Poetry is a verb
I poetry. You poetry. He/she/it poetries. We poetry. You poetry. They poetry.
That’s my conjugation.
Early in the process of developing my transnational social movement “poetry dialogues,” when I was asked by the education directors at NUMSA (National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa) to lead a series of two-day, eight-hour per day poetry workshops at Ford plants in Port Elizabeth and Pretoria, I formulated a schedule that included a “first person singular” poetry day and a “first person plural” day. In the former, autoworkers would read poems like U Sam Oeur’s “Work at the Douglas Corporation, Urethane Department, Minneapolis, Minnesota” and view digital videos of workers from my previous workshops; they would then write individual, often documentary/reportage poems (think Tillie Olsen’s “I want you women up north to know”) about their experiences.
One the second day, the “first person plural” day, I devised a series of exercises for workers to collectively compose collaborative “choral” poems from their experiences, poems that they would then perform as a chorus of workers. If interested, you can find printed examples of both types of poems online in the UAW 879’s October-November 2006 newsletter. [Note: they are not meant to be center-justified, but oh well…]
Yesterday, somewhere between the boyhood home of Sinclair Lewis and the city of Fargo, I facilitated another one of my trade union poetry workshops for Education MN (who represent 70,000 public educators from across the state).
After a morning session on 20th and early 21st century labor history, Deborah Rosenstein (from the Labor Education Services at the University of Minnesota) and myself led a session on Creative Organizing. After an overview of creative techniques that have been historically used by unions, we split the group of about 20 people who signed up for our session into two groups: one worked with Deborah on a Boalian theatre performance, a second group worked with me on a “first person plural” choral poem.
Since the people in my group were from regions all across Minnesota (and were also at various stages of contract negotiations, membership development, organizing drives, dispute resolutions, etc.), the issues we wanted our choral poem to address were varied: intra-union conflict and communication, new member involvement, Fair Share, etc.). Workshop participants wrote poetry stanzas on all these issues and, after some discussions, we decided on the chorus line “What are the pieces of the mosaic?” [Note: I’d shown participants the 2,000+ photo Zimbabwe banner that I included in my last post as part of my introduction.]
The poem itself, “the noun,” was quite beautiful, especially as chorally performed by the participants. It somehow managed (similar to the Zimbabwe protest mosaic) to capture the complete range of poetic forms—one person wrote a limerick; several wrote imagistic poems heavy with water, soil, and rock symbolism; one wrote a short-lined poem that focused on opposites; another person told a deeply personal story of appreciation for solidarity; one directly addressed Fair Share. These pieces (each became a stanza for the choral poem) reflected the incredible diversity of poetic forms and styles that regularly get set against each other in the poetry debates that rage here and elsewhere in the lit/crit & poetry worlds. Yet in western Minnesota yesterday, at a lakeside conference center with union educators and organizers, they somehow coalesced into one under the larger rubric of collectively composed social movement choral poem.
The focus on poetry as verb, as the process of articulating (simultaneously) the first person singular and the first person plural, the individual and the collective, the private and the public, somehow managed for a little while again to transcend one type of debate as it coalesced to build a voice for another—a voice in common and in collective for the betterment of self through the betterment of all.
I know that’s not the function of poetry as noun.
(Maybe that's why I like the verb.)
Mark Nowak is the author of Revenants (Coffee House Press, 2000), Shut Up Shut Down (Coffee House Press, 2008), and Coal Mountain Elementary (Coffee House Press, 2009). His writings on new labor poetics have recently appeared in The Progressive, Virginia Quarterly Review, American Poets in the 21st Century: The New...