Introductions for Amiri Baraka & Mark Nowak – 5/18/10

Mark Nowak is the author of Coal Mountain Elementary (2009), Shut Up Shut Down (2004) and Revenants (2000), all from Coffee House Press. For the past several years he has been designing and facilitating “poetry dialogues” with Ford autoworkers in the United States and South Africa (through the UAW and NUMSA), striking clerical workers (through AFSCME 3800), Muslim/Somali nurses and healthcare workers (through Rufaidah), and others. Nowak’s writings on new labor poetics have recently appeared in Goth: Undead Subculture (Duke, 2007), American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics (Wesleyan, 2007), The Progressive, and elsewhere. Nowak the Editor of one of the most significant journals of our time, XCP: Cross Cultural Poetics. The current issue, #21/22, is dedicated to the literature and social movements of South Africa. A native of Buffalo, New York, he currently works as Director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland.

Mark Nowak’s work brings dignity to people who have suffered the unjust, the tragic, by allowing events to speak for themselves. In his latest book, Coal Mountain Elementary, the atrocities so frequent to the mining industry are overwhelming—but free of tirade, the book provides a place to feel sorrow for the lives lost. This type of authorial restraint reminds me of something Charles Reznikoff said about writing his great work Testimony, “I didn’t invent the world, but I felt it.” The structure of Nowak’s book strongly implies that lack of feeling or understanding of human connectivity, in favor of human productivity, is responsible for much of the tragedy. Coal Mountain Elementary is not a contained reading experience—its urgency sends a message that the book has a last page but the stories of these workers are an ever-present world issue. Nowak keeps that urgent tone going on a public blog at posting alerts about mining deaths around the world. In this month alone, there have been 10 explosions, none of them in the US – this point also cannot be lost – Sago, West Virginia happens every day in China, and Nowak can always be relied upon to do the job of the poet, to expand perspective when it is in constant danger of being obscured. Please welcome Mark Nowak to the Poetry Project.

Amiri Baraka is the author of over 40 books of essays, poems, drama, and music history and criticism. He is a poet, icon, and revolutionary political activist who has read poetry and lectured on cultural and political issues extensively in the USA, the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe. Born in 1934, in Newark, NJ, Baraka published his first volume of poetry, Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note, in 1961. He is renowned as the founder of the Black Arts Movement in Harlem. His reputation as a playwright was established with the production of Dutchman at the Cherry Lane Theatre in 1964. The play was revived by the Cherry Lane Theatre in January 2007 and has been reproduced around the world. His book Blues People: Negro Music in White America, is still regarded as the seminal work on Afro-American music and culture. Somebody Blew Up America & Other Poems is Baraka’s first collection of poems published in the Caribbean and includes the title poem that has headlined him in the media in ways rare to poets. In short, Baraka has been astonishingly prolific across four decades—his most recent publications being a book of short stories, Tales of the Out & The Gone, a re-release of Home, his book of social essays, and Digging: The Afro American Soul of Music.

While the phrase “he needs no introduction” is apt tonight, there is an overwhelming amount to say about the work of Amiri Baraka, but here are about 250 words. He recently participated in a benefit for Haitian earthquake relief that St. Mark’s and the arts projects held here. That night, it struck me that we were in the presence of a kind of poet that is common in other cultures but rare in the United States; Baraka is a civic poet, a poet who believes that poetry is not too frail to carry public discourse yet is able to speak at length about things other than poetry. His work relentlessly points to the political conditions of our existence and challenges, poets in particular, to assume a greater public role in the life of our democracy. In the statement he delivered here called “Haiti Today and Yesterday”, Baraka puts imperialist and racist made disasters in a historical context, quoting Frederick Douglas’s 1893 “Lecture on Haiti”. In a recent interview he said: “I became a poet when I woke up to the power of words and my ability to use them.” Also crucial to understanding his work is that he is the consummate poet-as-historian, putting forth a correction to the drift of public intelligence. In his own words, “You think me a fanatic, that’s because you read history not with your eyes but with your prejudice”. Please welcome Amiri Baraka to the Poetry Project.