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Domestic Workers United Writers’ Workshop

By Mark Nowak

This past Saturday was, for me, like most Saturdays this year. I slept in, had a mug of Irish Breakfast tea, took the L-train into Manhattan, and spent two glorious hours facilitating a creative writing workshop in the 9th floor offices of Domestic Workers United (DWU)—the group central to the passage of  the New York State Domestic Workers Bill of Rights (A1470B/S2311E).

I’ve organized and run poetry workshops before with lots of trade unions and rank-and-file labor organizations—Ford workers at the St. Paul Assembly Plant in Minnesota (through the UAW), Ford workers at factories in Port Elizabeth and Pretoria, South Africa (through NUMSA), formerly striking clerical workers the one semester I was a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota (through AFSCME 3800), Muslim/Somali nurses (through Rufaidah), and others.  The DWU workshop is a collaboration with PEN, who has been kind enough to send Olga Oros, a fabulous videographer, around with us to make a documentary on the workshops. And our first public event at the PEN World Voices Festival, scheduled for May 5, 2012 at the New School, will feature a 10-minute documentary clip about the DWU workshops, a reading by a number of the domestic workers who have been participating in the sessions all year, and a public conversation with the audience.

I’m often asked about the specific poets and poems I use in my workshops in the Ford plants and other workshops. Earlier this year, we were spending a good deal of time in the DWU workshops with the collaborative book of Cuban poet Nancy Morejón and US photographer Milton Rogivin, With Eyes and Soul: Images of Cuba, published by White Pine Press (one of my favorite books, which I’ve also been teaching in recent grad classes on the photo-text). Using Morejón’s poems as models, workshop participants have been writing deeply moving pieces about taking care of their employers’ babies and elderly parents across the five boroughs.

This past Saturday, we spent the first hour finishing and rehearsing our collaboratively composed choral poem, “They say…” (you’ll have to come to the PEN event to hear this one!). After bringing some new participants up to speed and giving them time to write their own stanzas for the choral work and rehearsing it together a few times, we spent the second hour looking at poems from Pablo Neruda’s The Book of Questions and beginning new poems that used Neruda’s questions as a starting point.

Over the course of the past four months we haven’t spent a single second arguing about whether or not Conceptualism is dead. But we have spent a good number of hours talking about the editing process, Occupy Wall Street, racism, slant rhyme, and the upcoming April 15th protest at the Union Square Chipotle (check out all the upcoming Chipotle, Stop & Shop, and Giant protests at the Coalition of Immokalee Workers site). It is, I like to imagine, the way poetry is meant to be talked about—as part of a continuum articulated through issues of politics and race and healthcare and gender and the labor involved in raising other people’s babies, and our own. As I say at the end of every one of our Saturdays together, “This is, literally, one of my favorite places to be in the world.”

Here’s just a tiny sneak peek—less than two minutes from hours & hours of footage—into how we do poetry at the DWU:


Originally Published: April 10th, 2012

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...