Rebecca Melnyk, 12th Street Journal’s Poetry Editor read Mark Nowak’s work in Modern American Poetry class and was impressed with his experimentation. When she brought him to us as a potential interview, we agreed. Mark Nowak perfectly highlights our vision of Writing and Democracy and the writer’s place in the world. His latest book Coal Mountain Elementary gives recognition and voice to downtrodden workers. His work fuses poetry, prose, photography, film and music into a fascinating hybrid that provides a window into the struggles of the common worker. His unique views demand attention and raise consciousness and conversation up from the level of human experience – bypassing the gloss of mass communication. We hope you’ll enjoy and be enlightened by our latest 12th Street Online interview feature. – Liz Axelrod, Editor-In-Chief
12th Street Online: You’ve said that when you began writing poetry, you were fueled by music. Does music still play a large part in what you write?
Mark Nowak: I first came to art-making as an electronic musician in Buffalo, NY in the early- to mid-1980s. The first band, Aufbau Principle (or Aufbau—German for construction or building-up) was a two-person group that I formed with a fellow undergrad student—we dreamed of being a U.S. version of Kraftwerk. We were living in a city that was absolutely, and sometimes literally, collapsing around our us. And that music was our soundtrack during that time. The second, a three-person group called People Have Names, tried to fuse that German krautrock tradition with early 1980s electronic and industrial music—Cabaret Voltaire, the Factory Records releases from Manchester, the Wax Trax records from Chicago, etc. Even my MFA thesis at Bowling Green in the late 1980s was (very bad!) a four-track cassette recording of a completely sampled, chance-generated text called Factors Other Than Frequency. Today, I still tend to think and create less like a poet and more like a musician at a multi-track recording system. Most of my work is composed of multiple voices mixed on separate tracks, all fused or articulated into one final artwork that might include testimony on one track, newspaper reports on another, photographs on a third, and rules of capitalization or pro-coal curriculum on another.
12th: Do you spend a lot of time editing what you write?
MN: The way I work is probably more time consuming at the research and construction stages than at the editing stage. I’ll spend literally hundreds and hundreds of hours researching—sometimes for projects that never see the light of day, like the year where I spent almost every day at the microfilm machines at the Minnesota Historical Society researching the I.W.W. led strike against U.S. Steel by iron miners in Minnesota’s iron range. Likewise with Coal Mountain Elementary, where I had to read and re-read more than 6,300 pages of testimony with miners and mine rescue team members at Sago, West Virginia, in order to locate just one of the voices in that book. I also spend a good deal of time, once that research is completed, working and reworking the construction or framework of the piece—usually on either an Excel spreadsheet or Microsoft Word table. Those spreadsheets or tables allow me to create an almost musical score or orchestration for the piece as whole; they allow me to see the overarching patterns and timings in the voices or tracks. Then, there are adjustments, changes… maybe that’s where “editing” comes in.
12th: In Shut-Up Shut Down many of your poems are based in recorded observations. In some of the poems, the prose unravels into disjunctive rhythm—is there something specific you are communicating? Is that the way these people sound to you?
MN: The form I was experimenting with most in Shut Up was the haibun, a form in which a prose block is followed by the haiku. Basho, of course, was the master of the form. And Fred Wah, a writer from Canada whose work I admire, brought the form back in ways I found to be quite innovative in his fabulous book Waiting For Saskatchewan. So, no, it wasn’t representative of how people sound but rather of the effects of neoliberalism and globalization on the manufacturing sector in the States in the 1980s (and in the new millennium in the final piece, “Hoyt Lakes Shut Down”). I was trying to capture that fracturing, that collapse, that disintegration of industry and community and self that I had been a witness to in Buffalo and Toledo and Detroit and the Iron Range, i.e., the “rust belt.”
12th: Why use prose form over verse? Does prose correspond with how you remix documentation?
MN: I’ve said elsewhere, each of my books is, in a way, a critique of the book that preceded it. As I was out on the road doing readings and talks from Shut Up Shut Down—in union halls, at rallies and other events, at conferences of labor educators and labor historians, etc.—I began to feel that the cuts or edits in Shut Up Shut Down were too quick. And so for the next book, Coal Mountain Elementary (CME) I made a conscious decision to drastically slow down the speed of the cuts. If I can use a documentary film example, I wanted to move from something like the Dziga Vertov Man with a Movie Camera speed of Shut Up to something more akin to Frederick Wiseman in High School or Public Housing in the new book. So what you’ll find in CME is a much, much slower pacing to the cuts between voices; you’ll find that each “voice” is given an entire page before the voice shifts on the successive page.
12th: In your experience, is there a power that comes from performing your poetry in public?
MN: Well, readings are incredibly varied. I’ve done readings (or had my work performed) at union halls and rallies for striking workers. They’ve been staged by theatres in Chicago, in West Virginia, at the Cleveland Public Theatre. I’ve read at universities and at anarchist bookstores like the Wooden Shoe in Philadelphia and Red Emmas in Baltimore, at the National Labor College, in Ford plants and colleges across South Africa. And the only real truism is that each one is unique. More and more, over the past decade, I’ve moved away from the “reading”—to be honest, I find a lot of readings pretty boring. Instead, I’ve been structuring what I do as talks, as conversations with the audience about a series of issues that I’m currently exploring—work and worker safety in the global extractive industries now, and next it will be service sector work around the world. And so, maybe going back to the multi-track recording example earlier, I like to “mix” an event so that it might include talk on recent deaths in the mining industry and some discussion of my blog, a small snippet from CME with the photographs projected on a screen behind me, perhaps a video clip from a recent mine disaster or rescue. But, for me, the Q&A after the reading proper is always the best part of the event because it is a conversation… it’s interactive. And it’s where, as an author, I can really begin to see the impact that the book is making on people’s thinking. Lately, I’ve been doing a number of Skype conversations with students who have been reading the book in class, and these have been good, too; a full hour for us to process the book and its extension into the world together.
12th: Your Coal Mountain blog seems to be updated almost every day with death counts and media gaffes like business pages respond comments on share prices. What kind of feedback do you receive from the families of miners, in terms of your poetry?
MN: Without a doubt, the most powerful of these moments happened in West Virginia. When the book came out, the theatre department at Davis & Elkins College—about 20 miles from the Sago mine—decided to stage the book as their spring play. D&E had brought me to West Virginia just a few weeks after the Sago disaster in 2006 to be a writer in residence for a week, then brought me back in 2007 for a one-day staging of the Sago voices section of the book as a one-act play. When the book was published in 2009, the D&E theatre department created this magnificent full production that they took up to Pittsburgh to perform (at the black box theatre at the University of Pittsburgh), had it up for a three- or four-week run at the college, and took it on the road to a performance space in Sutton, West Virginia. During its opening week, family members of miners who were killed at Sago came out to the production and stayed around afterwards saying they wanted to talk to the writer, the director, and the performers (who were both students and community members). These were people who were in the Sago Baptist Church when the news broke that their family members were alive and when the news came back that a horrific mistake had been made and that only one miner (Randal McCloy) was alive. And this woman and her husband told us that the play felt to them exactly how it felt in the Baptist Church that night, how painfully accurate it was. And they told us that they were thankful that—unlike CNN and FoxNews—someone stayed behind and was remembering the miners and their families. That conversation, without a doubt, was one of the most significant things that has ever happened to me as an artist.
12th: Where were you when the Chilean miners were rescued?
MN: I was at work in the morning, and I received an email through my blog from a producer at Al Jazeera TV who said she wanted to speak with me. Before I knew it, I was in my car heading to Washington, DC, to be a commentator during the rescue operations. I spent the entire evening at Al Jazeera, coming on with Shihab Rattansi every hour or so to offer commentary at various stages of the rescue operation. What impressed me about the Al Jazeera coverage—compared to, say, the deplorable CNN coverage that I was able to watch the next morning—was how critical Rattansi was during the broadcast. Like a true journalist (rather than a talking head), Rattansi was constantly questioning the operation, the media coverage of the event, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera’s constant voguing before the cameras (except during moments of tension when he disappeared from sight), etc. My role during those rescue operations was to serve, in a way, as an alternative narrator. I was brought on to remind viewers that what they were viewing—despite all the joy—was the exception—that, as happy as we were for the Chilean miners and their families, we had to remember that miners had died that very week in a number of countries across the globe; that miners had died that same month in Chile; and that, despite this rescue, much needed to be done to prevent situations like this in the future. And sure enough, just a few weeks later I was back on Al Jazeera to talk about another mine disaster in Chile.
12th: The mining industry seems to be an extreme example of industry trumping workers’ rights and safety—are there any other industries that you would spotlight as dangerous or unfair to their workers that maybe haven’t been spotlighted but should?
MN: What we see today, in far too many places across the globe including the States, are various forms of forced labor: human trafficking, debt bondage, migrant workers without voice in the workplace due to their illegal status, prostitution, prison labor, conscription, etc. I’m just beginning a large scale new work, in collaboration with representatives from the ITUC (International Trade Union Confederation), in Belgium and the IUF (International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations), in Switzerland. It’s a global examination of low-wage and forced labor in the service sector: a hotel maid in South Korea, a grocery store clerk in South Africa, a group of women who work market stalls in Belarus, etc.
12th: Do you think that the United States fares any better in that way? Or do we just not hear those same kinds of stories from America, for whatever reason?
MN: Well, ask any older adult working behind the counter at McDonalds or Wal-Mart or your local grocery store. Ask them about their lives, their work, their dreams, and their struggles. These are the stories we so rarely hear in either the media or literary worlds today. And so I always encourage students—and especially first generation college students and students from working class backgrounds—to become the narrators of these yet to be told stories.
12th: Do you think that poetry helps communicate those struggles?
MN: Quite honestly, I don’t know that it does. All I can hope is that the writing I do—whether or not it is “poetry” is open for debate—that it begins to open a window to the stories and lives of working people and the under and unemployed. In the end, I see my role as that of a chronicler for the untold stories of the economically disempowered. I don’t think we can expect the corporate media to be this storyteller—in fact, I often shudder at the way they tell these stories, when they do. To me, my remix writing seeks to be—through fusing oral history, labor history, journalism, creative nonfiction, poetry, photography, theater, and whatever else is necessary—a kind of independent or alternative chronicle of economic and social dispossession and struggle. It’s the same stories that, throughout history, have always required a narrator. Because when, in the entire history of the world, has the King accurately chronicled the lives of his workers, his servants?