Lullaby for the Working Class

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

While Nowak is undoubtedly successful in finding unique and effective ways to illustrate the deindustrialization of American cities and the resulting impact on blue-collar workers, it is much less clear whether his poems will reach their intended audience. Laid-off taconite miners in Hoyt Lakes aren't likely to spend their spare hours perusing the catalogue of Coffee House Press for works that might speak to their plight.

In order to overcome this formidable barrier, Nowak tries to come up with unique ways to make his poetry accessible to nonacademic crowds. He's going to be reading with another poet at a Teamsters' hall in Milwaukee this fall, and hopes to put on a similar event later this year at the Ford plant in St. Paul. In addition, there are plans to stage a theatrical reading of one of his poems in Buffalo. "It's much easier to just go and read at established places where you know you'll get 30 poets," he allows, "usually the same 30 people over and over again."

On a trip to Argentina this summer, Nowak believes he glimpsed a better means of collaboration between the arts and labor. He visited several factories that, in the wake of that country's economic collapse in 2001, had been taken over by the workers. In Buenos Aires, he toured a worker-run aluminum factory that employed some 500 workers but that was also being utilized by local artists. In addition to the necessary means of production, the facility housed a theater, an art gallery, and a graphic arts studio.

"They called it a cultural factory," Nowak marvels. "All during the week, like if it's a lunch break, the guy who's working on the aluminum line packaging things can go take a graphic arts course, he can go to the free lending library--inside the plant. If things like that happened here, I'm sure there would be more opportunities to read this."

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