Documentary Poet, Social Critic, and Labor Activist
Mark Nowak is an award-winning poet, social critic, and labor activist, whose writings include the New York Times “Editor’s Choice,” Shut Up Shut Down (2004, afterword by Amiri Baraka), and the acclaimed book on coal mining disasters in the US and China, Coal Mountain Elementary (2009), that Howard Zinn called “a stunning educational tool.”
Nowak frequently speaks about global working class policies and issues, most recently on BBC World News America, BBC Radio 3, Al Jazeera, and Pacifica Radio’s “Against the Grain.” Nowak currently works as director of the graduate creative writing program at Manhattanville College in Purchase, NY.
Nowak’s unique work in bringing innovative aesthetics and working-class communities into dialogue has resulted in a dynamic array of projects and publications. Following a model he designed at Ford plants in the United States and South Africa (through the United Auto Workers and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa), Nowak’s transnational worker-to-worker poetry dialogues create a unique opportunity for working people to analyze, communicate, and express (through poetry) their ideas and emotions about their work, particularly in workspaces experiencing the effects of downsizing, plant closings, worker-management tensions, or strikes.
Nearly a decade ago, Nowak founded the Union of Radical Workers and Writers, and his projects with them have included the unionization of a Borders bookstore, an essay in the Progressive on the plight of big box chain and independent bookstore workers, and a forthcoming edited volume of stories by workers who unionized bookstores (including Powells, etc.) across the US and Canada.
Nowak’s poetry, similarly, has engaged central issues of work, family, and community. His verse play on Reagan’s firing of striking PATCO air traffic controllers, “Capitalization,” has been staged at both major theaters (Stage Left in Chicago, the Cleveland Public Theatre) and at rallies for striking Northwest Airlines mechanics. He is one of a dozen poets to have been included in the seminal anthology American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics (Wesleyan University Press). His ethnographic essay on gothic-industrial music in rust belt America was recently published in Goth: Undead Subculture (Duke University Press).
In his projects and publications, Nowak is, as poet Adrienne Rich has written of his work, “regenerating the rich tradition of working-class literature.”
"Nowak seems to me a poet of remarkable gifts. He is generating a new poetics of class, bringing to his project a highly developed intellectual formation along with the experience of growing up and working among men and women who—as immigrants, workers, not formally educated, disemployed—are the truth and marrow of whatever this country has been or might become.” –Adrienne Rich
“Nowak relies on his life as a person…with the sturdy underpinning of class…and brings it back, humming. And sleek with seeing and hearing! We get a sharp eye, a literary & philosophical broadening of what used to be labeled ‘working class poetry’…deepened with a hard but contemporary lyric, and narrative… A much needed parade.” –Amiri Baraka
“Coal Mountain Elementary is an imaginative and shocking reminder of what it means, in the most human and poignant terms, to be a miner, whether in this country or in China, or for that matter anywhere in the industrial world. It is also a tribute to miners and working people everywhere. It manages, in photos and in words, to portray an entire culture, the culture of the miner and his family, and it is a stunning educational tool.” —Howard Zinn
"There are only a handful of contemporary artists who have found a way to recontextualize the working class consciousness and activism of the American labor movement into the poetics and media art of the 21st century, but perhaps the most consistently provocative of these is Buffalo native Mark Nowak." — Buffalo News