The Language of Workers and Poets

“Language,” George Orwell wrote, “ought to be the joint creation of poets and manual workers.” It’s a quote that makes the rounds of those “famous quotation” sites that saturate the web. Yet how many people know the actual full-sentence quote (it doesn’t end with a period after workers)? For those of you who don’t — “Language ought to be the joint creation of poets and manual workers, and in modern England it is difficult for these two classes to meet.”

Those of you who follow this blog know that those rare meetings of poets and manual workers — in Orwell’s England or in the present-day global North and global South — are something I’ve both written about and tried in various ways to organize over the course of the past decade. From “poetry” performances at rallies for striking Northwest Airlines mechanics and workers (through AMFA Local 33) to “poetry dialogues” between Ford workers at a closing plant in St. Paul, Minnesota, and workers fearing retrenchment at Ford plants in Port Elizabeth and Pretoria, South Africa, I’ve sought to create spaces where poets and manual workers might, as Orwell writes, create language together.

Quite simply, I believe the work we do as poets, as artists, has tremendous potential in its “imaginative militancy” (I borrow the phrase from Kim Moody) — that, when working with trade unions and social movements, we become part of the process to re-imagine something more than the present condition. “Perceptions of what is possible change,” Moody writes, “as new forces come into the struggle and the power of the class, long denied and hidden, becomes visible.”

Poets, artists, imaginative militants… the door into the struggle has never been more wide open.

Last week Tuesday night, I had an opportunity to discuss the issues central to my most recent work (Coal Mountain Elementary) with Al Jazeera TV anchor Shihab Rattansi. Unlike my appearance during the Chilean mine rescue (see my post on that here), this time I was back to speak to that unfortunate and almost daily story in the global extractive industries–2 more miners were killed at the Los Reyes mine in Chile. And, as I always do (in good times and in bad), I reminded viewers that this is the major narrative of global mining — miners are rarely rescued, miners trapped underground rarely get to sing an Elvis tune on Letterman or run in the NYC marathon. Miners die. Almost every day. Somewhere in the world. Period.

Following my spot on Al Jazeera, I walked just a few blocks to AFL-CIO headquarters to read at the 21st Annual Labor Heritage Foundation Awards ceremony. Honored that night were AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, Working America founder (and inspiration for the film 9 to 5) Karen Nussbaum, and the President of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, William “Bill” Lucy. Other performers included Renee Barnes, who works in the International Education Department at AFSCME — and who knocked the house out with her voice.

Toward the end of the program, I read just a few brief sections from Coal Mountain Elementary. But it was especially in my introduction that I wanted to articulate poets to workers before these leaders of so many working people. And I wanted to, and did, remind those present, including the President of the United Mine Workers of America, Cecil Roberts, that this language of workers and poets that I was about to present was dedicated to the miners who had died in the past two weeks. “And not only in Western Kentucky,” I said. “But the miners who died in Chile; the miners who died in the Philippines; the miners who died in Russia; the miners who died in South Africa; the miners who died in Rwanda; the miners who died in China; the miners who died in Guyana… and all of these deaths in a period of just two weeks.”

As I neared the end of the list, I heard several shocked sounds from these leaders of various U.S. trade unions — gasps that this many workers had died in just a single industry. And after I read a few entries from the book and stepped off the stage, the President of the United Mine Workers of America was the first person to shake my hand.

It isn’t so much the first half of Orwell’s famous statement that drives my work (though that sentiment is certainly at the core of my writing projects, too), it is the second half: “it is difficult for these two classes to meet.”

This is the challenge of the present moment (it’s that CLR James/Facing Reality quote I return to again and again): “People all over the world, and particularly ordinary working people in factories, mines, fields, and offices, are rebelling every day in ways of their own invention… Their strivings, their struggles, their methods have few chroniclers.”

Workers and Poets, sharpen your pencils. Open your notebooks (the old school marble ones and the new techno-school ones). Let’s get busy. We’ve got a lot of writing to do.

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