Revolution in the First Person Plural

In Social Poetics, Mark Nowak reclaims the poetry workshop as a space to imagine social transformation.

Philip Metres
July 29, 2020
Christopher Shanahan, right, in a creative writing workshop at the Idaho State Correctional Institution in Boise, Idaho, April 27th, 2018. Photo: Pat Sutphin/The Times-News via AP

Discussed in this essay: Social Poetics, by Mark Nowak. Coffee House Press, 2020. 288 pages.

DURING ONE OF HIS EIGHT-HOUR DAYS facilitating poetry workshops with the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) in 2006, poet Mark Nowak found himself among Ford workers inspired to respond to Denny Dickhausen, an auto line worker from St. Paul, who’d lost his job when the Ford plant closed. The South African workers had watched a video of Dickhausen standing outside the fence that surrounded the Minnesota plant, reading a poem he’d written about his 40-year job with Ford and how he’d felt when he lost it: “thrown away like an old shoe.” Now, the NUMSA workers composed their own poem to answer Dickhausen’s. Their stanzas, individually composed and then brought together by a chorus—“Oh! What a Life!”—inaugurated both a collective poem written in what Nowak calls the “first person plural” and a transnational poetry dialogue among workers resisting the conditions of their work in the same transnational corporation. Later that day, Nowak wrote in a notebook, “I don’t ever know if I’ve felt what I do as a poet more vital than this afternoon, this opening of a dialogue.”    

Nowak recounts this story in Social Poetics, his compelling exploration of radical working-class poetry, which crystallizes a project begun in his own poetry 20 years earlier. Even at their most complexly modernist—often collaging from multiple texts, including workers’ first-person accounts and news reports—Nowak’s poems have always centered the voices of workers, struggling for dignity amid economic exploitation. In his first book, Revenants (2000), Nowak sings where he comes from: the Polish American working class of western New York. The early poems in this book are personal, lyrical, mythic, and ethnographic, stewed in the sultry kitchens and factories of the eastern Rust Belt. But toward the end of that book—and in the two that followed, Shut Up Shut Down (2004) and Coal Mountain Elementary (2009)—Nowak eschewed autobiographical lyric and began to work in a chorale form. The poem “Capitalization,” for example, braids the voices of workers, news reports of the 1981 Air Traffic Controllers (PATCO) strike, and grammatical rules for capitalization. While Shut Up Shut Down focuses on the labor struggles of American workers, Coal Mountain Elementary summons an internationalist vision of coal mining disasters, from the Sago Mine in West Virginia to the brutal mines of China.

But even as Nowak’s poetry pressed further into explicitly radical forms and content, he grew increasingly suspicious that his work—despite exposing neoliberal structural violence, class warfare, and the fight for social justice—was not reaching working-class audiences or contributing to the labor movement as he hoped it would. When I spoke with Nowak in 2010—a conversation that became “Poetry as Social Practice in the First Person Plural: A Dialogue on Documentary Poetics,” published in the Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies—Nowak described “having a personal crisis with poetry and [being] at the cusp of abandoning it completely [in 2006].” This crisis, he told me, was part of what led him to write his crucial essay “Neoliberalism, Collective Action, and the American MFA Industry,” in which, he says, he “suggest[s] a historical model of radical writers workshops (the John Reed clubs of the CPUSA [Communist Party USA], Ernesto Cardenal’s talleres de poesia, etc.) as more tenable models for writing praxis and pedagogy than the neoliberal MFA industry.” Yet he felt that even this practical turn was too theoretical, too disconnected from action. He told me, “I began asking myself . . . well, what are you doing about it other than writing this essay?

Over the past decade (and since 2011, under the moniker Worker Writers School), Nowak has spent much of his creative energies conducting workshops with workers across a wide variety of industries—especially domestic workers, whose poems and testimonies have brought particular power to the international campaign to create a domestic worker bill of rights. As a result, Nowak has emerged as the closest thing we have to a Wobbly poet. Nowak, like those early-20th century activists who organized with the Industrial Workers of the World, is a true radical culture worker who aims to create solidarity among low-wage workers and leverage that power for justice. 

Drawing from this work, Social Poetics stakes a claim for a radical working-class poetics. In particular, Nowak seeks to reclaim the poetry workshop, “that often degraded and disdained centerpiece of the neoliberal writing culture—a largely untapped radical potential for social transformation.” Nowak’s idea of “social poetics” draws inspiration from Langston Hughes’s 1947 essay “My Adventures as a Social Poet,” written when he had begun shifting the focus of his poems from his individual plight to the struggle of ordinary people. Hughes observed that there must be power in this radical practice, because “when poems stop talking about the moon and begin to mention poverty, trade unions, color lines, and colonies, somebody tells the police.”  

Nowak’s notion of poetry as a potentially radical technology for social change echoes Barbara Harlow’s 1987 book Resistance Literature, in which she argues that resistance poetry functions as “a force for mobilizing a collective response to occupation and domination and as a repository for popular memory and consciousness.” Capturing collective response and retaining collective memory have been two of the greatest challenges for the working classes; divided by owners and politicians and laboring under the hegemony of capitalism, people of the working class rarely have the time, energy, capital, or access to participate in literary production. Poetry—in its succinctness and its cheapness to produce—may indeed be an ideal form to capture the gritty detail and dreams of working people. In the words of the South African poet Es’kia Mphahlele, poetry is a “fugitive means of expression.”  

THE FIRST HALF of Social Poetics offers a genealogy of radical poetry workshops—first in the United States, and then in Kenya, Nicaragua, South Africa, and elsewhere. In the chapter on American workshops, Nowak moves deftly through an exploration of youth workshops beginning in the 1960s—laboratories for young chroniclers of what radical historian and activist E.P. Thompson has called “history from below.” But Nowak never labors under the illusion that all such projects succeed. By beginning with writer and television producer Budd Schulberg’s workshops and docudrama, The Angry Voices of Watts, organized in the wake of the 1965 uprising over racial injustice in Los Angeles, Nowak unearths how those motivated by well-intentioned but paternalistic liberalism often erase the very voices that they purport to highlight—in particular, in this case, that of the young radical Quincy Troupe, who was left out of the resulting 1967 anthology, From the Ashes: Voices of Watts, because of differences with Schulberg. Nowak argues that Schulberg failed to provide an adequate class and race analysis of the uprising, perpetuated stereotypes about black resistance as “anger,” and excluded poetry he perceived as too radical (aesthetically as well as politically) for a white readership. (Troupe would go on to create his own samizdat-quality anthology, Watts Poets.) 

By contrast, Nowak glowingly describes the work of the now-legendary black poet June Jordan and teacher Terri Bush’s 1967–1968 workshop, which led to the 1970 anthology The Voice of the Children. At the very moment that Jordan and Bush were providing space for youth poets in Harlem and Brooklyn “to critique their everyday lives in their schools and in their communities as both poets and ‘people’s historians,’” New York City teachers were engaging in that city’s longest strike, which pitted them against black and brown families advocating for “community control” of schools. Jordan and Bush’s work faced all manner of challenges, ultimately folding due to lack of long-term funding. Nowak trains his ire on the creative writing and publishing industries for directing its funds elsewhere. He writes that “we have lost a crucial half century of theories, impressions, and critiques from the poetry of young people by not following Jordan’s pedagogical lead much earlier . . . Our poetic culture and history have been significantly weakened.” 

In the second chapter, Nowak broadens his study to key postcolonial workshops, highlighting the work of writers such as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o in Kenya, Ernesto Cardenal in Nicaragua, and the members of Durban Workers’ Cultural Local (DWCL) in South Africa, which Nowak calls “one of the foremost manifestations of anti-apartheid worker control of cultural production.” While the work of each poet manifests differently, they hold in common what Nowak identifies as the four themes central to social poetics. The first is imaginative militancy: a temperament of resistance to conditions of oppression, understood as an insistence on one’s innate dignity, humanity, and capacity to dream of something better. The second is migration, meaning that social poetics is frequently marked by the condition of forced migration, often because of economic necessity; so many workers find themselves dislocated, part of what poet and trade unionist Alfred Temba Qabula called the “moving forest of Africa.” The third is social reproduction: social poetics is attentive to the ways in which so much human labor is excised from a vision of the working class. The work of DWCL poet Nise Malange proves particularly useful for Nowak’s exploration of the way that traditional accounts of labor have tended to exclude women’s unpaid and unrecognized work. In “Nightshift Mother,” for example, Malange writes: 

Left with a double load
At home
My children left uncared
At work
My boss insists we should
Be grateful for the opportunities
He gives women to be exploited. 

Finally, for Nowak, social poetics involves and activates collaborative cultural production; in contrast to the neo­liberal romantic model of the solitary poet, social poets write alongside and with each other, creating collective statements and harnessing them to make change.    

The second half of Social Poetics concerns Nowak’s own efforts to create communities of collaboration, first with the Union of Radical Workers and Writers (URWW) in the early 2000s, founded to help unionize a Borders bookstore in Minneapolis, and later with the Worker Writers School, to practice social poetics as he conceives it. It’s a story as filled with false starts and failures as it is with moments of triumph. For example, Nowak describes how, though the URWW’s union drive succeeded, he felt that the URWW never truly integrated workers and writers—and never saw workers as possible writers at all. In the end, Borders shut down the store. Such moments lead him to wonder whether social poetics is “also a poetics of abject failure and muteness.” 

Still, Nowak highlights the way that social poetics can become a conduit for what writer Nick Montgomery and filmmaker carla bergman call “joyful militancy” in their book of the same name, an approach that emphasizes “the connections between fierceness and love, resistance and care, combativeness and nurturance.” Nowak sees joy come alive in his workshops in South Africa, where a “first person plural” becomes embodied and activated, an experience he has found ways to replicate all over the world. 

Nowak’s explicit linking of various kinds of labor—of work, of writing, of community organizing—offers a model for poets to create something beyond feel-good consciousness-raising. And while I found myself longing for an epilogue, a “how-to” chapter for starting one’s own “school,” Nowak’s thick descriptions of his workshops—from how they came into being to what they inspired—do offer a blueprint by way of example. We read, for instance, about how Nowak, using a Japanese tanka by Kunio Tsukamoto as a model, walks a group of nascent writers through the process of creating a poem based on their hands. “I want you to imagine you are six years old. Where are you? What are you doing with your hands?” he asks them. “This morning before class, what did you do with your hands?” Question by question, Nowak creates a space for Nasim, a man from Iraq, to write his first poem in English:

hands hold phone
hands cook rice
hands touch door
hands point to the home in Iraq
hands write sentences

As Nowak points out, “the evocative final line of Nasim’s tanka can be read in many ways: an Iraqi refugee who sees and is proud of his own hands writing sentences of a poem in English, [and whose] experiences in the United States during this time of Trump’s presidency feel like a sentence (i.e., a punishment).” Nowak’s attentiveness to Nasim’s work—and to the indignities of the political context in which Nasim finds himself—exemplifies the practice of social poetics.

As a poet and tenured professor, I felt a mix of awe and regret reading Social Poetics, thinking back to the years that I could have better leveraged my position of privilege on behalf of those who have been denied platforms and power. While Nowak’s work implicates those of us who replicate the very conditions we should want to reform or even overthrow, it also invites us down a path where solidarity through poetic community can lead to radical social transformation. It was Nowak’s work that inspired me, in 2017, to become the faculty advisor for a group of students who formed Writers In Residence, a program that facilitates creative writing workshops with young people in juvenile detention. (This student group has now expanded into a nonprofit organization operating throughout the state of Ohio.)

These efforts have a history. But because the stories of incarcerated people—and of workers, immigrants, and refugees—are often unwritten or erased, that history tends to remain buried. Social Poetics uncovers the past as a guide to the future. Early in the book, Nowak alludes to workshops with incarcerated writers led by Native poet Joseph Bruchac in the early 1970s. Nowak includes part of the transcript of a discussion with Bruchac, in which Bruchac recalls: “I was told many times that when [the participants] were in the workshop they did not feel as if they were in prison.” Imagine: what if the writing workshop were widely understood as a site not of taste-making or star cultivation, but of freedom?

Philip Metres is the author of Shrapnel Maps (2020), The Sound of Listening (2018), Pictures at an Exhibition (2016), Sand Opera (2015), and other books. Metres is a two-time recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and a three-time recipient of the Arab American Book Award.