First-Person Plural: On Mark Nowak’s “Social Poetics”
By Margaret RondaJuly 5, 2020
Social Poetics by Mark Nowak
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.
Through his descriptions of these compositional processes and contexts, Nowak elaborates key claims about the value of poetry as socialist practice and the significance of the poetry workshop as a site for fostering “first-person plural” identifications and commitments. While scholars like Mark McGurl, Eric Bennett, David Dowling, and D. G. Myers have investigated the sociological and literary dynamics that accompany the institutional orientation of the writing workshop over the past decades, Nowak foregrounds a noticeably distinct definition of the workshop during this period. If in institutional sites such as the MFA program and the elite residency, the workshop form privileges “individual self-improvement” and the development of authorial craft and style, in these worker workshops poetry bears elements of social experience at all levels of its compositional process and reception. In so doing, Social Poetics prioritizes forms of study and aesthetics that are contextually embedded and horizontalized, defining poetry as a socially useful and inclusive endeavor rather than a creatively autonomous and specialized activity.
Nowak’s own books of poetry — Revenants (2000), Shut Up Shut Down (2004), Coal Mountain Elementary (2009) — have been essential to the revitalization of the radical documentary tradition in recent North American poetry. Nowak draws attention in these texts to the voices and histories of working-class communities, from Polish immigrant culture in Revenants to industrial laborers in the deindustrializing Rust Belt in Shut Up Shut Down to coal miners in China and West Virginia in Coal Mountain Elementary. These books intersperse direct testimony with news reports, theoretical views, photographs, and cultural artifacts from these sites. Across these works, Nowak develops a conception of poetry as a living archive and polyvocal expression of worker experiences within and beyond the workplace. Social Poetics is both an extension of this vital body of poetic work and a more direct articulation of its animating ideas.
Social Poetics testifies to the vibrant presence of a global worker culture by centering these worker writers’ perspectives in all their complexity. Nowak points out that social poetics necessarily includes reckonings with “abject failure and muteness,” with the “bile-ridden, silent disgust over shuttering plants, job loss, the incessant lies of politicians and capitalism.” The voices gathered here measure losses and silences, and they speak to the anxieties and anger that their situations provoke. In a poem from a workshop called “My Life at Ford,” Denny Dickhausen, a longtime St. Paul Ford factory worker, conveys the astonishment and shock of being laid off after 36 years in a terse, matter-of-fact register: “I grew up, I grew old at Ford. / I bled at Ford. / I feel used up.” Across several pieces excerpted in Social Poetics, worker writers explore feelings of social non-recognition and redundancy that can characterize precarious working life. One particularly moving poem by Alando McIntyre called “Langwige” catalogs what he calls a “broken, ever-morphing, syncopated language” that reflects his daily experiences as a service worker: “No chicken patties just beef; / Yuh want dem inna two separate bag / forced to speak, paid to smile kind of language. / The stealing away of one’s / self kind of language.” While the poem charts the deprivations of having one’s self “stolen” by the language of service work, it ultimately celebrates what McIntyre calls “my type a Langwige.”
Through this sustained attention to these writers’ complex imaginative acts, Nowak’s passionate and galvanizing essays direct practitioners, readers, and critics of poetry to attend to the cultural life of contemporary poetic practice beyond the orbit of what Nowak calls the “committed author.” In its sustained emphasis on the production and circulation of poetry beyond the academy and elite poetry institutions, Social Poetics can be read in relation to the burgeoning field of contemporary cultural poetics and studies of popular poetic forms. But Social Poetics follows most closely in the tradition of radical collections such as Adrienne Rich’s What Is Found There, June Jordan’s Poetry for the People, and bell hooks’s Teaching to Transgress, which explore the connections between politics and poetry and describe pedagogical methods for emancipatory learning. Social Poetics offers a wide-ranging compendium of resources for the practice of social poetics, assembling descriptions of collaborative poetic forms (renga, pantoum, haiku) and practices alongside ideas from radical movements and left intellectual lineages and poems by worker poets across the globe. The book is designed not only to describe social poetics in action but to nurture its continued flourishing in other communities, inspiring future forms of social poetics.
At every turn, Social Poetics highlights the labor of workers in the service sectors: those who prepare food, clean homes, offices, and hospitals, and transport others, who work in factories and health-care centers, who tend young, old, and ill bodies. One poem in the book, written by a Somali nursing student, Nimo Abdi, describes how her long shifts at work follow her home: “After working 12 hour ‘longs’ during the night / I go home in the morning and dream about work … / Not only do I take all the germs home … / I also take all the worrisome patients.” With painstaking clarity, Abdi’s poem testifies to the physical and psychic costs of her daily work of caring for patients, and to her fears of what she “takes home.” Such lines take on profound new significance amid the coronavirus pandemic, underscoring the acute vulnerability of frontline laborers such as Abdi, and attesting to the necessary, yet largely devalued, forms of social intimacy their labor embodies.
The broader dynamics of solidarity and antagonism, care and conflict, that the writers of Social Poetics chronicle find intensified form in the crisis conditions of our coronavirus present. Over the past months, members of the Worker Writers School have been writing “coronavirus haiku.” Posted on the Worker Writers School Instagram and Twitter accounts, these poems convey the exhaustion, fear, and stress of NYC life and work during the COVID-19 pandemic, and provide a creative virtual space for reflection and community. Some speak to the strange quiet of city streets and feelings of isolation; others describe the intensity of frontline work and the anxieties of food insecurity. This ongoing project provides a further testament to the vital work of the WWS and to the expansive resonance of Social Poetics. On the page and beyond, Nowak’s commitment to the “first-person plural” offers an urgent, much-needed social vision for poetry today.
Margaret Ronda is the author of Remainders: American Poetry at Nature's End (Stanford University Press, 2018) and two collections of poetry, For Hunger (Saturnalia Books, 2018) and Personification (Saturnalia, 2010). She is an associate professor of English at the University of California, Davis.
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