Writing haikus in a time of quarantine
Poetry for social change with Mark Nowak: RISSEing and Reframing
By Cassandra Andrusz-Ho Ching
Mark Nowak is a writer and founding director of the Worker Writers School in New York City, which links the global working class to literary practice. He is the author of three poetry collections: Revenants (2000), Shut Up Shut Down (2004), Coal Mountain Elementary (2009), and most recently, Social Poetics, part autobiography, part literary criticism, part political theory.
Nowak has been designing and facilitating projects to link working class communities to literary practice and poetry workshops in North America, Central America, Europe, and Africa for the past two decades.
This is exemplified in his Worker Writers School Mobile Unit which, like food trucks, visits laundromats, street corners, restaurants near construction sites, bus stops, and other locations that workers frequent to offer brief, intensive poetry writing classes. Articles on the Worker Writers School have appeared in The New York Times and New Yorker among others. Read Amy Biancolli's story published April 16, 2020, in the Albany Times Union.
I met Nowak for the first time in summer 2018 at a Refugee and Immigrant Support Services of Emmaus (RISSE) poetry event. Founded in 2007, RISSE is a family-based center in Albany's Pine Hills supporting refugees and recent immigrants to build sustainable, independent lives by offering language and literacy instruction as well as support with life skills and integration into U.S. culture and community.
The event was an afternoon of poetry readings by RISSE adult students created in their English Language program. Nowak helped these students discover new ways to express themselves and share their lived experiences, interests and personalities.
The event was packed with friends, family and community members. It was a celebration to honor, promote awareness and validate the poems written by immigrants and refugees. The group read their poetry as part of the PenAmerica Festival of the World in NYC in April.
Currently, Nowak is still fervently at work even under Covid-19 social distancing and self-quarantine protocols. This is seen on the Worker Writers School social media pages -- instagram.com/workerwritersschool/ | facebook.com/mark.nowak.102 | twitter.com/WorkerWriters -- where each day he posts a new haiku written by member of the Worker Writers School related to our current moment.
Nowak explained back in September, the members of the Workers Writers School, which meets once a month, had a Japanese translator and former president of the Haiku Society of America, Hiroki Sato, speak about the art of writing haiku.
Inspired and motivated by his talk the group took the following months to examine haiku. They approached this form of poetry from different perspectives such as history, discussing Japanese internment camps, to more contemporary haiku pieces from authors such as Sonia Sanchez. They even played with the term haiku itself as “low coups” by Amiri Bakara, that explores the power and transformative power of haiku, how it can be a revolt or coup from below, from the people.
Their last in-person meeting was on March 7, which began with elbow bumping, instead of hugs and handshakes. It was also defined by an interest to write haikus to reflect, critique, and comment on the coronavirus from the perspective of workers, in particular, how the virus affects workers, their livelihoods, and how for some their jobs ended or became essential.
Soon after that meeting, sheltering in place and social distancing were implemented so the group had to work on their haikus from home. Nowak reached out to members via Zoom and email for finished work to post on their social media pages. An unexpected surprise of being isolated, he said, is that the group now meets twice a month virtually to share ideas, support and collaborate on writing ideas.
He shared in this process and within the current health crisis “what we are all learning is that once assumed unimportant workers, minimum wage workers, low-skilled workers, have been elevated to be most important, even lifesaving work. From grocery store workers, janitors, healthcare workers, nurses, drop food off, UPS drivers, farmers, farmers workers, these are the people keeping us alive.”
Nowak is also a playwright, essayist, social critic, and labor activist, whose work documents the hardships and injustices faced by the global working class. He explained, when they started the Worker Writers School their goals was and still is to reframe public perception about workers. Initially, groups were separated by the type of work, domestic workers then taxi workers, followed by migrant farm workers.
Today they continue to work with a more intersectional lens, focusing on all working groups together. They have improved communication and strengthened a sense of solidarity as workers, no matter the sector or trade. “Workers realize they have more shared experiences that can bring them together rather than separate them," Nowak said. "And that is what is happening now, what we have talked about in the past such as hazard pay and fight for $15, is being seen in a new light, talked about on a larger scale, reframed and reconsidered.”
He said they are doing the same with the haikus, where the authors, their voices, their motivation and project are centered. Not the media, not other writers or part of a longer article, no one else’s agenda. They are not filtered, no edits, no cuts but direct access.
For Nowak, the health crisis paired with support from his fellowship from Creative Capital, has advanced his ideas about what to do next. In particular, how he wants to work with workers, reconceptualizing space, physical and virtual, to a shift in location from cities to small town and rural areas.
Nowak’s newest work, Social Poetics came out on March 10, with a planned book tour that was due to the rise in coronavirus cases. Nowak explained, “It is weird to launch a book about the importance of physical togetherness, what it means to be together, in time of social distancing.” However, Nowak continues to find opportunity in social distancing, reconsidering possibilities for connection. He is inspired to think about what can come next, for his work, for the school and future partners, he is excited.