Conversation: Poet Mark Nowak and Director April Daras Discuss ‘Coal Mountain Elementary’

BY Arts Desk  April 24, 2009 at 3:19 PM EDT

“I called my daughter and wife. I don’t remember which one answered the phone. I believe it was my wife answered, yeah. And told her that the mine had blew up and her brother was still in there and told her to come on up to the mine.”

That is a section taken from Mark Nowak’s recently published poetry collection, “Coal Mountain Elementary,” which explores the perils and at times personal tragedies of the coal mining industry. A poet and labor activist, Nowak’s work has been praised by Adrienne Rich for “regenerating the rich tradition of working-class literature,” while others have compared him to a modern Upton Sinclair.

Nearly always with a focus on working class issues, Nowak has written about the plight of auto workers and gone on to lead writing workshops for laborers here and abroad.

After a tragic blast killed 12 miners in Sago, West Virginia, in 2006, Nowak turned his attention to the coal mining industry. The result is a book that takes words from the miners and their families’ own mouths as they recall the accident in congressional testimony. He combines that with prose poems detailing the ongoing deaths of miners in China and an older, school lesson plan about coal once distributed to elementary school classrooms.

In addition to the book, “Coal Mountain Elementary” is being staged as a play by Davis & Elkins College, located in the heart of the coal mining region of West Virginia. Nowak also chronicles coal mining accidents on his blog.

I recently spoke with Nowak and April Daras of Davis & Elkins College, who directed the play:

Here is video of a recent performance, courtesy of Davis & Elkins College: