Can Poetry Be a Vehicle for Social Change?

A new book by Mark Nowak says yes

by Alex Gallo-Brown | Contributing Writer

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A few months ago, I was sitting with a handful of poets in a living room in southeast Seattle—the kind of house that not too long ago would have been owned by a mail carrier or schoolteacher, restaurant worker or shipping clerk. One of the owners now works in tech. We were talking about politics and poetry, specifically how to marshal one’s literary efforts toward more political ends. A friend had recently organized a benefit to support migrant justice, and we were considering creating a regular reading series to benefit progressive causes. We discussed issues that might be addressed (violence against the LGBTQ community; the Trump administration’s immigration policies; homelessness) and venues that might be approached (bars; restaurants; literary organizations). Then someone suggested bringing the readings into the streets—or even, the camps. Would it be possible to visit a homeless encampment to conduct creative writing workshops? Concerns were raised about appropriation, exploitation—the implication being that we, as middle-class poets, would need to tread carefully when interacting with the disenfranchised or dispossessed. But which was worse? I wondered. Engaging clumsily with very poor people or not engaging at all?

Class is not much discussed in the literary circles with which I am familiar, even as long overdue conversations about race and gender rise in both frequency and tenor. Is this because Americans have been taught, both implicitly (through our culture) and explicitly (through our political structures), that we live in a classless society and to claim otherwise is simply to complain? Or because shame resides on both extremes of the class spectrum and to reveal one’s self as either one or the other exposes one to potential embarrassment and humiliation? Or, because cogent discussions of class in this country must also address race and gender, to discuss any one of these subjects in isolation is less threatening than combining them together? Or because writers often identify as a distinct social group and to imagine one’s self part of an insular writing community is more palatable than assessing one’s self to be a member of an exclusive literary class? Or because, as the poet KM Cascia wrote recently for the website marlskarx, “the bourgeoisie [has] seized total control of the means of literary production,” promoting a literature that is merely “a mirror by which the ruling class contemplate[s] its own beauty forever, a walled garden full of abstractly beautiful flowers”?

Whatever the reasons, the culture seems to be changing. New literary magazines and presses like Prolit (“a literary magazine about money, work, and class”), Protean (“cutting edge art for the discerning leftist”), and Radical Paper (“an ANTI-PROFIT lit and zine press) explicitly present themselves as anti-capitalist. Novels like Heikke Geissler’s Seasonal Associate and Hiroko Oyamada’s The Factory, though not American, have won attention for their nuanced perspectives on class and low-wage work. Poets like Marion Bell, Victoria Chang, Gina Myers, Ryan Eckes, and Jericho Brown directly address power dynamics at work and/or their working-class backgrounds. 

A new book by Mark Nowak goes a step further. An acclaimed poet in his own right, Nowak is also the co-founder of two organizations that seek to merge the historically disparate worlds of creative writing and labor advocacy: the Union of Radical Workers and Writers, which was created in Minneapolis in the early 2000s to bring together retail workers, labor activists, poets, and academics, and the Worker Writers School, which currently provides creative writing workshops to low-wage workers in New York City. Social Poetics (Coffee House Press, 2020) represents the culmination of Nowak’s different forms of labor, both an attempt to recuperate a forgotten literary canon (literature made for and inside working-class struggle) and an effort to summon forth new structures of organization, expression, and literary culture. Borrowing from the British theorist Stuart Hall’s concept of “articulation,” which he defines as “a connection or link that can make a unity of two different elements under certain conditions,” Nowak argues that “new conjunctions” between working-class institutions and cultural practices are necessary for the construction of a better world. 

The construction of a better world—this is the kind of rhetoric one typically associates with arts boosters, government officials, and non-profit fundraisers. Nowak is after something different. In an early chapter, he begins by rethinking the concept and connotations of the word “workshop” itself. The term, he tells us, was originally coined in 16th century England to refer to “a place for the uncouth, the vulgar, the unseemly, and the unfree.” Back then, it was an “ungentlemanly” space laden with the smells, the struggles, and the skirmishes of the working-class. Over time, however, it has come to mean something different: a “refined” space that connotes professional craftsmen and cosmopolitan consumer culture. For Nowak, the effect has been to denude the word from its working-class origins and foreclose upon its potential for radical change. “Our usage has transitioned from a space for possible working-class solidarities and collective action to geographies of individual self-improvement and neoliberal economic systems of exchange,” Nowak writes. Deployed in the context of creative writing, especially, the workshop serves to distinguish one form of labor (the production of literature) from all others, reinforcing the tendency within dominant literary culture to privilege individual self-expression over collective political identity.

Nowak seeks to reverse course by appropriating the traditional creative writing workshop for much more radical ends. Instead of serving university students, the WWS forms relationships with worker advocacy organizations like Domestic Workers United, the Retail Action Project, and the New York Taxi Workers Alliance to engage its members in literary production. Poems composed in these workshops could chronicle the participants’ working lives—or they could not. Nowak borrows from a body of scholarship called “social reproduction theory” to advocate for a working-class literature that not only emphasizes “the economic point of production” (strikes and picket lines and so forth) but also those “significantly expanding spaces where workers reproduce their lives: homes, schools, daycare centers, healthcare facilities, prisons, and related sites.” As a result, Worker Writing School poems could advocate for increased labor rights—or they could not. Applying theories developed by the writers Nick Montgomery and carla bergman, Nowak broadens our understanding of what it means to stand against one’s own exploitation and oppression: “Militancy means combativeness and a willingness to fight,” Montgomery and bergman wrote. “But it [could also] mean the struggle against internalized shame and oppression; support for a friend or loved one; the courage to sit with trauma; a quiet act of sabotage; the persistence to recover subjugated traditions; drawing lines in the sand; or simply the willingness to risk.” For Nowak and his comrades, enacting new forms of “imaginative militancy” is essential in the struggle for greater justice wherever working-class people work and live.

Indeed, this “imaginative militancy” does not begin or end in the Worker Writing School classroom (housed, not incidentally, in PEN America, an organization that “stands at the intersection of literature and human rights”). Instead, Nowak is explicit about the need for participants to connect their creative work to collective political struggle. Worker Writing School poets have read their work at busy intersections in San Miguelito, Panama, to interject literature into the lives of working people. They have read poems outside government buildings in Manhattan to support taxi drivers in their efforts to protect themselves against the deleterious effects of the “gig economy.” They have read poems inside museums to call attention to the plight of domestic workers in New York City and beyond. They have read poems at worksites, political rallies, and union halls. These incredible displays of vision, heart, and solidarity demonstrate that poetry, so often associated with the snooty, the stuffy, and the sequestered, can absolutely resonate with working-class people—so long as issues of concern to working-class people hold relevance to the world of poetry.

“It is not knowledge of exploitation that the worker needs in order ‘to stand tall in the face of that which is ready to devour him,” wrote the French philosopher Jacque Ranciere in a passage quoted approvingly by Nowak. “What he lacks and needs is a knowledge of self that reveals to him a being dedicated to something else besides exploitation.” This is a powerful insight, and a lesson the traditional labor movement should take to heart. Organized labor has been in decline in the U.S. for decades. Union membership is currently down to only about 10% of all workers nationally, compared to 30-40% four decades ago. But recent uprisings of, among others, teachers, hospital workers, hotel workers, gig workers, grocery workers, and cultural workers in the media industry have shown that labor rights and economic justice remain a powerful force in American life. What has been lacking, arguably, is labor’s efforts to engage culture in its mission to advance justice in both the workplace and home.

Case in point: a decade ago, Nowak tried to facilitate “transnational poetry dialogues” between workers at closing Ford plants in the U.S. and Canada, a project that ultimately collapsed when North American unions declined to participate. Around the same time, Nowak was invited to visit the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), a proudly socialist and antiracist organization in operation for decades. During his five-hour poetry workshop, Nowak showed videos of the NUMSA members’ counterparts in Minnesota reading poems about their own experiences working at Ford. The impact on the participants was profound, inspiring one worker to advocate for a “week-long global solidarity strike among Ford workers to prove to the company that they were, all workers of the world, united.” Nowak’s workshop may not have led NUMSA to gain more members or increase their political power in the short-term, but the effect on the workers who did participate was transformative. These sorts of hybrid strategies, enacted on a large scale, could strengthen relationships between workers who are both union and non-union, breathing life into an American labor movement that has too often focused almost exclusively on economics and workplace conditions. 

There are lessons here, too, for literary organizations, which could broaden their constituencies by taking a greater interest in issues of the working-class. They might do this for self-interested reasons but also moral ones. Seattle, the city where I live, has been roiled in recent years by debates over gentrification, corporate citizenship, housing prices, head taxes, youth jails, and homelessness, among many others. While journalists at alt-weeklies and major newspapers have tracked these battles endlessly, prominent local writers and literary organizations have mostly remained silent (with important exceptions). When a bill was recently considered by the state legislature to address the issue of worker misclassification, writers finally began to organize—to kill the bill. Ignoring the tens of thousands of low-income rideshare drivers and other types of workers who might be positively impacted by such legislation, the writers’ organizing efforts focused on the much smaller number of freelancers and “creatives” whose livelihoods could be jeopardized. If they had had more consciousness about themselves as workers, they might have tried to strengthen the bill rather than oppose it.

As a union organizer who writes poetry, I am keenly aware of the difficulties of bringing together creative writing with labor struggle. In my professional life and my creative life, I often feel like I am inhabiting two different worlds. But at a time when economic injustice is at a near all-time high, unions are under attack, and art seems increasingly to have been subordinated to politics, it might do both worlds good to see where they intersect. Social Poetics provides us with a blueprint for how to begin.

Alex Gallo-Brown is the author of Variations of Labor (Chin Music Press, 2019), a collection of poems and stories. He lives in Seattle where he works as a union organizer. 

Cover image by Meghan Schiereck