So, I have “a day job.” Even when I had a night job, I had a day job, because by day job most people mean “how you make your money.” I don’t make (enough) money from writing poems or essays or articles; I likely never will, nor am I certain I want to—I do love my day job. The small amount I’ve earned from my own writing (as opposed to pieces-for-hire) goes to one of three places: my book fund, my orchid fund, & my tattoo fund (mostly this one).
In my day job, I am an attorney who works on state policy. This, in part, means that for a few months out of each year, I work as a lobbyist during the Virginia legislative session to get bills passed that would help children in need or to stop bills that would harm children in need. In my particular portfolio of work, “children in need” means: kids in foster care, kids experiencing homelessness, kids who do not have adequate healthcare or food to eat, kids who are considered to have “discipline issues” at school; kids who end up in court because of things they may or may not have done.
At a party after a reading this past summer, I was chatting over drinks with a well-known fiction/non-fiction writer. He asked & I told him about my day job, which he then called “a conversation-stopper.” Meaning, he said, he felt “like an asshole” for “just being a writer” after hearing about what I did. At the time, I don’t think he understood I was also a writer, which—according to his logic—means I must feel like at least half an asshole every single day.
Around the same month, I was in a meeting with a legislator, & a colleague—despite my guidance not to do so—told this legislator that I was “a poet.” The legislator cracked a grin & asked me to make my policy pitch to him “in sonnet form.” Yes, heh.
Apparently, this many years in to being both a lawyer and a writer: I can’t talk to writers about my day job & I can’t talk to lawyers & legislators about being a writer.
Working the legislative session, doing this sort of work, is like trying to make the world a better place while you’re stationed on the moon. Everything real feels far away—like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. Like there is a dearth of oxygen. Nearly every conversation I have at the legislature somehow begins with “no” & the battle starts there. It is a battle that I love to fight, but it is a battle nonetheless.
What I love about poems: a poem always starts with “yes.” Poems continue to say yes to a reader, all the way to the last line & even well after that.
I’m going to say something perhaps controversial now.
There is no poetry in the law.
If you are a lawyer, or law-adjacent, you will want to battle that premise. You will want to cite examples of judges who use lines of poetry in their opinions, judges who write their opinions in rhyme and meter, beautiful Latin phrases of the law. You will want to render justice as something poetic, even when it is not just. You will talk about “the power of language.” Understand that your battle only serves to deprive the room of its oxygen. Laws & poems are separate planets, different atmospheres. They choke you in distinguishable ways.
I can’t write poems during the legislative session. Mostly because the air I breathe during those months is not made of oxygen, but something hazier.
Still, I crave poems even when I’m not writing them. The 2015 legislative session started on January 14th & it will run until (at least) February 28th. Each day so far, I’ve been tweeting out a poem, just so I don’t get myself too completely immersed in one world. Because even if a room is filled with smoke, you still want to be able to know where the door is. Because even if a room is filled with smoke, you still want to breathe.
I’ve been using the hashtag #sessionpoems, but today I thought it might be easier to let them all accumulate here, & just update this post each day & tweet the link. Voila. Inhale deeply:
January 14th: “Revenger’s Tragedy“: Jane Yeh.
January 15th: “Clown“: Chelsey Minnis.
January 16th: “Reverse: A Lynching“: Ansel Elkins.
January 19th: “Knocking or Nothing“: Mary Szybist.
January 20th: “The Bellelli Family“: Allison Benis White.
January 21st: “Three Poems“: Killarney Clary.
January 22nd: “Domestic Mysticism“: Lucie Brock-Broido.
January 23rd: “Paternoster“: Beth Bachmann.
January 26th: “In the New Century I Gave You My Name“: Alex Dimitrov.
January 27th: “Prayer“: Jorie Graham.
January 28th: “Play In Which Darkness Falls“: Frank Stanford.
January 29th: “Floating Trees“: C. D. Wright.
January 30th: “The Glass Essay“: Anne Carson.
February 2nd: “The Gift“: Li-Young Lee.
February 3rd: “The Little Prison“: Idra Novey.
February 4th: “My God, It’s Full Of Stars“: Tracy K. Smith.
February 5th: “Mayakovsky“: Frank O’Hara.
February 6th: “alternate names for black boys“: Danez Smith.
February 9th: “How To Speak To The Dead“: TJ Jarrett.
February 10th: “One Poem“: Roger Reeves.
February 11th: “What the Angels Left“: Marie Howe.
February 12th: “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart“: Jack Gilbert.
February 13th: “Baked Alaska, A Theory Of“: Matthea Harvey.
February 16th: “Seventh of Twelve“: Bradley Paul.
February 17th: “They Feed They Lion“: Phil Levine.
February 18th: “Sonnet [Nothing was ever what it claimed to be,]“: Karen Volkman.