Happy New Year?
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.
Mark Nowak is the author of Revenants, Shut Up Shut Down (afterword by Amiri Baraka), and Coal Mountain Elementary (2009), all from Coffee House Press. His writings on new labor poetics have recently appeared in The Progressive, Virginia Quarterly Review, American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics (Wesleyan...