(This story was originally published on May 27th, 2020, by THE CITY.)
Subway booth clerk Kelebohile Nkhereanye jotted down a few lines of verse after dealing with a rider who was incensed because the MTA had banned cash transactions during the pandemic:
Stress riding the subway
Questions without answers
Not workers fault
Nkhereanye, a 55-year-old immigrant from Lesotho now living on the Lower East Side, wrote the riff on the standard 5-7-5 syllable haiku for the Worker Writers School, a free literary workshop for low-income and union workers who keep the city moving. Many of them are now deemed essential workers.
The shifting group of about a dozen writers — among them home health aides, cabbies and subway clerks — had been meeting monthly for nearly a decade at the PEN America Center in SoHo when COVID-19 slammed the city in March.
A Hill of Inspiration
At the same time, Worker Writers School founder Mark Nowak, an English professor at Manhattanville College, had a planned book tour canceled for his newest work, “Social Poetics.”
The book is billed as an exploration of “not just what poetry means, but what it does to and for people outside traditional literary spaces, from taxi drivers to street vendors.”
“My first book in 11 years came out just as the pandemic hit,” said Nowak, a Buffalo native and former trade unionist.
Suddenly, his speaking engagements evaporated. Instead of wallowing, he found inspiration in the exhortation of an early 20th-century labor songwriter and folk hero.
“I thought of what Joe Hill said: ‘Don’t mourn, organize’,” Nowak recalled. “I wrote that on a Post-It note and started talking to people to figure out what we could do.”
He also had an epiphany: “Coronavirus is five syllables.”
The Worker Writers group had already been exploring what Nowak calls “the radical American tradition” of haiku, from Japanese-American internment-camp verse to the poetry of the 1971 Attica Prison uprising to the work of Amiri Baraka.
Participants come from a range of progressive labor organizations, including Domestic Workers United, the Taxi Workers Alliance, the Worker Justice Center and more.
Nowak wasn’t about to let a mere global pandemic shut down the workshops. After the last in-person gathering on March 7, he figured out a way to hold meetings online. He asked participants, all of whom were trying to navigate a city in crisis, to commit to the discipline of haiku.
The online gatherings and writing prompts have been so successful that a core group of eight to 10 now meets virtually twice a month and features their pandemic haiku on the school’s Instagram page.
“It’s really compact, so in a way it’s quick but difficult,” Nowak said of Japanese verse form. “You can do it on line at the supermarket or on your way to work, because you can’t work remotely if you’re taking care of someone’s grandparent or driving a taxi.”
A Cabbie’s Muse
Retired midtown cabbie Davidson Garrett’s haiku have focused on both the economic devastation wrought by the virus and the unsettling vibe of a vacant city.
Empty taxi cabs
cruising along avenues
with bankrupt drivers
“The yellow taxi has been my muse for years,” said Garrett, 67, a native of Shreveport, La., who retired in 2018 after 40 years behind the wheel. “With Uber and now the virus, I wonder if people will even know what a yellow taxi is in five years.”
Not all of his haiku are depressing, though, he insists:
No opera now
the virus darkened the Met
but birds sing to me
“We all have to keep hopeful,” Garrett said.
Referring to a disco anthem popular when he was an aspiring actor in the heyday of Studio 54, he added, “We workers have been through so much, but like Gloria Gaynor, I will survive.”
Garrett lauded Nowak for both launching the writers’ group and continuing the haiku project online.
“There’s a connection, a bond among us,” he said of the worker writers. “As a gay man from Louisiana who grew up in the Jim Crow South, my own experience helps me to appreciate what an immigrant worker-writer of color may be facing. We support each other emotionally and care for each other.”
‘Speak Truth to Power’
For Christine Lewis, a childcare worker from Trinidad and an organizer with Domestic Workers United, the online poetry sessions have been “like medication, because we speak truth to power. All of us struggle, but our stories are wonderful.”
Before her job went on pandemic pause, Lewis had to leave her East Flatbush apartment at 5:30 a.m. to catch a gypsy cab to the bus to the railroad to reach her employer’s home in the Long Island enclave of Great Neck.
“The rats at that hour were so rambunctious, so brazen, I had to walk in the middle of the street,” she said.
The gritty pre-dawn memory became fodder for a recent haiku:
Rats, humans vie for space
In urban sidewalks
Cracks in tenement walls
Lewis’ 17-syllable poems also point to the inequities laid bare by the virus:
Better days, Upper East Side
“Look, who’s delivering the food, riding the subways, risking our lives to go to work?” she asked. “Brown and black folks. ”
“Writing brings a level of power and confidence,” she added. “Our work alludes to the hardship, but the haikus also are filled with hope and light.”
‘Yes, I Exist’
Nkhereanye said she looks forward to the group’s online gatherings as “a way to process my day and to try to make sense of what’s going on.
“Low-level workers can be invisible,” she added. “Just because I have a certain job doesn’t mean I’m not an educated African woman.”
Writing haiku and meeting with her fellow writers, even virtually, she said, has been “a gift, a blessing.”
“To have the opportunity to write,” she added, “is the opportunity to remind people that yes, I exist.