Mark Nowak

Posted in Past Guests

Mark Nowak headshot.

Mark Nowak is the author of four poetry collections: Social Poetics (Coffee House Press, 2020), Coal Mountain Elementary (2009), Shut Up Shut Down (2004), and Revenants (2000). Also a playwright, essayist, social critic, and labor activist, Nowak’s writing documents the hardships and injustices faced by the global working class. Nowak is the recipient of the Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism from Split This Rock and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He has taught at St. Catherine University and Washington College, where he also worked as director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House. He has also led poetry workshops for workers and trade unions in Belgium, the Netherlands, the U.K., the U.S., and South Africa. He is currently Professor of English at Manhattanville College and the founding director, in collaboration with PEN America, of the Worker Writers School.

Another miner dies in Raleigh County, West Virginia

At approximately 11:30pm Thursday evening, another coal miner (new window) was killed in Raleigh County, West Virginia. Still unnamed, still anonymous in the news reports, the miner was crushed to death, pinned against the coal mine wall by a continuous mining machine. This death, in the same county as the Montcoal disaster that killed 29 miners in Raleigh county three weeks ago; this death, in a mine owned by ICG (International Coal Group), the same corporation that owned the Sago mine. The Wall Street Journal reports that ICG “idled the mine Friday out of respect for the victim and his family.”

A mine idled one day “out of respect for the victim and his family.” I think language (and journalism, and poetry) can do better than that.

One of the serial poems in my book Shut Up Shut Down, “Francine Michalek Drives Bread,” tells the story of a widow who survives the death of her husband in a similar accident at a coal mine in Pennsylvania. It is a documentary poem, i.e., a poem leveraged in fact, newspaper reports, oral history collections, et al. Instead of a report of a coal mine owned by those upon whose heads the Sago disaster hangs idling its operations for a day “out of respect for the victim and his family,” “Francine…” documents a miner’s death from a widow’s perspective, telling the story not in corporate or government terms (i.e., Gov. Manchin ordering the flag flown at half mast) but through the memories of those who live through disasters such as these and suffer, perhaps, the most: “[A]nd when the car/pinned him up against/the timber, they said/he looked/like Christ on a cross…He was/twenty-eight/years old.” It is only this morning in writing this post that I realized that it’s the exact age of the most recently killed Raleigh County, WV miner, the still anonymous man who, in the Wall Street Journal’s description, was “crushed between a piece of heavy equipment and a block of coal.”

And it is, once again, not the “empty signifiers” of material sources that most draws me to working with them; it is the all too unfortunate repetition of the histories of working people that close attention to the material sources reveals. And it is, in coal country, news that all too often—and all too heart-breakingly—stays news.

National Poetry month, for me, has been nothing short of a litany of mining deaths: 29 miners in Montcoal, 33 miners in a flood in Shanxi Province, 6 miners in a mine collapse in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, 16 miners killed in a collapse in Tanzania, another miner crushed in Raleigh County… But then again, in these terms, National Poetry Month is far too much like every other month of the year.

From Poetry Foundation, April 24, 2010



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Field Work