Stephen Pearl Andrews critiques Mark Nowak’s book Social Poetics.
I received Mark Nowak’s Social Poetics (Coffee House Press) with great expectancy. Poetry never strays far from the social, at least implicitly, as our lives are always, even in the most private moments, social in nature. Whether two bodies coming together in love, or two people shouting across a police barricade, we live within a system that defines every aspect of our existence, even those over which we claim private psychic and emotional ownership. My own years have been a constant struggle to claim and reclaim consciousness against a ruthlessly capitalistic culture of acquisitiveness and despoliation that penetrates even down into my dreams, try though I might to fend it off with the act of writing (the conscious and subconscious distillation of thought).
Social Poetics begins promisingly enough. Nowak’s heart is in the right place, and he has more than paid his dues in the trenches of poetry, these being teaching for three decades “people’s” workshops for workers and unions in the U.S. and various other countries in the world. Social poetics, for him, is “my shorthand for a new formation within both literary practice and socialist political practice.” His lodestars are Langston Hughes and his mentor Amiri Baraka. His recounting of history goes back to the radical 1930s, to Meridel Le Sueur, and the WPA. He follows Baraka in linking the social to the economic. Kenyan prison diaries from the 70s and 80s are evoked. “Our pens should be used to increase the anxieties of all oppressive regimes.” Gwendolyn Brooks’ workshops with the Blackstone Rangers, as well as those of Nikky Finney and Toni Cade Bambara, get surveyed. In stirring rhetoric, Nowak gives a brief tour of the history of striving, particularly among black communities, with the word. It is as though collective praxis in and of itself will bring about the wished-for transformation.
A decisive moment comes when Nowak references his engagement with the ubiquitous, traditional forum of the poetry workshop. “Social poetics, I believe, must activate more than a collection of metaphors of militancy, refrains of rebellion, and rhymes of resistance in poems of the current neoliberal era.” His belief is that taking the workshop out of the hands of professionals (which by dint of experience, he is also one) and putting it into the hands of those engaged in “resistance practices,” poetry will flourish as a weapon of change. Like much radical writing, Nowak’s first chapter, as well as significant other portions of his book, are fired up and most inspiring as stirring acts of rhetoric—in short, as a manifesto. In the abstract, one can hardly be against him, as that would be opposed to truth, liberation, justice, and against the working class itself. The subtext, as with the great socialist orators and labor organizers, is “Which side are you on?” He takes pains to clarify that his book is “not an academic monograph,” as though an academic approach would invite elitist practices.
Despite misgivings at feeling cornered by his opening gambit, in many ways I applaud what Nowak is trying to do. The problems of the “workshop model” have been patent for many years now, yet it still prevails, and is ripe for a takedown. His next chapter recounts the history of seminal workshops in Watts, New York City, and Attica. From there he goes (with street cred from his own labors) to portray the same in Kenya, Nicaragua and South Africa.
Where the book begins to feel soft, and overly wedded to the militancy of its conceit, is when he reclaims the word “workshop”, uncovering its roots in labor (he is correct, of course). I am then reminded of the 80s and 90s, when simply demonstrating you were a “working class poet,” a title dubiously claimed by many university poets who had in fact ascended to the ranks of the bourgeoisie, was a badge of honor. He replaces “workshop” with “conjunctions,” a dynamic noun that intrigues, but this turns out to mean simply bringing together writers of different social groups (albeit predominantly working class), to promote a collective force for new social projects. It is patent that already in community colleges, extension programs, and unofficial self-guided community workshops throughout the U.S., many such gatherings already happen. A conspicuous number of their participants have fervent social or cultural agendas, while others do not. It isn’t clear in this book where exactly the boundaries are drawn, or to what extent professed militancy or awareness of being part of a collective struggle is a criterion. Social Poetics seems to ask to be adopted as a general primer, yet its chief virtue is simply as a socio-anthropological description of a series of related phenomena over half a century.
I can personally say that I’ve taught many workshops among graduate and undergraduate students at both elite private and public institutions, as well as in public school. My students have often been marginalized persons, first-generation students, a large percentage of them multi-racial, border-crossing immigrants, legal and illegal, labor organizers, sex workers, ex-prisoners, and generally from the laboring class, and an appreciable number of these students comes with their own strong notions about social justice, sometimes militancy, and an activist agenda behind their writing.
Yet I would be hard-pressed to employ this “method” (if it is one) to guide the poetic consciousness-raising of these ultimately disparate students. Nothing about their “conjunction” with each other has anything to say about 1) how putting all these individuals in a single classroom space might lead to a particular social praxis or 2) the ability or effectiveness they will achieve by acting as a collective of writers. Some of mine do emerge with potent work and an edge of social critique—with rigorous teaching and mentoring. Others may not be cut out for it as more than a diversion. It is hard for me to imagine stirring them up ideologically in the way Nowak seems to suggest and then have them return successfully to the contemplative state required of a poet—even a socialist one who is on fire to transform the unjust and oppressive system under which we live. To extrapolate from the industrial factory to society at large is difficult, and the book does not undertake to do so, except, again, rhetorically.
Nowak’s next gambit is “imaginative militancy,” which on the face of it, sounds appealing. His definition, however, is less than uplifting. “militancy from below,” “endurance, emancipation, to the left, horizontalidad.” “Tactics vs. strategy.” “Affinity vs. ideology.” This term-slinging reminds me of the heyday of post-structuralism, when term-mongering was at its height, and those who “resisted” systematic thought got overly excited when speaking of “rhizomes” and “imbrication,” as if piling up a list of half-understood concept-metaphors was a substitute for clear and sustained thought. Now, as then, I find myself getting briefly caught up in the rapture of a new proposal before foundering on the non-particularity of its particulars. Throughout Social Poetics, Nowak enters a state of learned rapture, synthesizing all he has lived, in his commendably ardent wish to transform the admittedly troublesome decadence and rigidity of the workshop model. To the extent this book is the autobiography of his conscience, I admire it.
As a longtime teacher and poet, however, I demur when I see the poetry offered as the best examples of this approach.
From the collectively written poem of Ford workers:
Oh! What a life!
We are getting wages
that can only take us
to and from work
to do their production.
From the Justice for Domestic Workers’ Union:
I worked hard but there was no money
I work hard but there’s money
To send my 3 sisters to school.
From a Foxconn worker:
Full of working words
Workshop, assembly line, machine, work card, overtime, wages…
They’ve trained me to become docile
Don’t know how to shout or rebel.
As with any workshop, one would never denigrate the personal experience of any participant’s suffering, emotional deprivation, or any other biographical aspect of their life. Knowing that the Foxconn worker eventually committed suicide provides a context that evokes empathy once that knowledge is superadded.
But as poetry, all of these efforts are the work of beginners, amateur poets who have probably read or heard little poetry and are writing out of a highly limited understanding of poetry’s traditions (worldwide) and the range of ambition that is possible. The verses are flat, prosy, devoid of memorable imagery, obvious in tone, not emotionally engaging except in the biographical sense. The poignance, such as it is, rests on our knowledge, while reading Nowak’s book, that these workers are being exploited. This being the case, one is tempted to say: not bad, good effort, you’re getting something down, the way any teacher of any subject encourages an initiate making a first awkward attempt at writing a poem, more for effort than for execution.
What I find problematic is that Nowak presents this poetry, de facto, as evidence of his new method, which he has pitched in the most exalted terms as transformational and a marked improvement over the pedagogical status quo. Though he equivocates about exactly what his book is, in the end, it speaks with the authority of a manual for creative writing, as well as a philosophical leap in social thought in the manner of Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
It's easy for him to do the initial takedown. But when you have to get down to the specifics of your own alternative method, it’s not enough to surround yourself with a glorious history and throw out grandiose chapter titles like “Transnational Poetry Dialogues,” and “Emergent Dialogues.” Each chapter has its merits as an impulse. The proof of this pedagogy’s effectiveness, however, is simply not there.
It is patronizing to factory workers to parade them as icons of one’s enlightenment, without exposing them to at least the lineaments of the harder and more rigorous path of art. It is lazy to pretend that thousands of years of global poetic form and experimentation in all cultures is only available to elites, and it’s false consciousness to caricature them as the tools of the oppressor. Let’s not make poet-workers into a fetish. Praising their amateurism in the name of social justice feels almost cynical, falsely positing the two terms as equivalent. At a minimum, it’s an old gesture, especially within socialism, where militants (and eventually the socialist state) tended to be overly prescriptive about how creative writing was to happen, in what style (simple and under a flag), and what it was to mean. Nowak’s book offers mostly a series of declarative proletarian statements. If the lineation of these “poems” was taken away (as none of the poets featured has any genuine or tactful sense of what a poetic line is), their emotive outbursts would sound like one more speech at a rally, or one more prose testimonial grievance.
Art has its own demands and shouldn’t have to succumb to the hectoring of socialist idealism. Trotsky understood this truth well. Many of those who came after have forgotten.