Poems for Politicians

by Gillian Nevers

The poetry card that Nevers made and distributed, with a poem (right) on one side, and an explanation of the project (left) on the other.

Can poetry influence politics?  That’s a question I’ve been trying to answer over the last couple of years.  Recently my husband, Dan, and I stood outside of the Middleton/Cross Plains Performing Arts Center handing out 100 copies of my poem, “On Debating a Hunting Season on Sandhill Cranes,” to people attending the Wisconsin Conservation Conference’s Dane County spring meeting. We could have handed out 200 more.  We were hoping to influence attendees to vote “No” on Question 69: a question on whether to allow sandhill crane hunting in Wisconsin.  This was the third time in two months that I had attempted to draw attention to the folly of hunting this ancient species that has become so much a part of the Wisconsin landscape. I fear that it won’t be the last. 

The idea for introducing poems into the political and civic process came to me in October, 2011, when I participated, along with several other poets whose work had appeared in Verse Wisconsin’s Main Street Issue, in a panel discussion during the Wisconsin Book Festival.  It was a wide-ranging discussion about issues around the intersection of poetry and politics—discussion that generated many creative
ideas for how poets and poetry might gain a permanent place in public discourse.  Walking home with my husband afterwards, I rattled off ideas on ways to encourage politicians, legislative bodies, and public and government boards and committees, to incorporate poetry into their meetings.  Many of these bodies already start meetings with a pledge, a prayer, or benediction. So why not start with a poem? 

When I got home, I began making notes for a project I called “Poems for Politicians:  not necessarily political poems.” I would solicit work, from Wisconsin poets, focusing on just about anything they love about our wonderful state: its lakes, rivers and streams; the varied neighborhoods—ethnic and otherwise; urban life, country life, wildlife; quality of life, of air, of education. The poems would not have to be overtly political—the thought of someone reading a poem about the memory of catching tadpoles as a boy at a hearing on wetlands legislation was subversively delicious. 

Fast forward to January,  2012, when I read that State Representative Joel Kleefisch was about to introduce Assembly Bill 613 making it legal to hunt sandhill cranes. My poem, “On Debating a Hunting Season on Sandhill Cranes,” which was published in Main Channel Voices, a labor-of-love poetry magazine that is no more, seemed like the perfect response to the newspaper articles on the subject.  So, I copied it into letters to the editors of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Wisconsin State Journal, the Capitol Times, and a few other papers around the state. None ran the letter, or the poem.

Next, I created a two-sided card, one side with the poem, the other with a statement about including poetry in public discourse and a drawing of a sandhill crane, complete with red hood. I hand-delivered the card to the offices of the fourteen representatives on the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources, as well as to my state senator and representative. I also mailed it to the Department of Natural Resources Migratory Game Bird Ecologist, the International Crane Foundation and the Wisconsin Audubon Society. I did not receive an acknowledgment from anyone, and have no idea if the poem was ever read. 

The Republican leadership never held a vote on Assembly Bill 613 (it died in committee at the end of the legislative session).  But, the Conservation Congress did. I’m sad to say the Congress voted to endorse the hunt by a more than two-to-one margin (although, in Dane County the vote was the reverse). The vote to approve hunting sandhill cranes is not surprising, considering the question began with a lead-in paragraph stating that sandhill cranes are causing “high levels” of crop damage.

Rep. Kleefisch is planning to reintroduce the bill when the legislature convenes in January, 2013.  I’m already working on recruiting poets to appear at legislative hearings in opposition to the bill.  As experts offer rationale supporting the hunt and other experts provide scientific evidence for why hunting sandhill cranes is not necessary, and may be harmful, poets will take their turn at the table and, in lieu of testimony, read poems about the incredible bird we almost lost forever and may lose again. I like to think that “poetic testimony” will reframe and broaden the debate, that language and images will open decision-makers to look at the issues before them from many perspectives. It is possible that a poem will trigger memory and feelings that complicate things, but, in the end, may allow for a more thoughtful decision.

April 14, 2012