Friday, March 20, 2015

Interview with Mark Nowak, 2015 Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism Recipient

The Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism, sponsored by the CrossCurrents Foundation, recognizes and honors a poet who is doing innovative and transformative work at the intersection of poetry and social change. The award, judged this year by Sheila Black, Martha Collins, and E. Ethelbert Miller, is being given for the second time in 2015. Tickets now on sale! Join us on April 2, at the Arts Club of Washington, as we honor Mark Nowak for his work in establishing "poetry dialogues" among workers around the globe. 


Poet, cultural critic, playwright, essayist, and director of the graduate creative writing program at Manhattanville College, Mark Nowak is the winner of this year's Freedom Plow Award. A true poet activist, Mark has a longtime commitment to labor issues. Encouraging deep workers' solidarity, he exposes every mining disaster in the world through his blog and facilitates "poetry dialogues" among workers across the globe. Mark is the author of three books of poetry, all of which can also be viewed as studies of labor economy under global capitalism: Revenants (2000), Shut Up Shut Down (2004), and Coal Mountain Elementary (2008). He is the editor of Then and Now: Theodore Enslin’s Selected Poems, 1943-1993 (National Poetry Foundation, 1999) and, with Diane Glancy, Visit Teepee Town: Native Writings after the Detours (Coffee House Press, 1999). Since 1997 he has been the editor of Xcp: Cross-Cultural Poetics.  Nowak was awarded the 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship.


What inspired your commitment to labor issues? And when did you first start thinking about language as a means for social change?

My family was certainly my first and deepest inspiration. My grandma, Stella, dropped out of elementary school to become a domestic worker. She was later a Teamster and a Rosie-the-Riveter. Her husband, my grandpa, spent his working life in the roll mill at the behemoth Bethlehem Steel Plant in Lackawanna, NY. My dad was Vice President of his union at the Westinghouse plant in Buffalo for many years. And my mom was a clerical worker for most of her career. Then, amidst a sea of terrible teachers in middle school and high school, one teacher (who I’m still friends with), Michael Pikus, told me I should start reading books by Albert Camus and George Orwell and the existentialists. My life hasn’t been the same since then. I’d also add that being part of the punk and electronic music scene and playing in bands in Buffalo and Toronto in my late teens and early 20s helped to politicize me. I’ve written about those years in an essay that came out in Goth: Undead Subculture.

Can you discuss the role of dialogue in your poetry activism?

To me, the poetry workshop is such an important tool for use in progressive organizations like workers centers or repressive institutions like the prison industrial complex because it can operate in what I like to call both the first person singular and the first person plural – the “I” and the “We”. What emerges from my poetry workshops with workers centers and global trade unions, for example, is both a valuation of individual workers’ stories AND the collective understanding that these stories are simultaneously isolated events happening to individuals and repressions that are happening to workers across the world. Thus, the workshops help to build both the confidence in workers’ individual voices and their belief in shared struggle and collective resistance.

How do news outlets trigger and influence your poetry?

Every day, one of the first news sources I look at is Labourstart. It’s very easy to form an opinion that the working class and the trade unions are a dying breed if all you listen to is the U.S. corporate media. But Labourstart reminds me each and every day of the hundreds and thousands of workers around the world who are rebelling in small and large ways. This kind of daily practice utterly shifts my perspective of living in this world and inspires me to continue to do the work I do.

What audience(s) do you keep in mind when you write and publish your poetry?

Every poet wants to say “the public,” of course. But for me, I really want to create work that is simultaneously and equally of interest to the literary community and to global workers. I want to feel equally confident and proud when reading the exact same piece at a literary center and at a union hall. I can’t just write for one or the other, or different pieces for each group. I have to write for them together. This is the only way I can be satisfied with what I produce.

As a professor at Manhattanville College, how does teaching connect to the process and product of your poetry and community building?

When I arrived at Manhattanville, I immediately developed a required MFA seminar on critical pedagogy and the teaching of creative writing in the community. My students read, watch videos, and examine and critique the history of writers in the schools, prisons, community centers, and workplaces. They watch films like Louder Than a Bomb and read books by everyone from Paulo Freire to Joy James. And I’m happy to see a growing number of my former students now teaching writing workshops at Bedford Women’s Prison, Sing Sing, and elsewhere. Others have gone on to develop poetry workshops for women recently diagnosed with breast cancer and women living at domestic violence shelters. This work by our Manhattanville MFA alums really inspires me.

What are you working on now?

We’ve recently won a three-year grant to open a school/institute for worker writers at the PEN American Center in New York City, so I’m developing the first semester’s classes that will start in early April. We’ll meet for five straight weeks and write new poems that we’ll premiere at an event in the PEN World Voices Festival on Saturday, May 9. More info is available at our brand new website, Then we’re going to put together a weekend retreat/festival for worker writers on Governor’s Island this summer.

What is one piece of yours that you are most proud of?

I’m actually most proud of the poems produced by the workers in my workshops. And though I might cite all of them, I guess it’d be good to turn back to the beginning. The first workshop I ever taught exclusively for workers happened at the Chicago Center for Working Class Studies, headed by the great labor historian Bob Bruno. One of the students in that class was Frank Cunningham from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW Local 139). Frank wrote an incredible poem about seeing the electrical work he’d done in the skyscrapers of Chicago, knowing it was his work that made the lights on the Chicago skyline shine as they did in the night sky. The workshop was more than a decade ago and I lost touch with Frank for several years. But when we got back in contact, he told me that he’d recently entered the poem in a contest and won third place. It was the Robert Frost poetry competition and Frank’s poem was published in The Saturday Evening Post. Frank’s story reminds me how much poetry matters to workers who take these workshops and how powerful and important the stories of their working lives can be in bringing social, economic, and political change for workers around the world.

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