The subversive potential of working-class poetics

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Social Poetics, by Mark Nowak (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2020).

Reviewed by Emily Wolahan, California Institute of Integral Studies

In Social Poetics Mark Nowak argues that worker poetry workshops and the act of writing poetry stands in a unique position to offer a voice to the disenfranchised. Through personal narrative and critical theorizing, Nowak outlines the importance for workers to take part in their own cultural production as a means for solidarity and resistance to capitalist structures. By creating and advocating for poetry workshops which place the worker’s creative voice at the center, Nowak makes an important argument for poetry’s unique role as a language-based art form, simultaneously accessible and transgressive, as the mode to form a new imagination. 

Similar to the practice of worker’s inquiry, which places knowledge production into the hands of workers who experience the realities of work, social poetics places the power of imagination and expression into the hands of those who have been denied that outlet: “Social poetics seeks the transition of the pen or the laptop from the ‘committed’ author […] to working people themselves in a new conjunction of aesthetic practice and political action” (p. 8). For Nowak, cultivating imaginative militancy, employing the first-person plural point of view, and celebrating consonance within transnational poetics expresses an individual identity within collective action. 

Relating a people’s history of the poetry workshop and his own experiences facilitating poetry workshops through the Workers Writers School (WWS) (which Nowak founded in New York City), labor unions, and other collectives, Nowak provides both an argument and a guidebook for how workers writing poetry forms a platform for social change. In worker poetry workshops from Cheyenne to London, Ford factories in St. Paul and Durban, and the range of working existences in New York, Nowak demonstrates not only the expressive capacity of workers when given the chance to speak, but the solidarities created across work forces and against twenty-first-century capitalism determined to destroy them.

While Social Poetics is an important addition to the writing about political poetry and the role of the workshop in the post-MFA literary scene, Nowak is also in conversation with activists and labor organizers who seek to build a mode of resistance that places creative expression at its heart. Nowak places social poetics outside of and in contrast to established literary institutions who would seek to quell the alternative, people’s history of the worker’s experience. A poetry workshop typically consists of a whole-day session or shorter weekly classes, in which participants discuss poems and follow writing prompts to produce their own original work. I found the recognition of the power of the poetry workshop a refreshing and subversive use of a structure that was formalized in the mid-twentieth century to benefit a privileged subset of writers and aspiring writers and flourishes today within academia as an industry of gatekeeping and debt production. Writing together and sharing vulnerabilities within a poetry workshop, however, is a powerful creative space of production. Nowak shows how that energy can be harnessed to include and stretch beyond individual self-expression.

Grounding his discussion of social poetics in the community poetry workshop, Nowak provides an illuminating people’s history of it. He traces the line of being a social poet in the United States from Langston Hughes to Amiri Baraka, and Miguel Algarín of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, extending the heritage transnationally to Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Alfred Temba Qabula, Nise Melange, and Ernesto Cardenal. He analyzes the conditions under which June Jordan led youth poetry workshops in poor New York City neighborhoods and compiled The Voice of the Children, published in 1970 (p. 24). Jordan’s anthology highlights the lived experiences of children facing poverty, racism, and violence. Her poetry workshops were a space for those children to process their experiences and express themselves. That same year, Kenneth Koch’s anthology of youth writing, Wishes, Lies, Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry, received much wider attention for its publication. Koch had also been leading youth workshops in New York schools focused very heavily on engaging playful language. Nowak chronicles how Wishes, Lies, Dreams became an influential model of teaching how poetry can be an escapism dallying in cheaply produced surrealist images (p. 26). Meanwhile, The Voice of the Children and many others produced in Jordan’s model, have been pushed aside and forgotten in the narrative of American poetry and youth education (p. 27). Reclaiming this history, as well as several community workshops in Watts after the riots, prison workshops, and other youth workshops, Nowak illustrates how the community workshop has been responding to and growing with social movements for decades. Social Poetics traces the community workshop and theorizes the potential for workers poetry, but Nowak’s work does not extend to imprisonment poetry. While this is not Nowak’s immediate background, and so understandable, and knowing how extensively prison writing workshops are locally documented, the omission sets in relief how a broader, theoretical study of the impact and potential of prison writing programs is needed.

At the center of both his work as an organizer, and to those workers writing in workshops, lies “imaginative militancy.” Nowak defines imaginative militancy as a “militancy from below” that “thrives on tactics.” He writes: 

Imaginative militancy works by slow insurrection. It represents, in some ways, an antonym to the traditional avant-gardes, though to believe it will not be new and radical and vehement would be a serious miscalculation. Its practices remain collective and durational, yet sometimes impermanent, too. Imaginative militancy thrives on the dialogical rather than the polemical. (p. 107)

At once “collective, durational” and “impermanent,” imaginative militancy offers a conjunction of the aesthetic and political. The two are forged and never apart, something Nowak observes in the writings of and his friendship with Amiri Baraka (p. 108). Nowak also acknowledges an allegiance to Joyful Militancy: Building Thriving Resistance in Toxic Times by Nick Montgomery and carla bergman (p. 106). Like joyful militancy, imaginative militancy offers a route to sustain resistance to capitalist structures and oppression through embracing the positive, flexible aspects of resistance, rather than being mired in rigid theory. In addition to the networks of friendships described in Joyful Militancy, Nowak offers transnational networks of creative production. The centrality of a creative life within the struggle against oppression builds on Arundhati Roy’s address to Occupy Wall Street activists in 2011, in which she praised activists for introducing a “‘new imagination, a new political language, in the heart of Empire. You have reintroduced the right to dream into a system that tried to turn everybody into zombies mesmerized into equating mindless consumerism with happiness and fulfillment’” (p. 112). For Nowak, social poetics realizes the ideas of “new imagination,” “new political language,” and “the right to dream” because the poem funnels these three pillars in the already active imaginations of workers. 

Social Poetics focuses several chapters on Nowak’s own experiences running poetry workshops. He has both proposed and provoked workshops, as well as been invited in by eager union members. Throughout the narratives of these workshops, their successes and shortcomings, a few central themes emerge. Nowak prioritizes writing about work. Rather than these workshops being a creative respite to escape reality, Nowak harnesses the power of workers writing about their own lived experience. They are the experts. They are the workshop leaders. Within the workshops, Nowak uses examples of poetry written by other workers, often with transnational experiences. In his own theorizing and background, he cites key poets such as Amiri Baraka and June Jordan. The workshops are often anchored by a poetic form. Pedagogically, poetic form can be a very useful way to guide a writer new to poetry through the motions of a poem. Form offers enough “rules” to follow that one’s ideas might flow more freely. Appropriately, Nowak chose poetic forms rooted in working-class backgrounds. Early twentieth-century socialist tanka groups in Japan developed the tanka, a five-line Japanese form, into a radical voice for the proletariat (p. 127). The pantoum is “itself a migrant into English.” Originally from Malaysia, coopted by colonial French, and through translation introduced to English, the pantoum is braided form in which the second and fourth lines of a four-line stanza become the first and third lines of the next stanza (p. 140). Nowak shows how these can add a level of accessibility to writing a poem. They are also well suited to collaboration.

Nowak frames collective composition as a realization of the first-person plural, which shifts “emphases in the direction of the pronouns of the first-person plural, toward we and us and they, toward our, ours, ourselves” (p. 177). Nowak selected another Japanese form, the renga, for a WWS workshop. Developed as a collaborative form, the renga rotates from 3- to 2-line stanzas, each stanza composed by a different voice (p. 195). In the WWS workshop, participants took the material they had composed over the course of a few weeks and collaboratively arranged a chorus of their lives on the job, off the job, en route and going home. Each writer’s name appears at the end of the stanza.

Park Slope ripe with nannies. cold

Yearn to taste Island rum punch. (Christine)

Black cat perched on the stoop head rovin mechanically,

not a sound or move to be missed.

And I reply—let me know peace!  (Alando)

I flee to the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center,

My temple of music where I escape from life’s vicissitudes. (Davidson)

Who brings you

a glass of water?

They can get themselves one. (Lizbeth)

After standing for hours cooking, my knees are killing me.

All I want to see is people enjoying this delicious food on a go. (Kele) (pgs. 197–198)

The poem consists of twenty-nine stanzas in total. Nowak explains that within this collaborative form lies not only the creative expression of each worker, but a description of their opportunities (or lack of opportunities) for social reproduction. In another case, Nowak developed a form originating from conceptual poet and aesthete Kenneth Goldsmith, via artist Lucia della Paolera’s “Instruction Manual,” and into a “Worker’s Instruction Manual” (p. 222). The poem consists of all poetry workshop members offering an order they have been given during the work day with its time signature. The poem is arranged chronologically and documents the repetitive, menial tasks that taxi drivers, cooks, and domestic workers in New York City experience in a single day. 

5:00 a.m.

Check the hot tank to make sure it is working. 

6:00 a.m.

Take me to 70th and Central Park West. Please go slowly, I’m pregnant.

6:01 a.m.

Do you have today’s menu on the side window? 

6:59 a.m.

Did you put your ID badge around your neck to avoid getting a ticket?

7:00 a.m.

Did you fill up the water in the tanks?

7:15 a.m.

I’m going to LaGuardia. Can ya open the door for me? I’m coffee impaired. 

7:30 a.m. 

Check the tank. Is there hot water in case the inspector shows up? 

7:35 a.m.

Got get screwdriver. The towel bar fell off. The screws have to be tight. (pgs. 223–224)

“Worker’s Instruction Manual” runs from 5:00 a.m. until 2:44 a.m. with a mixture of commands for nannies, taxi divers, cooks, mechanics. This collaborative poem enacts Nowak’s conception of the first-person plural, in which the poem speaks for the individual and the group simultaneously. In this case, worker’s names are not included with their commands, embracing the plurality of the utterance. The poem creatively depicts a twenty-first-century working class poet—a poet that is possibly undocumented, housing unstable, gig-working, uninsured, and offered an ever limited space for rest and imagination. Nowak’s vision, which feels like a vision co-built by all those who have contributed to the poetry workshops, imagines a way in which worker’s writing workshops place the poet as an insider.

Public performance of these poems produces the final, but crucial, aspect to Nowak’s workers poetry workshops. Each narrative of the workshops culminates in some shared performance of the poems. Either guerrilla performances at a bus depot in Nicaragua, the gates of a Ford factory closing down, the streets of London, an NWTA protest at New York City Hall, or planned performances such as an International Domestic Worker’s Day event, a “Writing on It All” event at Governor’s Island, or taped performances to exchange between Ford factory labor unions in the US and South Africa. Shared performance completes the circle of social impact. While aware that a poetry performance on a Wednesday afternoon on the steps of a bus station may not seem like an effective direct action or knowing that a worker poet reading his poem “Langwige” to a New York audience will not be acknowledged by the literary elite, Nowak argues that “what emerges in the practices of social poetics are not only important new literary works but also a new class, a new culture, new relationships, and new solidarities” (p. 251). 

These new relationships, or “new conjunctions” as he terms them, thrive on the edges, reach across barriers, and create durational networks. To demonstrate, Nowak introduces a new way to consider the poetic idea of consonance. Alliteration, the flip side to consonance, binds a phrase together with repetitive beginning sounds of words. Nowak uses the example of a chant at Occupy Wall Street “We believe that we will win!” (201). Consonance, on the other hand, is the repetition of letters or letter groups within a word and a poetic line. He cites an example from the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetics, whose authority he references throughout Social Poetics, calling attention to how the “k” sound functions in “Rebuckled the cheek-strap, chained slacker the bit” (p. 202). The “k” sound threads through the phrase, subtly tying it together. Nowak’s suggestion is that the showy power of alliteration is underpinned by the quieter consonance. He argues we must not value one without valuing the other. 

The attention I call here to more radical definitions of consonance addresses this dichotomy, this problematic history; it helps us reimagine those spaces between the first-person singular and the first-person plural that might serve as antidotes to the dominant and domineering alliterativeness of our avant-gardes in literature and politics, of those symbolic and actual fists of revolutionary fervor that too often silence our more restrained allies. (p. 202)

Similar to the troubling of rigid theory that is inherent to “joyful militancy” or imaginative militancy, consonance proposes less fist pumping and more attention to details. Imaginative militancy, consonance, the first-person plural—they are all arguing for a long-term mode of self- and communal expression in order to express solidarity, in order to resist. 

There is a pedagogical angle to Social Poetics, in addition to its activist message. Within creative writing workshops, whether institutional or community, there’s a range of styles. From workshops in which writers hope to revise their poems into publishable packets, to in-class free writing meant to generate first drafts and an abundance of creative energy. Often the leader of the workshop is a professional writer, an expert, and leads the workshop with at least some air of authority. I have occasionally lead such writing workshops, never at ease with the idea of “authority” in art, and I admire Nowak’s rejection of this convention. He relies on Brazilian theorist Paolo Friere’s theories to craft a radical pedagogy that places cultural production about what it means to labor into the hands of the experts (p. 206). While Nowak’s descriptions of the workshops certainly place him as the authoritative organizer or moderator of the event, with either a poetic form or performance guideline to realize the political goals of the gathering, it is clear that Nowak strives to have his background in literature not place him “above” the worker writers in the workshop. Referencing Freire’s Teachers as Cultural Workers: Letter to Those Who Dare Teach, Nowak describes Friere’s horizontalist approach to learning institutions and pedagogy as needing to include service workers, “who know so much more than they are ever given credit for knowing by the disdainful elite.” Each worker needs to take part in “the practice of teaching and learning—ie. the practice of freedom—for the process to be transformative” (p. 206). While Social Poetics is not a conventional teaching guide or craft book, Nowak addresses teachers of writing by suggesting there is more we can do with our workshops. He writes

Social poetics, by contrast, seeks to reimagine the poetry workshop as a radical tactic by which the production of new poems by immigrant workers, migrant workers, refugee workers, and others who are precariously under- and unemployed becomes the root foundation of any new definitions and practices of working-class literature as well as a new tactic within global working-class resistance movements. (p. 209)

It is the dual purpose of the last phrase that links Nowak’s Social Poetics to other forms of worker’s inquiry, such as those published at Notes From Below, a UK-based website focused on showcasing worker’s writing about their own work experiences. These approaches share the project of comprehending and articulating the world from the point of view of the worker.  Nowak’s contribution ishows the role poetry can have in that articulation and expression. 

Nowak has penned an important call to arms, offering the tools of creativity and love. Social Poetics demands that readers of literature, labor organizers, workers, and activists all recognize the potential for creating trans-community and transnational networks based on expressing lived realities of the workplace in the poetic form.


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