New Labor Journalism and the Poets
Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to spend a few days in conversations with several prominent younger labor journalists at events at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor in DC and at the school where I teach in Maryland. The journalists included Kari Lydersen, a regular columnist for the In Theses Times labor blog (“Working”) and author of Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What It Says about the Economic Crisis; Gabriel Thompson, author of several titles from Nation Books, most recently Working in The Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won’t Do; and Mike Elk, who also blogs at the In These Times site and who (in)famously was fired by Huffington Post recently for, shall we say, being too labor friendly – only to be immediately hired as a blogger for MichaelMoore.com. Long-time Baltimore radio host Marc Steiner moderated one of these panels for his show on WEAA-FM in Baltimore, which you can hear streaming live at 6pm on Monday, April 25 (or afterwards as a link on the show’s website).
During the two days of discussion, I found I was asking myself a series of questions on that Archibald MacLeish quandry of "Poetry and Journalism," questions for which I wish I had more answers. But the one question I kept returning to was this one:
Why don’t I know more about the lives of the working poor and the unemployed in every city and town that houses an MFA program in the United States?
With the drastic growth of the creative writing/MFA industry in the past 50 years, do I know more or less about people, about wealth and poverty, about the true costs of the current economic collapse, about the lives of Dollar General workers, about what it’s like to live at the minimum wage, about what it’s like to be a 45 year old gas station cashier down the road from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, to be a 37 year old mother of two working in the kitchen where the guests of the creative writing program at my alma mater (Bowling Green State University) eat lunch with faculty and grad students before their class visits, to be the maybe 55 year old Philadelphia man who emptied out the trash cans in the room before my reading last night at Temple University…
Or, for example, with all the writers in all the university and college programs out there, why hasn’t there already been a creative writing version of The Philosopher Kings?
To me, as I sat among the labor journalists and listened to the news that has rabidly stayed news for working people– since at least the time of Engles’s The Conditions of the Working Class in England and long, long before that – I found myself wishing for more from poetry. I wanted more New Labor Journalism in it, fewer attempts to slay Oedipus, less worry about whether Conceptualism or New Formalism was the next kingpin. In fact, in two days of conversations with the young labor journalists, I didn’t hear a single word about sub-genrefication, i.e., the seemingly insatiable urge to dissect and over-analyze the field by sub-genre (or attempt to create "new" ones). It simply wasn’t the most urgent need of these beat writers and investigative journalists covering the economic collapse and its effect on working (or no longer working) people. In fact, it didn't even make their AP Top 25.
Maybe, in the end, I wanted to hear in poetry now the “varied carols” of post-Fannie Mae and post-Freddie Mac America singing, and not only America, but much, much more. The mechanics (at JiffyLube), the shoemakers (at the Foot Locker in the mall and the Nike factories in China), and all the rest, “Singing, with open mouths, their strong melodious songs.”
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...