Reading Group: Social Poetics by Mark Nowak
In preparation for the Houston DSA Arts Collective and Political Education Committee’s author talk with Mark Nowak, the Reading Group met to read the introduction and first two chapters of Nowak’s new book, Social Poetics. The book uses Nowak’s decades of experience as a socialist cultural organizer—founding first the Union of Radical Workers and Writers, then the Worker Writers School—to explore the possibilities of building socialist culture today.
The Reading Group focused on the book’s historical sections, which offer a “people’s history” of left participatory culture in the U.S. and abroad. It focuses in particular on poetry workshops held with peasants in post-revolutionary Nicaragua, labor unions in South Africa, and prisons and working-class schools in the U.S. Discussion ranged from the student poems that came out of poet June Jordan’s poetry workshops in Harlem to the importance of art and culture in building community.
Author Talk with Mark Nowak
Then, Mark Nowak himself joined Houston DSA’s Arts Collective and Political Education Committee on Sept. 17 for a discussion of Social Poetics. Mark shared stories from his decades of socialist cultural organizing. These ranged from experiences holding poetry workshops for labor unions in South Africa, to his work with unionizing big-box bookstore workers in Minneapolis. Finally, he shared his story of founding the Worker Writers School’s ongoing workshops. These workshops featured domestic workers, taxi drivers, and other radical and union workers in New York City learning about poetry together.
We discussed the history of participatory socialist culture and what exactly Mark means by social poetics (“short for socialist poetics,” as Mark said). The landscape of left politics in the U.S. is changing, and it’s vital that we build up independent socialist cultural institutions.
“It’s important that our [poetry and cultural] workshops produce more than empathy,” Mark said. This sole emphasis on empathy, he said, struck him as a profoundly liberal idea of culture’s social role. Instead, socialist cultural organizing is about opening up spaces for communities to deepen working-class bonds, experience collectively, and build power. These are spaces developed alongside unions and left organizations that have their sights set on socialist world-making.
“Think small,” he said. “Three workers from a worker center” joining together for a writing workshop could be the start of something much bigger.Mark Nowak
The discussion brought in DSA members and others from around the country, with Twin Cities and Chicago DSA both represented. At the end, Mark encouraged the Houston DSA Arts Collective to launch its own worker-centered cultural workshops. “Think small,” he said. “Three workers from a worker center” joining together for a writing workshop could be the start of something much bigger.