“Social Poetics” Uncovers the Poetry of Everyday Workers
Mark Novak’s new book documents how worker-written poetry promotes international solidarity among workers
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.
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—
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.