Monday, June 15, 2015

Monday Muse: 'Raising Lilly Ledbetter'

I exist / To raise my writing hand up in a fist /
So all our herstory won't fade in the mist.
Bonnie J. Morris, "Women's Studies Professors Get No Respect"

Cover of Raising Lilly Ledbetter

One of the delights of anthologies is their inclusion not only of familiar voices but also of voices emerging or not known. In Lost Horse Press's recently published volume Raising Lilly Ledbetter: Women Poets Occupy the Workspace*, we have 120 established, emerging, and new voices, each representing through poetry women's experience of and in the workplace. Among them are a number that many will recognize instantly, as I did: Rita Dove, Dorianne Laux, Nikky Finney, Sandra Beasley, Natasha Trethewey, Linda Hogan, Luisa A. Igloria, Kathleen Flenniken, Martha Silano, Cathie Park Hong, Kim Addonizio, Shaindel Beers, Ellen Bass, Denise Duhamel, Camille T. Dungy, Lucia Perillo. Others, including Takako Aria, Lois Red Elk, Lam Thi My Da, Rosebud Ben-Oni, and Vandanna Khanna, belong to those not so well-known to me, or at all—women who nonetheless give greater perspective, depth, and bread to the collection.

Edited by Carolyne Wright, M.L. Lyons, and Eugenia Toledo, this welcome collection first and foremost pays tribute to Lilly Ledbetter, whose fearlessness in pursuing an end to wage discrimination was the catalyst for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (Public Law 111-2), legislation that President Barack Obama signed into law on January 29, 2009, at the start of his Administration. Ledbetter contributes at the beginning of the anthology a statement acknowledging not only her personal struggles to be compensated fairly for her work but also the struggles of so many other women—indeed all those raising their own voices in this volume—to whom equal pay, benefits, promotions, power, and respect have been and continue to be denied. Carolyne Wright presents, in "Seventy-Seven Cents to the Dollar: A Working Introduction" to Raising Lilly Ledbetter, a well-written summary of Ledbetter's long court case, which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and its meaning for women throughout the United States. She also describes her inspiration for and her own and her colleagues' persistence in following through to publication a generous assemblage of writing that is as culturally, socio-economically, and geographically representative as it is diverse in the occupations at issue. As Wright notes in her introduction, "This anthology deals with work from the perspective of all that is 'Not on Our Resumes'. . . ." 

Raising Lilly Ledbetter is remarkably comprehensive, presenting poems that, Wright points out, concern "the direct treatment of the actions of work, and how those actions influence and shape the internal and external lives of the women performing these jobs—how the tedium, terror, and temptations of the workspace have called forth the voices of women. . . [who] even if they are now employed in better-paid, higher-status occupations, . . . can understand from experience the non-privileged working of many women. . . ." 

More than 60 distinct, skilled and unskilled, low- and high-level occupations, jobs desirable and not—from secretary to sex worker, from domestic to wait staff, from factory piece worker to fragrance model, from postal clerk to deckhand, from lawyer to politician, from nurse to teacher, from construction laborer to scientist—are addressed. The editors' selections, most in free verse and few more than a half- or full page in length, include poems about immigrants' job experiences as well as work experiences of women of color and of Native Americans; persona poems written in the voice of sculptor Camille Claudel, painter Artemisia Gentileschi, or others in the arts; poems about largely unknown figures— for example, Caroline Lucretia Herschel, discover of eight comets, and Lord Byron's daughter Augusta Ada Byron King, a mathematician credited with creating the first computer program—who, to quote from Mary Alexander Agner's "Ordinary Women Scientists", "don't make the history books" even though they "make change with every breath"; poems that look backward, paying homage to women who "came of age in World War II", such as Andrena Zawinski's "Rosie Times"; poems that are humorous as well as lyrical. These are poems to share, read aloud, learn from, exclaim over, and teach.

The range of the poems in subject, approach, and tone is noteworthy. What woman ever "seated in a circle of powerful men" cannot identify with Stacy K. Vargas's description of feeling "[l]ike an electron trapped in an unstable orbit". Or fail to comprehend the message of Susan Cormier, who shares in "Three Keys" this well-studied workplace lesson: "Years ago, my first real boss taught me two things: One: Listen to the boss. Two: Listen to your head and heart. In case of discrepancy, do what is right." Or not acknowledge wishing she could "go out into the parking lot / and scream" if, as Leslea Newman writes in her poem "Adjustment 1—Shifting Piles", her frustrating job requires nothing more from her than that she "make files / for the pile that had no files / and put them into a new file pile."

Regardless of how well-established they are in their particular field of endeavor (not all the writers are poets by vocation), all the contributors share these aims: to bear witness by speaking up and speaking out, to be not just seen but also heard and appreciated for their vast talents, and, as Dorothy Alexander states in her poem "Honest Work", to be "absolved of the sin of being female."

The anthology, which includes informative and satisfying biographical notes on each contributor, is organized in six, thematically unifying sections: Entering the Workforce, The Dust of Everyday Life, Arts & Sciences, Corporate Identities, Why It Almost Never Ends, and Consciousness Raising.

Aptly, the collection concludes with Arlene I. Mandell's "Consciousness Raising Revisited: West Coast Version", in which Mandell asks and then answers the resonant if rhetorical question, 

[. . .] Who says women can't change the world? Of course we can!
It's just taking a hell of a lot longer than we expected. 


* Raising Lilly Ledbetter is part of the Human Rights Series at Lost Horse Press.

The cover currently shown on the collection at Amazon differs from the cover of the book I have; my copy shows an image of Lilly Ledbetter (it can be seen at the link immediately above). In addition, the publisher is listed as University of Washington Press. See UWP's page for the anthology. UWP is the distributor for Raising Lilly Ledbetter. Lost Horse Press announced May 12, 2015, that it received a grant from the Idaho Community Foundation's Bonner County Endowment Fund for Human Rights to support publication of the poetry anthology.

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