“Work itself is given a voice”: Labor, Deskilling, and Archival Capability in the Poetry of Kenneth Goldsmith and Mark Nowak
My article “‘Work itself is given a voice’: Labor, Deskilling, and Archival Capability in the Poetry of Kenneth Goldsmith and Mark Nowak” has just been published in Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture Vol. 14, No. 4.
Here’s an excerpt from my second paragraph:
…I will analyze and put into critical dialogue the long poems of two very different writers, one associated with conceptual poetry (and the championing of what he calls “uncreative writing”) and one associated with, however reductively, investigative or documentary poetry (and the championing of labor rights): Kenneth Goldsmith and Mark Nowak. Goldsmith is best known for his massive transcription projects such as Traffic (2007), a word-for-word transcription of traffic reports over the course of a day, or the forbiddingly long book Day (2003), an 836-paged transcription-it must surely be one of the longest poems so far in the new century-of an entire issue of the New York Times (Goldsmith transcribed all available text in the paper from photo captions to advertisements). Day was, importantly, “written” against Truman Capote’s famous quip about Jack Kerouac’s On the Road: “That’s not writing. That’s typing” . Nowak, on the other hand, is best known for documenting working-class experiences in books such as Revenants (2000), which explores Polish communities in Western New York, and Shut Up Shut Down (2007), which details the hardships and complexities of the labor movement along a deindustrialized rust belt. Both Revenants and Shut Up Shut Down are collections of long, serial poems that, while immensely shorter than Goldsmith’s conceptual projects, nevertheless present length as an indicator of sustained socio-cultural ambition. In reviewing (favorably) Nowak’s most recent book Coal Mountain Elementary (2009), a collocation of found texts about the global coal mining industry, Maurice Manning begins by acknowledging the extreme uncertainties regarding evaluation, genre, and authorship I mentioned above: “To call Mark Nowak’s haunting new book a collection of poetry would be a bit of a misnomer. It would also be misleading to say Nowak is its author.” This would seem to put Nowak firmly into Goldsmithian territory; the trajectory from Revenants to Coal Mountain Elementary certainly suggests a clear turn away from the recognizably poetic toward an aesthetic of extended citation or copying. Nevertheless, on the level of theme or content, the difference between the two writers seems glaring. On the surface, it looks like we have, on the one hand, a poet who radically re-conceptualizes the labor that a poet can and ought to do through a fastidious engagement with ambient, everyday textualities (newspapers, traffic reports, etc.), and, on the other, a poet who explicitly thematizes labor and worker’s rights as fundamental and pressing concerns. In short, it appears that we have two poets interested in labor but one whose interest is primarily technical (as it relates to poetry’s method) and one whose interest is primarily thematic or content-based. But such an understanding, while tempting, would be naively incomplete.