Spotlight: Mark Nowak

Sort of Uncharacterizable

Interview by Seth Graves


Mark Nowak is a poet and political activist. He is the author of three books of poetry, including Shut Up, Shut Down (Coffee House Press 2008, with an afterword by Amiri Baraka), which chronicles disenfranchisement and government and labor union relations and features quotations from members of oppressed worker communities. He combines a cross-sampling of interview texts, photographs and images, encyclopedic studies of language and etymology, and mixed poetic forms — such as the haibun — to create the experience of the book as he attempts to articulate the loss of individuality in these telling moments of capitalism. His most recent book, Coal Mountain Elementary (Coffee House Press 2009), also mixed-media in presentation and a collaboration with photojournalist Ian Teh, documents the Chinese coal mining industry and the Sago Mine Disaster and its aftermath with photographs and testimonies of survivors and rescue teams.

Nowak’s approach reflects a gathering and “mixing” that is inherently ethnographic. The work combines arts and forms in a manner perceptively interdisciplinary. The challenge and reward of his works bring to mind a quote from Roland Barthes in his essay “Young Researchers”:

Interdisciplinary work, so much discussed these days, is not about confronting already constituted disciplines (none of which, in fact, is willing to let itself go). To do something interdisciplinary it’s not enough to choose a ‘subject’ (a theme) and gather around it two or three sciences. Interdisciplinarity consists in creating a new object that belongs to no one.

Nowak, by adopting such a process of creating the “new object that belongs to no one,” creates his own world in each text—a polyphonic display of a culture—to be approached as an exciting single product.

In spring 2010, Nowak posted an entry on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog titled “Documentary Poetics.” In his explication of the term, he cites recent panels and presentations he and poetic colleagues have given on the subject of documentary poetry and the manner in which it is aesthetically applied to writing craft. He cites specifically avoiding calling it a “genre,” as it circumscribes all approaches, forms, and styles in poetry; instead, he refers to the term as a “modality”:

Documentary poetics, it should be said, has no founder, no contested inception, no signature spokespersons claiming its cultural capital; its practice is not limited to the pre-modern, modernist, or post-modern moments (it is as comfortable in musty historical archives or conversations with actual live individuals as it is with Google).

The term has entered conversation among academics and practitioners, and courses in documentary poetry have surfaced at colleges and universities. I interviewed Nowak to further investigate what defines “Documentary Poetics.”



SG: I want to talk about documentary poetics—and really to try to come up with even a definition for it. I was very interested in your discussion on the Poetry Foundation blog and in your work and what you have been exploring. I was wondering if we could start by going back to that blog entry and seeing how you define documentary poetics, and even if that’s really what you find yourself as being—or is that too isolated of a term?

MN: I say fairly regularly that I think that my own work, in particular, is more what could come under the term of social poetics rather than documentary, per se. Documentary to me seems to be more of an act of using reportage—news reports, testimonies, in some cases, though not very often in poetry, interviews, ethnography, et cetera—and then creating out from those sources, whereas my own work is really, in a sense, trying to use some of those techniques within kinds of collaborations—with trade unions, social movements, and other types of organizations. In that Poetry Foundation article, that was why I called it more of a modality within contemporary poetry rather than a new kind of genre. I think that documentary impulse is used by tons of poets. In a sense, you could widen the frame to say that almost everyone uses it. Or you could narrow it down to say that only a few people use it.

I remember I went to my first ever AWP this year, because it was almost right next door in [Washington] D.C. I went to a panel on research poetics; it was very interesting, but it was also a bit odd in the sense of discussing…well, one question I wanted to ask was, “What kind of poet doesn’t use research in one way or another?”

Was that with Ted Genoways?

No, that was the one with Susan Howe, Cole Swensen, Thalia Field, Jonathan Skinner, and C.S. Giscombe. Ted’s project with the Virginia Quarterly Review would be another example of that. He’s looking at how poetry can be another kind of reporting—a kind of journalism. So the things that he had been doing with that, and how it burgeoned out into Natasha Trethewey’s new book, the Beyond Katrina book, stuff like that, is another kind of example.

So in defining this sentiment—if it’s not a genre but perhaps a modality—do you think that you call for individuals to employ this practice more often, or do you think that your article just put the idea out there so that people can work with it?

I think that there’s sort of a pendulum, and there’s waves of it. There was a huge wave of the documentary impulse in the 1930s in the “Cultural Front” era. And I think there’s another wave of it happening now. I’ve seen people writing about everyone from Ezra Pound as a documentary poet because he’s using documents; that would make Charles Olson a documentary poet, Susan Howe a documentary poet—all of those individuals. So I think that maybe in part because, in the larger culture, documentary has gained so much strength. I live out in the country and have to get DirecTV instead of cable, and I have a documentary channel where I can watch documentaries 24/7. And if you go to movie houses now—independent movie houses—maybe a third of the films are documentaries now. I think it’s more that we’ve swung to once again being in an era in which documentary has got a bit of clout in the culture as a whole, and so it’s not surprising that poets are looking into it a bit more, too. I think, in part, maybe some of the new technologies make it possible, as well. Recent developments in technology in the last 10 to 15 years have made the documentary impulse something that could be explored in a way where you don’t have to lug around a big reel-to-reel machine and microphones, and so on. It’s more feasible now than maybe it was 20 years ago.

So you feel like you perhaps share a similar space to a documentary filmmaker?

Yeah. I’ve done interviews where I’ve said that. In a way, I find documentary filmmakers more inspiring than what’s happening in poetry these days, because I think that they’re engaging the social a bit more. A lot of the work that I do is around working with people in trade unions on a transnational level. I don’t know where to turn for that in poetry, but in documentary film there’s 15 or 20 examples that you could run through pretty easily of projects like that — Mardi Gra: Made in China, Losers and Winners, etc.

I’m really interested in the way that you can use ethnography to talk about the connections between individuals. One form of discovering ethnography is talking about “writing culture.” I know that in the piece you put up on the poetry blog, you were talking about other people you had been sharing this experience with, and there was a symposium at the University of Utah. Do you feel like there is a culture of individuals talking about this and discussing it that you’re sharing work with—or perhaps you guys are collaborating within poetry?

Yeah. I know that there’s in the works an anthology from Wesleyan, I believe, the Documentary Poetry Reader. That’s been in process for a while but hopefully will be out in the next year or two.

For me, I don’t want to do the kind of work that I do—with the people that I do it with and the subject matter that it’s on, which is pretty much working people and working communities here and elsewhere around the world—and then take that and remove it and produce it only within a community of poets and poetry. To me, it’s important that that work circle back within the community.

So, for example, with the most recent book, Coal Mountain Elementary, it was consistently tested and exposed and performed and produced first in that community in West Virginia, right near the Sago Mine—before it “went out” and everything else. When the mine disaster in West Virginia first happened, I was there about six weeks later doing workshops with students and community members when I first shot some of the photos. And then when I was working with the Sago testimony and working that into a sort of documentary play, the school—Davis & Elkins College, which is about 15 or 20 miles from the Sago mine—performed it. They did a staged reading of it. And then when the book came out, the book tour started there, and the theater department at that same college turned it into a play. And they did it at the University of Pittsburgh’s theater department’s black box theater; they did it as their spring production for a two- or three-week run at the college; they took it a little bit on the road in West Virginia and performed it at a cafe and performance space in central West Virginia. So it was really important for me that that work started out in its public sort of way, right near where the work is drawn from.

And how do you feel the communication was between the subjects you were speaking to and the members of the community and your work as a poet?

It was incredibly powerful to me. At one of the productions, in particular, I later got pulled aside by the director. She told me that several of the family members whose cousin and brother had been killed in the Sago mine disaster were there. They had been across the street in the Sago Baptist Church during the duration of everything that happened. They came to the production, stayed afterward, and wanted to speak to the director, the actors and actresses, and myself. The two things they said most strongly: One, they remarked on how difficult it was to sit through the production because it felt to them exactly how it felt being in the Sago Baptist Church across the street during the rescue operations at the mine site. Two, they said how happy they were after the media had just come in—Anderson Cooper and everybody were there for 72 hours, and then they disappeared, and everyone had forgotten about it—but because of this, perhaps it would be remembered in a particular and accurate way. I did a little op-ed piece in January this year, a couple months ago, at the fifth anniversary of the Sago mine disaster. There was one West Virginian newspaper blog about it, and that was the only thing that had come out about it being the fifth-year anniversary of this. And so I wrote an op-ed piece about it—about what it means to forget and what it means to remember.

Did you feel any resistance to the fact that this was poetry?

In the end, I don’t know that it is. So to me, I don’t know what you call Coal Mountain Elementary. Some people call it poetry, and there is one of those “lesson plans” in it where I do use line break and space—so there is poetry in that way. But to me, it’s also labor history. And it’s creative nonfiction. And it’s a play. And it’s phototext and goes back to that kind of big tradition in the 1930s and 40s of Richard Wright and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and all those sorts of books. And I like that. I like that the book is sort of uncharacterizable.

I also found a little bit of connection to Jacob Riis, and the way he was giving presentations to expose people to a condition.

Certainly—that whole social documentary tradition.

I was curious about your other book, Shut Up, Shut Down, where you employed some forms. You talked about the haibun. Did it feel important to combine of all of this gathering and then the use of that constraint, for poetry or for yourself?

In that book—well in both books—it’s an overall structure of the book that I’m looking for. If you look at the five pieces in Shut Up, Shut Down, they move back and forth between that working with the haibun form…I’ve been reading this poet Fred Wah, and he had done some pieces in a book called Waiting for Saskatchewan that I found incredibly interesting in lots of different ways. So I was working with those and trying to bring them into this labor context and seeing how they might work. So you have that sort of haibun form in photo texts in three of the pieces. Then in between those three, so pieces two and four, are the verse plays— “Francine Michalek Drives Bread” and “Capitalization.” Once I had one of each, I had the idea that if I had about five of these it would make a nice book-length collection—because I like something that’s a little bigger than the 70-page poetry book. I then decided I could do three of one and two of the other and alternated them, one to the other. It was a way of working out the larger form of the book to have a kind of a valence to me that felt most interesting. I’m the kind of person who lays out my books in Excel spreadsheets before I start. So I’m looking for a kind of structure. I think it comes from having been a musician before I was a poet and looking for a kind of score for the whole thing.

I was going to ask you how you came to doing this project. You mentioned music. What kinds of other things were you studying or reading or feeling influenced by?

I became in the early to mid-80s an electronic musician. I was in two- or three-person groups that used a lot of syncing of synthesizers and drum machines, and sampled sounds—things like that. There was a lot of programming and structure in that work, coming out of Kraftwerk and that early German Krautrock, and then being really influenced by really early rap and hip hop and seeing shows by a lot of those people. I wrote about that period in Buffalo in an essay that’s in Goth: Undead Subculture (Duke UP). So that kind of structure just became for me the kind of structure in which to make an artwork. Even when I went to graduate school, my MFA thesis was a multi-track recording of Jackson Mac Low-esque chance-generated text. So there really isn’t a paper copy of the thesis; there’s just a cassette. That was ’89 or ’90—something like that. So that just was the kind of milieu of the work. That’s how I put things together—through sampling, through multi-track recording. In certain ways, that’s what you continue to see in these books. You hear a sort of multi-track recording because there’s a boldfaced voice and an italicized voice and a normal font voice. And you see it sampled from various places. The images were definitely something we used to with our music, when we used to work with slideshow projections and things like that as part of the performances. All of that stuff from the early and mid-80s still continues to reverberate through the compositional process today.

I’ve heard described before the past 10 to 20 years of writing as being sort of the era of sampling, or where poetry is so outwardly influenced by a sampling culture. I guess other forms of sampling were also an influence, in other decades. You were talking about the 30s, which sort of had its own forms of sampling. Do you feel that this perhaps is more true to the self—this form of drawing different voices—in today’s era more than it would be in other times because of the Internet culture?

Well, I think it’s a pendulum. I think we go back and forth. Maybe today, but I don’t know. In a sense, what’s the difference between Marcel Duchamp and Kenny Goldsmith? Other than one is a toilet and one is text. So I think it’s just that pendulum thing. Certain ideas kind of come back, and they are slightly different because we have different technologies and we are in a different kind of cultural space, but in the end there are very clear similarities between those kinds of works. So that work is closer to a kind of conceptualism. There’s something like Rukeyser or Reznikoff or Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices, which employs some of those techniques, which is closer to what I do. So you can probably map a lot of those strains from the late 20s to the early 40s on to various projects of people who are doing stuff today.

Do you feel any resistance in the poetry community? I’m not trying to get you to draw lines or name names, but do you feel that there is some resistance to this kind of form?

I don’t know about resistance, necessarily, but I think people like building their encampments and then walling them off. So I think that there are people who are very interested in establishing their group and then moving forward into history with that group, befriending old critics to grant the work a seal of approval, etc. That’s why, in that Poetry Foundation piece, I said I don’t really want to be a part of a “documentary poetry” group. I don’t want to edit a documentary poetry anthology. I don’t want to be known as a documentary poet. I don’t want to have that be my school, because I think there’s a dangerous way in which those become places of inclusion but also places of exclusion. I want to hang out with all of the groups. Or none of the groups, but I don’t want to be the documentary poetry person. That’s why, when I have these conversations, I always start off with, “Well, I see myself as more of a social poet working with organizations, institutions, NGOs, trade unions, etc.” Because it’s not a school. It’s not a movement. It’s none of those things. It’s just the social, collaborative work that I do.

When you say that you see yourself as a socially conscious poet working actively in a community, what kind of hope do you have for documentary poetics as a service to these communities? It seems like there has already been a lot of benefit in your work, but in what kind of other places could this be working?

Hopefully I leave that for other people to discover, but, for me, what I see is that people who aren’t poets or who don’t say, “I’m a writer who sends out poems and I’m going to be in an MFA program”—the people I’ve worked with who have been clerical workers, or nurses, or the workers at the Ford factory in Minnesota or South Africa: to them it becomes a very useful device, because it becomes a mode of reflection, a mode of speaking, of putting down, and getting out, and sharing what has been bottled up inside them that they have no way of expressing. For example, with the poetry dialogues between the workers in Minnesota and South Africa, they were able to discover their coworkers. A worker in Minnesota had no idea what a South African Ford worker’s life was like or job was like, and pretty much thought they were probably stealing their jobs in a lower wage  production system. And simultaneously the workers in South Africa discovered that when a Ford worker in America loses their job, this is not a land where everybody has college educations and lots of money and they just go on to something else. They learn much more about each other and discover it through this project. The people I worked with had never had an opportunity to make that kind of connection before.

Do you think that this kind of research makes making a social claim or an argument easier than just staying in the personal realm? Is this making it easier to have a conversation with a public outside of poetry?

Again, I think all the positions are valid. But for me, it has put me into spaces or conversations that I would have otherwise never been a part of. I think, in certain ways, it created connections that society as a whole, under capitalism, doesn’t want to happen. I went to the first place in South Africa—in the assembly plant in Port Elizabeth. The managers of the Ford plant had found out I was coming, and forbid any visitors to the Ford plant for the week that I was there. So the people in the union, NUMSA (National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa), had to scurry and find an off-site location to do it, simply because management didn’t want workers in several countries talking to each other. So I think that it does do something. It does something in a way that those empowered don’t necessarily want to happen. To me, it was an incredible demonstration of the power of this kind of work. You’re getting banned from entering the place where this was supposed to happen. And you would think, poetry? Who is going to be afraid of that? But this was an example of it, and it proved it for me.