This past autumn, BathHouse Events had the honor of hosting author Mark Nowak for our Fall 2021 reading series. The event featured compelling reading and discussion of Nowak’s recent book, Social Poetics (Coffee House 2020). For Nowak, “social poetics” is a way to think and practice the relation between poetry and social action, as it strengthens the connective tissue between hearts, words, and resistance. People’s histories are made from the language of struggle that people share, which is fortified by the solidarity of collaborating and writing together.
This BathHouse Event ran concurrently with the Creative Writing @ EMU graduate course CRTW 550: Community Outreach for Creative Writers, which nourished a creative collaboration with incarcerated women at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, while examining the prison industrial complex. Through this partnership, the class researched the history of the prison system, and built solidarity with the women writers inside the prison. The class also studied abolition in an effort to imagine a world without prisons. Yet, perhaps this imagining and need for prescription prevents the actualization of abolition. Abolition involves drawing on language of critical resistance; a vision with the goal of eliminating imprisonment, policing, and surveillance and creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment (unweaving architecture of society and developing practical strategies), as well as settling into the unknown and unanswered.
Below you will find the original poster of the event as well as the formal introduction composed and presented by Creative Writing M.A. student Andi Pontiff:
“Mark Nowak is a poet, author, playwright, social critic, and labor activist whose publications include Shut Up Shut Down, Coal Mountain Elementary, and Social Poetics. He is the founding director of the Worker Writers School and has led poetry workshops for workers and trade unions in the US, South Africa, The UK, Panama, the Netherlands, and elsewhere. He also recently edited Coronavirus Haiku, an anthology of haiku written in his workshops by “frontline workers” during the Covid-19 pandemic. Drawing on his vast experience engaging with writers of the working class, Nowak’s latest book, Social Poetics, sends up the voices of the ignored, the underrepresented, and the oppressed. Social Poetics takes a deep dive into the emergent solidarities of a new, insurgent working-class poetry community around the globe, weaving together personal anecdotes, historical analysis, and powerful critiques on modern perceptions of art and writing.
I’ve been personally moved by many of the stories and concepts within Social Poetics, but I’d like to bring specific attention to Chapter 6, which is titled “First-Person Plural”. As someone who goes by they or he pronouns, this chapter caught my attention first with its insightful opening lines: “Pronouns pose and enclose possibilities. Us broadens the world of me, we opens spaces of solidarity for I, and they broadens the binary” (177). First-person plural practically and symbolically honors the individual poet, their struggles, their voice, and their strengths, while also drawing together and amplifying the voice of the collective to push back against oppression and inequality. As Nowak describes it, first-person plural poems can contain, “the smack of solidarity, the sound of ‘I’ and ‘we’ in balance and joined in readiness to struggle against the conditions of […] neoliberal capitalism” (182).
Nowak’s work has also been helpful for us in Dr. Halpern’s Community Outreach class this semester as we navigate through the concepts and complexities of realizing a poetics of abolition through direct work with incarcerated women at the Women’s Huron Valley Prison. Social Poetics has given us useful tools for creating a space in which we can enhance, enable, and/or evolve our capacity to imagine what abolitionist practice might be. The term First-person plural has been helpful to us, along with other concepts in the book such as Consonance, which refers to a conceptual and practical means of creating connections and solidarity between a group of people through poetry, as well as Imaginative Militancy, which connects the ideas of fierceness and love, resistance and care, and combativeness and nurturance. These and other concepts, along with the rich narratives in Social Poetics, have already begun to inspire our poetry, stimulate our discussions, and bring us to a closer sense of solidarity between us and our writing partners at Women’s Huron Valley Prison.”