It’s a cold Saturday in early February 2019. In the white-and-red-painted offices of PEN America in Soho, I’m sitting around a table with actors, taxi drivers, domestic workers, and visual artists. Even though I’ve just had lunch, I keep snacking on the cheese cubes within arm’s reach. As we wait to start, the group chats about everything from the rising prices of Off-Broadway shows (“Ridiculous!”) to the recent film Can You Ever Forgive Me? (“Melissa McCarthy is wonderful in it.”)
There are books everywhere. They line wall-to-wall shelves, pile high on desks, and overflow onto filing cabinets and windowsills. It feels like a used bookstore, or an eclectic, unorganized library.
“One of the reasons that we love this space so much is that you come in and you just feel like you’re in a house of literature,” Mark Nowak, a creative writing professor at Manhattanville College, tells me. Nowak is tall, bald, and bespectacled, and today he’s wearing a black zip-up hoodie and jeans. A few minutes after 1:30, with 11 of us around the table, Nowak calls for attention.
“What I wanted to do first is sort of a quick warm-up exercise,” he says. “People who have been to the workshop before will know this poetic form very well: the tanka. We’ve been working on them for a long time.” For the newbies, Nowak explains that a tanka is a Japanese form with five lines and a 5, 7, 5, 7, 7 syllable structure. “Because it’s been so cold lately, let’s try to write a tanka about the cold weather.”
But when the timer starts, instead of writing, everyone breaks into conversation. Christine Yvette Lewis, brightly clothed and tightly wrapped in several layers of coats, enters. “This is a tanka right here, the amount of clothing I just took off!” she exclaims. Everyone else starts laughing. “I walked into the room, I took off three layers!”
“You should have walked in here at 1:25 though, and taken off your layers,” says Nowak.
“Could I say it’s up to the MTA, okay, forgive me. Write a tanka about the cold and MTA.”
“Do it right now!” Nowak says, trying to keep everyone on track. More side conversation breaks out. “Shh, people. Words on pages. Pen on paper,” he urges, sounding like a writing professor in front of an unruly class. “You have three minutes left.”
That gets everyone to focus. There are several minutes of silent writing. After awhile, Nowak interrupts. “My mother lives in Minnesota, and the other day it was 35 below zero,” he says. “It was colder than Siberia.” The writers respond with low, awed whistles, shivering just thinking about it.
“You lived in Minnesota?” asks Dorraine McGill, a licensed family daycare provider in a bright pink striped dress.
“Yeah, for a long time.”
“Did you know Prince?”
This elicits another long bout of laughter from the table.
“Absolutely,” answers Nowak. He’s so deadpan about it that I’m not certain he’s joking.
Such is the camaraderie of the Worker Writers School, a writing institute for people from labor organizations, global trade unions, and other progressive worker centers across the city. Nowak started the school in Chicago in 2005 after a trip to Argentina. There, he toured occupied factories in the wake of the country’s economic collapse. In one called IMPA, cultural groups had come in to support the workers as they occupied the factory.
“When you walk through, there’s the production lines where they’re producing aluminum tubes for paint and toothpaste and stuff like that, and then there’s a studio where the pottery group had set up a kiln,” he says. “And then they had a theater workshop and a people’s lending library. And it was just this incredible fusion of cultural workers and industrial workers.”
Nowak was inspired. Before Argentina, he had a long history with laborers. His grandmother dropped out of school around fourth or fifth grade and became a domestic worker in Buffalo, NY. His father was Vice President of a union at a Westinghouse factory.
In New York City, the workshops grew out of Occupy Wall Street in 2011. Nowak’s very first meeting was with Lewis, who is the Cultural Outreach Coordinator for Domestic Workers United. “We did one year with DWU, and then we did a year with the taxi workers, and then we did a year with the Worker Justice Center of New York upstate, with migrant farm workers,” Nowak says.
“We brought the farm workers down to New York City and did a pop-up reading at the farmer’s market, and some of the farms where people worked were there. And it was then that we brought back the taxi drivers and the domestic workers to read with the farm workers, and it was such an amazing experience for everybody.”
After that, Nowak decided to change the format. Rather than work with one specific group for a year, he opened the school to everyone at once. Now, every first Saturday of the month, people come from the Retail Action Project, Domestic Workers United, The Taxi Worker’s Alliance, the Street Vendor Project, Damayan Migrants, and more. They study poetry, talk about poetry, and write their own poetry. Their work has been featured in literary magazines and poetry podcasts. Each year, the group reads at the PEN World Voices Festival, sharing the stage with some of the world’s best-known poets.
The result is an unlikely sort of family, fused together by shared experience. “You kind of are informed by other people in the workshop about their trials and tribulations as workers,” says Davidson Garrett, who has driven taxis in New York off and on for 40 years. “I saw that, as a taxi driver, I have as many problems as a domestic worker has in their employment . . . we both have the same sort of frustrations. So there was a commonality to all of our professions, and it’s felt like a real family over the last few years, where we have this forum to share our thoughts and feelings.”
During Lewis’s eight-year tenure in Worker Writers, she’s introduced many others to the group, including at least two women this afternoon who joined at her invitation. “Having this writer’s workshop, and having women come from the movement who might not have necessarily been able to tell their stories or put it on a page, this is the place to exercise that kind of freedom,” she says. “This is what I think the Worker Writers school fosters or helps us to do. Especially women . . . who feel they can’t write, because I think that there’s a budding writer in all of us.”
For Nowak, ownership of stories is tantamount. “When I first had the first meeting with Christine, I remember her very clearly saying, ‘People always come in, and they have us tell our stories, and then they leave, and they take our stories with them,” he says. “And I said that this was going to be totally the opposite model. Your stories were going to be yours to write, and tell, and share. And that’s what we’ve done.”
After the tankas, we discuss a list poem of “What I do not use” by Venezuelan poet Miyó Vestrini. Nowak asks everyone to share a line that stands out to them. A few writers have thoughts on “pay stubs.”
“All these things—the egg timer, the concierge bell, the hotel suggestion box, or you know, a travel guide to Istanbul, it hasn’t changed in Venezuela or for workers,” says Seth Goldman, a taxi driver. “It’s all stuff we don’t really need. And pay stubs, I mean, we don’t got pay stubs. We don’t got any of this stuff. To me, pay stubs is, you know, the center of what we don’t have. We need, but don’t have.”Where we come from is important for our poetry because it inspires a lot of the things that we put on paper.
“I [chose] pay stub also,” says McGill. “I did not receive pay stubs for awhile. I was paid under the table for a long time.”
“Even if not, that term is still used by the government,” breaks in Garrett. “They want to see your pay stub if you’re applying for something to show your income. I mean, it seems like an outdated word, doesn’t it? But they still use it.”
“The reason why I picked pay stub is because a lot of folks today live from check to check, and they don’t know when they’re one step away from being homeless,” says Tom Barzey, an actor/singer with the Public Theater.
After “Use,” we read a second Vestrini poem, “No More.” This one is angrier and a tad darker. The talk turns to death, and everyone is shocked when Nowak reveals that the poet died in 1991 by suicide. It prompts a short discussion on how important the identity of a poet is to the work.
“Do you think that a poem should stand on its own?” asks Garrett. “I find that a lot of people like to know the biographical details. To me, that gives the poem a lot more gravitas, knowing. But then I’ve heard the argument you shouldn’t know anything about the poet, that the poem itself should just be what it is.”
“For me, it’s helpful to flesh out the poems in some ways,” Nowak answers. “I want to know what the words in it mean, I want to know the historical moment it came from, and what kind of circumstances it came from. I think in fact it’s one of the things that distinguishes us, right? I mean, we are writers who are not like a lot of people in the magazines who have MFAs and went to graduate school to study poetry, et cetera, et cetera. But where we come from is important for our poetry because it inspires a lot of the things that we put on paper.”
It’s time for the final writing activity of the workshop. Nowak asks everyone to pick one of the two poems as a model and use it as inspiration to write one of their own. But today there’s a special celebration as well. “As you’re writing, I’m going to bring out some food to entertain you for my mom’s 97th birthday,” announces Nimfa Despabiladeras, a Filipino immigrant with the Damayan Migrants.
Despabiladeras moved here in 1996 and applied for citizenship in 2013. She’s been with the same employer since 1997. “It’s important for me to document my journey here in the United States because I’m alone,” she tells me after the workshop. “[My] family back home will ask, ‘What did she do way back there?’ The writings will prove to you who I am, correct? That will prove to you what I have been doing. I have frustrations, I have my victories, I have been happy.” As she announces her mother’s birthday to the group, she starts to cry. “I’m just so thankful that I want to share this with all of you, as she lives to 97. And I’m crying because I’m happy,” she says. She is happy to have found a family so far from home.
Despite the food and heightened energy in the room, once again, as the timer starts, the work… doesn’t. Some people need the directions again. Lewis asks Nowak for a mug of tea. She has her own honey, which she takes out of her purse. “I bring everything except the kitchen sink,” she says.
“That you gotta do,” says McGill. “My daughter’s so glad, I told her, bring your food everywhere you go.”
“Okay, people, writing time, not talking time!” Nowak calls over them. “Man, I gotta be tough with you!”The workers don’t need to learn about their oppression; they need a space to imagine beyond it.
Nowak brings Lewis her tea. This leads Lewis, McGill, and Barzey to start discussing the effects of tea on the sinuses. They think they’re being quiet, but it’s apparently not enough.
“Shhh! Put the words on the page!” Nowak whispers to them.
“Okaaay!” McGill whispers back. They laugh like students caught passing notes.
“A little more water?” Lewis pleads.
“Let me see how much you’ve got written.” Nowak takes her mug.
“I’ve got two lines.”
“You’ll get this back when there’s eight.”
But Nowak hands her mug back, and fifteen minutes later, he calls for attention once more. Nowak asks for several volunteers to share. Despite her procrastination, Lewis has produced a poignant piece that she’s eager to read. “What I do not like:” she begins in a clear, ringing voice:
Moving Mrs. Irish brogue’s baby little Lego pieces
Dusting pompous space with old-fashioned brocade
Cleaning up after a mean calico cat
Dusting counterfeit paintings of marked-up Picasso
It’s not in the job description
I do not like.
She laughs, long and loud. Everyone around the room applauds.
After the workshop, as the writers dine on Filipino food and chocolate cake, Nowak tries to recall a quote by the French Marxist theorist Jacques Rancière, from his book Proletarian Nights. “Rancière did a lot of research into the archives on the French Revolution for the book, and found out that the workers at the barricades were really . . . he has this great phrase, I can’t remember it exactly, but it’s something like, ‘The workers don’t need to learn about their oppression, they need a space to imagine beyond it.’”
The idea of that imagined space is what has driven Nowak’s work with the Worker Writers. “We want this space where we can write about work, and talk about politics, and create aesthetic objects that might be about work but might just be about the winter and the cold weather, and encapsulate that whole 24-hour day,” he says.
“I think that historically, working class literature as been about the picket line, about the strike, about the bad factory; it’s just so focused on the workplace. But it hasn’t been, ‘I take care of somebody else’s kids for eight to ten hours a day, and then I still have to go home and cook my family dinner.’ This double load of all the work it takes to just get me back to the workplace.”
Before I leave, Nimfa insists that I try some of the chocolate cake. It is her way of saying that even though I am new, I am part of this family as well; I have been entrusted the privilege of telling a small part of their story to the world. Even though I’m full on cheese cubes, I can’t say no. Besides, it’s not every day you get to celebrate someone’s 97th birthday.
The Worker Writers will be at the PEN World Voices on May 11, reading some of their poetry with Sonia Sanchez. You can find more information and get tickets here.