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March 13, 2020; In These Times

At its best, poetry distills and amplifies life, causing us to reflect on 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. The poet and activist Mark Nowak sees his life’s work as more about building shared poetic muscle than about his own singular development, and that is a model for other socially conscious artists because art and poetry speaks in a unique way to motivate action.

Through his book, Social Poetics, and his Worker Writers School (WWS), he explains how he has, since 2005, worked with trade 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 a clerical worker, and his father became the vice president of the workers’ union at a Westinghouse assembly plant that closed in 1985. Clearly, his affinity for working people was a part of his upbringing. He was an organizer as he taught (after receiving 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, documents abuses in the coal mining industry in this country and in China with photographs, poems, and comments from coal miners. It received critical acclaim.

And critical acclaim also goes to Nowak’s students, who were often reluctant to join his WWS classes but found that it opened them up and gave them a way to make their private thoughts public. He points to the example of Denny Dickhausen, who had worked 40 years at a Ford plant that was closing in St. Paul, Minnesota. In the conclusion to his poem, “My Life at Ford,” he writes:

I say it’s a crock.
I grew up, I grew old at Ford.
I bled at Ford.
I feel used up.

Dickhausen became the face and the voice for laid-off workers. He credits the workshops for helping him to find a way to give public form to the thoughts he had chronicled for years in little notebooks while at work.

Nowak took his work global, conducting workshops with unions in South Africa. He created a poetic dialogue among workers about shared working conditions that stretched across continents. While some were skeptical, others came to see the value that poetry brought to their lives and their work. Ford workers in Pretoria shared their fears of being fired with Ford workers in the US. The Pretoria workers put their sense of what it takes to advance into poetic form:

To get a higher position
You have to climb Maluti Mountain
Cross the river Nile and Kalahari desert
And talk the language of angels

Oh! What a Life!

In Social Poetics, he points out those who have become leaders in social movements as well as fine poets without ever having matriculated at a university. One is Christine Yvette Lewis, a Trinidadian nanny and a member of Domestic Workers United. She played a key role in 2011 organizing for the landmark Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which granted foundational labor protections to domestic workers. Here, she writes about the conditions for transnational workers, like herself:

Price of migration means “yes, ma’am”
Light housekeeping, walk dog
Baby, unrelated burden, pushed along dank avenue
Cotton pickin’ days ain’t over.

This is the kind of writing Nowak elevates in his work. This is what is powerful in what he is doing and why it moves beyond his own writing, and beyond just teaching creative writing. It becomes part of organizing and social movements.—Carole Levine