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Poets’ Strike (version 2.0)

By Mark Nowak

A few days ago, Eileen Myles posted – first through Facebook and then here on Harriet – a general call for a poets’ strike on International Workers Day (May Day). I have to confess that, while I love the trajectory of Eileen’s idea, I have my doubts.

About a decade ago, I founded a small Marxist organization in the CLR James/Correspondence Publishing Committee model, the URWW (Union of Radical Workers and Writers), that put on the first national bookstore workers organizing conference (“Resist Retail Nihilism”) and eventually helped unionize one of the only unionized Borders Bookstores in the country. Stacy Szymaszek and a co-worker from Woodland Pattern drove up from Milwaukee for the conference; others involved in the early IWW/Borders organizing drives took the Amtrak up from Chicago; workers like Emmanuel Ortiz from the now-defunct Resource Center of the Americas bookstore, another unionized shop, took the bus down Lake Street; workers from the local info-shops (May Day, Arise) biked over; and workers from the unionized Borders store in Ann Arbor, who had just been on strike, joined by phone. In the weeks before the conference, we tried to hand out fliers to some Barnes & Noble workers in the ‘burbs next to the Dress Barn, but one young worker got scared, ran and told the manager, and security escorted us off the premises.

We spent the entire Resist Retail Nihilism day – as poets and bookstore workers and trade unionists in other fields (slaughterhouse and grocery store organizers from the UFCW, activist labor historians, communication workers & newspaper guild rank & filers, etc.) – talking about the low wage service sector and that old Lenin question, What is to be done? Then, like all good trade unionists, we went bowling and beer drinking at night.

Around that time, we spent many hours standing on the streets with (and for) the workers at the Minneapolis Borders Bookstore, who were engaged in a series of creative tactics – which I documented in my MFA industry essay, recently republished here – that eventually resulted in a union contract (the store was closed by Borders, Inc., shortly afterward: hmmm…). And we held several well-publicized leafleting sessions where we asked locals to come down and help with our campaigns to decrease Borders sales by boycotts, employee buy-in days, etc.

But guess who was largely missing from the protests and street actions? Writers.

Despite a huge community of poets and writers in the Twin Cities, the struggle of booksellers and bookstore workers at one of the largest bookstores in town seemed to be off the radar of 99% of the local writers. A few showed up – but by and large, the groups of writers I’d see out at local poetry events and cafes and literary parties never came to stand on the picket lines. “I’m going to the open mic tonight,” one told me, and “there’s a reading at the Loft from the Jerome grant winners, so…” trailed off another when I asked him to show up. I was even the chair of the Political Issues Committee of the National Writers Union local at the time and the most I could muster from them was a resolution of support (which I had to write myself) – not a single NWU member would show up at the Borders pickets, either.

So the idea of poets showing up, as poets, to an action that is “non-poem” is something that hasn’t historically worked that well, in my experiences — though I’d absolutely love to be proven wrong. Too often, it simply turns into another “poetic” activity… a chance to read a protest poem, a chance to perform an aesthetic action with a political purpose, etc.

Perhaps, instead of a day of not writing poems and talking about why they are not writing, poets should write something (and not poems, either, but blog posts or open letters or essays or op-eds—we are writers, after all) about the struggles of workers in late April and the first day of May, 2011. The topics are almost limitless: the Bahrain government arresting doctors who treat protestors, the sixth anniversary of the collapse of the Spectrum sweater factory in Bangladesh which killed 64 workers and left 80 injured, a possible general strike in Kenya, a strike over rising gasoline prices in Lebanon, teachers in Pakistan staging a sit-in for higher pay, the end of collective bargaining for city workers in Oklahoma, an organizing drive at Target stores in New York, etc.

But, thinking back on the URWW days, what I’m really itching for is another small organization (or, many small organizations) that could take up another political cause and work on it, as poets and workers combined, over the long haul. Maybe a group of poets working together with workers on a union organizing drive (surely there’s a handful of Barnes & Noble workers in almost every city across the US who think their wages & benefits aren’t doing the job)? What about a national, 3-4 year B&N organizing drive, with writers – aka, we whose books sometimes make it to the storage rooms and shelves of B&N – taking an early lead in the organizing drive? I’m reading at the Union Square B&N on May 9, 7pm — anyone interested in helping me begin an on-going dialogue with bookstore workers at that store before or after the event?

What I’ve learned from my time in movements like these is that the one-hit action usually doesn’t do much. Maybe it raises awareness for a second. Maybe it makes someone on the street stop and think about poetry and culture and a living wage campaign for a second. But then that second is gone. The people on the street have their 15 seconds of aesthetics and social protest fame, then dip into the corner Starbucks for a $5 Venti Mocha served by a single mom or single dad without health care coverage.

If we are going to call a strike, let’s dig in. Let’s make a renewed (or brand new) effort to connect as writers with workers, with organizing drives, with strikes from the local to global scales. Let’s put our words and the bodies that speak them to work and on the line in an on-going, organized, long-term way. “We can turn the faucet off,” Myles writes. “The question is why would we do it. To just do something else, to call that a political thing.” Let’s do something else; let’s do a political thing and let’s keep doing it, and often. And now.

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Posted in Uncategorized on Sunday, April 24th, 2011 by Mark Nowak.