Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Teaching with Skype: Mark Nowak

I have long been worse than ambivalent about Skype, which brings another person into the room face first and has them talk at you; this method lacks the fascinating and odd semi-privacy of the phone conversation, and fills the house with even more noises than usual. But it struck me a few weeks ago that Skype might make a good teaching tool, and certainly be easier to arrange than full-fledged visits by off-island poets to the classroom. So this semester I've invited poets to join my Poetry & Politics class via computer screen.

The first poet was Mark Nowak, who appeared after several glitches in postage stamp fashion on our Dell mini-laptop. Students had already generated some questions for him about his book Shut Up, Shut Down, in particular about the poems "Capitalization" and "June 19, 1982" (or the day Vincent Chin was beaten to a pulp with a baseball bat in Highland Park, Michigan, just outside Detroit). Here are some of the questions:

--There were a number of questions about process. How did the poems come together? Could you describe in some detail how "Capitalization" came together? How did the sources affect the argument, and vice versa?

[Nowak's most interesting response here concerned the inclusion of the grammar text. He'd lined up his Westinghouse and Reagan sources for the poem on the PATCO strike of 1981, but not the third text. He happened to look through a grammar book and realized he needed one from the 80s. One of his colleagues thought that would be way out of date, but he insisted, only to find--of course!--that grammar books in the 80s were very Cold War in their content. Lots of sentences about the threats from the East--just as now, he suggests, we'll be seeing references to Al Qaeda and the Taliban in our "grammars" (meaning proliferates!)].

-We presume that you had a lot more sources for your poems than you ended up using. So how did you winnow down the sources?

[Nowak talked mainly about his new book here, which juxtaposes materials about Chinese mining disasters and the Sago Disaster in W. Virginia a couple of years ago. He talked about the bushels of sources he goes through before sifting them down into a final "documentary" script. He said he watches hundreds of film documentaries; in some ways, he seemed to want to avoid the title "poet" in favor of "documentarian." If I'd had more time with him, I would have liked to ask more about his discomfort with the station of "poet." It seemed palpable to me. Reasons for it are evident, but one wonders if the title poet-laborer or other similar might not be worth taking on in its suggestive doubleness.]

--Given that you are using "objective" sources toward a subjective end, do you think your poems are manipulative?

[According to Nowak, all literature is manipulative, so yes. This perhaps explains the enthusiasm displayed a few semesters back by my student Father Bob, a retired Catholic priest, who remarked upon the righteousness of Nowak's work in this poem and others.]

Also worth noting was the question about audience. Nowak said he had noticed early on that his audience at the St. Mark's Poetry Project, say, amounted to a few (predictable) poets. He has spent much of his career trying to engage non-poets in poetic work, from union workers in Minneapolis where he works to auto workers in South Africa and now miners in West Virginia. It's certainly a marvelous project he's engaged in.

[Late addition: what I love about Nowak's work is that it IS poetry, that he appropriates texts in a way that revises our understanding of--for example--the early 1980s, its Reaganism, its racism, its economy. The poetry never fails to astonish students, especially the younger ones, with its lack of a lyrical "I"; it gives me a way to show them how to circumnavigate the lyrical I, with its sentiment and its often preposterous self-sufficiencies. It also either erases cliches or reinvigorates them by placing them in different channels. So I would hate to separate out "poetry world" from whatever we call the other, surely not the "real" one. The entire point of Nowak's work--to this pedagogue--is its link to poetry as form and content. Yes, poetry can be about history, and yes, poetry can be composed of voices having nothing to do with one's personal pronoun. The bracing effect of a Nowak poem is much like that of a Kasey Mohammad poem, albeit the paths are very different. Each of these writers presents the student with an extreme example; the best poems I get tend to use these extremes toward the student poet's own ends, like Tiare Picard's "platoon" in Tinfish 18.5, which is a pantoum based on googling, or like Jill Yamasawa's documentary poetry about McKinley High School. It's the way we appropriate these models that matters. Remind me to say something about Charles Mingus sometime along these lines!]

Next on our schedule is Harvey (H.L.) Hix, if he can get Skype to work for him. We are reading his book God Bless, which presents poems (in forms like sestinas and villanelles) composed of the words of Pres. Bush. Osama bin Laden also makes appearances, although those are more imagined.

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