Hello Harrieteers,
Although I was hoping to start posting a few days ago, my computer crashed my first day on the road. Thanks to the Oklahoma City Mac Genius Bar (double thanks to Caleb!) I'm back online and set to begin Poetry Foundation summer camp today. In the next day or two, I’ll try to post impressions from last week’s conference in Vancouver honoring the career of poet-editor-activist-social critic Roy Miki. But I wanted to open by saying a few words about some areas that I hope my posts will begin to explore and open up for conversation.
This morning I went to the only breakfast place within walking distance of my hotel here in OKcity, a Denny’s off the interstate. When my wife asked our waitress about the closest movie theater (in case we needed to escape the 90 degree heat), she said, “Well, I’m not from around here. I moved here two months ago so I could work at this better restaurant.”

Now, I spent nearly a decade myself working at a highway exit fast food restaurant (Wendy’s) in Buffalo during the 1980s. These days, I spend a good chunk of my time trying to figure out the relationship between all the (global) implications of the story of my waitress at Denny’s (I know her name, but won’t include it here) and this thing I’m involved in called poetry.
Does contemporary poetry have any desire to open a dialogue with my Denny’s waitress (or my former Wendy’s co-workers)? --and I’m not talking Joe Wenderoth here. What is the relationship between contemporary poetry and the working class, the working poor, and the under- and unemployed?
Walk into any Target, Dollar General, Aldi, Taco Bell, or any of the other countless workplaces in the service sector strips that repeat themselves, ad nauseam, across the American landscape, and look at the workers, particularly the adult workers, those people trying to raise families or trying to supplement their (meager or lost) retirement, those just trying to survive, and ask, “What is the relationship between what (my) poetry has to say and her? And him? And them? (And us?)”
William Carlos Williams famously wrote in “Asphodel” that men [sic] “die miserably every day” for lack of what is found in poems. My question would be to ask what do poems die miserably every day from? From what is found in women and men working at an interstate exit fast food restaurant?
Until next time,

Originally Published: June 6th, 2008

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...

  1. June 6, 2008

    Death by lack of relevance.
    Why does all the great poetry thrive in those big cities and picturesque landscapes where poets from big cities hide themselves and write great poetry about big cities and picturesque landscapes?
    Where's my great poem about watching American Idol? A real poem about Denny's?
    Certainly not dramatic topics on the face of it, but certainly relevant to the millions who will never read another poem for the rest of their lives.
    I guess it's just that your waitress will never read a poem and find herself the hero. They will never have a relationship if they can't find anything to relate to.

  2. June 7, 2008
     Kent Johnson

    In Nicaragua, during the Sandinista revolution, there was a nationwide poetry workshop program, in which thousands of working class people participated. The pedagogy was largely based on Pound's ABCs of Reading, A Few Dont's, and Imagist principles in general. Classical poetries from Greece, Rome, China, and much modern U.S. poetry was at the core of the reading curriculum for the students. Some of the work produced, much of it very political, is quite wonderful and moving, and I believe the example of this collective phenomenom might have much to offer as answer to your concluding questions, Mark.
    In other words, it would be wrong to think that the answers or provocations poetry might provide would come from "us" (choose your Poetic type or tendency) writing poems for service-sector workers! Rather, it's working class poets who must write poems for themselves and their co-workers. So if a poet is directly involved in trade union work of some kind, wishes to find ways of making poetry relevant, start a workshop, I say. It won't be as glitzy as a Conceptual Poetry conference, but it will probably have a more meaningful impact on the world in the long run...
    A good deal of the Nicaragua work is available in a book I translated while working as a literacy teacher there in 1983-- A Nation of Poets: Writings from the Poetry Workshops of NIcaragua (West End, 1985). This also contains a lengthy interview I conducted with the great poet Ernesto Cardenal, who directed the workshop program as Minister of Culture for the Sandinista government.
    Good questions, Mark.

  3. June 7, 2008
     Kent Johnson

    Meant to say that if you think you could use them, I'd be happy to send along a batch of copies of A Nation of Poets. Don't have your current email, so making the offer here. You can wirte me at kent.johnson@highland.edu
    I have a box ready to go out to Jennifer Karmin in Chicago, in fact, who is running a great program with working class writers there. She'd be someone you should be in touch with, if you aren't already.

  4. June 7, 2008
     Don Share

    Here's the last stanza of Miguel Hernandez' great poem, "El sudor" (Sweat):
    Entregad al trabajo, companeros, las frentes:
    que el sudor, con su espada de sabrosos cristales,
    con sus lentos diluvios, os hara transparentes,
    venturosos, iguales.
    Comrades, surrender your foreheads to work:
    sweat, with its sword of tasty crystal,
    with its sticky flood, makes you transparent,
    lucky, equal.

  5. June 7, 2008

    I think the idea that there is a lack of American Idol/Denny's waitress poems is an imaginary one. They're all over the place! What I've learned from these poems: working at Denny's sucks, and watching American Idol is depressing. Of course, I kind of knew that already.

  6. June 7, 2008
     Jeannine Hall Gailey

    Dorianne Laux has some fantastic poems about waitresses, and her husband Joe Millar also has some wonderful poems about working class living.
    Besides that, I believe that pop culture can be a great uniter of minds...it's a common thread, everyone experiences the same commercials and cartoons, and that's why I champion its use in poetry.

  7. June 7, 2008

    Thanks for the comments. In fact, for the past few years I've been facilitating transnational "poetry dialogues" with workers at Ford plants in the US and South Africa, with poetry workshops between shifts or on lunch breaks. Also doing them with (formerly on strike) AFSCME clerical workers. And facilitating a poetry workshop with the Minnesota state teachers' union members later this month at their annual conference, which I'll blog on.
    If anyone wants to start a national service-sector poetry workshop movement, I'm volunteering to coordinate the undertaking here & now!! I'd love to see the results (both poetic and political-economic) of poetry workshops with workers from WalMarts or McDonalds or... all across the country (or the globe). Something akin to the June Jordan "Poetry for the People" workshops articulated to the Johnson-Forest tendency -- http://reconstruction.eserver.org/081/yang.shtml

  8. June 7, 2008
     Henry Gould

    Robert Frost had a very interesting suspicion about "literary" writing. He thought that the further poetry got from the way people actually talk, the more effete, mandarin, unreal it became. The more it became a kind of specialized activity of a disconnected intelligentsia. Real poetry was rooted in the sound of people speaking to each other.
    I say this is interesting because, on the other hand, Frost was a classicist, who schooled himself in old Roman literary modes of poetic style & rhetoric. Somehow he combined the two. Every poet finds a unique path - surprising, paradoxical.
    It seems to me that there is no purely poetic or literary "answer" to Mark's interesting question. No single approach which will guarantee this living relevant vitality which we look for in poetry. Given a basic talent or bent for making poems, the issue of vital relevance has more to do with the unspoken motivation of the poet. The sincerity, the fatal commitment of the vocation itself.
    The person who one way or another has a serious bond of conscience & feeling with his or her fellows, with the earth, with this particular time on earth - this person will endeavor to seek out a responding mode of address. It's really a moral & emotional & existential impetus, which can't be taught as literary style. The serious poet will write serious poems (& by serious I don't mean lugubrious or self-righteous). The poems will display a challenging moral heft & complexity - & maybe a clear & limpid simplicity, as well.

  9. June 7, 2008
     maria d

    good questions, mark. inspiring. i think the answers are so multiple as to open up many questions and dialogues that can go in lots of direcitons. i'm thinking, still, of the ways the US is torturing prisoners and suspending habeas corpus, and the relevance of poetry to this phenomenon. i'm sure there is a relationship between the Denny's lady and Guantanamo/Abu Ghraib; perhaps her relatives are serving in the armed forces, perhaps they are in punk bands protesting the war.
    were questions such as the ones you raised brought up at the Vancouver conference? in what ways?

  10. June 7, 2008
     Flap Jack

    Laux and Millar are an interesting case. I of the mindset that the imprecision and sentimentality in their poem specially show a condescension to the very figures They're supposedly valorizing. And what's interesting is how Laux churns out working class student poets, like Mike McGriff, whose poems I just encountered in The Missouri Review, along with a rather defensive explanation about how his work inhabits the imagination and speaks about the working class and poor from his Oregon hometown. But who are McGriff and Laux intending their poems for? Fellow workshop students? Tenure committees? I don't necessarily mean this in a disparaging way, but I get the feeling when reading their work that I'm being told, This is how things really are. You can never know.
    It's uncomplex, and to paraphrase Susan Howe, Don't the working class dream, too?
    I agree with the commenter about the net result of reading poems about Denny's and American Idol. But then what to do about a work like James Agee's Let Us Know Praise Famous Men? A book filled with the complexity over Agee's own concerns of exploitation of his subject matter. Fair enough. But again, what has a book like that done, practically, except enlighten the already enlightened?

  11. June 7, 2008
     Henry Gould

    ... to follow up on my previous comment : I would just like to underline this idea that a poet's moral or social or political commitment is a personal, not a literary thing.
    In fact I believe the idea that style itself has a political quality, that there is a "political style" of poetry (progressive, regressive, avant-garde, reactionary, or what have you), has been one of the most misleading, divisive, & barren notions ever to plague US literary history of the last 100 years.

  12. June 7, 2008
     Adam Strauss

    This is likely the best discourse-node I've yet to see on this blog: interesting, not mean, diverse.
    I love discovering that Pound's dictums--excellent ones but almost impossible to
    practice they're so pure--were used in Nicaragua for a poetics which massively intersects the political sphere. I hope everyone is doing well.

  13. June 7, 2008
     Kent Johnson

    Henry Gould said:
    >In fact I believe the idea that style itself has a political quality, that there is a "political style" of poetry (progressive, regressive, avant-garde, reactionary, or what have you), has been one of the most misleading, divisive, & barren notions ever to plague US literary history of the last 100 years.
    I agree, Henry. The notion that form harbors some kind of intrinsic value informs and drives Language poetry from the start, and thus, to some degree, all the branchings and buddings from it. The shameful stance of prominent Langpo figures towards the Poets Against the War phenomenon ca. 2003 made clear, as times of heightened crisis often do, the bankruptcy of this position. Of course, there has been plenty of silly dogmatic pronouncement from the "mainstream" side of things, too.
    Adam, yes, Pound and Imagist/Vorticist principles are key to Nicaraguan Exteriorismo, a deeply influential current in Latin American poetry that Cardenal, Jose Coronel Urtecho, and other Nicaraguans develop in late 50s and 60s. It comes to be the poetic style par excellance of testimonial, political poetry in Latin America, much more limpid, vernacular, ironic, than Neruda's rhetorical effusions--Roque Dalton, perhaps Latin America's greatest revolutionary poet of the past half century, writes under the immediate influence of exteriorista principles. So it's very interesting: Pound the fascist is the root of a radical leftist poetics in another language. The rather thrilling curiosity is further evidence, actually, of Henry Gould's point above.
    Mark, that is fabulous, what you are doing. Will there be an essay or book written on this experience? Again, let me know if you would like any copies of the book I mentioned for possible use.

  14. June 8, 2008

    In the country, poetry has become largely afffiliated with academia, and so it is interesting to read about Nicaragua, and its creation of a (nation-wide) structure created for communities of poets to evolve from. Here there are non-academic venues (community groups, open mics, slams) but the poems and poets to come from these places generally aren't valued by the official poetry machine (when I was teaching I didn't know what to do with hip-hoppy, slam-type poems, because that is outside of what I consider my expertise, the mainstream and, yes, sentimental-type poem.)
    I was interested to see Tracie Morris on the blog, because she's a hip-hop-inflected performance poet whose work I showed videos of in my classes, as the best of the genre, not that I knew anything about the genre. The other blog-posts on conceptual poetics put me to sleep, and I would bet that most waitresses are tired when they come off shift and are similarly prone to snooziness and some veg-out American Idol watching (though I know that is a stereotype.) A little sentimentality of the Millar ilk can ward off sleep more effectively, I would venture, than a conceptual poem.
    Poets, of course, also have this idea that poetry-writing is more empowering to the "underclass" than other activities like star-gazing or biirding, activities that also create communities that transcend class.

  15. June 8, 2008

    I don't think there is a single relationship between something called poetry and the constellation of working-class and service-sector lived experiences which Mark has the Denny's waitress represents. Rather, each poet worth rereading, and maybe each poem, establishes such a relationship-- or does so if that poem takes an interest (as all Mark's poems do) in that constellation of topics.
    I am less interested in how poetry-in-general is related to these tough lives than in how Mark's poetry is related to these lives. And in how Richard Hugo's poetry is related to them (for example). And in how Tom Leonard's poetry is related to them (for another example). The relations are not the same.
    I'm also interested in what Mark thinks is the relation between engage', documentary reportage, the irrefutable establishment of facts about a social wrong, facts which ought to impel some of us to do something, and poetry of the kind he writes. (That's an important question for the poetry Mark writes, where the reportage always has something to do with class and with class injustice; it's not as important a question, I'd say, about some other kinds of poetry: for example, despite the many rural working-class people in Frost's poems, it's not a useful question about Frost.)
    Neat thread.

  16. June 9, 2008

    if you ever spend any time with a slush pile, you will know that there are plenty of genuine working-class poets out there, some of them even good.
    what we don't need is people who want to write about things outside of their experience just because they think it's something they're supposed to do.
    as a whole, of course, americans (of every class) are hostile to literature & deeply anti-intellectual--a problem which is not unrelated to our present political debacle; in comparison with which, i might add, the qualms of individual writers shrink into complete insignificance.

  17. June 10, 2008
     Brian Salchert

    Read this post today.
    Was a third-shift employee in the hospitality industry
    for most of my working years
    and did often write about my experiences,
    especially in 1976.
    Kent Johnson quoted Henry Gould,
    and then began a paragraph with:
    "I agree, Henry."
    I also agree.