Virtual Event: Mark Nowak
Posted in 2021-2022 Readings and Talks
February 8, 2022 at 7:00PM ET
Moderated by Carolyn Forché
First-Person Plural: On Mark Nowak’s “Social Poetics”
By Margaret Ronda, Los Angeles Review of Books
WHO BRINGS YOU
a glass of water?
They can get themselves one.
These lines are part of a collaborative poem by participants in the Worker Writers School (WWS), a monthly workshop program that poet, critic, and activist Mark Nowak has organized in New York City for the past several years. This poem was penned by a group of NYC taxi drivers, domestic workers, and street vendors and is modeled on the traditional Japanese renga form, which alternates between two- and three-line stanzas. Each writer contributed individual stanzas that link to the prior or subsequent lines to create a poem of many voices, what Nowak calls a “first-person plural” perspective. The piece draws together descriptions of these workers’ varied scenes of labor — cooking and selling food, caring for teething babies, driving city streets — and of their non-working hours, where they prepare for the day of work ahead and tend their tired bodies afterward. Across these lines, the writers depict the intensity of the workday and the challenges it poses: “tired exhausted I push on,” one line attests. But they also portray the observations, witty insights, small pleasures, and musings that occupy their everyday lives: “Water hot epsom salt muscles tightly knitted, / soaking up my thoughts: will there be a light at the tunnel?”
As the poem unfolds, the writers give expression to the range of emotions — irritation, exhaustion, rage, boredom, resignation, as well as curiosity and pride — that their working life fosters. “After standing up for hours cooking, my knees are killing me. / All I want is to see is people enjoying this delicious food on a go,” writes Kele, a street vendor. Lizeth’s lines quoted at the outset draw particular attention, as well, to the broader class relations that underscore these daily activities. Posing a question to the self (“Who brings you / a glass of water?”), then answering it in the dismissive perspective of the employer (“They can get themselves one”), this stanza considers the way waged service work is structured by asymmetries of dependency, wherein the worker is left to tend to herself even as she provides care to others. Lizeth’s stanza points to the ways capitalism’s wage relations transform simple acts of sustenance, such as getting someone a glass of water, into alienated economic transactions. In this way, the poem charts the shared experiences of a collective “we” in relation to a “they,” reflecting on felt dimensions of class antagonism and struggle as well as mutual recognition and emergent solidarity.
Nowak’s inspiring new book of essays on the politics and social forms of community-based writing, Social Poetics, gathers together a variety of collective writing practices like this one to highlight the communal creativity of workers’ workshops. Moving between extended descriptions of such workshop communities and their collaborative methods and broader historical sketches situating these writing activities within social movements in the United States and beyond, Nowak develops a textured account of what he terms “social poetics.” Social poetics, according to Nowak, refers to forms of aesthetic practice centered on the everyday conditions and larger struggles of working people. Drawing a sustained contrast with the institutionalized, elite, author-based modes of production and reception that dominate discussions of North American poetic culture, Social Poetics considers the role of poetry within community sites such as unions, worker centers, prisons, working-class neighborhoods, and alternative schools. Nowak’s book details this “history from below” in its capacious chronicling of the radical ideas and practices that connect writing workshops across various social contexts in the past half-century, from workshops in Attica to urban children’s writing groups to factory worker writing collectives. The opening chapters of the book offer a fascinating working history of the poetry workshop in the United States, Nicaragua, South Africa, Cuba, and Kenya, cataloging the ways writing collectives across these various locales reflect on everyday conditions, share resources and strategies for action, and offer creative responses to social struggles.
Social Poetics focuses most, however, on Nowak’s own experiences with organizing workshops for various worker communities. From his development of the Union of Radical Workers and Writers (URWW) in Minnesota in the early 2000s to his founding of WWS in New York City in 2011, Nowak has dedicated years to fostering worker dialogue through collective spaces of poetry writing, and the book serves as testament to these efforts and their challenges and rewards. Nowak conveys the lively conversations and often remarkable writing that emerges through the worker workshop spaces he has facilitated, whether in a kitchen during a blizzard in Cheyenne with members of a teacher’s union or a daylong meeting with Ford workers at a plant in South Africa. Social Poetics provides a vivid record of the “dialogical” rather than “polemical” tendencies of these workshops, through which members of these communities can recognize common aspects of their situation and collectively generate new vocabularies. Nowak’s term for this social dynamic is “consonance,” expanding on the poetic term to highlight the forms of interdependence and shared meaning that develop in a workshop space.
Nowak points, as well, to key moments where the workers’ poetry circulates in broader sites of action and resistance. In one chapter, Nowak highlights a piece written by UK domestic worker Noani Mukromin that she has performed at rallies protesting the global exploitation of women, as well one by farmworker poets protesting poor working conditions for upstate migrant farmworkers that they performed at a pop-up poetry reading in front of Union Square Green Market. Another chapter describes Seth Goldman, a New York City taxi driver and WWS poet, reading a poem at a rally at City Hall protesting the calamitous effects of Uber and Lyft on NYC taxi drivers in the wake of several driver suicides. Social Poetics connects such individual acts to an oft-overlooked history of activist and social movement poetry, whether in the Cultural Front aesthetics of the Depression-era United States or anti-apartheid struggles in 1980s South Africa. It draws links between the work of these contemporary worker-poets and the ideas and practices of leftist poets such as Langston Hughes, Meridel Le Sueur, Amiri Baraka, June Jordan, and Adrienne Rich as well as that of radical intellectuals like Antonio Gramsci, Stuart Hall, and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.