This interview by H.L. Hix is one of a series, many of which will be collected in Alter Nation: America in Recent Poetry, Recent Poetry in America, from Ugly Duckling Presse (fall 2012). Hix loves the interview form as a way of thinking together (itself a condition of democracy, justice, philosophy, and other ideals and practices he values), and as one element in a community poetics. The subject of this interview is Mark Nowak’s Shut Up Shut Down (Coffee House Press, 2004); the interview was conducted in March 2009.
H.L. Hix: If I were offering a succinct apology for your book to a reader who had arrived at it expecting assorted examples of what Adrienne Rich calls “the columnar, anecdotal, domestic poem,” I would start with the last page, and [what I take to be] your assertion that this is a “people issue,” and that even if one of poetry’s roles is the expression of personal emotion recollected in tranquility, another of its roles—more pressing, less often realized—is the insistence, in the face of corporate and governmental ways of framing matters, that economic and political issues are not primarily “money issues” or “security issues” but people issues. Does that bear any relation to how you would speak of the book?
Mark Nowak: Absolutely. People, working people, are always front and center in my work, as well as the first audiences for its reception. Their voices are writ in bold (literally). My writing attempts to expand both “the social condition of poetry” (as Raymond Williams—one of my favorite critics of Wordsworth, especially in The Country and the City—calls it) and the social terrain of poetry (i.e., where it is reproduced, read, staged, etc., and for whom). My work is regularly staged/performed at union halls and at conferences of working people, labor historians, and labor educators, etc. And, I should add, Wordsworth himself makes an appearance on the first page of that serial poem, “Hoyt Lakes/Shut Down,” though articulated, as you say, to “people” issues: “workers/words/worth/repeating” (133). It is impossible, I think, to disjoin “work” from “people.” No matter how much we might love our jobs, we’re still there primarily to put food on the table, keep the house out of foreclosure, put something away for retirement or our kids’ college fund…until the greed of the corporate world and Wall Street turn it all into ashes so that with another depression, as Andrew Mellon infamously said, “assets return to their rightful owners.” And then, now, we have to renew our energy for social struggles and action again.
HH: The juxtaposition of voices in these poems, as represented graphically by contrasting bold, italic, and plain text, creates a kind of dialogue, but even though such dialogue seems clearly as crucial to the work of these poems as dialogue is to the work of Plato’s philosophical inquiries, your poetry’s aims do not—on the surface at least—much resemble Plato’s. How would you articulate the importance of dialogue in these poems?
MN: Dialogue has two major functions in my work. First: In much of Shut Up Shut Down and particularly the new book, Coal Mountain Elementary, the individual pieces are built, so to speak, to function simultaneously as “poems,” photo-documentaries, labor histories (or, as I’ve taken to calling them, “labor history with line breaks”), and theatre works. “Capitalization,” for example, originally won a project development grant from Stage Left Theatre in Chicago, where it premiered; it was then done at the Cleveland Public Theatre, a rally for striking Northwest Airlines Mechanics and Cleaners (AMFA Local 33), etc. And Coal Mountain opens at the Studio Theatre at the Cathedral of Learning at Pitt next month, followed by a run as the spring production at Davis & Elkins College’s Theater Department, just a few miles from the Sago mine. Second: Since the publication of Shut Up I’ve been facilitating national and transnational “poetry dialogues” with workers at Ford plants (in the United States and South Africa), striking clerical workers at the University of Minnesota (through AFSCME 3800), and currently with Rufaidah, an organization for Muslim nurses and health care workers.
HH: The frequency of numbers in these poems (in titles, etc.) might be construed in relation to the presence (actual and referential) of photography, as ways of signaling that these poems are not enclosed within an internal, alternate world, but in active congress with the “real” world. Is it apt to say that this book is not aimed at reflection as an end in itself, but at reflection as a call to action?
MN: “[I]n active congress with the ‘real’ world”: what a fabulous way to phrase it. Yes, and yes, definitely “reflection as a call to action” as well. I go back a good deal to Volosinov’s Marxism and the Philosophy of Language and his comment that “[a] sign that has been withdrawn from the pressures of the social struggle—which, so to speak, crosses beyond the pale of the class struggle—inevitably loses force, degenerating into allegory and becoming the object not of live social intelligibility [aka, the “real” world] but of philological comprehension.” In “Hoyt Lakes/Shut Down,” for example, I was experimenting with rendering Marx’s superstructure/base through poetic form—an expansion of the haibun, really—where the “superstructure” above is grounded in a very precise economic number, i.e., the exact number of people who lost their jobs in each and every Iron Range town when the LTV mine closed. In Coal Mountain I started with a similar question/problematic: how could I render what I think is a significant new development in labor organizing, transnational social movement unionism, in poetic form.
HH: “Be reasonable” is typically used as an injunction to acquiesce to the status quo. When one voice in “act/eleven” says “It wasn’t because of reason / that I wept. / But when I stopped // weeping, that was not because of / unreasonableness” (118), I take it as part of a call, but is the call to reject “reasonableness” as an ideal, or to revise what counts as reasonable?
MN: Like we poets say: revise, revise, revise (literally, “to see again”). I was just speaking to someone yesterday about reading the online responses to stories about labor actions (strikes, sit-ins, protests, etc.). Inevitably, someone will fairly quickly write, “if those lazy bastards don’t like it, they should just quit and go work someplace else.” That, for me, is one type of reasoning I’d love to revise. People absolutely deserve a voice and power in the place where they will spend one-third of their adult lives. Similarly, after previewing a dozen or more labor documentary films for my classes the past two weeks—films like Workingman’s Death and Losers and Winners and Mardi Gras Made In China—the “invisibility” of labor (from the Western/Global North perspective) has been a theme we’ve been talking about a great deal. How, here in the U.S., one can walk into any Walmart or Target or Dollar General or wherever, and find a seemingly endless supply of products “Made in China.” But what does that label really mean? And why are “we” (again, from the Western/Global North perspective) able to “reasonably” deny (or not be concerned about) the conditions under which these products are manufactured? And more so, as I attempt to bring under the spotlight in Coal Mountain, why are we “reasonably” allowed to be negligent of the fact that these manufacturing facilities are powered by electricity from coal mines that, in China, are killing (Engels calls it “social murder”) thousands of Chinese coal miners every year (recent conservative government estimates run at 4,000-6,000 per year; labor groups say it might be four times that). That, too, seems to me an invisibility that has been accepted as reasonable—and one that my writing revises, I hope, back into visibility.
Mark Nowak, a 2010 Guggenheim fellow, is the author of Coal Mountain Elementary (Coffee House Press, 2009) and Shut Up Shut Down (Coffee House Press, 2004)—a New York Times Editor’s Choice. He frequently speaks about global working class policies and issues, most recently on Al Jazeera, BBC World News America, BBC Radio 3, and Pacifica Radio’s “Against the Grain.” A native of Buffalo, New York, Nowak currently directs the MFA program at Manhattanville College in Purchase, NY.