MN VOICES | Poet Mark Nowak evokes the mortal hazards of coal mining

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Coal, the world’s most abundant fossil fuel, is, to state the obvious, a vital resource for energy. What’s also obvious yet, history shows, could stand restating are the terrible dangers of coal mining. West Virginia’s infamous Matewan Massacre in 1920 and its aftermath, the Battle of Blair Mountain, saw the slaughter of coal miners by agents for the Stone Mountain Coal Company, which’d had enough of employees fighting for unionized pay and reasonably safe working conditions. Between 1980 and 2007, “only” 197 miners died in U.S. disasters. In China, last year alone saw 4,700 deaths—according to official figures, anyway. Independent labor organizations say it’s more like 20,000 deaths every year.

Poet Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary, a new collection from Minneapolis’s Coffee House Press, won’t solve the problem all by itself, but Nowak brings attention to the problem with a strong command of language and imagery. It’s stark poetry with stark photographs, by Nowak and Ian Teh, witnessing hard reality.

For several years Mark Nowak has designed and facilitated 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. His writings include Goth: Undead Subculture (Duke University Press, 2007) and American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics (Wesleyan University Press, 2007). A native of Buffalo, New York, Nowak now lives in St. Paul, where he teaches at the College of St. Catherine.

On top of his track record as an activist, Mark Nowak’s collections Shut Up Shut Down, Revenants, and Visit Teepee Town have earned Nowak a strong reputation as an author. Coal Mountain Elementary sustains it. Via e-mail, he answered questions about his craft.


Why the title Coal Mountain Elementary?
It addressed the major themes in the book: coal mining and elementary education. It also echoes the great Chinese poet Han Shan, who was also known as “Cold Mountain.”

What drew you to writing poetry?
When I was in my teens in Buffalo, New York in the early 1980s, I started several punk-electronic bands for which I sang, wrote lyrics, programmed drum machines, and sampled sounds. [I] was fed up with “working America” being associated with Bob Seger and Bruce Springsteen and, instead, [I] found inspiration in the emerging music in Manchester, Berlin, and the Bronx. When I left Buffalo and went to graduate school outside of Toledo, Ohio, those samplings turned more directly to language. Poetry became a way for me to document the world as I saw it, experienced it, studied it, and lived it.

Whose writing do you admire, why?
There are so many. Gwendolyn Brooks’s poetry was my first love, early work like “Kitchenette Building” and “The Bean Eaters” and her later masterpiece “In the Mecca.” Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony: The United States, certainly, and Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead.” And Langston Hughes’s “Johannesburg Mines” and the work of Adrienne Rich and Amiri Baraka have been very influential.

How’d you come about putting your style together?
It came from my early work as a musician, taking sounds from one source and remixing them with other sampled sounds to create an amalgamation completely new. Also an influence of documentary filmmakers, Dziga Vertov to Frederick Wiseman. For this new book, contemporary people making incredible films about mining such as An Injury to One, Broken Shaft, The Devil’s Miner, and others.

What images catch your eye when you’re thinking of what to photograph?
I’ve been [strongly] influenced by Bernd and Hilla Becher, who interpret the industrial and de-industrializing global landscape. I also am drawn to the ways in which languages integrate landscape through signs, graffiti, detritus, etc.

How’d you match your photos and Ian Teh’s to these poems?
Sometimes the images relate directly, in terms of content, to something occurring in the story. One of Ian’s photos of miners sorting through a coal heap right before a story on eleven Chinese miners dying when a coal heap collapsed in Guizhou province. More often, the photos are meant to establish a transnational dialectic, where readers [are asked to remember] workers in West Virginia and China. Where several Chinese miners walking through an underground mine tunnel will face news, unfortunately terribly mistaken news, that the 12 miners in Sago were found alive. One of the main things I’d like the book to do is to create a space in which the local and national conditions in mining are understood together. The conditions in the global mining industry are horrific. A daily deathwatch in the industry is something I’ve continued to document in my blog.

Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.

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