Lullaby for the Working Class

Local poet Mark Nowak pens industrial verse for closed steel factories and forgotten labor pains

The photograph on the cover of Mark Nowak's new poetry collection, Shut Up Shut Down, shows three workers in Buffalo, New York, standing atop the blast furnace of the recently shuttered Bethlehem Steel plant in 1983. Above them is an upside-down American flag, a universally recognized sign of distress--and a not-so-subtle commentary on what had become of their city and their lives.

At the time of the plant closing, Nowak was an 18-year-old Wendy's hamburger slinger more concerned about the local industrial Gothic music scene than the plight of unemployed steelworkers. The image held little resonance for him.

But a couple of years ago, as Nowak was doing research for a poem at the Minnesota Historical Society, he stumbled upon the image again. In the intervening two decades, his life had changed significantly. He'd earned an undergraduate degree at Canisius College and a Master of Fine Arts from Bowling Green University. In 1992, he began teaching at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, and five years later started his own literary-cultural journal, Xcp: Cross Cultural Poetics. His first volume of poetry, Revenants, was put out by local publisher Coffee House Press in 2000.

Ode to an abandoned workspace: Local poet Mark Nowak
David Kern
Ode to an abandoned workspace: Local poet Mark Nowak

Looking at the photo of the laid-off Buffalo steelworkers again, Nowak was struck by how powerfully the image symbolized what had become of his hometown. "The steel mill where my grandfather worked, with like 35,000 people--gone," Nowak laments. "The train station where my other grandfather worked--closed. The Westinghouse plant where my dad worked, which probably employed 15,000 to 20,000 people--torn down. I'm in my 30s and everything's gone, boarded up. You go to Detroit, you go to Gary, you go to Youngstown, you go to any of those places and you see the same thing."

The deindustrialization of these rust-belt cities, and the resulting economic impact on workers' lives, is one of the recurring themes of Nowak's poetry. He splices together newspaper quotes, photographs, song lyrics, and numerous other artifacts, as well as his own words, to create a collage of class struggle. The influences he cites are more often musical--Afrika Bambaataa, Negativeland--than literary. His goal is to create a radical, working-class literature that will speak to people who don't normally attend academic conferences or scrutinize poetry journals.

"I didn't really come at it as a poet," Nowak says. "I was more into electronic music and I was really interested in sampling. It seemed to me that so much of the working-class poetry doesn't really deal with that aesthetic at all. It's filled with these sort-of elegies to the worker and so on and so forth. And I mean, there's a place for that. But I also think there's a place for having a more radical aesthetic."

Nowak is seated in his St. Paul apartment on a recent Friday morning. The modest dwelling resembles an academic office more than a home. It's furnished almost exclusively with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. He's dressed in a faded T-shirt and jeans, and sports steel-rimmed glasses and a goatee that extends nearly to his Adam's apple. As Nowak speaks, he gestures frenetically with his hands and is constantly popping up to pull a book off a shelf.

Shut Up Shut Down, which will be released by Coffee House Press next month, features five of Nowak's recent poems. The book was one of three finalists for the 2004 James Laughlin Award, an annual commemoration given out by the Academy of American Poets to writers who are publishing their second volume of poetry. The works in Shut Up Shut Down are epic in scope, fragmented in form, and deal with issues related to labor and manufacturing.

In "Capitalization," for instance, Nowak weaves together three different source materials. The most striking is that of Margaret Stasik, a worker at the Westinghouse plant in Pittsburgh during the Great Depression. Nowak quotes her tale from a 2001 book called The Price of Dissent: Testimonies to Political Repression in America, by Bud and Ruth Schultz. Stasik became a union activist, was blackballed as a communist, and eventually ended up peddling eggs to survive. "One time I was organizing the union/Next I was selling eggs," she marvels. "How did that happen?"

Nowak juxtaposes her tale with details of Ronald Reagan's anti-communism activities in the '50s and newspaper accounts of the 1981 air controllers' strike. During that precedent-setting showdown, all of the striking workers were fired by President Reagan. The power of U.S. labor unions has steadily eroded ever since.

Nowak also incorporates excerpts from The Elements of Grammar, a textbook published in 1986. The book was given to him by a colleague and he was struck by its reliance on Cold War terminology and ideas to teach basic grammar. Joseph McCarthy was utilized in an example, as was the term "anti-American." "It was like a Cold War handbook of English," Nowak notes. "It showed how teaching language is like a social control. It teaches language but it's also teaching this conservative ideology at the same time."

The other poems in Shut Up Shut Down similarly utilize disparate sources to make broader points about race and class struggle. "June 19, 1982" incorporates film dialogue and textbook excerpts to contemplate the death of Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American autoworker in the suburbs of Detroit who was beaten to death with a baseball bat by two unemployed white men. Chin's attackers were angry about not being able to find jobs in the auto industry and--mistakenly believing that he was Japanese--took their anger out on him. In "Hoyt Lakes/Shut Down" Nowak uses photographs of abandoned mines, excerpts from newspaper articles, and his own prose constructions to delineate the fate of laid-off miners on the Iron Range.

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