I’ve a special fondness for the form of anthology and how it brings so many different genres and individuals to a democratic table, and What Things Cost: An Anthology for the People (University Press of Kentucky) is both fresh and enduring. It marks the anniversary of the landmark Poor People’s Campaign, but it’s especially timely now, when the costs of labor—the costs to labor—are so profound. The breadth of the voices in this anthology, across a wide variety of identities and experiences, speaks to the relative and literal insecurities of so many in this country where it seems the ceilings of prosperity or basic survival are more impenetrable, and farther away than ever.
Beyond the political and social importance of both the movement and this subject: the poems are beautifully crafted. This is a book to have in your home, and in the schools, with the hope that fifty years from now it may feel like an elegy to the past.An interview with Rebecca Gayle Howell and Ashley M. Jones about What Things Cost would have been notable regardless of how we conducted it, but that “how” has been one of the more meaningful experiences of my literary life.
I didn’t know Howell or Jones personally before this, though I admired their work greatly. I asked them if they might want to engage in a different kind of interview, and they generously agreed. Rather than a limited time or a one-and-done set of questions, we conducted an online conversation over the last month, and the generative space was meaningful to us for its collaborative and creative nature—and dare I say, sparked a new and enduring friendship. To paraphrase Howell: they are the company I want to keep. This is the best of what poetry, politics, and personal connections can do. The costs of ignoring people, of diminishing them, of destroying them, are great, but there are rewards to be had if we talk, listen, and cherish each other in community.
The Rumpus: I love anthologies and appreciate how challenging they are to plan and produce. The anniversary of the Poor People’s Campaign is a striking impetus, but for each of you, how did you become interested, and how did this collaboration come about?
Rebecca Gayle Howell: I believe democracies depend on a populace that is well-informed. Traditionally, this is said in order to point to the free press, responsible journalism, responsible education systems. But I also think our nation depends on a populace that is well-informed about each other, a nation of peoples who can still know or imagine each other’s stories. I think it is especially important that we be able to know our neighbors who hold stories of struggle, and the stories of economic obstacles remain some of the most hidden, most obfuscated among us. Why? Often, we are class-shamed so early in life, we lose perspective. We feel a deep shame when we can’t seem to make it in America, this land of opportunity. Or we are so afraid of not making it, we become the shamers—thinking “at least I’m not them.” And so we silence each other and ourselves, erase the problem’s story, which in turn protects the problem.
I grew up working class, and I watched my parents invest their rather incredible work ethic, considerable intelligence, strength, well-being, and faith in the American Dream. To keep us fed and housed, they became the owners of their own diner, only to lose it all to the bank. I’ve watched my neighbors be lost to disability and addiction, having their health extracted only for pharmaceutical corporate gain. I’ve seen Appalachia be disenfranchised from the earth, the country, and themselves in order to protect the unbound corporate gains of energy extraction. I’m sure you’ve seen your own versions of these stories. These truths, these stories, are everywhere. Quiet, but waiting.
As William Carlos Williams wrote, “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” Poetry has a special capacity for reintroducing us to each other. There is something practical and yet transcendent about a poem’s ability to connect the known “I” to the unknown “you.” I wanted to edit a book about work that would gather together as many different literary voices as it could, voices from different regions, different backgrounds, styles, identities, idioms, and experiences, even voices that challenged each other, in order to create a community of witness.
Dr. King established the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968 as a counterforce to systems that protect poverty and labor extraction in the United States. If a system steals wealth by dividing working people against each other, what happens when working people are brought together in solidarity? Labor unions of course have been doing this solidarity work for more than a hundred years to secure labor rights. Dr. King and now Dr. Barber and Dr. Theoharis have organized worker solidarity to secure democratic rights. What Things Cost is built to honor those traditions while also seeking that third space, one in which worker solidarity is organized to secure our care for each other. This care, this empathy and respect seems to me to be the foundation, ground zero, for all the other efforts, toward economic justice, yes, and increasingly, the hope of safeguarding democracy.
Ashley and I have been close since we met in 2017. She is a person I have always respected as an artist, justice worker, and truth-teller. She does not seek her own fame; instead, her work is calling her always to a higher purpose. That’s the kind of company I want to keep. When I thought about who I wanted to collaborate with on this book, I knew it was Ashley I wanted to work with.
Ashley M. Jones: My path to this work begins with my own parents. Or, maybe with their parents. Or, maybe with those of us who were stolen and trafficked to the U.S. in a not-so-faraway time. Those who built this country and who are still seen as property in so many ways. Maybe that’s where to start. I have always known that inequity was one of the fearful American monsters I’d have to fight throughout my life. But I also knew that my journey was very different than my grandmother’s—her life as a sharecropper, factory worker, and domestic worker allowed me to live as a Black girl in Alabama who has never held a job requiring manual labor. My father’s work as a fire chief and paramedic (and whatever else as a part-time job that might make ends meet) allowed me to never have to work and to keep my reading tutor/development assistant paychecks for recreation, for maybe a new outfit instead of for room and board. My mom’s labor as a social worker and then full-time stay home mom allowed me the privilege of constant and unwavering support from an always-available parent. The sacrifice of a one-income household allowed for the dream life I lived with my three siblings. Something as small as a daily home cooked meal, a small moment of laughter as one of my parents picked me up from school, or as a guarantee that I did not ever have to worry about a thing, made way for the life I enjoy right now. Those labors mean everything to my existence.
So maybe the shorter way to say this is that I have been interested in how we pay for the lives we make in America from a very young age. I saw the way my own parents worked tirelessly so we could be set up in the future. Now, in that future, I am endlessly grateful for what it must have cost to make a “fair” chance for Black children in the Deep South. My poetry reflects that gratefulness, and it reflects the truth of my existence, and I am always honored to be a part of any projects that value authenticity and the real humans who make this world work. So when Rebecca Gayle, who is a friend and collaborator, asked me to edit this anthology with her, it was an immediate yes. I knew we could, together, shoulder this work and make sure it was service-minded at every step.
Rumpus: The list of writers in What Things Cost is expansive and phenomenal, too many to note individually, and early on I stopped marking each page that was notable because I was bookmarking every page. How did you decide which pieces and writers you wanted to include?
Jones: The hardest part about editing this anthology was seeing it as a book that could end. Truly, I think if we could have said this is a forever collection that can be added to for all eternity, we would. But that’s not how publishing works (yet! I bet someone in a distant future is reading this and is thinking, ha! Books that end—what an antiquity), so we had to make choices. I think our strategy was to first find who we knew or had read and assemble that list of asks, then keep orbiting beyond and beyond those lists. We also looked at the work and asked ourselves many questions about what exactly we were trying to represent. We knew that being as inclusive as possible was a necessity in a book “for the people,” so we kept going back and back and back to our list to reach farther and farther. We assessed the gaps in our own thinking and tastes, then tried to make sure the book wasn’t just a love letter to people who write like we do but instead as true a representation of the many voices making beautiful noise in this country. It was hard! But, because both Rebecca Gayle and I have a very serious commitment to the work and service to it, it all felt natural, even when it felt impossible.
Rumpus: Economic equity and fairness, succinctly noted in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Economic Bill of Rights,” is at odds with the American concept of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.” This contradiction is part of the conflicts we face, of course, because there’s the unwritten—and conviction that if you are unable to “succeed” or support yourself, it’s your fault. Current issues around affirmative action and legacy applicants offer a parallel conversation.
Jones: Those bootstraps. My dad wore a lot of boots in his lifetime. As a fireman, there’s a pair necessary for treading fire. He pulled those on with his two hands, yes, but he did not create the fire. That’s what’s missing. We might wear these metaphorical boots. Maybe we make them ourselves out of dirt and spit. But we cannot take ownership of the raging fire in which we must exist. And when, as Patricia Smith notes in her poem “Incendiary Art,” we are “born . . . up to [our] necks in fuel,” so that life in the constantly burning world under white supremacy and patriarchy is one where even straps can be eaten alive by an unquenchable fire.
Rumpus: I read Studs Terkel’s Hard Times decades ago for school, and at that time, it felt far from the world I was experiencing. These days, it feels far too close, in its depictions of the devastations of poverty post-Depression. Is it too much to hope that decades from now, people might read this anthology and appreciate the literature while considering it a chrysalis of the past?
Howell: I don’t know if hope is ever a waste of time. If our thoughts create our actions, then our imaginations are quite consequential. I believe our capacity for hope is tied to our imagination for a healed future, and if we stop imagining that future, we won’t create it. That said, I don’t think it will just happen. Too much power is at stake for those addicted to limitless profit at any cost. And I do think it is an addiction.
We are no longer living in a country where labor unions are the only part of worker rights that are under attack. That was the country I grew up in, under Reagan. Fast-forward across my years, and now I’m living in a country where, for example, restrictions against child labor are under attack, in multiple states. Child labor. We are indeed returning to the levels of desperation that Terkel was documenting in that book, but here’s the kicker: thinking that labor rights issues are Dickensian, of the past, quaint even, keeps them in the present. Nostalgia is another form of denial.
As I was saying earlier, the U.S. economy has become increasingly stratified across my lifetime. And I look into climate change and think about how it is and will be those with the least resources who suffer the most. May economic injustice one day in fact be in our past, but until that day, our responsibility is to press toward the future in which democracy thrives because its people are thriving. To do that, we must come to know each other again.
Jones: I have to agree with Rebecca Gayle—hope is never wasted! I do hope that much of the work we’re doing now to create equity will be studied as “how it got done” rather than “another attempt in a lost war.” And the fuel for the work is, after all, hope.
I think, as RG says, this will all take a lot of work, and much of that work is getting past these ideas that equity is already here or is some tool of division, as some politicians would have us believe. Until poisonous power isn’t what rules us, we may be fighting this fight for many, many generations to come. But that does not mean it will be endless.
Rumpus: What kind of responses have you had to What Things Cost? This is the rare compilation that is as pleasurable for the literary reader as it is valuable for the educational market. What kind of groups have you been speaking to or would like to share it with?
Howell: We’ve been so glad to see the critical response to the book. It’s been out since March, and it’s already been selected as a best book of the year by outlets like Ms. Magazine, Bitter Southerner, The Southern Review of Books, and Poets & Writers, and I’ve seen it featured in several independent bookstores across the country, which means so much. Ashley and I wanted What Things Cost to be an anthology for the people, meaning we wanted it to be a book that spoke to the literary community and, more importantly, beyond it. We want it to become a book that is taught in classrooms of all sorts, from justice studies to regional studies to honors courses to literature and writing. Ashley and I have offered to virtually visit any classroom where the book is taught, and those teachers are welcome to be in touch. But we also want the book to be available in union meetings, shelters, prisons, co-op grocers, libraries. Already constituents of those centers are activating to place it, and that feels right and good.
Jones: It has been so heartening to hear how people are connecting with the book—I hope it is a volume that remains useful to readers of all kinds for many, many years to come. I’m grateful for the positive response! I think the book, in its final form, grew even larger than our initial dreams of it. Yes, I always knew this would be a “big” book, but I didn’t really realize how our intentions would flower—this book is reaching so many spaces that have been intentionally ignored for far too long. I’m grateful to be a small part of an illuminating movement to make sure we all can feel seen and valued. This book is one step in that direction.
Rumpus: How did our changing societal context, our continually diminishing care and concern for our fellow humans during the creation of this anthology, change what you sought for it? Or, perhaps another way: once you finally completed it, was there more you wished you could have included? How has this changed you?
Jones: Goodness, I’d have to say the work was often a balm in the middle of all the changes in our society throughout these few years. To know each time we turned to our ever-growing manuscript that all these people were with us in this common cause reminded me that the actions of institutions don’t reflect the will or the hearts of the people. And, ultimately, the people are more powerful than any construct or any hallowed hall or even the pen that signs our existence out of law. This book reminded me that none of us are alone if we decide we are together.
Howell: Yes! That’s it! Just as Ashley said it. None of us are alone if we decide we are together. May we make that choice.
Author photographs by Victoria Marie Bee and Amarr Croskey