Thanks to some offline encouragement, I’ve decided to start re-posting my column here at Harriet once a month or so. In my time away, I’ve been penning reviews of new working-class poetry volumes (an extremely critical one of the highly problematic The Way We Work: Contemporary Writings from the American Work Place, edited by Peter Scheckner and M.C. Boyes, for Labor History and another more positive one of You Work Tomorrow: An Anthology of American Labor Poetry, 1929-1941, edited by John Marsh, for the Labor Studies Journal).
And I’ve also been watching the economy plunge further since I last wrote for Harriet, reading of its effects on working people across the globe and trying hard to find new poems that innovatively address the current economic clime and its effects on workers in the U.S. and across the globe.

In the final days of 2008, I read in the NYTimes about the plight of the auto industry and its effects on Black autoworkers: “By last month [November], nearly 20,000 African-American auto workers had lost jobs, a 13.9 percent decline in employment, since the recession began last December… That compares with a 4.4 percent decline for all workers in manufacturing.” One automobile industry employee is quoted in the article as saying “that when America catches a cold, African-Americans catch the flu.” So to go back to the central lines of one of my favorite poems, Hughes’ “Johannesburg Mines,” “What kind of poem/would you/make out of that?”
A reading I attended several months ago at the Mayday Bookstore in Minneapolis helps flush out the NYTimes article. David Roediger was in town to speak and read from his brilliant new book, How Race Survived US History: From Settlement and Slavery to the Obama Phenomenon. I love Roediger’s work because the poet—either in spirit, voice, and/or text—is never forgotten (Roediger’s essay on Sterling Brown and new labor history, published in New Working Class Studies a few years ago, is one of the finer texts I’ve read on the articulation of poetry and labor). Along with Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness, How Race Survived US History is a must read in these days preceding the inauguration.
I’ve also been reading my way around in the massive recent Nicholas Coles and Janet Zandy edited American Working-Class Literature: An Anthology. Weighing in at nearly 1,000 pages, the volume is a comprehensive take on the field. Coles, editor of the defining 1990s anthology Working Classics: Poems on Industrial Life, and Zandy, author most recently of Hands: Physical Labor, Class, and Cultural Work, have scoured the shelves and archives to produce a volume that will, for the early years of the 21st century, be canonical in literature and labor history classes. My only real beef with the book (besides the fact that they misspelled my name in the bibliography!), which should be familiar to readers of my earlier Harriet columns, is the limitation that’s incurred by the adjective “American.” I’d like to begin to imagine what the volume might be if the defining title were simply “Working-Class Literature: An Anthology.” Can we push beyond the nation-state in our thinking about labor and poetics in order to (re-)envision a poetry (and working-class politics and poetics) that includes, say, Canada and Mexico and the rest of the world? Both in the years prior to this continent becoming these particular “nations” and in the post-NAFTA era of neoliberal globalization (and its potential collapse), how does (or might) poetry address a working world that is not so stringently nation-bound?
Amidst this economic plummet that is obviously both a national crisis and a crisis far beyond the boundaries of the nation-state, this seems a perfect time for poetry and poetics to simultaneously expand as well.

Originally Published: January 5th, 2009

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. January 5, 2009
     Joseph Hutchison

    It's good to have you back, Mark. Harriet needs some poets with mud on their shoes....

  2. January 6, 2009

    Joseph, isn't that a bit of a blue collar stereotype--"mud on their shoes"? As if country folk are the only ones who have hard lives working for less-than-living-wages. There's very little mud in NYC outside of our city parks, but if you think there aren't poor people here doing menial jobs, you're kidding yourself.

  3. January 6, 2009
     Rita Wong

    Glad you're back, Mark! Funny, I just started teaching today, and the class read and responded to a couple of sonnets (by Wanda Coleman and Roger Farr) that involve economic questions (below), though I'll need to keep looking for poems specifically responding to the current economic climate. Thanks for putting that question in my head.
    It's not a poem, but I just found out about this book/DVD, To the Tar Sands, which looks at the effects of the oil industry boom on communities in Alberta:
    Things may be slowing down economically, but the pollution of the oil industry remains terrifyingly toxic (for instance see, scroll down to Oct 1- Alberta Tar Sands), and I hope people can find ways to survive that don't rely on poisoning the land and people's futures - back to Farr's "autonomous land initiatives" below... and measurements like the genuine progress indicator (
    American Sonnet 61
    reaching down into my griot bag
    of womanish wisdom and wily
    social commentary, i come up with bricks
    with which to either reconstruct
    the past or deconstruct a head. dolor
    robs me of art's coin
    as i push, for peanuts, to level walls and
    rebuild the ruins of my poetic promise. from
    the infinite alphabet of afroblues
    intertwinings, i cull apocalyptic visions
    (the details and lovers entirely real)
    and articulate my voyage beyond that
    point where self disappears
    mis violentas flores negras
    these are my slave songs
    - by Wanda Coleman (from Bathwater Wine, Santa Rose, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1998)
    I'm sorry to make of poetry a mockery again
    But this evening, as I exited Safeway, the historical process
    Of separating the proletariat from the means of subsistence
    Forced itself upon my eyes with such a violence
    As to break the levees of false consciousness.
    For it was there, among the Tylenol and the razor blades
    Among a disturbing array of meat and dairy products
    I spent $3.38 on mozzarella cheese, $1.04 on Macintosh
    Apples, $2.29 on fresh basil, $1.10 on hot-house tomatoes
    $1.95 on French-style Artisan bread, and $4.99 on a Green
    Drink. Now I admit I’m no campesino. But as the last
    Long rays of a late September sun cast shadows over
    The obsolete lawns of Oak Bay, I understood precisely
    Our need for autonomous land initiatives.
    - by Roger Farr, from Surplus (Burnaby, BC: Line Books, 2006)