Mark Nowak ends ¡Workers of the Word, Unite and Fight! with an eight-paged poem about labor exploitation in the book business. Entitled “Better Dead than Bound to Be Read,” the poem documents the recent closings of two bookstores in St. Paul, Minnesota: the independent Ruminator Books and the corporate-owned Bound to Be Read. Nowak mixes together statements from the stores’ employees with a journalistic account of how both businesses failed. Also worked into the poem are book titles with the word “bound” in them—an effective method of complicating the benign-sounding name “Bound to Be Read.” Together these elements make for a quick, vital poem that exposes the gap between the media’s sanitized reports of the closings and the real voices of the stores’ non-unionized workers. Nowak allows the reader to look through this gap into the larger historical and political forces that are shaping the workers’ plight. Some of these forces are written about in the books listed in the poem, books such as Bound: Living in a Globalized World.
Preceding the poem are two original and, at times, problematically dense essays. The first one, “Open Book, Case Closed,” appeared in Chicago Review in the spring of 2001—about a year after the Open Book literary center was established in Minneapolis. In his essay, Nowak takes us into this center where poets and writers can take classes about their craft, learn about bookmaking and work in private studios. The facility came out of the not-for-profit corporate merger of four institutions: the Loft Literary Center, Minnesota Center for Book Arts, Milkweed Editions and Ruminator Books. Nowak describes the building’s polished interior and soothing ambiance complete with “the whirl of espresso machines.” He notes how the clean lobby is free of “stacks of community newspapers” and boards stapled with “wide-ranging announcements anyone ‘off the streets’” can post. As an activist in the labor movement and a champion for social change, Nowak finds the upscale atmosphere far from inviting. He writes: “Open Book’s entrance is as clean and new and ‘open’ as the front door of any new exclusive suburban housing development or the reception area of any multinational corporation.”
Nowak obviously enjoys exploring the hidden meaning of what he finds inside of Open Book. After poring over the lobby, he stops to remark: “I admit it: I’m a fan of reading symbols and metaphors.” He doesn’t seem to have the same enthusiasm for explaining the concepts behind his arguments. When he later draws upon the ideas of political theorist Chantal Mouffe, he doesn’t go into much detail in spite of the fact that her theories are central to his argument. He is critical not only of Open Book’s calm, corporate atmosphere but of the writing courses taught at the center. He points out that the Loft offers no classes that primarily focus on “race, gender, class, ethnicity.” He ultimately believes that Open Book isn’t a place that allows for “truly open, questing, critical, and often painful discussions on racism, gender equality, privilege, and related issues.” To underscore the importance of such discussions, he cites the theories of Mouffe, who believes that conflict-free environments advance corporate, rather than democratic, ideals:
In her recent book, The Democratic Paradox, Chantal Mouffe examines contemporary democratic institutions to assess how notions of consensus-building actually work to undermine the inherently conflictual nature of the democratic process. Mouffe asserts that current attempts to frame democracy (and, by extension, pluralism) as consensus-driven rather than as the result of ongoing questioning, conflict, and public debate, actually open the space for a conservative, corporate-sponsored establishment to dominate . . .
Nowak goes on to provide a short quote from The Democratic Paradox but fails to elucidate Mouffe’s ideas further than that. The reader never learns of the empirical evidence—the observations of “contemporary democratic institutions”—that Mouffe presents to support and clarify her theory. Such an explanation could very well strengthen Nowak’s case in “Open Book, Case Closed.”
It would also make the writing more consistent as Nowak does go into specifics elsewhere. His writing is clear and insightful when, for instance, he enters the store at Open Book and notices a lack of work by innovative artists. He writes: “Poets pushing the envelope on the active engagement of politics, cultural studies, and aesthetics in their works are notably absent.” Absent too are journals known for their cross-cultural politics and work by writers of color. Where, Nowak asks, “is A Gathering of Tribes? Callaloo? West Coast Line? African-American Review?” He then notices a detail that seems telling in light of Mouffe's theory about the value of questioning and conflict. The words “criticism” and “theory” are notably absent from one of the placards in the store, having been supplanted by euphemism. Instead of reading “Literary Theory” or “Literary Criticism,” this placard announces “a kinder, gentler ‘Literary Appreciation’ section.”
The store where this placard hangs is a branch of Ruminator Books, the independent that closes its doors at the end of Workers of the Word. A few years separate the first essay in the chapbook and the final poem, which focuses on more recent events; Ruminator Books and Bound to Be Read went out of business in 2004 and 2005, respectively. It’s difficult not to think of closing bookstores and unopened books while reading Workers of the Word. Nowak evokes an image of the latter in “Better Dead than Bound to Be Read” when near the end of the poem, he refers to a book that feels “like it’s never been opened.” The book is Where I’m Bound: Patterns of Slavery and Freedom in Black American Autobiography. Nowak inserts the title into a scene that takes place outside of Bound to Be Read in St. Paul. Workers are wearing sandwich boards to advertise the store’s going-out-of-business sale. Nowak puts a description of the scene by one of the workers in bold: “They shout racial slurs / from their cars, / nothing I’d want to see in print.” When the title Where I’m Bound appears soon afterward, the book seems like a lost key to understanding both the historical roots of the racism and the strength of the workers. The tragedy of the book not being read is underscored by the fact that Where I’m Bound is one of the few titles in the poem in which “Bound” points towards freedom.
At the heart of Workers of the Word lies an essay about MFAs in creative writing—an oddly popular degree in a country where literary reading is on the decline. Nowak incorporates the issue of book sales in his analysis of these programs. He reveals the ambitious breadth of his focus when he sets out to define the last term in his title: “Neoliberalism, Collective Action, and the American MFA Industry.” He tells us that “the American MFA industry” is a “multimillion-dollar conglomeration of state and private enterprises.” This conglomeration includes publications and groups that encourage people to get degrees in creative writing. Poets and Writers magazine is named along with the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Also mentioned as contributing to the industry’s “reproduction and expansion” are: “Publishing houses (large- and small press, for profit and not-for-profit), bookstores and book distributors (corporate, independent, and on-line), journals (academically affiliated and non-affiliated), writer’s retreats, contests and grants.” Nowak does not say here how publishing houses, bookstores and the other organizations at the end of the list support the growth of MFA programs. As in “Open Book, Case Closed,” he does not expound key aspects of his argument. But throughout the essay, he does express two theories that pertain to this last part of his definition of the MFA industry: 1) that what is being both published and rewarded in the U.S. is work that reinforces corporate values; and 2) that MFA programs are teaching students how to produce this sort of work.
Nowak states upfront that these programs are exploiting labor at many levels—from the low-paid worker at the copy shop who prepares students’ submissions to the writing teacher employed without benefits under a temporary service contract. He then says that he wants his essay to affect social change: “[T]his theorization attempts to engage these interpretations as tactics for social movement and cultural adjustment.” One of the most crucial adjustments to be made, he says, is the removal of the writers’ workshop from its academic context. His experience in the labor movement and his knowledge of its history allow him to make a number of specific suggestions on how possibly to put this change into motion. He, for instance, discusses forming groups modeled after the John Reed Clubs, which were established in the U.S. in 1929. Nowak says these clubs became “arenas for radical language workers across the United States,” and some of the writing that they produced appeared in journals such as Partisan, a publication of the West Coast John Reed Club. In the end, Nowak speaks eloquently about how he would like to see these independent workshops move into the working-class—“to the rank and file, to everyday people, to our neighbors and grocery store check-out clerks and fast food workers and telemarketers.”
Workers of the Word is an idealistic cultural study that is also deeply needed. In it, Mark Nowak takes on a subject that few writers are directly addressing even though it is one of the major issues of our time: the widening gap between the rich and the poor and its effect on culture and the written word. In his examination, he uncovers unread books, euphemism, racial slurs and exploitation, but he also unearths and presents specific ideas for social change. His writing, while sometimes unclear, is always alive with purpose and a sense of urgency. He wants to inspire collective action, which, he says, is anathema in corporate culture. He quotes political author Samir Amin on this point in “Neoliberalism, Collective Action, and the American MFA Industry.” Amin speaks of unrestrained capitalism and the vision that lurks behind it. It is a vision of “market relations” coming to “gradually master all aspects of social life and suppress, or at least largely dominate, all other forms of solidarity.” In Workers of the Word, Nowak reveals how this vision is destroying workers’ lives. Also, through his example, he shows how to resist.