The Worker Writers School Makes Poets of Essential Workers | General Arts & Culture | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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The Worker Writers School Makes Poets of Essential Workers 

click to enlarge Retreat photo with former Albany politician and writer Barbara Smith.
  • Retreat photo with former Albany politician and writer Barbara Smith.

Taxi drivers, childcare workers, and subway booth attendants are all considered essential workers in New York City. Some of them are also writers. The Worker Writers School helps low-wage workers transform their working lives into lines of poetry while also trying to inspire social change. The group's founder, Columbia County resident Mark Nowak, began the revolutionary literary group in 2011, in a Ford factory in Minnesota, before bringing it to New York. 

Typically, workshops are held on the first Saturday of the month, but since the COVID-19 outbreak has put meetings on a digital platform, the workshops are now held twice a month over Zoom. "Our last workshop where we met in person in America was on March 7," says Nowak. "Usually we handshake or hug, but that time we elbow-bumped with a bottle of hand sanitizer." Given that the students were focusing on haiku, a centuries old Japanese art form that consists of three short lines, Nowak decided that the group should try their hand at their own coronavirus-themed haiku. In three lines, these laborers are painting a sobering glimpse into the life of an essential worker in a city ravaged by plague.  

It was important that the group understood the history of this genre of poetry, as well as its potential for political significance. "People have a tendency to think of haiku as a little poem about the seasons," he said. "It actually has a really long and important history." Nowak and the workshop participants studied haiku written by Japanese-Americans held in internment camps during WWII, prisoners who were a part of the Attica Prison rebellion in 1971, and those written by poet and activist Sonia Sanchez.  

Using these examples as inspiration, the group then wrote their own haikus about their experiences as essential workers during a global pandemic in one of the worst-hit cities in the world. In only 17 syllables, these poems paint a picture of the stress, trauma, and harassment at the hands of ungrateful passersby that essential workers face while doing their jobs. "These are written by nannies and domestic workers, home health workers, taxi drivers, the people working in the subway booths," says Nowak.

Nowak values the artistic perspectives of underrepresented groups, especially during times of change. His new book, Social Poetics (Coffee House Press), focuses on the history of poetry workshops from the perspective of working-class people who attempted to spark social change despite being largely overlooked by society. He analyzes the work of those who participated in the Watts Rebellion in Los Angeles in 1965, the Attica Prison riots, and the anti-apartheid protests in South Africa to explore the many possibilities for solidarity and change that exist within poetry workshops.

A selection of haiku from participants of the Worker Writer School.Lorraine Garnett

The world in labor
cervix dilates—water broke
swaddling stillbirths
Rainbow is lurking
rattlesnakes hibernate—rejoice
solitary ends
We are one, be kind
cervix dilates—water broke
swaddling stillbirths
Rainbow is lurking
rattlesnakes hibernate—rejoice
solitary ends
We are one, be kind
Collectors leave gold behind
Open garage door
Death ventilators
Pneumonia discriminates
Hearts, lungs—equal beats

Lorraine Garnett is a domestic worker in New York City.

Seth Goldman

$2.50 an hour
Corona Cabbie Wages
April 15 Looms
Strong April Showers
Will bring Cabbies dead flowers
Workers, not Wall St
D train to Coney
I need to see the ocean
First time this year
My wife makes our bed
Feel so warm and smell so good
Leave at 4AM?

Seth Goldman is a taxi driver in New York City.

Alando McIntyre

Corona Virus,
Covid-Nineteen's sharpshooter
Re-con-figures lives.

Lies and truths converge
As unburied bodies roam
Corona City. 

Alternative Life—
gloves, body bags, face masks
crown Corona king.
Devine creations
Becoming undone by Rona-Vi.
Birds c'est la vie!

Alando McIntyre is a former Golden Krust Jamaican fast food restaurant worker, current New York City public school teacher.

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