di­tion: Young Eng­lish Pro­fes­sor Celes Tis­dale and the Abena­ki author Joseph Bruchac, for exam­ple, cre­at­ed poet­ry class­es in pris­ons (which includ­ed par­tic­i­pants in the 1971 Atti­ca upris­ing). Gwen­dolyn Brooks worked with the Black­stone Rangers gang on Chicago’s South Side, men­tor­ing emerg­ing lead­ers of the Black Arts move­ment, such as Haki Mad­hubu­ti, who went on to found Third World Press. No pol­i­cy research will effec­tive­ly mea­sure the impact of these work­shops, but the poignant poems Nowak recov­ers demon­strate their unmis­tak­able role in help­ing strug­gling peo­ple find lan­guage for their expe­ri­ences, from police bru­tal­i­ty and lousy work­ing con­di­tions to unhealthy school lunch­es, as in 11-year-old Della’s vers­es in Nicholas Antho­ny Duva’s 1972 anthol­o­gy of youth poet­ry, Some­body Real: Voic­es of City Chil­dren:

Salty pret­zels, can of coke,
Sour balls, and cig­a­rette smoke.

Slurp, puff, crunch—
That’s lunch

This tra­di­tion pre­ludes Nowak’s spot­light on work­ing-class poet­ry in our own time. Indeed, Social Poet­ics shines when it cham­pi­ons the poems of bril­liant, mul­ti­eth­nic work­er-poets who haven’t gone through the uni­ver­si­ty sys­tem. For exam­ple, the PEN Amer­i­ca work­shop includ­ed Chris­tine Yvette Lewis, a Trinida­di­an nan­ny and a mem­ber of Domes­tic Work­ers Unit­ed, who played a key role in 2011 orga­niz­ing for the land­mark Domes­tic Work­ers Bill of Rights, which grant­ed foun­da­tion­al labor pro­tec­tions to domes­tic work­ers. Lewis wrote a pan­toum (a repet­i­tive Malaysian form) plac­ing her nan­ny work in a reflec­tion on the con­di­tions of transna­tion­al labor, from the Mid­dle Pas­sage to the present:

Price of migra­tion means yes, ma’am”
Light house­keep­ing, walk dog
Baby, unre­lat­ed bur­den, pushed along dank avenue
Cot­ton pickin’ days ain’t over.

Lewis recruit­ed a young man named Alan­do McIn­tyre to the work­shop after she met him work­ing the reg­is­ter at a Gold­en Krust Caribbean restau­rant in Brook­lyn. At WWS, he has writ­ten poems in a Jamaican-Amer­i­can, ser­vice-sec­tor patois he calls a bro­ken, ever-mor­ph­ing, syn­co­pat­ed lan­guage.” Ref­er­enc­ing the affec­tive labor required at his work­place, he also calls it a Yuh want dem inna two sep­a­rate bag / forced to speak, paid to smile kind of lan­guage,” empha­siz­ing how work­ing con­di­tions shape the very rhythms and tones of the lan­guage work­ers use.

Nowak also calls a bluff on some old clichés about the pow­er of lit­er­a­ture and art to give voice to the voice­less. While William Car­los Williams once claimed to write in a lan­guage he took from the mouths of Pol­ish moth­ers,” he scarce­ly hand­ed over his type­writer to such women or empow­ered them to speak for a move­ment. By con­trast, Nowak pass­es the micro­phone and endors­es what he calls the worker-poet’s imag­i­na­tive militancy.”

Ulti­mate­ly, Nowak’s Social Poet­ics records an endur­ing tra­di­tion of peo­ple chron­i­cling their con­di­tions and dis­cov­er­ing their own lan­guage as a resource for shar­ing their expe­ri­ences and orga­niz­ing. Nowak’s focus on work­shops, from Atti­ca to the Work­er Jus­tice Cen­ter of New York, pow­er­ful­ly re-envi­sions what lit­er­ary com­mu­ni­ties might look like, and how they can expand the range of poet­ic expres­sion, enliv­en social move­ments and fos­ter sol­i­dar­i­ty across oceans. Though this tra­di­tion may not trans­late direct­ly into eco­nom­ic enfran­chise­ment, Nowak makes a con­vinc­ing case that work­er- and peo­ple-cen­tered ped­a­gogy is an unbro­ken her­itage that renews much of what is good in lit­er­a­ture today.

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