Writers at Work, Part II

Contributors Share their Thoughts on Labor, Writing, and the Current Climate

While creating this issue, we thought about labor as both noun and verb, tangible and intangible. We discussed how labor is often hidden from view, how it can be private or public. How it can be an act of love or something that must be endured. Labor is often categorized—by type, by value—and that categorization can change with time and need as well as by who is doing the categorizing. And finally, we examined how labor contributes, for better or worse, to our identities and sense of self.

In response to the latest edition of Portland Review, which features works on and about the idea of labor, Nonfiction Editor Lee Ware reached out to several of our contributors and asked them about the issue’s theme, their writing practice, and the impact the current climate is having on them. In this second of two posts, Lee spoke with contributors Catherine Esther Cowie, Emily Costantino, and Terence Young. Her previous conversation with Brian Evenson, Madeline DeLuca, and Nicole Melanson can be found here. 


Lee Ware: Describe your submission. How does it inform or represent your own thoughts about labor? 

Emily Costantino:  Formally, I wanted to produce something that felt urgent, and free-associative. Like how someone thinks when they’re really tired and just want to go home.  Just kind of scattered and longing. 

Catherine Cowie:  I think labor is more than just an exchange of mental and physical exertion for pay. It includes our volunteer work, taking care of our families and attending to ourselves. Even the act of listening to a friend or a stranger is a form of emotional labor; restraining the tongue from offering advice, the mind from judgment or distraction, and simply holding space and attentively bearing witness to someone’s pain and joy. I would also suggest that our own grappling with our stuff whether through therapy or journaling is an act of emotional labor. At varying times, labor can demand more or less of our physical, mental and emotional energy.  

The poems I submitted reflect the physical and emotional exertion that is involved in caring for a loved one who is physically and mentally ill. Sometimes, the work is unpleasant and unwanted. And unfortunately, at times, children are given duties that one could argue should be given to an adult. How does this shape the child’s understanding of self? If the labor is unpleasant, and perhaps work that an adult should be doing, is the child’s self-esteem harmed? 

In the poem “Talk Therapy,” I wanted to show how emotional labor occurs in a family with a shared past of physical abuse. Recounting what has happened can be healing. However, depending on the recipient, recounting past hurts can potentially harm. If the recipient is a child, for example, receiving a story about a history of violence can create an emotional and mental burden. The story haunts the child. The child carries the weight of this story. Perhaps that is labor as well. On a subconscious level the mind is seeking to understand; why did this happen, what does this say about me and who I will become?  Eventually this child, who will become an adult, might engage in more intentional emotional labor as they grapple to reconcile their sense of identity with their familial history. 

Terence Young:  It’s hard not to think of Philip Levine’s collection What Work Is when discussing the idea of labor. He explores the subject so beautifully in those poems. For most of us, labor is a highly defined and highly monetized activity, one that tends to structure the way we see life. In my submission, “Nostalgia,” the narrator is an older man who has always seen his life as a series of jobs, whether they are part of his actual employment as a surveyor or the demands made on him as a husband, father, land owner. They are jobs he must complete, boxes he must tick, and he has difficulty being flexible, allowing others to engage the world less dutifully. The arrival of his grandson challenges him to re-examine his life, how he dealt with his daughter when she was young. The title derives from the condition that we now refer to as PTSD, the idea that the mind of a person who has been badly traumatized is compelled to return to the source of that pain, just as the narrator remembers his own father telling him at the dinner table that there will be no discussion about what there is to eat.  “You’ll eat what you’re given,” he says, and in that moment even dinner becomes a job, a task to finish. 

LW: Where does your writing fit in relation to your thoughts about labor?

EC:  I like the word “co-constituted,” because it allows for things to come into being at the same time, relying on one another for existence. When things are co-constituted, it’s hard to trace their relationship because of their necessary dependence. Like, my writing will always necessarily reflect my class position, whether I acknowledge it or not. I think of this thing the poet and activist Judy Grahn said once about her epic poem, “A Women Is Talking to Death.” She said her writing will always reflect a “working class affect.”  She didn’t say working class “ideology,” or even “spirit.” She said affect. In that, no matter the subject of Judy’s work, the working-class experience is always present in its feeling. It can’t be any other way. 

CC:  Writing is a form of labor that I enjoy. It is both difficult and pleasurable. It demands mental and emotional exertion as I seek to discover and best represent/express emotional truths through poetry. There isn’t a lot of monetary value attached to writing poetry, but it is necessary work. Gregory Wolfe, in his essay, “The Wound of Beauty”, states:

Beauty [art] allows us to penetrate reality through the imagination, through the capacity of the imagination to perceive the world intuitively…  Art takes us out of our self-referentiality and invites us to see through the eyes of the other, whether that other is the artist herself or a character in a story.

I believe this work, writing poetry, when done well, contributes to creating a more empathetic and compassionate world. Art can also be nourishing for both the creator and the recipient. There is a pleasure in bringing something to fruition. And there is a pleasure in consuming a well-crafted poem. Even if the content of the poem is heavy or sad, there is a beauty in the craft and how an emotional truth is conveyed that one can appreciate and enjoy. My hope also is that someone feels less alone. That their experience of life or the world is affirmed or validated in some way when they encounter my poems. 

TY:  Writing and labor have been interconnected for much of my life simply because I made my living as a teacher of writing for many years. I have always felt that writing teachers should principally be writers who also teach rather than teachers who also write, but when the majority of one’s income derives from the day job, the distinction becomes quite blurred. Nevertheless, I feel it is important for students to see that their teacher is also submitting himself to the same demanding editorial scrutiny that he applies to them, and that he is taking the risks associated with the writing life, the risks of rejection, poor reviews or indifference. Writing itself can often feel like work, especially when it is going badly, but, on the other hand, work — all kinds of work — can feel invigorating, even joyous when it’s going well. We tend to reserve the word “work” for activities we find difficult or uninspiring or repetitive, but, in truth, work can be rewarding, especially when we are building something that will improve our own lives, building a house, digging a garden or composing a piece of music. One of the characteristics of writing is that it most often occurs outside the hours traditionally reserved for day jobs, so we tend to look on it as more of a recreation or hobby. But my wife has been a full time writer for most of her life, and our children grew up understanding that when she was writing, she was also working, that her work was important, more important than putting in a day at an office.   


LW: How is the current climate – specifically the stay at home and social distancing measures – affecting how you work and the type of labor you’re involved in? 

EC:  I remember waking up in early March and watching the Dow drop by 3,000 points, my partner beside me staring at the ceiling in disbelief. After that day, I lost my three jobs within four days. Everything around me just disappeared or lost its value overnight. This happened to a lot of people in my life.  But even against the backdrop of that uncertainty, I felt this irrepressible sense of relief. For the first time, maybe ever, I was told I didn’t have to work to be meaningful in the eyes of the state.  It was like some kind of nod of approval from an absent father. 

CC:  Right now, I work from home. Before COVID-19, I did the daily commute into the office. During this current climate, I am engaged in more emotional labor –checking in on friends, family and coworkers through email, phone calls and video chatting. I’ve also benefited from the emotional labor of others.

TY:  I retired from teaching three years ago, and in that time I have made the transition from a highly regimented and productive life to one in which I am free not to measure my days by how many papers I have marked, how many poems I have edited, how many textbooks I have ordered. The current restrictions, then, have not affected me as much as they have people who have been compelled to leave their employment, possibly forever. My work now is learning how to become the person I was before I joined the labor force, a person who sat and thought or listened to music or read or went for long walks without feeling irresponsible or unproductive. So far, I’m enjoying the job very much. 

LW: How have staying at home and social distancing impacted your writing practice?

EC:  I live in New York and I’m here because I find the pace of the city drives my creative practice. I write a lot on the train and in bars. The city being completely shut down has definitely changed the situations I write within. Now I’m usually stationary at my desk in the apartment I can’t afford and so I’m moving. 

CC:  I have more time to work on my manuscript as well as more time to study writing with friends. A friend and I video chat once a week about poems that we like, why we like them and what can we learn in terms of craft from these poems.  She picks up on certain things in the poem that I don’t and vice versa. It’s also interesting to see which poems she chooses for us to study.

TY:  For a lot of my time during the lockdown, I have been editing a book of poems that is due out next Spring. I am also working on a collection of short stories for submission to a press. As most writers are aware, the editorial process is one that never really ends, so the enforced attention to revision that the lockdown provides can be a little all-consuming, and at some point, I hope to tear myself away from it to work on finishing a novel I have been fiddling with for a few years now. Certainly, the lockdown has also served to increase the amount of time I spend reading, an activity that is as vital to a writer’s mastery of his or her art as putting words on paper. I must say that I am grateful to literary journals like The Portland Review for continuing to provide writers like me a place to place their stories and poems during these strange times, and in doing so provide fodder for other writers to pursue their own careers. 


LW: How do you think work and labor will change, or if you think it will, as we move forward and reopen local and global economies? 

EC:  This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot. In the beginning I was terrified that everything would change forever, become unrecognizable. And now I’m more afraid of things just returning to business as usual. I think a lot of people are hoping their industries will undergo some kind of transformation after this is over. Even de Blasio’s new reopening “plan” for the city uses language like we will build a “better” and “more just” city. This economic crisis has once again exposed the inherent class inequality foundational to the American project. I’m stowing my pessimism by staying involved in community outreach projects, like the Covid Bail Out Fund

CC:  I’m most interested in how organizations will treat their frontline workers—truck drivers, sanitation workers, factory workers, grocery store clerks. Will the value of these workers be recognized in more tangible and intangible ways? 

TY:  I hope that we have realized that we are a vulnerable species, and that we need to have more safeguards in place to protect the weak and disadvantaged among us. I hope too that we have learned that economic success and excess are partly responsible for the situation we now find ourselves in. We have been living excessively for years, paying little or no attention to reinforcing the foundations of a just and safe state for all. Instead, we have cut social programs and financial support for the needy in pursuit of greater wealth for those who do not need it.  Do we want to be a society that measures its worth by GDP and quarterly dividends or one that ensures the health and happiness of its citizens through accessible healthcare and housing and education? I also hope we now recognize how much we are dependent upon the workers in the poorest paid jobs such as agriculture, healthcare and the transportation of food, and that we will reward their contributions by giving them a decent living wage. I hope these things, but I am not hopeful that they will come about. Even though the narrator in my story seems to change by the end, most people tend to return to what is familiar, what is comfortable, and I think it will take much more than this current plague to set us on a new and better path. 


LW: How are you currently spending your time – working or otherwise?

EC:  I’ve put all my energy into starting this digital arts journal, The Quarterless Review. It’s an online platform featuring art being made in isolation. It came from an impulse to create a digital archive of how art is responding to, or somehow change by, the pandemic and growing economic crisis. We feature video, poetry, interview, performance art, or anything mixed media. Issues are released every week, as an attempt to document the evolution of things in real time. 

CC:  Currently, I have the privilege of working my full-time job from home. I’ve taken up collage art as a hobby. I love cutting, ripping and gluing things together. A lot of YouTube and Facebook. Virtual poetry workshops. Hulu. Dancing to late eighties and early nineties music as well as best of world music Africa. I do long for more sunny days so I can take more walks. 

TY:  Currently, I am doing as Voltaire advised, cultivating my garden. I am also, as are many among my friends, brewing beer and baking bread. Simple joys are the best joys, we are all learning. I hope we don’t forget. 


Emily Costantino is a poet and visual artist. She was the 2019 recipient of the Burton A. Goldberg manuscript prize through the Academy of American Poets. She lives in Brooklyn where she is working on a chapbook to be released later this year.

Catherine Esther Cowie is a 2017 Callaloo Writing Workshop graduate. Her work has appeared in the Penn Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Moko Magazine: Caribbean Arts and Letters, and Forklift Ohio. Currently, she resides in Illinois.

Terence Young is the co-founder and former editor of the Claremont Review, an international literary magazine for young writers that has recently closed its doors after twenty-five years. “Nostalgia” is from his third but as yet unpublished collection of short stories, Parallax and Other Stories. He lives in Victoria, BC, and you can find more of his work at terenceyoung.ca.