Mark Pawlak was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1948, into an ethnic Polish working-class family. Buffalo's Polish east-side neighborhoods and the Langfield Housing development, where he lived during most of his grade school years, figure prominently in the poems of his first poetry collection, The Buffalo Sequence. He graduated from Immaculate Heart of Mary School and then attended Kensington High School. He completed is secondary education at Maryvale Senior High School, in Cheektowaga, New York, a working-class commuter suburb, where his family had moved in early 1960s. He attend college at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from which he graduated in 1970 with a degree in physics. While at MIT, he studied poetry with Denise Levertov. Poetry has been an integral part of his life and work ever since.
His opposition to the Vietnam War and to Defense Department funding of scientific research lead him to give up a promising career in experimental physics. He became involved in social justice causes and in progressive education. He taught mathematics, sciences, and creative writing, briefly on the west coast at the Santa Barbara Free School. He returned to Cambridge to help start The Group School, an independent alternative high school for poor and working class youth, many of whom were public school truants or drop-outs. In 1978, he took a position teaching mathematics at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where he continues to teach and to work as an administrator.
Pawlak is the author of six poetry collections, most recently Jefferson's New Image Salon (2010). His original poems have been translated into German, Polish and Spanish. In English, his work has appeared widely in such anthologies as The Best American Poetry in 2006 (Billy Collins, ed.), Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust (Charles Fishman, ed.), and For the Time Being: The Bootstrap Book of Poetic Journals, as well as in numerous magazines and journals, including New American Writing, Mother Jones, The Saint Ann’s Review, and The World. He has been the recipient of two Massachusetts Artist Fellowship awards.
The Buffalo Sequence, his first full collection of poems was strongly influenced by the poetry of William Carlos Williams and Cesar Vallejo, and by the autobiographical writings of Maxim Gorky. These lyrical poems looked back upon his formative years growing up in Buffalo but are as refracted through the lens of his work with inner city teenagers in Cambridge, many of whom lived, as he had, in housing projects. The original edition of The Buffalo Sequence concluded with an essay titled “Poetry from an American Oral Tradition.” In it, he had spelled out his poetics at the time and his aspirations in writing the poems. It was an appeal to poets who, like himself, had grown up in ethnic working class communities. He urged them to resist conforming to the homogenized middle class version of the “American Dream,” and, in place of that, to give prominence to their ethnic cultural heritage—“This Land is Your Land” instead of “America the Beautiful.”
All the News, his next collection, was a sharp departure from The Buffalo Sequence. The poems, often drawing from contemporary newspaper accounts and current events, are didactic in nature, overtly political, and working class in perspective. They are influenced by the poetry of Bertolt Brecht, in particular Brecht's "Deutsche Kriegsfibel" poems, which Pawlak had translated into English. Special Handling: Newspaper Poems New and Selected, his subsequent collection fused the Brechtian impulse toward political statement with a "found poetry" aesthetic. The influences of the documentary poetics of Charles Reznikoff and Ernesto Cardenal are also evident in two lengthy poem sequences in this collection, "German Lessons", which investigates the Holocaust, and "Chalatenango", about the Salvadoran "death squads" and the massacres by the military of Salvadoran peasants. In Official Versions, his most recent collection, Pawlak continues to explore political themes, and "found poetry' aesthetics, often with wit and wry humor. In "Hart's Neck Haibun", a series of long poetic journals that make up the backbone of this collection, he returns to the lyrical mode he first displayed in The Buffalo Sequence.
In addition to being a poet and educator, he has pursued another career as a literary editor/publisher. After West End Press published a chapbook of his poems in 1974, Pawlak was invited to join the West End as an associate editor. He held that post for several years. He then joined the editorial board of Hanging Loose Press in 1980. He continues to serve as a co-editor of Hanging Loose magazine and Hanging Loose Press books. Hanging Loose was started in 1966 by several former students of Denise Levertov. She served as contributing editor for over 25 years and in that capacity introduced Pawlak to the magazine while he was studying with her at MIT. In addition to co-editing poetry titles and Hanging Loose magazine, he has compiled six anthologies, most recently, "When We Were Countries: Outstanding Poems and Stories by High School Writers" and Present/Tense: Poets in the World, an anthology of contemporary American political poetry. Shooting the Rat is third in a series of anthologies that includes Bullseye and Smart Like Me. These anthologies have gathered the best work by teenage writers that has appeared over the years in the legendary "high school" section of Hanging Loose" magazine.
- Cervena Barva Press Poetry Interview with Marlk Pawlak
- Pawlak, Mark, ed. Present tense: poets in the world | Kliatt | Find Articles at BNET.com
- Pawlak, Mark, Lourie, Dick, Hershon, Robert, Schreiber, Ron, eds. Shooting the rat; outstanding poems and stories by high school writers - Book Review | Kliatt | Find Articles at BNET.com
- Interview with Mark Pawlak
- "Official Versions" Review
- Buffalo Sequence by Pawlak
- Class Acts by Pawlak
- "Denise Levertov Festschrift
- Dos and Don’ts by Pawlak
- "Hanging (Loose) with Mark Pawlak and Dick Lourie" by Peter Picetti
- "First Encounters with Contemporary Poetry" by Mark Pawlak