A Conversation with Editors Rebecca Gayle Howell & Ashley M. Jones about What Things Cost: an anthology for the people — curated by Tiffany Troy

Ashley M. Jones
Rebecca Gayle Howell, Credit Victoria M. Bee

Ashley M. Jones is the Poet Laureate of Alabama. She is the author of Reparations Now! (2021), Magic City Gospel (2017), and dark / / thing (2019). Among her awards are the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers Award, a Literature Fellowship from the Alabama State Council on the Arts, and the Lucille Clifton Legacy Award. She is the Associate Director of the University Honors Program at UAB, and she teaches in the low residency MFA program at Converse University. Jones is the founding director of the Magic City Poetry Festival. She is coeditor of this book.

Rebecca Gayle Howell’s books include American Purgatory (2017) and Render/An Apocalypse (2013). Among her honors are the United States Artists Fellowship, the Pushcart Prize, Great Britain’s Sexton Prize, and two winter fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Howell is the longtime poetry editor for the Oxford American and a professor of poetry and translation for the University of Arkansas MFA program. She is co-editor of this book.

Tiffany Troy: What initially inspired both of you to begin What Things Cost?

Ashley M. Jones: I began thinking about the possibilities of an anthology about “labor” in an expansive way because that is my relationship to the concept of “labor.” My own relationship to laboring and to “work”  has not always been tied to manual labor or work for money. Labor begins, for me, at the unending fight to be treated and recognized as human, and I know many marginalized people, including people experiencing poverty, understand that struggle. It is unending. There’s no point in the day that that labor is over–my Blackness isn’t something I can set down, and in America, it’s something for which I’m targeted, harassed, unfairly treated–the list goes on. And that struggle for personhood intersects squarely with the struggle to simply feed oneself, find shelter, contribute to society, and navigate capitalism. This anthology, in my mind, could explore all the ways we labor in this country, and all the ways in which reform could touch those multilayered bruises.

Rebecca Gayle Howell: Across the last decades, we have seen the country dividing against itself due to a perfect, dangerous storm of scarcity, bigotry, income inequality, the attention economy, and an insatiable, anti-democratic political force. Democracies depend on decentralized power in which all people, regardless of identity or station, possess the ability needed to build something larger than any one individual. Tyranny depends on centralized power, which is gained against democracy when the people are either forced, or convinced, to hand over their power. I wanted to help put something into the world that could support our democracy by fortifying our care for each other.

For me, that work starts with shared economic justice, as—much like Ashley has just detailed— our capacity to thrive determines all else. When I was 7 years old my father lost his job at Captain D’s. My parents went into a great deal of debt to start their own restaurant, thinking they could work hard enough to make it. They did not succeed. I grew up working there from 8 years old onward—dishwasher, server, kitchen. My father would wake up at 4am and work until around 5pm. My mother, 8am – 1am. They worked 7 days a week like that. My father died the day before his 57th birthday, from a rare cancer that his oncologist told him was likely brought on by stress. Before becoming a fry cook, my father had been a proud Marine. We had white privilege and had access to bank debt, and still I’ve seen my family lose their health and wellbeing because, despite so much effort, they could not make ends meet.

Stories of economic struggle are so often lost— when we struggle, when we fall behind, we can develop shame and fear; we often learn that, to survive, we need to hide our story. But when we do, we lose sight of each other’s worth. My hope is this book encourages our care for each other, as I said above, by transforming shame into courage.

AMJ & RGH: We knew that writers are at the forefront of truth telling, and that an anthology like this could be uniquely situated to house stories from all sorts of people laboring in the United States, and in so doing encourage the reader to value their own stories that support their own thriving.

Scarcity breeds, not competition, but desperation. When a person cannot get the medical care their child needs, for lack of money; when a person can’t live in safe housing, for lack of money; when a person works a job or two and still can’t pay their bills; when the only job you can get is one that destroys the ecological safety of your homeplace; resentment can begin to consume the mind.

The stories we tell about ourselves and each other—the stories we share, read, listen to, believe—matter. They shape our imaginations for each other’s value, and our own. When these stories are repeatedly reductive, we create an “official story” that actually limits our ability to care for each other and enact our union. Literature, especially poetry, is an antidote for such stories. It’s a form that uniquely lifts up the particular living detail of a life. What Things Cost offers experiences of work and economic struggle, from within the authority of the particularly lived life. We not only want to tell our own economic, cultural, and familial stories, we want to create a space to listen to someone else’s stories, truths that may not resemble our own. Collaboration can dismantle resentment. Empathy is a starting gate for collaboration, and story is a starting gate for empathy.

Extractive capitalism turns working people against each other in order to mount power. Rev. Dr. King designed the Poor People’s Campaign to be a political and cultural counterforce. The Poor People’s Campaign is now revived and co-chaired by Reverend-Doctors William Barber II and Liz Theoharris. Their work brings us great hope, and it is why we are donating all of our royalties from What Things Cost to support them.

TT: How do you balance gathering emerging and established voices, professional poets and activists who also write poetry? (I’ve noticed poets like Martín Espada who often writes about work alongside poets like Wendell Berry whose work I more frequently associate with non-work, in Berry’s case about nature in the Midwest, in the anthology, so I’m very interested in how the selection process worked.)

RGH & AMJ: In the US readers often think of poets in terms of specialization: this poet writes about war, this poet writes about ecology, this poet writes about memory. But poets know that poetry is not a specialization, it’s an art built from complex living experiences. It’s a documentation of the human condition. For most of us in this country, economic struggle is a foundational life experience. Because this struggle affects so very many, it varies in terms and degrees. What Things Costs seeks to lift up those stories, and their variations, as equal partners to each other.

It’s helpful that you brought up Wendell Berry’s work. You’re right—his writing is often understood as “nature poetry,” but once a person reads just one of his books it becomes clear he’s really writing to understand an land-economy definition of work. The easy, pastoral vision of a leisurely farmer is a falsity. Farmers, especially family farmers like Wendell and his wife Tanya, never stop working. Readers will see other, different poems in the anthology coming out of this subject from writers like L. Lamar Wilson, Julia Bouwsma, Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, Melva Sue Priddy. But they will also see stories of work from extractive industrialized farming—like those from Kwame Dawes, Alice Driver, Vicente Yépez, Marlanda Dekine. And this is just one randomly selected subject among the many in the anthology: work + race, work + health care, work + sexuality, work + homelessness, work + immigration, work + place, work + motherhood, and onward—. We know that every book has a page limit, and we wanted to offer a wide entryway.

TT: How did you organize the poems into its thematic sections? (More specifically, how do you encapsulate the vast idea of “work” and “cost” and “things” through the different themes, without feeling constrained?)

AMJ & RGH: Two things are true about this book simultaneously. The pieces work together as a multifaceted story of the labor of existing in the US across identities, cultures, economic circumstances, ages, etc, but they also work in thematic movements that make up each numbered section. What made sense to do with this large body of work is to find those phrases or lines which seemed to speak loudly across many pieces, and organize them around those words. Those “calls to action,” if you will. Take section II, “Just Don’t Never Give Up On Love,” for example. That section title comes from the title of Sonia Sanchez’s offering in the anthology, and it does speak to the immense power of love which drives us to work, and in many cases to endure the horrors of labor to make way for our loved ones to eat, have shelter, and take rest. But it also speaks to a story like that of our Associate Editor Emily Jalloul, whose essay “The Taking Apart” shows us the way love is a labor in itself–loving oneself through the memory of layered abuses, loving a working-class mother as she battles addiction and the ghosts that haunt her, still. Each section, although brought together by a theme, still finds ways to break apart down many roads called by the same name.

“Work.” “Cost.” “Things”. In the book, these ideas are expansive, guided by the work we received and by our own intention to liberate this anthology from any sort of oppressive or restrictive mindset. bell hooks teaches us to understand the intersectionality of labor. In her words, “the white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy” works to oppress and restrict us all, even on the page, and this anthology asks the page to galvanize us into a different force of sharing.

TT: Can you speak about a few of the poems you’ve each selected in this feature?

AMJ: Debora Kuan, “The Night After You Lose Your Job” OR Christopher Soto, “Job Opening for Border Patrol Agents – So, I couldn’t choose here–well, let me be even more honest: if I could, I’d sit here and talk about all the poems. Acquiring these pieces was such a beautiful task–to see what everyone offered us, and to see how it made our vision for the book grow was so enriching to me as an editor, and I know it will do that same work for all who read it. But, to the task at hand. I was fortunate enough to publish Debbie and work with her during my time editing Poetry. This poem gives us so many views of labor–wading the muck of resume-building in a world where the real skills of child rearing can’t be listed; shielding your children from the hate-filled world, specifically the racist attacks of a white American blaming an Asian American for the pandemic; rallying around another mother in need and the necessary work of making it one night after the next. I think it brings so many important perspectives all at once, and the language is able and slick in its storytelling. Christopher Soto’s poem caught my eye because it takes the form of something else–a hermit crab, I’ve heard them called. I love the way this poem tells a story and tells the truth without moralizing for the reader–instead, it lays out the facts of the dehumanizing situation at the border and reveals the way in which a job can become a weapon for an unjust cause. The poem shows us that the demands of this job require its applicant to turn off their impulse for empathy, and when that’s gone, we know what can happen. I’m thinking of cages, of inhumane detention conditions, of families ripped apart...

RGH: Rosa Alcalá, “Propriety” – This is one of my favorite poems in the book. I came to it originally when I published it in the Oxford American, and when Ashley & I were putting together the anthology it was one of the first poems I sought to collect. Rosa is a poet who comes from William Carlos Williams’ Patterson, New Jersey, but her Patterson is very different from Williams’ own. “Propriety”touches on the fact that it is difficult to ever leave behind the anxieties and traumas that often come from growing up working poor in the US. Even when we are able to build what others might see as a “successful” livelihood, we can still find it very (very) hard to believe it is all truly over—just around the corner is another day of hunger, shame, fear. It can feel like being hunted, inside your own memories.

AMJ: Sonia Guinasaca, “America Runs on Immigrants” – What draws me to “America Runs on Immigrants” is the way it tells the truth plain and simple. The prose poem form makes it impossible to wriggle out of the text–no white space. You can’t misunderstand the facts–when describing their immigrant parents who work in the service industry, Guiñansaca says, plainly, “[n]either of them have eaten / [t]he thing about America is that migrant workers go days without properly eating so that America can function.” There is no way to misunderstand that or misconstrue it. The language leaves us no room to hide, no way to just order the coffee and forget who’s making it. This poem shows us that America uses people up in thankless jobs, that it begs for more while simultaneously demanding for folks to Go Back To Your Country, Stop Stealing Our Jobs.”

RGH: Justin Bigos, “Thumbprint” – Justin Bigos is a poet and fiction writer and a founding editor of Waxwing magazine. He is also a man who grew up experiencing homelessness.  Justin has a graduate degree and taught for higher ed for a brief time. But when his university’s program was eliminated for financial reasons, he found himself once again struggling just to pay his bills. I love “Thumbprint”— it’s an in-the-moment documentation of the poet’s actual and furious morning, when he opens a medical bill, billed to him for procedures he did not receive, from an injury incurred while working food service, some twenty years before. What struggling person has the time needed to work the phones long enough to get that bill erased? The poem shines light on something that is rarely seen or understood: whole lives can fall to the laws of attrition, those surprising, overwhelmingly accruing details that wear us down and keep us at a loss.

AMJ: Reginald Dwayne Betts, “In Alabama” – Erasure is a difficult medium for many reasons, but this one by Reginald Dwayne Betts shows what the form does best–it reveals the true meaning of an intentionally bloodless document. To erase the words of the State to show what it’s really saying behind the legalese and carefully worded reports is to show the ways in which the true crime in America is to be poor. The root of some “justice” is to extract work from someone at the expense of their humanity. Betts rubs away the smoke and shows us the fire, searing the page.

RGH: Gerald Stern, “May Frick Be Damned” – One rule we had while curating the anthology was that all the poets would be living poets—a 21st century collection. Gerald Stern died while the book was sent to press (as did our other exception, Ron Houchin). Stern was a longstanding labor activist—when he was younger and teaching at community colleges he’d organize unions on campus. He also went on to be one of the hardest working, most prolific, and most generous poets of his generation. “May Frick Be Damned” points to his core memories of being a first-generation immigrant kid in Pittsburgh, a town built out of extraction industries like coal and steel. (Frick, being Henry Clay Frick, one of the founders of that extraction who refused his workers their right to organize.) Reading across generations is one of the main ways that local memory is carried forward, and with it, hope for the future of our families and regions. Gerald Stern was also a mentor of mine. One of the things I love most about this poem is that it tells the hard truth while also advancing Jerry’s ultimate protest: joy.

AMJ: Sonia Sanchez, “Just Don’t Never Give Up On Love” – This poem is one I’ve loved for a long time. And I know most people won’t see it as a poem, but it is to me. Yes, it’s written in a prose form, but the way the story winds toward revelation feels like something only a poem can do. The story Sis. Sonia tells before reading this poem live is one I can relate to all too well–she talks about a review she’s writing after the deadline, hoping to get the gig done on an afternoon when her sons are ready to play and she’s ready to nap. The work always insists when we don’t have the time or energy. Or when we are mothers trying to raise sons or poets teaching heavy courseloads and picking up odd writing jobs here and there to make ends meet. But the magic of this poem, I think, comes in what happens outside of the undone review, the work that keeps nagging. The woman Sonia meets in the park describes another kind of labor–that of staying committed to the dream of love (and of life, in spite of it all). It is work to find love in this world where so many of us, especially those of us who are marginalized, have our souls whittled down to a splinter. It is work to believe there is something out there that can “fold us inside [it]” and “christen’ [us] with...love.” But that work is necessary work–we just can’t give up.

RGH: Ruth Awad, “My Father Dreams Of A New Country” – The US has too often perpetuated myths about working peoples—this group is “lazy,” this group is “dumb”—in order to justify why, in the richest country in the world, so many are barely making it. One of these dangerous myths is that if you admit people are barely making it, if you seem to be complaining, you are anti-democratic. As “My Father Dreams of a New Country” teaches, the opposite is true. Ruth Awad is a Lebanese-American poet living in Ohio. Here she is writing in the voice of her immigrant father, who embodies one of the greatest complications in these stories—the wounds cut deepest for those who truly love this country, its promise.

TT: What are your hopes for this collection?

RGH & AMJ: What Things Cost is a collaboration between us, and our colleague Emily Jalloul, and all of our contributors, and the reader. It is a book that welcomes and shares the stories of working peoples—lived, remembered, honored— across boundaries like citizenship, race, gender, region, ability, age. Here, we are hosting a conversation, and we hope to begin one, too. With every story a reader encounters in these pages, we hope the reader feels less alone, and strengthened to listen and share their own stories.


Reprinted with permission from the University Press of Kentucky.

Rosa Alcalá is a poet and translator originally from Paterson, New Jersey. Her most recent book of poetry is MyOTHER TONGUE (2017). She teaches in the Bilingual MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Texas–El Paso. In a past life she shoved baguettes into paper bags, unsuccessfully transferred calls, balanced trays of pigs-in-a-blanket, failed to explain the difference between ser and estar, and sold a baby name book to a famous actor.

Ruth Awad is a 2021 National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellow and the author of Set to Music a Wildfire (2017), winner of the 2016 Michael Waters Poetry Prize and the 2018 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry. She and Rachel Mennies coedited The Familiar Wild: On Dogs and Poetry (2020)

Reginald Dwayne Betts is the author of A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison (2009), which was awarded the 2010 NAACP Image Award for Nonfiction. His three books of poetry are Shahid Reads His Own Palm (2010), Bastards of the Reagan Era (2015), and Felon (2019). Betts is a 2010 Soros Justice Fellow, 2011 Radcliffe Fellow, and 2012 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellow. In 2012 President Barack Obama appointed Betts to the Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. He is a graduate of Prince George’s Community College, the University of Maryland, and the MFA Program at Warren Wilson College and is currently a PhD student at Yale Law School.

Justin Bigos is a founding editor of the literary journal Waxwing and the author of the fiction chapbook Double Clothesline (2022) and the poetry book Mad River (2017). His writing has appeared in Ploughshares, Indiana Review, McSweeney’s Quarterly, and The Best American Short Stories 2015. After working for a decade in restaurants and thirteen years in higher education, he currently teaches pre-K and is raising his daughter in central Vermont.

Sonia Guiñansaca (Kichwa-Kañari) is a poet, culture strategist, and artist advocate. Born in Ecuador, they migrated to the United States at age five to reunite with their parents in New York. Guiñansaca has helped build some of the largest organizations for undocumented individuals in the United States and cofounded several artistic projects for and by undocumented writers. Guiñansaca has been honored by Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation, British Council, and Creative Time. They self-published their debut chapbook, Nostalgia and Borders (2016), and are coeditor of the anthology Somewhere We Are Human: Authentic Voices on Migration, Survival, and New Beginnings (2022).

Debora Kuan is the author of two poetry collections, Lunch Portraits (2016) and XING (2011). She has received residencies at Yaddo, MacDowell, and the Santa Fe Art Institute and is the Poet Laureate of Wallingford, Connecticut.

Sonia Sanchez is a poet, playwright, professor, and activist. She is one of the leaders of the Black studies movement and has authored and edited more than thirty collections, most recently Collected Poems (2021).

Gerald Stern is the author of more than twenty books of poetry and prose, including Blessed as We Were: Late Selected and New Poems, 2000–2018 (2020), a finalist for the 2021 PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry Collection. Among his many awards are the Library of Congress Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Award, National Book Award for Poetry, National Jewish Book Award in Poetry, Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and Patterson Poetry Prize, as well as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts. From 2000 to 2002 he served as the first Poet Laureate of New Jersey. Before retiring, Stern taught at such institutions as Temple University, University of Pennsylvania, Raritan Valley Community College, Columbia University, New York University, Sarah Lawrence College, Drew University, and Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He also served as president and chief negotiator of a New Jersey teachers’ union and led the protests that convinced Iowa state colleges to divest from South Africa during apartheid.