Last month, I had the chance to meet and read with Mark Nowak as part of the Felix Reading Series in Madison, Wisconsin (thanks to Hai-Dang Phan and Steel). Nowak's reading was a tripartite exploration in the possibilities of a multivocal and transnational poetry--1) a choral reading of "Capitalization" (with two students from the audience), 2) a video of a Ford worker named Denny who'd recently lost his job after many years with the company, another video of a South African worker (and group of workers) who labor at a Ford plant there (and whose poetry responded to Denny), and 3) a reading from his new book, along with photos, from Coal Mountain Elementary, which is shortly forthcoming.
Nowak's work not only elegizes the loss of industrial unionism in America, but also increasingly concerns itself with transnational unionism, the collective subjectivity of labor and laborers; in short, in his poetry's intense social concern and social construction, we sense at once the profound limits of the lyric as it continues to be written today, and also models for how to engage poetry (and people) in an act of collective labor and making. I find his work terribly exciting, and tonic after reading so much navel-gazing and hermeticism. In Mark Nowak, I see a poetic comrade of the first order, drawing back to the history of 1930s engagement poetry, but with the broad palette suggested by the likes of Muriel Rukeyser and hip hop.
His latest project, The Rufaidah Poetry Dialogues is described below:
Initiated as a collaborative project by labor poet Mark Nowak and RNs Rahma Warsame and Nimo Abdi, the Rufaidah Poetry Dialogues seek to engage Muslim nurses and entry-level health care practitioners in a dialogue about health care, race, and working conditions through the reading, writing, and performance of poetry. The group is named after Rufaidah bint Sa’ad, the first professional nurse in Islamic history. It meets regularly at the College of St. Catherine-Minneapolis, adjacent to Fairview-University Hospital.
Thus, Nowak's project sees poetry as a medium between people, as a medium to making, to forging connections within and between people, to bridge the abysses between the lives of those who rarely become the subject of poetry, much less its authors. Nowak thus pushes documentary poetry to its necessary limit--where the poet becomes the midwife of other poets as much as others' voices.