March 13, 2020; In these times
At its best, poetry distills and amplifies life, making us reflect on the shared experience of the soul. But if poetry is too confined, it joins the ranks of other forms of art and historical documentation that chronicle the world through a social funnel. Poet and activist Mark Nowak considers his life’s work to be more about building a shared poetic muscle than his own singular development, and he is a model for other socially conscious artists because art and poetry speak in a unique way to motivate action.
through his book, Social poeticsand his School of Worker Writers (WWS), he explains how he has, since 2005, worked with unions and social movements using creative writing, especially poetry, to embolden workers.
Nowak grew up in a working-class family in Buffalo, New York. His mother was an office worker, and his father became the vice president of the workers’ union at a Westinghouse assembly plant that closed in 1985. Obviously, his affinity for workers was part of his upbringing. He was an organizer while teaching (after earning an MFA from Bowling Green State) and wrote three volumes of poetry.
Nowak’s poems are true to his roots. His latest book, Coal Mountain Elementary School, documents abuses in the coal industry in this country and in China with photographs, poems and comments by miners. It was critically acclaimed.
And the rave reviews also go to Nowak’s students, who were often reluctant to join his WWS classes but found it opened them up and gave them a way to go public with their private thoughts. He cites the example of Denny Dickhausen, who worked for 40 years at a closing Ford plant in St. Paul, Minnesota. In the conclusion of his poem “My Life at Ford”, he writes:
I say it’s a jar.
I grew up, I grew old at Ford.
I bled at Ford.
I feel worn out.
Subscribe to our free newsletter
Subscribe to the NPQ newsletter to get our best stories delivered straight to your inbox.
Dickhausen became the face and voice of the laid-off workers. He credits the workshops with helping him find a way to give public form to the thoughts he’d been jotting down for years in little notebooks at work.
Nowak has extended her work globally by organizing workshops with trade unions in South Africa. He created a poetic dialogue between workers about shared working conditions that stretched across continents. While some were skeptical, others came to see the value poetry brought to their lives and work. Ford workers in Pretoria have shared their fears of being laid off with Ford workers in the United States. Pretoria workers put their sense of what it takes to get ahead in poetic form:
To get a higher position
You have to climb the Maluti mountain
Cross the Nile and the Kalahari Desert
And speak the language of angels
Oh! What a life!
In Social poetics, it designates those who have become leaders in social movements as well as good poets without ever having been enrolled in a university. One is Christine Yvette Lewis, a Trinidadian nanny and member of Domestic Workers United. She was instrumental in organizing the 2011 Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which granted basic labor protections to domestic workers. Right here, she writes on the conditions of transnational workers, as she:
The price of migration means “yes, ma’am”
Light cleaning, walking the dog
Baby, unrelated burden, pushed along a wet avenue
The days of cotton picking are not over.
This is the kind of writing that Nowak elevates in his work. That’s what’s powerful about what he does and why it goes beyond his own writing and beyond teaching creative writing. It’s part of organizing and social movements.—Carole Levine