Social Poetics documents the imaginative militancy and emergent solidarities of a new, insurgent working class poetry community rising up across the globe. Part autobiography, part literary criticism, part Marxist theory, Social Poetics presents a people’s history of the poetry workshop. Nowak illustrates not just what poetry means, but what it does to and for people outside traditional literary spaces, from taxi drivers to street vendors, and other workers of the world.
...[a] compelling exploration of radical working-class poetry ... Even at their most complexly modernist—often collaging from multiple texts, including workers’ first-person accounts and news reports—Nowak’s poems have always centered the voices of workers, struggling for dignity amid economic exploitation ... As a poet and tenured professor, I felt a mix of awe and regret reading Social Poetics, thinking back to the years that I could have better leveraged my position of privilege on behalf of those who have been denied platforms and power. While Nowak’s work implicates those of us who replicate the very conditions we should want to reform or even overthrow, it also invites us down a path where solidarity through poetic community can lead to radical social transformation ... Imagine: what if the writing workshop were widely understood as a site not of taste-making or star cultivation, but of freedom?
Nowak’s inspiring new book of essays on the politics and social forms of community-based writing,...gathers together a variety of collective writing practices...to highlight the communal creativity of workers’ workshops. Moving between extended descriptions of such workshop communities and their collaborative methods and broader historical sketches situating these writing activities within social movements in the United States and beyond, Nowak develops a textured account of what he terms 'social poetics' ... [a] capacious chronicling of the radical ideas and practices that connect writing workshops across various social contexts in the past half-century ... testifies to the vibrant presence of a global worker culture by centering these worker writers’ perspectives in all their complexity ... Through this sustained attention to these writers’ complex imaginative acts, Nowak’s passionate and galvanizing essays direct practitioners, readers, and critics of poetry to attend to the cultural life of contemporary poetic practice beyond the orbit of what Nowak calls the 'committed author.' ... The book is designed not only to describe social poetics in action but to nurture its continued flourishing in other communities, inspiring future forms of social poetics ... On the page and beyond, Nowak’s commitment to the 'first-person plural' offers an urgent, much-needed social vision for poetry today.
Such unconventional teaching deserves better than dry academic treatment, and happily, this author is also a poet. He locates the vitality in his sojourns: now a transportation mishap, now a close look at a worker’s hands ... this text has little room for the delicacy of, say, Wallace Stevens. On the contrary, it relies on a structure of square-built simplicity. After defining his project, the author steps back, investigating its predecessors, and then once the history is in place he sketches his own learning curve. As he stumbles through trial and error, Nowak again keeps things lively, for instance with a devastating list of all the folks who never got back to him ... With teaching in mind, too, Social Poetics observes all the academic protocol. The passage that defines the pantoum could serve as a lecture in Intro to Poetry ... Such scholarly apparatus, happily, almost never interferes with Nowak’s gift for teasing out the human element. He may not have been present for the history he discusses in the early chapters, but he brings to life the turmoil of the late ’60s workshops in Watts and elsewhere ... Every now and then, as it raises another complaint about 'the MFA industrial complex' and its brand of poetry, the text comes close to insisting on a purity'“proletarian civilization or culture.' The phrase is Gramsci’s, but Nowak assigns it special weight.