What’s The Difference Between A Poet And A Lobbyist? 

 

One, might say the paycheck.

Others – like me – not much.

Both sustain their livelihood in the craft of communication – both require rewrites, strikethrough and amendments to improve. Periods and commas in the wrong place can get your bill or poem rejected – on a editors technicality.

In poems and as in legislative bills – occasionally the original was better than the updated edited version (see recent West Virginia Senate Bill 360) and sometimes the edited version is better than the original. Each poem and legislative bill  requires interpretation and contemplation – debate and presentation to make it – legal and or ready.

As a poet, I look for words and forms that will allow me to express myself or an idea. Often the success of a poem is measured in if I am able to inspire a particular emotion: laughter, tears, confusion, anger, joy, etc. Sometimes the success of a poem is my own joy and pleasure. Sometimes the poem is performed or published. 

In poetry or human relations as in government relations or lobbying there is effort and dedication to practice and to give and receive mentorship and most of all a willingness to risk – rejection.

I value my poetic mentors. I have had many. And I value my government relations mentors. I have one, her name is Nancy Tonkins and she gives me her time and expertise as she see’s and shares my passion for West Virginia. Nancy has helped me to avoid massive errors. She reminded me during the 2017 Session – keep your eye on the ball. 

Poetry lends itself to finding mentors easier than lobbying –  until it does not. I am fortunate to find Nancy who recently retired. I post no threat to her retired book of work. But lobbying like poetry is competitive. The business of poetry and the poetry of business in lobbying and publishing it in how you knowwho you know, who knows you and how you can get to who you need to know. Mentors can help you navigate these, knows. Mentors can help you discover your next chapbook poetry prize or where to find a Senator on a Saturday night. You need them.

Political Poet or Poetic Lobbyist?

My poetry has often been labeled political. I argue that all poetry is political. My poetry has often been been accused of being “environmental, eco-feminist, pro-Appalachian or West Virginian and equally anti-Appalachian and sometimes I sit in the box called: ‘race’.”  

I have branded myself Affrilachian (African American Appalachian) in partnership with others who wear this identity.  You could say I have been so called “lobbying” for Affrilachia for 15 years by sharing my poetry and speaking about the word, its place and mine in it.  Affrilachia is one of my social issues. We all have our issues.  

All poets and all lobbyists represent issues. Some poets and some lobbyists represent several issues. Then there are those poets and lobbyists who represent only ONE issue. There are lobbyist and poets you never go off their issue path – because they are paid to stay on it. 

Poetry and “Government Relations” both demand that I define who I am and who I represent  and who my friends are. This allows people to assign a particular value to who my friends are, how many votes I represent/ or how many books can I sell? There is always a body count be that your audience or your constituency. In both professions, I am aware of this. It’s just something to know and manage while I find my passion inside the business and curiosity of  language. I stay authentic while playing these very adult games.

When I sit in a committee meeting and it all goes down in committee much like a poets workshop –  I listen (in both) for the economy, beauty and trickery of language. I am always fascinated at how language is debated in these rooms. Often a single sentence can take hours or days of discussion. I’m fascinated to look for hidden agendas like a sudoko puzzle. 

When I am talking to a legislator, it is in my ability to persuade or evoke a certain action – in poetry the same.  Can I persuade a reader to feel, to stay engaged?  Can I engage a Delegate or Senator to vote in favor of  my client or issue?  

In both tongues, poetry & lobbying, I must have integrity in my message. I must be trusted – even if my listeners do not agree with me.

There is no escaping the world of language in lobbying –  law is language and language is law.  And the law, like poetry is read by only a select few.

Whats Does A Master of Fine Arts in Poetry Have To Do With Lobbying?  

As a sophomore lobbyist hired by a “progressive” women’s organization I learned that my merits and credentials, much like getting accepted to a MFA program didn’t open all the so called doors to the secrets of the craft. I had to learn to  knock loud and hard to “learn” what I needed to learn.

Being a new lobbyist, like being the “only” in a MFA program provokes a kind of welcome unwelcome.

They say the standard problem for black students in  MFA programs say is that they are too white. That there are no  POC — people of color, aka black or brown people, no faculty of color. That MFA programs “reproduce white cultural mentalities, fears and assumptions around race and racism.”  

This is true of lobbying. This is a white space. Committee meetings are like poetry workshops where everyone seems to be entering from very different points and none of them for the most part or at least one to none have a “black” perspective

There is always a dominant culture and it is the exhausting job of the minority to be so proficient that it can motivate the majority or the public to understand its position.

The West Virginia Legislature is a white space, much like my MFA program – and that space controls the laws of the state and MFA programs across the country seem to control creative narratives.

West Virginia is 95% white – and I am glad to be here representing the 5%.  I do not believe in safe spaces – I do not need to create an organizations of West Virginia Black Lobbyists to feel safe.

I, too, sing West Virginia – and it echos in the halls of the West Virginia Capitol. I make my own choir.

As a poet and lobbyist I survive in both – poetry and government relations – at least for now. Both give me perspective into the confusion, dysfunction and pleasures of this world. In both crafts, those that participate in the process seem to be pirates of sorts, aligning in moments of solidarity to get a paycheck or published or how we move a cause or our own values in language.  We are all pirates are on the same ship until we are not. Then we fight each other – even though we may have just fought with each other.

I have found alliance with black women poets and equally been chastised for my position to support the poetic education of  a “poor” Appalachian white women in so-called black poetic safe spaces.

I have been pushed out of the learning circle of white feminists via “micro-aggressions,” being called  “caustic” then sent “chocolate covered strawberries.”

And, yet, both of these groups may go to battle with me when their water sources are being destroyed.

As a lobbyist,  I am aware that I am the only “black” female West Virginian lobbyists (please correct me if I am wrong – yes, I’m wrong, the amazing Stephanie Tyree walks the halls).  I walk in a space where there are few – at least in the years I have been present. I did this in my MFA program, too.

I enjoy charting my own course.  The road less traveled requires good shoes, I have plenty.

I feel a calling to learn policy. I struggle in policy as much as I have poetry form. Eventually with practice, workshops, readings and experience, something opened up to me in poetry I learned a way to be more natural and confident. I expect the same will happen for me in lobbying. As it stands, I am new. I’m my third year and a year equals 60 days, so I’m 180 days into the profession and for the most part just as I began in poetry, I’m self taught.

POETHICS

I always wonder how the ethics division of poetry would be organized? As a lobbyist, I am accountable for every penny I give and receive.  I wonder what a poetry ethics reports would look like? Is there a form for the dark money of institutional favoritism and who is zooming who. As a registered lobbyist in the State Of West Virginia I must report my lobbying activities to the ethics division and any infraction of this is both public and accountable to fines and loss of privileges.

I follow the rules.

To have credibility in either category, poetry or government relations you must be trusted and you must be in print –  be it the passing of a law or a poem, neither they say have merit if they are not published.

Last year I took a walk “under the gold dome” with long time lobbyist, now retired  Connie Greytop. She said the best way to learn, “is to watch.”  As we walked to hand deliver invitations to Senators and Delegates she said, “This is a craft. It helps to smell good.”

We laughed. Lobbying as in poetry, is personal. You must be close enough to your audience that they can smell you in both metaphor and place. You must be present. And you must submit your documents to the ethics commission or editors.  Or else – your career is over sometimes before it began. 

INDEPENDANT

Someone asked me if it was hard being at the West Virginia legislature because it is dominated by white Republican men.

I laughed.

I am reminded of what Granny May Say, “He wipes his ass just like you.” I get her point.  

But the question makes me think  about a building on the West Side of Charleston. 

Etched into the building it says:

NAT TURNER

BRAVE COURAGEOUS INTREPID

Below the engraving is:

DR. HOBSON

When I discovered this building it was as if it was asking me –  are you brave enough? Do you have enough courage? Are you intrepid enough to be as bold as Dr. Hobson and etch bravery, courage, intrepidness onto your face, like he etched onto the face of his building.

Dr. Hobson memorialized the leader of the slave rebellion, Nat Turner openly in what was then a white neighborhood of Charleston.  That took courage to state your beliefs openly. I carry issues and beliefs with integrity in broad daylight at the legislature where sometimes the Senators call me Senator. That’s another story…

But, in the end, it’s the beginning and the beginning is in language and finding the connections, the fluidity, the poems and the laws of life where until we get real creative, money is always the writing prompt.

You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose. – Maria Cuomo

The face you make when your bill passes unanimously out of the Senate and the House!