The University of Wyoming invites thinkers and doers from all corners of academia to visit and work at the university and add some perspective to the curriculum. The Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program has invited poet and labor activist Mark Nowak to serve as its Eminent Writer in Residence for a few weeks this year. Nowak has sat in on writing classes and read student manuscripts, but during his weeks in Wyoming, he organized four writing workshops in the Cheyenne and Laramie communities, where he and MFA grads encouraged workers from various trades to write poetry about their own experiences in the workplace. Wyoming Public Radio’s Rebecca Martinez sat in on one workshop in Laramie.
REBECCA MARTINEZ: Mark Nowak has invested a lot of time in OTHER people’s writing. He directs the graduate creative writing program at Manhattanville College in New York, and his most recent book, “Coal Mountain Elementary” gathers testimony of West Virginia miners and rescue workers, excerpts from pro-coal school curriculum and news clips from mining disasters in China. Nowak has also organized a series of writing workshops for laborers, most notably, unionized auto workers in the US and South Africa.
MARK NOWAK: Really what it is is trying to create various kinds of public spaces in which the stories of working people’s lives can be told, whether they’re miners or nurses or clerical workers or bus drivers, whatever they happen to be, because in the contemporary media, we don’t often hear many of those stories.
MARTINEZ: Nowak says he’s interested in hearing the stories of Wyoming’s workers during his few weeks in the state. He says he learns more about people from what they write than from what they say when he simply asks them about their lives, putting them on the spot.
NOWAK: Writing gives you a time to reflect. It gives you a time to erase, it gives you time to revise and re-write. That’s something that doesn’t happen in the interview.
MARTINEZ: This particular workshop happens in the evening in a classroom at the Laramie Plains Civic Center. Nowak hangs back, sitting with the handful of participants who’ve been invited to come write. MFA graduate Estella Soto is leading tonight’s workshop. She’s asking participants to write about a time they’ve felt appreciated at work, and then about a time they’ve felt unappreciated.
ESTELLA SOTO: It’s been kind of a diverse group of people. In every workshop, we’ve had about 10 people sit in. We’ve had some friends from KOCA Radio, we had Connie Koca involved. Some construction workers from in town, retirees… We have an elementary school teacher, a university professor… Who else?
MARTINEZ: Tonight, there’s an older gentleman in a blazer who works in a store in town. Several of the young people are English or writing students at the University of Wyoming and Laramie County Community College, who have jobs outside school. One works at a business that wires money, another at a restaurant.
Estella plays a video of a woman named Christine reading a poem she had written in one of Nowak’s past workshops in New York. Christine was from Tobago, and had been working as a nanny in Manhattan.
VIDEO: Cotton pickin’ days ain’t over. Madam list grow, glow and grow. Light housekeeping, walk dog. Let baby be first priority. (fade under)
MARTINEZ: Christine’s poem describes the growing amount of work added to her initial responsibility, and distaste for the foreign city she finds herself in. Her poem is a pantoum, a style that repeats lines within a series of quatrains.
Estella Soto has printed out a worksheet for each writer to create his own pantoum, with a guide for which lines should be repeated and when. She encourages each poet to choose the strongest images from their initial writings about whether or not they felt appreciated at work. After a time, they took turns reading their work.
(fade poem up)
Rod Miller works in a shop, but grew up ranching. He wrote a poem about coming-of-age, when his father sent him to herd cattle by himself. He was about 10 at the time. Here’s a portion.
ROD MILLER: I’m ready to do a man’s work, by myself for the first time. Dad says I’m ready. What if I get bucked off? I’m cold and sleepy. By myself for the first time. No help, no help, no help. What if I get bucked off? What if all these cows explode? No help, no help, no help.
MARTINEZ: School teacher Nicole Kelly loves her current job, but she wrote a pantoum about a stressful one she used to have. She says she remembers being asked to take on extra work without much support from other staff, and never seeing the sunlight before or after her workday.
NICOLE KELLY: Paper piles cry my name, the future is in the balance. Blinding computer screen shines through the darkness. Paper piles cry my name. Empty home filled with wrappers from gas station dinners. Blinding computer screen shining through the darkness.
MARTINEZ: Not all the poems were about stress. Some were about repetition, and some were about reflection and love of one’s work.
LCCC Student Jason Deiss wrote a poem about his job in the food service industry. He said he enjoyed hearing everybody’s poems.
DEISS: It’s kind of refreshing to hear the people who aren’t trying to follow any rules or just trying to say what they need to say and hope you’ll listen.
MARTINEZ: Worker-poets from this workshop read their pieces at a poetry reading at Laramie’s Gryphon Theater the following night. Workshop leader Estella Soto said she was excited to hear everyone invest themselves in their pieces.
SOTO: A lot of them coming into the workshop thought they didn’t have anything to contribute. They were surprised that they were asked to be involved. They felt like they didn’t really have anything special to say, and what I want them to take away is to realize that they do. You know, giving them tools to speak about themselves, in a way, and realize that they do have stories to share.
MARTINEZ: Soto says she’d like to encourage more non-writers to write, and is looking into hosting future writing workshops at a local community center.
For Wyoming Public Radio News, I’m Rebecca Martinez.
HOST BACKANNOUNCE: You can hear full recordings of some of poems from the workshop at Wyoming-Public-Media-dot-org.
The workers who participated in Mark Nowak and Estella Soto’s poetry workshop created pantoums, which are poems build of quatrains and repeat certain lines throughout. Participants wrote about experiences at current and past jobs. We’ve included poems from three of the participants.
- Rob Miller (Warning: Contains strong language)
- Nicole Kelly
- Jason Deiss