In January 2009, after President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law, his first legislative act after taking office, poets Carolyne Wright and Eugenia Toledo began to think about the need to hear more from women about their workplace experiences—not just pay and promotion inequity, or workplace harassment and intimidation, but all matters relevant to women and work in an increasingly globalized world, including the ever-widening range of occupations in which women are engaged, and their joy and satisfaction of work well done.
Six years after the signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, however, women’s pay has continued to average 77 cents for every dollar earned by men; pay for women of color has averaged even lower. Despite the activism of the Occupy Movement, more congressional legislation for women’s pay, and a rising minimum wage in many states, women’s overall pay continues to lag, even at the highest levels of elite careers!
Meanwhile, Wright and Toledo, along with co-editor M. L. Lyons, set out to edit an anthology of poetry about women in the workplace, knowing that it would be a daunting, yet important task. They hoped to bring together voices of women poets in the workspaces they occupy—much as Studs Terkel illuminated the lives of working people in his interviews, as Woody Guthrie celebrated in song, and as the iconic Mary Harris “Mother” Jones (at one time called “the most dangerous woman in America”) fought for in labor strikes, union organizing, and a seminal autobiography. Wright, Lyons and Toledo have brought together voices of women poets in the workspaces they occupy: from cotton rows to corner suites, trawlers to typing pools, nursing stations to space stations, factory floors to faculty offices. These voices bear witness to women’s workplace lives, and act to re-envision and refigure the world of work for women.
This remarkable anthology, gathered in tribute to Lilly Ledbetter with a toast to Carolyn Kizer, gathers the lyric art of working women, writing from the depths of at least sixty-two occupations. These are the poems of the heavy-lifters, night-shifters, line and piece workers, writing with grace and often with humor: poets who punch clocks, woman the phones and decks, weave, weld and can, cotton-pick and cold call, thread-spin, typeset and teach. They sex-work, they ship-build, plaster and preach, butcher and drive the bus. This is anthology as page-turner, as fist in the air, as do-it-yourself manual against despair. Here, and in gratitude to Lily Ledbetter, is the music of a movement, and it is one of the best of our time.
About the Author
CAROLYNE WRIGHT is the author of nine books of poetry, four volumes of poetry in translation from Spanish and Bengali; and a collection of essays. She lived in Chile on a Fulbright Grant during the presidency of Salvador Allende; and spent four years on fellowship in India and Bangladesh, translating Bengali women poets. After visiting positions at universities around the country, Wright returned to her native Seattle in 2005, and teaches for the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts’ MFA Program and for Seattle’s Richard Hugo House. She is a Contributing Editor for the Pushcart Prizes.
EUGENIA TOLEDO was born in Temuco, Chile, grew up in the same neighborhood as Pablo Neruda, and came to the U.S. for doctoral studies after her university instructorship was eliminated following the 1973 military coup. She has published four books of poetry and a creative writing text in Spanish. An award-winning bilingual manuscript of poems is Trazas de mapa, trazas de sangre / Map Traces, Blood Traces—written after a return visit to Chile in 2008 with Carolyne Wright. Poems of hers in translation by Wright have appeared widely. With her husband, Toledo divides her time between Temuco and Seattle.
M. L. LYONS was born and raised in Southern California by her Iranian father and American mother. Lyons earned an MFA in Creative Writing and was awarded a Klepser Fellowship through the University of Washington. She translated the poetry of Forough Farrokhzad as part of her MFA thesis on Farrokhzad’s influence on modern Persian poetry. As a longtime advocate for women’s rights, she created the first Women in the Arts Festival at the University of Washington. Her poetry and prose have appeared in Raven Chronicles, Terrain.org and Pontoon, among other publications.
Finalist: 2016 FOREWORD BOOK AWARDS: Anthology
The Seattle Review of Books
Review by Paul Constant
September 04, 2015
As we teeter on the cusp of Labor Day weekend, it’s important to remember that women in America are still not an equal part of the workforce. According to whitehouse.gov, full-time working women still earn 78 cents for every dollar men earn, and a typical 25-year-old woman makes $5,000 less per year than a typical man of the same age. It’s interesting to note that those figures are from the same White House where President Obama signed his very first bill, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, into law in January of 2009. Nearly seven years later, wage inequality still exists and globally acknowledged worker rights like maternity leave and universal child care are still a fantasy. And so what’s the best way to proceed? The Republican-controlled Congress is likelier to engage in a mid-session Jell-O wrestling match than they are to proceed on workplace gender parity. It’s possible to move forward on these issues within pockets of liberal America—most especially our cities, which have become laboratories of democracy—but national progress, unfortunately, is glacial. The best avenue for average citizens to advance the cause of pay equity is to tell their stories, to talk intelligently and persuasively on the topic, to anyone who’ll listen. Narratives are still the most valuable currency in the political realm.
With this in mind, you might want to consider spending some of your Labor Day weekend reading Raising Lilly Ledbetter: Women Poets Occupy the Workplace, an anthology of poetry by women about work, and passing on the poems to people who need to hear them. I know that some of you who read that last sentence rolled your eyes—a politically important book of poems?—but hear me out. This is a powerful book.
At over 200 pages, Ledbetter is pretty thick for a collection of poems. And it’s packed with 194 poems arranged into thematic sections: historical poems, poems about women working the land, poems about artists, poems about corporate jobs, and so on. Most of the poems run at a page or less, in all sorts of different styles and forms. When combined like this, in solidarity, they’re a meaningful work of advocacy and protest, a nonviolent action as inspiring and impressive as a human chain. Using poetry as a medium to discuss women in the workplace, it turns out, is a genius move. Most of the poems in Ledbetter are narrative, and they can convey an entire story in a few dozen words. A poem can impart information in a far more economical fashion than a personal essay, which allows Ledbetter to cover much more ground than a prose collection would. On one page, Elayne Clift celebrates the sisterhood of the women who went to work on factory lines during World War II (at the end of the war, when it was time for them to return to domesticity, they “longed—/not for war, but for just a little bit more.”) and on the next, Andrena Zawinski reflects on how her mother’s desire to stay in the work force taught her how to “knuckle into my own fist, raise it high/for rights in rallies and marches for reason and right.”
Ledbetter happily serves double-duty as an excellent survey of a wide array of women in contemporary poetry. You’re certain to find some new favorites here, whether your taste for poetry runs to the airy or the journalistic. In a blank verse poem titled “Industry,” Melissa Kwasny writes about working in a plastics factory:
We waited for our two fifteen minute breaks and our lunch (a sandwich and a cigarette). No windows anywhere. American Plastics, it was called. American Plastics, American Rubber, American Home Foods. National Rubber. All those factories closed down now. Shame of plastic and the married salesmen. Burnt smell of it, perfume spread on toast. Men passing out in the foundry. Women with curlers, at work on the assembly line. No one suggested masks or ear plugs. What the American workplace did to everyone in the 1960s. Good place to get a job, better than fawning, for a girl, better than secretarying.
Victoria Chang’s poem is much more abstract, but it gets to the same point about the way employees are treated: “The boss rises up the boss keeps her job/the boss is safe the workers are not/the boss smiles the boss files the boss/throws pennies at the workers.”
There’s none of the gorgeous specificity of Kwasny’s poem (that “perfume spread on toast” will bob to the surface of my brain the next time I accidentally scorch a plastic spatula handle while cooking) but in a way Chang’s abstractions, her boss hovering in the air mid-Rapture, showering her staff in pocket change, are somehow even more relatable. Together, the two demonstrate the elasticity of poetry.
Though Ledbetter is for the most part exquisitely curated—editors Carolyne Wright, M.L. Lyons, and Eugenia Toledo created a fabulously readable book—its few flaws are noteworthy. I would have appreciated, for instance, fewer poems about the Dilbert-esque vacuousness of working in offices and more poems about sex workers. But that over-reliance on white-collar work only stands out because the book is otherwise so joyously overstuffed with diverse experiences.
The show-stopper of a poem in the collection for me, the one that batted me between the eyes like a rolled-up newspaper and made me reel back and read the whole thing over again five or six times, was “Vocation,” by Sandra Beasley. It reads as though every woman in the country is applying for a single job: “I type ninety-one words per minute, all of them/Help. Yes, I speak Dewey Decimal,” she writes. And the ending of the poem is the thing that stung most: “ . . . Once I asked a broker what he loved/about his job, and he said Making a killing./Once I asked a serial killer what made him/get up in the morning, and he said The people.” That juxtaposition between one kind of human predator and another is so raw and wry and plain-faced that you can practically hear that last period being printed on the page, so intense is the silence that follows it.
But maybe “Vocation” doesn’t do it for you. That’s okay. There are almost 200 other poems in here, and I guarantee you that one of them will trigger your little string of internal alarm-bells as it creeps into your heart. The quality of poetry is high, the intent behind the collection is pure and good, and the subject matter—what we do all day, every day—is intrinsically fascinating. Woman or man, worker or student, you’ll find something here that moves you. Ledbetter succeeds because it emulates the truth of how politics is won: it wins its readers over, one story at a time.
About the writer
Paul Constant is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston’s grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle’s own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. He serves as the Seattle correspondent for national book news site Literary Hub. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Tahoma Literary Review:New Poetry Reviews
by KELLY DAVIO
MAY 3, 2016
Raising Lilly Ledbetter: Women Poets Occupy the Workspace
Ed. Carolyne Wright, M.L. Lyons, and Eugenia Toledo
Lost Horse Press
From Lost Horse Press and Carolyne Wright—a repeat TLR contributor who has written powerfully about wage inequality here on the TLR blog—comes a substantial new anthology about women and work.
With contributors including former US Poets Laureate Rita Dove and Natasha Trethewey, alongside Northwest greats Carolyn Kizer and Madeline DeFrees (not to mention a foreword from Lilly Ledbetter—for whom the Fair Pay Act of 2009 is named) this anthology features an all-star lineup of women writers. But don’t let the stature of the contributors or editors mislead you; this isn’t an anthology about prestige, but about women honoring their labor and the labor of those who’ve gone before us. Field work, factory work, service work, office work, religious work, sex work, medical work, academic work, creative work, laboratory work, domestic work—this feminist anthology finds places for all women’s labor (paid, unpaid, and unequally paid though it might be).
Raising Lilly Ledbetter doesn’t shy away from messy work, from scrubbing the grit of manual labor from the hands with Brillo pads (in TLR contributor Karen J. Weyant’s “Beauty Tips from the Girls on 3rd Street”) or separating the joints of a freshly killed deer (in Lois Red Elk’s “The Knife Wearer”) or from work that feels absurd (see Lytton Bell’s “Another Day in the Dildo Factory”) or even work denied (see Denise Duhamel’s “Unemployment”).
There are poems of office drudgery, but they’re enlivened with humor, as in Sandra Beasley’s “Vocation”:
“I type ninety-one words per minute, all of them
Help . . .
Once I asked a serial killer what made him
get up in the morning, and he said “The people.”
And there are the moments that mark transformation, as in Kathleen Flenniken’s “Siren Recognition,” in which the speaker, at work in Hanford’s nuclear facility, hears a demonstration of a meltdown siren:
Hear the siren once and it will change
your life. That night I’ll wake transformed
into a cockroach, scaling the inside
of a reactor dome.
It’s an anthology impressive in scope, diversity, and range, and one that I hope leaves you, as it left me, all the more determined to see equal pay for equal work in our lifetimes.
The machine sucks
and blows in and out
like a yes-man courting money
and all day you catch
what falls out the other end—
meat Cryovac-ed in shiny plastic
pouches you separate out and stack
on racks—the bright red roasts
and beef steaks, the chops and chops,
the chops, the chops. All day.
© 2015 by Arlitia Jones