The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2020

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MAY 2020 Issue

Mark Nowak’s Social Poetics

Mark Nowak
Social Poetics
(Coffee House Press, 2020)

“The materialist history of any book you hold in your hand,” asserts Mark Nowak in Social Poetics, “contains a history of the contemporary working class: booksellers, Amazon warehouse workers … Powell’s staff, paper mill workers […] editors and copyeditors […] janitors and ‘nightshift mothers’ who clean all these office spaces … .” The list goes on, soon enough reaching the book in our own hands. Every line seems soaked with the sweat of labor. If a creative writing text ever raised a call to the barricades, it’s this one.

Nowak, himself a product of blue-collar Buffalo, seeks to explain and promote the teaching he’s developed for workers’ enclaves around the world. He defines the project in the opening pages: “to locate in the poetry workshop … a largely untapped radical potential for social transformation.” In other words, he seeks a fresh means of fulfillment and empowerment for the proletariat. Indeed, the text often cites Marx and Gramsci, and its title stands as shorthand for his style of workshop, inclusive and engaging. The writing they produce is intended usually for live performance, and their participants, by and large, little resemble the dewy-eyed folks going for an MFA at Iowa or Columbia. A comparable program at Manhattanville employs Nowak now, but Social Poetics concerns itself exclusively with his Worker Writers School. In the WWS, students range from men on the Ford assembly line in St. Paul (that is, now laid off), to unionized taxi drivers in Manhattan (another endangered workforce), to marginal labor groups in South Africa.

Such unconventional teaching deserves better than dry academic treatment, and happily, this author is also a poet. He locates the vitality in his sojourns: now a transportation mishap, now a close look at a worker’s hands. Concerning a project on Governors Island, in which low-wage earners were invited into abandoned buildings “to write, paint, draw, and create,” Nowak works up a celebration: “the walls, it seemed, were in rapturous conversation with themselves.” So the walls of the text, too, are decorated by the products of his workshops. Nowak apologizes neither for the length of some samples nor for the occasional unvarnished language:

In Morocco, I was working in garment factory
Just 8 hours a day but salary not enough
To help my family

In UK, I become a domestic worker
Life is hard, long hours…
But the wage is a bit better…

Not all the book’s poetry, I rush to add, is quite so prosaic. Subtler, more thoughtful examples include pieces from Frank Cunningham, a Chicago electrical worker, and the New York domestic worker and activist Christine Yvette Lewis. Still, this text has little room for the delicacy of, say, Wallace Stevens. On the contrary, it relies on a structure of square-built simplicity. After defining his project, the author steps back, investigating its predecessors, and then once the history is in place he sketches his own learning curve. As he stumbles through trial and error, Nowak again keeps things lively, for instance with a devastating list of all the folks who never got back to him. And over time, his WWS achieves its own sort of success, allowing the book to culminate with a run-through of the pedagogy that has worked best.

With teaching in mind, too, Social Poetics observes all the academic protocol. The passage that defines the pantoum could serve as a lecture in Intro to Poetry. Things get more rowdy in the demonstration that follows, showing how the form is put to use by the poets in WWS, but it’s likewise carefully paced and reasoned. Also, the text is studded throughout with quotations. I found a few unnecessary (what, again with the Raymond Williams?), but I never came across some testimony that lacked corroboration, and the same went for every statistic or media reference. One chapter has no fewer than 114 notes, and there’s a full bibliography.

Such scholarly apparatus, happily, almost never interferes with Nowak’s gift for teasing out the human element. He may not have been present for the history he discusses in the early chapters, but he brings to life the turmoil of the late ’60s workshops in Watts and elsewhere. Among the volunteers who stepped up to run programs for impoverished New York children, Nowak’s research turns up a startling name: Adrienne Rich. Rich claimed that her work at the short-lived Elizabeth Cleaners Street School proved “an education in uncertainty—” an education that clearly had an influence on her later, more radical, poetry. The text’s background material proves even more fascinating, not to say hair-raising, when the scene shifts to Kenya and the collaborative theater of Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Ngugi wound up in prison for his stage work, its “struggle for total liberation.” And over all of Social Poetics hovers the spirit of Amiri Baraka, the former LeRoi Jones, who, as Nowak’s mentor, takes on a dimension and depth I for one had never before perceived.

The work deserves a place on the shelf of any thinking teacher in the field. Anyone can use a breath of fresh air, a bracing reminder of art’s power to change the world. Yet even as I stand and cheer, I recall the occasional disturbing note sounded in Social Poetics. Every now and then, as it raises another complaint about “the MFA industrial complex” and its brand of poetry, the text comes close to insisting on a purity of “proletarian civilization or culture.” The phrase is Gramsci’s, but Nowak assigns it special weight. He does the same with Paulo Freire’s call for a “new man” who achieves “dialectical unity between practice and theory, action and reflection.” But in that gap between action and thought, there resides a lot of great poetry—not to mention much of what we call human. Come to think, weren’t visions of some spotless New Man—always in the right—part of what led to Auschwitz and the Killing Fields? Such horrors lie a long way from the good Nowak’s doing, of course. Still, he could at least have noted the chilling implication, and acknowledged the value of more ordinary workshops.


John Domini

John Domini contributes regularly to the Rail. His latest book is a memoir, The Archeology of a Good Ragú.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2020

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