A People’s History of the Poetry Workshop

Mark Nowak on the Workshops of the Watts Rebellion

On April 7, 1966, the Times Literary Supplement first published E. P. Thompson’s groundbreaking essay, “History from Below,” in which he describes an emerging historical tradition that seeks “to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ hand-loom weaver, the ‘utopian’ artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.” Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, published fourteen years after Thompson’s essay, is one of today’s most influential volumes employing the methodology of history from below. In the book’s opening chapter, Zinn argues for a new conception of history that is both creative and emancipatory: “If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win.

I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare.” In the years following the publication and wide-reaching reception of Zinn’s book, the practice of history from below-people’s history-would be taken up by an array of historians and social critics. The New Press, for example, launched a People’s History series in 2003. In his introduction that accompanies each volume in the series, Zinn stresses that “turning history on its head opens up whole new worlds of possibility.” He maintains that when historians shift the lens “from the upper rungs to the lower” in a people’s history approach, they shift the basic narrative as well: “The history of men and women of all classes, colors, and cultures reveals an astonishing degree of struggle and independent political action. Everyday people played complicated historical roles, and they developed highly sophisticated and often very different political ideas from the people who ruled them. Sometimes their accomplishments left tangible traces; other times, the traces are invisible but no less real. They left their mark on our institutions, our folkways and language, on our political habits and vocabulary. We are only now beginning to excavate this multifaceted history.”

Recent years have witnessed the publication of enormously important volumes of history from below, including Vijay Prashad’s The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, and many other significant titles.

People’s histories are made from the stories of struggle and resistance that working people tell before work over coffee, after work at the bar, on the bus home from work, in the back stockrooms of retail chain stores; they are made from the memes and gifs of complaints about bosses and supervisors at work and in our government that we share on our smartphones and social media; they are the back-channel Facebook messages, the ims and secret notes we pass to others as we begin to organize our fast food restaurants, our Amazon warehouses, our adjunct classrooms, and the countless other workplaces of our precarious, economically unviable lives. Because of the sheer magnitude of these stories, there will always be many more people’s histories of struggle and resistance than can ever be written. Yet we remain remarkably far behind on writing and publishing and sharing even the most important ones.

But why write a “people’s history” of the poetry workshop? At precisely the time of the publication of Thompson’s “History from Below,” poets began teaching poetry workshops in schools and community spaces across the United States, and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and other state agencies and private foundations began funding them. We have before us a fifty-year history of poets and other writers entering schools, prisons, community centers, factories, trade union halls, juvenile detention centers, eldercare facilities, hospitals, and other public spaces.

“I simply posted a notice on the Westminster bulletin board-‘Creative Writing Class-All interested sign below.’”

Yet we have few if any detailed histories of these interactions. We have before us a fifty-year history of publications, often small and ephemeral, representing the voices and viewpoints of schoolchildren, prisoners, factory workers, detained juveniles, migrants, the elderly, the infirm, and others. Yet we have few if any real histories of these countless publications and the mark they have left on our institutions, our political habits, and our poetics.

While a people’s history of poetry workshops might begin at various historical moments, I start here with a series of events in the mid-1960s and very early 1970s that propelled the creative writing workshop into the public sphere in the United States. Perhaps the most widespread exposure the public had to the creative writing workshop occurred on August 16, 1966. On this day, television viewers across the country tuned in to NBC for an hour-long prime-time docudrama titled The Angry Voices of Watts. Exactly one year earlier, from August 11 to August 17, 1965, the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts had erupted in rebellion. As Gerald Horne summarizes in Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s, at least 34 people died in the rebellion, 1,000 people were injured, and 4,000 more were arrested. Officials estimated more than 100,000 adults were either “active as rioters” or “close spectators.” And on the streets to oppose them, as Horne writes, were “16,000 National Guard, Los Angeles Police Department, highway patrol, and other law enforcement officers; fewer personnel were used by the United States that same year to subdue the Dominican Republic.”

From his home in Beverly Hills, novelist and screenwriter Budd Schulberg watched the riots on television. After the uprising had been repressed by the local, state, and federal troops, Schulberg drove down to Watts to view the aftermath of the protests. He would later write, “I had not seen such devastation since, as a member of an OSS [Office of Strategic Services] team in World War II, I had driven into German cities to collect incriminatory documents.” Schulberg responded to what he saw by organizing a creative writing class at the Westminster Neighborhood Association, a Watts-based social service agency funded by the Presbyterian Church. His workshops began with little fanfare: “I simply posted a notice on the Westminster bulletin board-‘Creative Writing Class-All interested sign below.’ Simple as that. It would be pleasant to add that a dozen aspiring young writers signed immediately and we were off and writing. The truth was, nobody signed up. Nobody came. Week after week I sat there like an idiot shepherd without a flock, shuffling my notes and idly reading the community papers in the small, cluttered room that was actually a kind of pantry for the Westminster kitchen.”

Eventually, however, residents from the community-including Charles Johnson, Leumas Sirrah, Birdell Chew, and James Thomas Jackson-arrived, and they began to write. Soon afterward, Schulberg’s media connections provided venues for these new workshop participants to be published. A year after the uprising, in the summer of 1966, Los Angeles Magazine published poems by Sirrah, Johnnie Scott, and Jimmie Sherman. The Los Angeles Times featured a lengthy article, “Rebellion of Watts-End or Beginning?” in which Schulberg describes the history of the Watts workshop from his own perspective. Toward the end of the article, Schulberg writes, “Watts itself is awakening from a Rip-Van-Winkle torpor of half a century. It’s a sleeping giant bestirring itself. From the bottom up, from the grass roots, from what’s called the nitty-gritty, something is happening. Anger is happening.”

Schulberg employs the exact vocabulary that Thompson, Zinn, and historian Eric Hobsbawm have used-“from the bottom up, from the grass roots”-to describe the proliferating creativity of post-rebellion Watts. Yet Schulberg’s use of these phrases fails to engage the much larger, more encompassing anti-racist, anti-capitalist critiques that Thompson, Zinn, and others offer. Zinn, for example, uses the concept of a people’s history to describe the anticolonial, anti-imperial, and emancipatory histories of enslaved, Native American, female, and working-class protagonists. By contrast, Schulberg’s notion of “from the bottom up” reinforces a historical and still-pervasive stereotype of black writers in a space of hostility rather than a site of legitimate and eloquent opposition to relentless racism, police brutality, and incarceration. Schulberg, in fact, becomes perversely fond of the word anger in his writings from this time, and the term serves as his racial epithet for the creative expression of the writers in his workshops in Watts.

The docudrama The Angry Voices of Watts, written by Schulberg and produced and directed by his brother Stuart, features staged readings and reenacted scenarios by the older members of the group, often in a creative writing workshop–style setting (i.e., a circle of writers). Member Jimmie Sherman recites a poem called “The Workin’ Machine” about a worker who loses his job to automation, and Harry Dolan recreates his experience of a daylong job search through the streets of Los Angeles while relying on inefficient and expensive public transportation. Their writings are among three working-class literary works singled out for praise in Eliot Fremont-Smith’s article “TV: N.B.C. Documents ‘The Angry Voices of Watts,’” published in the New York Times the day after the documentary first aired. Yet several younger, radical poets in the workshop never appear in the docudrama. In The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s, James Smethurst addresses this growing disconnect in the group: “[Quincy] Troupe, Ojenke, and Eric Priestley [the younger poets in the workshop] were originally scheduled to be the featured readers in The Angry Voices of Watts documentary but did not participate due to their differences with the Schulberg brothers over money and the selection of pieces to be read.” This would be one of many disagreements between the younger writers and Budd Schulberg.

A year after the NBC documentary aired, From the Ashes: Voices of Watts, the first anthology of workshop writers, was published. The anthology includes selections from eighteen participants in the workshop as well as two pieces by Schulberg (an introduction and a postscript), who edited the volume. Smethurst describes From the Ashes as “arguably the first Black Arts literary anthology published in the United States . . . though perhaps it might be more accurate to think of it as a text that had one foot in Popular Front-style radicalism and one in the emerging Black Arts and Black Power movements.” While From the Ashes is undoubtedly a milestone anthology in any discussion of the people’s history of the poetry workshop, its publication also signals a significant aesthetic and political impasse at the very inception of this new cultural moment. As with the docudrama, the anthology, now fifty years past its initial publication, is also notable for who it does not include. As Smethurst writes, “the filming of the documentary, the creation of the Douglass House [their cooperative arts and living space], the flurry of publications and readings, and the production of From the Ashes brought differences within the group to a head.

The split that finally occurred reprised similar symbolic divorces between liberal or radical white patronage and black self-determination and between old cultural politics and the new nationalism across the United States.” Smethurst contends that the older writers-some quite militant themselves-were aesthetically aligned with “the sort of hard-boiled social realism” of an earlier generation. This group was primarily composed of fiction writers like Schulberg. However, before Schulberg had ever arrived to begin offering creative writing classes with members of the Watts community, poet Jayne Cortez, whose work was grounded more in surrealism and interdisciplinarity than social realism, had been leading writing and acting workshops at Studio Watts. In the end, Cortez and her more radical, contemporary aesthetic were a much stronger influence on the younger poets and their writings. In addition, as Smethurst emphasizes, “Many of the group’s younger members (and some of the older writers) felt a considerable uneasiness about Schulberg’s position as a sort of mentor/patron from Beverly Hills. The young writers generally respected Schulberg as a successful older artist who was committed to the development of black writers. However, some saw him not only as a patron but also as somewhat patronizing and rooted in an older cultural and political milieu that did not fully address their needs or sensibilities as young black artists after the Watts uprising.”

In part, this is what makes Schulberg’s half-page “Editor’s Postscript” in From the Ashes so beguiling. “Every anthology inevitably involves both heartbreak and injustice,” he begins. Throughout the postscript, one senses that Schulberg wants “to atone for both.” He claims that “for one reason or another” certain writers “could not be included in the final table of contents.” Nevertheless, he fails to comment on any reasons for these exclusions; the excluded are simply excluded. In the end, Schulberg’s unexamined guilt becomes the overarching theme of the final words of this important anthology.

In Schulberg’s introduction to a special issue of the Antioch Review that included an eighty-page feature on “The Watts Writers Workshop” and appeared around the same time as the anthology (fall 1967), his prose takes on a tone of bravado. “The Watts Writers Workshop is in danger of becoming a legend,” Schulberg opens his introduction. He goes on to boast about “its two shows on national television” that had won Emmy nominations and “coast to coast critical praise.” He also details a litany of major publication venues for participants’ writings, including Time, the New York Sunday Times, Playboy, and the BBC. The “heartbreak and injustice” of the anthology’s postscript evaporate here, though one still senses a pending change in the dynamics of the celebrated Watts Writers Workshop.

Unlike From the Ashes, in which Quincy Troupe does not appear, Schulberg includes Troupe in the Antioch Review. Troupe’s four-page poem “A Day in L.A.” begins by cataloging a Friday afternoon in the streets of Los Angeles as the narrator listens “to the drone of the city labor” and watches “little boys steal soda bottles / from garbage pails for money.” By the end of the first page, however, Troupe admits he’s “sick of this teeming city. / Let’s take a plane and tour the world.” At the top of the second page, Troupe transports readers to Africa, where “the lions are on welfare. / They deliver their food to them on a truck.” He then turns his attention more directly to the racial capitalism of South Africa under apartheid (in lines that echo Langston Hughes’s influential poem “Johannesburg Mines” from the late 1920s):

In Johannesburg, the city of gold
whites are locked in their gilded cages
while rivers of Black men flow down into the earth into bee-hived labyrinths beneath the city
to dig huge holes in rivers of gold; gold flows at the Cape of Good Hope.

The connection between white wealth and black poverty, white empowerment and black disempowerment, white capital and black labor was as evident and destructive in South Africa’s largest city as it was in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. Through his transnational critique, Troupe reminds white liberals that racism and classism are not only isolated local issues but also historically imbricated global issues.

Brewing below the surface of Budd Schulberg’s post-rebellion workshop in Watts was, in fact, another kind of uprising.

As he returns to the geography of Los Angeles at the bottom of the second page, Troupe is struck by a day when “the smog stayed away.” Without pause, he blames the smog and the environmental destruction on “This Capitalism,” providing a clear link between capitalism and environmental devastation, a connection that unfortunately continues into this current era. Even as a young poet, Troupe knows that in post–McCarthy era Southern California, a young black poet who makes these connections will suffer, as Hughes suggested earlier, deep personal and political repercussions:

SHHHHH-h-h-h! Don’t shout it too loud: they’ll be saying you’re a communist.
Because you don’t dig their nefarious ways you’re a communist these days.

Troupe’s poem next explores the symbolism of the color blue-a theme that echoes today’s contention between #BlackLivesMatter protests against police violence and the right wing’s “Blue Lives Matter” riposte. Troupe describes “the L.A. goon squad [LAPD] rapping innocent black people / about the head” and then summarizes, in one of the poem’s most poignant and powerful lines, that “man’s inhumanity to man is blue.” In deftly crafted verse, Troupe’s “A Day in L.A.” chronicles the social, economic, and political climate across local and international landscapes as they intersect with everyday life in Watts.

Schulberg seems to sense the growing tension between the political aesthetics of Troupe’s poem (and others that were apparently rejected by the Antioch Review staff) and an aesthetic that might be more acceptable to a liberal white readership. After the opening bravado of his introduction to this collection of Watts writings, Schulberg admits, “Indeed, and quite naturally, there are differences of opinion between editors of Antioch Review and myself. They have declared or confessed themselves to lean toward the conservative, not politically but creatively. I believe a wider and more liberal selection would have been more truly representative of the work coming out of Douglass House, and would have had more impact overall.”

The key phrase Schulberg uses here, it seems to me, is “more liberal.” He fails to use the word radical or any adjectives more representative of the political climate after the uprising in Watts. After this comment, Schulberg returns to the tone of his postscript in From the Ashes, apologizing for writings left on Antioch’s cutting room floor. Later, Schulberg yet again revisits his fetishization of black anger, referring to Troupe as “one of our Angry Young Men, Watts Style.” Schulberg summarizes his feelings about the Antioch issue by writing, “As with the essays and short stories, I personally felt the poetry selections were deft and artistically scrupulous but on the conservative side.” He further claims that he would have liked to have seen a few of Sirrah’s more experimental poems and the love poems of Emmery Evans Jr., but “you can’t win ’em all.” The issue manifests the growing tensions in the workshop, tensions represented by Schulberg’s characterization of Troupe as “angry,” his flipping between bravado and apology, and his final acceptance of the Antioch staff’s conservative choices. Ultimately, for Schulberg, the publication itself seemed more important than honoring the increasingly radical politics of the community. This special Watts issue clearly illustrates that brewing below the surface of Schulberg’s post-rebellion workshop in Watts was, in fact, another kind of uprising.

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social poetics

From Social Poetics by Mark Nowak. Used with the permission of Coffee House Press. Copyright © 2020 by Mark Nowak.

Mark Nowak
Mark Nowak
Mark Nowak is the author of Social Poetics, Coal Mountain Elementary, Shut Up Shut Down, and Revenants, all from Coffee House Press. He is the recipient of the Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism and fellowships from the Lannan and Guggenheim foundations. Nowak has led poetry workshops for workers and trade unions in the US, South Africa, the UK, Panama, the Netherlands, and elsewhere. He is currently a professor of English at Manhattanville College and the founding director of the Worker Writers School.





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