“I’m interested in what happens when I don’t have the pen in my hand anymore.”
Interviewed By: Bradley Trumpfheller
I’m curious, so much of Social Poetics is related to the work that you’ve been doing for the last couple of decades––leading these community workshops, and thinking through poetry in relation to social struggle––but I’m wondering if you could talk about how you came to poetry in the first place?Yeah it was probably in the early 1908s. I was in a new-wave electronic band that I sang and wrote lyrics for. So I think my first exposure to wanting to write language came through Kraftwerk and Joy Division, rather than through poets. Then at the local community college where I was a student, I took a creative writing class, and I was lucky enough to study enough with a professor who had gone to SUNY Buffalo, who had taken classes with Creeley and Olson, so I got introduced to those poets while in undergrad when I started writing. I didn’t really know that the MFA existed, but one of my professors––actually, a Latin professor––told me that he’d seen an article in the paper about my band, and that he really liked my translations of Catullus. And his alma mater, where he got his PhD, Bowling Green State University offered this degree called a Master of Fine Arts, where you write poetry and teach classes, and told me I should go there. So I applied. He wrote me a letter of rec, and I got in. I was the second alternate, I later learned, so two other people said no and then I got the slot. That was where I started my own poetry work, and they also had a program where you could go teach poetry in the local middle school. So the community-based writing workshops, and this was like ’89, ’90, that work started then, too.
Did you have that tendency to think about how poetry exists in the social sphere that early on?Oh, I was always interested in that. In fact, when I got out of grad school, I was supposed to have had a job teaching poetry in the schools in Rochester, NY, with Dale Davis at the New York State Literary Center. That was going to be my main position, but that was also when the New York state governor Mario Cuomo cut all the funding for the arts. I had to scramble around for adjunct work at the local community college, Monroe Community College, where I taught for two years. But through that period, I always taught poetry in the schools or poetry in the prisons, up until the history that I talk about in Social Poetics.
I love that you came to it through music, I really resonate with that trajectory. Do you think that that had some bearing on your own, like, aesthetics on the page?I think there was a natural tendency towards collage and mixing, especially for the kind of music I was making then, i.e., electronic music. The percussionist in the band was a student of Jan Williams at UB, the whole experimental music scene. Gary Rutkowski, he was playing Lou Harrison and so I was exposed to all that work then. As for my band, I would put stuff on a four track recording machine that I’d bought with my job at Wendy’s and mix some other samples into it, so that notion of collage as really essential to what I thought art was, long before I read about in modernist poetry.
Totally, and that seems like that’s something that continues, though in more of a structural prose form, in Social Poetics––this mixing of autobiography, history, Gramscian criticism, etc.Yeah, yeah. I think that’s absolutely true.
And what about this interest of yours in the documentary form? I know that’s a huge part of a lot of your poetry, especially Shut Up Shut Down and Coal Mountain Elementary.At one time in my life, I thought I might want to go for a PhD. I took one class at the University of Minnesota, which was a folklore fieldwork course. I had a great teacher, Ellen Stekert who had also documented New England folk traditions, and had a record of that work put out with Smithsonian Folkways. So music, documentary field work, poetry, song––all of this came together at one point. One part of it went into doing the kind of book like CME is, as a poetic practice. Another arm was this project of documenting writing workshops, like in Social Poetics. It was the point where the interests split off in their own directions.
So those two branches, they’re separate, but do they still inform one another?I’ve become over time less interested in being a documentarian and more interested in creating alternative spaces in which working people can document their lives. Instead of going and riding with taxi drivers and writing a poem about that, I’m interested in a new space where taxi drivers can write poems. So it’s kind of flipped documentary poetry in a way to make it more politically active, to give the work more agency.
Like handing someone else the camera.Exactly, yeah.
Do you still write your own poems?You know, I haven’t in quite a while.
Can I ask how long it’s been?Since Coal Mountain, so about ten years. Maybe it’s my George Oppen period! I feel like I’m trying to define what it means to have a creative outlet. Y’know? So this current situation we’re in with coronavirus, at the Worker Writer’s School since September we’re been studying the haiku. We’d had a very well-known Japanese translator, Hiroaki Sato, come and talk to us and we had a session at the Peoples Forum to discuss his translation work—he has a new book out from New Directions, On Haiku (available here). And then we started looking at much political haiku over the winter. So we were looking at reading, writing, and talking about Japanese-American internment haiku. Victor Hernandez Cruz had done some translations of Basho that we looked at those poems. We looked at Sonia Sanchez’s haiku, Amiri Baraka’s low coups, Etheridge Knight, etc. We had our last workshop on the first Saturday of March, March 7th. That was the first one where we were elbow bumping people, instead of doing handshakes and hugs––we’re big on the hugs. And I pitched this idea to everyone to do coronavirus haiku. How is this new virus affecting your lives, as domestic workers, and nannies, and eldercare providers, and taxi drivers? We just started writing those in class, and little did I know we would all be in long term shelter in place. So now people are writing every day, from their nanny jobs, from their taxi driver jobs. I’m working with a union organizer and poet, Alex Gallo-Brown, in Seattle, and he has restaurant workers, and health care workers all writing haiku now. We’re publishing them on our Instagram page, and to me that’s like a documentary poetry practice that I’m engaged in. But it’s not me writing those poems. It’s me creating a new public space for the documentary work to happen. And this is incredibly inspiring to me. It’s the same feeling you get when you write something you really like; I get that feeling doing this work now.
That’s amazing. What are you learning from their writing?You know, I think there’s a totally different perspective that comes out when a worker is writing their own poem at a health care facility in Seattle versus what I’m hearing on the news. Especially in the haiku, it’s got this condensed method of delivery that is just a gut punch, in a way. And then simultaneously to see this solidarity of struggle and resistance that workers are providing at this moment––it’s just totally redefining terms like first responder, or essential worker. I did some work with the Fight for Fifteen campaign, and there’s been such resistance to that for so long, and I think, hopefully, after this moment people really see that a grocery store worker is absolutely as important as someone who’s being paid four to five times their wage. We’re finding out who the most important people are in our lives right now. The contradictions are being brought into stark focus.
And the whole notion of a group of people not being able to go to work, those who cannot work from home, that absence in the labor pool having the economic impact that it had seems to me like it could really be a launching place for a certain kind of organizing.Absolutely, like, toilet paper factory workers right now––you can hardly think of more important positions than these. Janitors in hospitals, you know? Home health aides taking care of elderly parents. Grocery store cashiers. That’s life or death work right there.
It is inspiring to see so many workers across the world being able to leverage this moment as one to really re-articulate the demands that have been made for the better half of a century to bosses and people who, for whatever reason, were ignorant of that struggle.And it’s also moving so fast. We’re just at the birth of this thing right now. And, of course, Zizek already has a book coming out!
Haha. At this point I don’t know, maybe, he’s just uploaded himself, and this is all procedurally generated from whatever, his like computer consciousness. He’s been dead for the better part of a decade, and we had no idea.I was just laughing so hard at that. It feels like peak Zizek, just three weeks into a historical moment and already he’s got a book. Y’know, whatever. It’s amazing productivity.
That’s something that’s been really both interesting and distressing: the calls and counter-calls to productivity under quarantine.I know, I know. People are trying to figure out where they’re gonna get flour from for next month, so they can bake bread for their families, and where––I was never a baker, and I’ve been baking so much bread the last few weeks. How do we just find our footing? There was that tweet going around for a little while about how Shakespeare wrote King Lear in a pandemic, and just, talk about ramping up the pressure. My wife is on Zoom all day long, my daughter’s doing her college coursework all day long, all within this one space. It doesn’t sit right.
Returning, though, to Social Poetics, I’m curious as to why you felt moved to write this book when you did. It’s work that’s been in progress for so much of your life, was there some occasion for its emergence now?I think I’d been collecting material and trying to find a form for it for a really long time. We live in an age now, where if something like that Ford workshop in South Africa happened, you know, that would be the subject of a book right away. But I did that in 2006, I think, fourteen years ago. To me, it had a kind of slow cook. And we were talking about, with this current moment – instead of just writing a book about that one moment at the Ford plant, I wanted to see how this process really worked, to see it enacted in different ways, with healthcare workers, domestic workers, workers in the U.K, and the Netherlands, and Panama, etcetera. Then I felt like I had enough examples to sit down and make some comments about what it might mean. It wasn’t just what this one thing meant, but what this really long, fifteen, twenty year process, and what meanings could be gleaned from that. Then I was working on the latter chapters of the book, the worker’s part, I got an invitation to write an essay for a catalog on the poems by the Young Patriots Organizations, which were part of the Rainbow Coalition, the Black Panthers, and the Young Lords. They put out a poetry magazine. I was given digital copies of that, and I started writing the idea of the people’s history of these kinds of magazines, which then got me thinking about the people’s history of the poetry workshop. And it felt like no critical history had been done of that work, of teaching poetry in community. That had to be part of the book, too. It had to open like that, so it didn’t seem like I was starting something, but continuing it. I was part of a history that a lot of people may not really know about, but was there for fifty years and more. That was an important insight for me. That then led me into this rabbit hole of research, finding all these publications and books – so many of which you just can’t find, or that are like a thousand dollars. Digging out all of that stuff. I really wanted that history to start the book, to show that I was entering into a process, not building anything from scratch. It felt like I was stepping into this really important history, which included everything from the Watts workshops to June Jordan, and the anti-apartheid workshops of the South African trade unions.
And did you have a particular kind of audience in mind for that digging process?In large part for me, the model for it was writing to people who were members of the Worker Writers School. So that what we were doing had a history, and that history was really important. I wanted to show that the role of poetry in social struggle was long, and this idea of building solidarity through writing individually and together had a revolutionary history as well. In certain ways, the poetry workshop has been so institutionalized in the past twenty-five years that I wanted to show its more public if not anti-institutional practice. You know, it was important to have that history. I’ve been hearing from a lot of younger writers, who have been very kind to tell me that the book kind of made them feel, while they were in creative writing classes and programs, or finished with them, that there was some kind of more politically engaged or activist work that could happen with poetry. It wasn’t just, I had to write and dump things into Submittable–there could be more than that. I’ve been really inspired by things that younger people are doing with poetry right now, and learning a lot from them. I think it’s an exciting time for that kind of work. And looking at the campaigns of everything from Black Lives Matter and Ocasio-Cortez to the DSA and Bernie Sanders, you know, it’s inspiring. Demographically, that’s pretty largely made up of young people. That should have a corresponding platform within or around these aesthetic institutions, in art and poetry. It’s great. I just, for a while, I felt like an outsider doing this stuff. And very slowly over the past decade or so, suddenly, there’s this big community of people now. It’s really fabulous.
I was reading an interview of yours from 2011, where you said “each of my books is, in a way, a critique of the book that preceded it.” Is that something that still resonates with you?Yeah, very much so. I went from producing documentary poetry to producing a public space in which people can document their own working lives and their lives together in this emergent solidarity than I talk about in the book. I think that’s maybe the biggest critique that this book makes of my previous books.
As in, the previous books are engaged in aesthetic action over social action?I don’t know if I’d go that far, but the narrators of the previous books don’t have agency in the way that those in Social Poetics have agency. So it was… how could I mainline agency into this documentary process.
Have you ever trended in your poems towards the autobiographical, or moving through an “I” that has some proximity to yours?I think there’s always been some autobiographical impetus to the work, but it’s submerged. Social Poetics, for example, has a good amount of my personal experiences.
Oh, definitely! That’s exactly why I started wondering about it.I’m not really in it as a writer, though. I’m not in it as a producer of poems. But the book, in a lot of ways, is about my travels, to all these different workshops. I can’t imagine ever going to memoir, or an autobiographical lyric poem. That just isn’t in my repertoire. Which in a way is still documentary.
You’re just more interested in what other people have to say.I’m interested in what happens when I don’t have the pen in my hand anymore. And why is it that other people don’t have the pen in their hands? What are the politics of that kind of exclusion? How did it happen, where did it come from? There’s a part early in the book where I talk about Meridel LeSueur Sueur and her pamphlet, Worker Writers. It was an early WPA period example of writers saying, you lumberjacks, you steelworkers, etcetera: here’s the pen, write a story. I put together a writer’s retreat for the members of the Worker Writer’s School, a weekend up in the Berkshires. Everybody got on a bus in New York City after their shifts on a Friday, and on Saturday I surprised them by bringing out Barbara Smith. I had given them copies of the Combahee River Collective statement, out of Keeghan Yamhatta-Taylor’s book, and it was in their gift bag when they arrived. They were all reading it the night before, and then she showed up, sat around the table with us, had a meal, and just talked about – she was the co-founder, with Audre Lorde, of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, and how important it was for them to read and write and publish together. She was showing examples of chapbooks they had brought out by a great range of women writers and pamphlets and buttons and talks she would give, how they would organize events. And it was just so wonderful to spend an afternoon with her. It’s all this history of publishing and writing and social struggle and they were really floored by this day and inspired to do more. Part of us trying to write our way through this new crisis, or set of crises, was inspired by Barbara Smith and that day. A lot was taken from that into this present moment. Every day someone in the school is sending me, here’s three more haikus, here’s four more haikus. I drove a taxi yesterday, here’s some ones I saw and wrote in my car. I was caring for an elderly patient, and while he was sleeping I did these two haiku, you know, can we get them out? So Barbara Smith’s been a real inspiration for us as well.
That’s really incredible. And I have to wonder about the haiku, you know, that concision allows for a certain impact and also access, time-wise.Right! You can just be on your fifteen minute break and get a draft out. And then maybe when you get home or the next morning, when you have another fifteen minutes, you can play around with the vocabulary and get it more to your liking. It’s one of the great portable forms.
Beyond the ongoing work you’re getting to engage with at the Worker Writers School, is there anything you’re reading right now that’s exciting you?There’s a little passage in Social Poetics on the Attica poetry workshops after the rebellion. I had, uh, been trying to get in touch with the guy who ran the workshops and edited the anthology. He had taught at a community college in Buffalo where I’m from, actually the same one I went to, but he was no longer there. No one knew where he’d gone after that. Eventually, after I had been searching for a long time, someone had his phone number. So I called him a few times, and didn’t hear back, and didn’t hear back. Then one day, as I’m driving on the FDR of all places, he calls me! He’d moved to Georgia a few years ago with his wife. I called him back the next day, and we just started talking. I told him, oh you know, I wish I could have talked to you earlier about your book for Social Poetics, but it was already out press by then. That book he put out, it was called Betcha Ain’t: Poems from Attica, on Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press in Detroit. I was like, this is such a great book, and such an important book to me. I still would like to talk to you about it at some point. And he was like oh, well, those aren’t the only poems from the Attica poets.
Oh, no way!What? I said, what do you mean? He said he had some more, and I asked him, well how many do you have? He’s like, oh, like a hundred more pages, maybe more. So I said, let me see these because next year, September, 2021, will be the fiftieth anniversary of the Attica uprising. We should put out an expanded version of this book. He was a little unsure, but I was just like, y’know, send me the poems. And he said, no, I want you to come here and see them. So I got on a plane, flew to Atlanta, drove a couple hours from Atlanta to his house and read the whole manuscript. And there’s some incredible poems that had been sitting in his garage since 1974. Just in boxes. So I’ve got all the poems now, and I’ve digitized a copy of Betcha Ain’t, and trying to finalize all this stuff with a publisher. And he calls me again. Oh, Mark, when the book came out, the corrections officer at Attica let me bring a reel-to-reel tape player to record the poets reading their poems. Is that something you’d be interested in?
Hahaha.I was just like, Are you serious? How did you get a tape player into Attica in the seventies? So I have that now. He got it digitized somewhere near him, and sent me a disc of it. I have this recording of the poets in the Attica prison anthology reading their poems and talking about them. I’ve been thinking about doing a podcast when the book comes out, and having all this audio material to accompany it. But again, to me this feels like a documentary poetry project. Through the archive and through these connections, you know, finding these poems that have literally been in a box in someone’s garage for almost fifty years, from one of the most important moments if not in American history, than at least in New York state history, in the history of the America prison and our current abolitionist work. There were all these people’s historians and documentarians who were writing about that moment from the workshop inside Attica. And nobody’s really been interested in it since, or known that it exists. Which is a travesty, but it’s also kind of an opportunity to bring this work back into the public sphere at a time when we’re talking and thinking about that moment, and also COVID in prisons, prison abolition, all of this.
The notion that there are all these histories sitting and languishing in people’s storage units and garages is really fascinating and uncanny to me.There's another passage in Social Poetics about Denny Dickhausen who worked at the Ford plant. So here’s another example like that Attica story. He would carry these notebooks around, and he jotted down stuff about what happened at work. And he never really knew what to do with them. So he would just keep boxes of these notebooks in his basement. Imagine how many people there are like that out there. Keep a little notebook at work (or now on notes in their phones), maybe not for their whole lives, but for six months, or a year, and don’t know what to do with it. And it’s up in their attic, or at their grandmother’s house, or letters that a person wrote to a coworker sitting on someone’s hard drive. Text messages: probably millions of work stories just there on workers’ phones. The possibilities are astonishing to me, how much could be out there.
Absolutely, absolutely. And you know, I’m thinking about that section where you talk about the day the Worker Writer’s School went to the house on Governors Island and painted the poems on the walls. It’s such a kind of astonishing moment to see maybe a similar kind of archiving happening in the present.It was an amazing day -- the ability to not only make poems, but to pick up brushes and just start painting. It’s such a militant gesture, too; how often are we told as children not to draw on the walls? Well, here’s a poem I wrote in big red paint on the wall. It was such a powerful experience for everybody.
I have to imagine it lends such a materiality to the poems, too.It’s like instant publishing, right? If only we could all do that.
Interview Posted: May 4, 2021
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