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  • An Interview with Mark Nowak
  • Steel Wagstaff (bio)

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Lisa Arrastía

Documentary poet, social critic, and labor activist Mark Nowak was born in 1964 to a working-class family and raised in a predominantly Polish neighborhood in Buffalo, New York. After completing his M.F.A. at Bowling Green State University, Nowak taught for fifteen years at an open-enrollment community college in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is now the director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. He is the author of three books, all published by Coffee House Press: Revenants (2000), Shut Up Shut Down (2004), and Coal Mountain Elementary (2009). Nowak edited Theodore Enslin’s Then and Now: Selected Poems, 1943–1993 (National Poetry Foundation, 1999) and coedited, with Diane Glancy, the anthology Visit Teepee Town: Native Writings after the Detours (Coffee House, 1999). His essays and criticism have been published in The Progressive, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Goth: Undead Subculture (Duke UP, 2007). Nowak is the founding editor of the journal XCP: Cross Cultural Poetics and has been active on the Web both as a contributor to the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog and as the operator of the Coal Mountain blog, which serves as an international clearinghouse for news about labor and safety conditions in resource-extraction industries around the world. In recent years, Nowak has facilitated a series of “poetry dialogues” between Ford autoworkers at plants in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Port Elizabeth and Pretoria, South Africa. His work in South Africa has led him to edit a special double issue of XCP on South [End Page 453] African literature and social movements. Nowak was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 2010.

I first read Mark Nowak’s poetry by accident, in a library. I had picked up a copy of Claudia Rankine and Lisa Sewell’s American Poets in the Twenty-First Century: The New Poetics (Wesleyan, 2007) and was browsing to see what had been anthologized in it. When I read (and saw) the poetry and photographs excerpted from Nowak’s Shut Up Shut Down, I was instantly intrigued. My family history certainly predisposed me toward an interest in Nowak’s investigation of the cost of global extractive industries, an undertaking that he begins in the last section of Shut Up Shut Down and to which he devotes the entirety of Coal Mountain Elementary, but Nowak’s writing drew me for other reasons as well.

Nowak’s verse is formally innovative and experimental and yet has a clarity, intensity, and righteousness that strike me as charged by a refreshing and sincere commitment. To borrow the phrasing of George Oppen, Nowak’s work demonstrates its bewilderment at the “shipwreck / Of the singular” by choosing to explore instead “the meaning of being numerous.” By this I mean that Nowak’s books frequently invoke the collective, are most concerned with the plural “we,” and show their attentiveness through their fidelity to the real despair, rage, and good-natured humor of the individuals they speak both for and with. Nowak’s poetry is as intense, compassionate, committed, and deeply earnest as the human beings whose stories and voices he documents. Most impressively, however, Nowak’s poems arouse our sense of justice and engage our more humane sensibilities even as they ultimately direct us away from despair as well as quietism. While Nowak’s work does present wrenching accounts of quietly desperate lives, he clearly is neither strident nor bitter but an author who understands the classical story of Pandora quite well, recognizing that despite the great evils loosed upon the world, there still remains some hope for human lives here and now, in our neighborhoods. In Revenants, Nowak writes, “believe it or not, we cannot / lay hold / of all things // and make them theorems,” a maxim as useful as an ecological and [End Page 454] social ethic as it is as a warning against the practical dangers of totalizing ideology (71).

Nowak’s poetry is likewise notable for the method by which it exerts its considerable appeal to human sympathy. While strains of what could be referred to as an “other-centered poetics” are evident...


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