While some people doodle and others take a nap to pass the time during long congressional hearings, Jackie Kruszewski writes poetry in the margins of her notes.
Rules: a Haiku
the guards have no souls
arbitrary and so cruel
Where’s your staff ID?
then the hearing aides
You can’t bring that coffee here!
fresh, warm, in the trash
lines before hearings
You can’t sit in the hallways!
well why the F not?
But I never fight
what would our Capitol be
without stupid rules?
But now Kruszewski, 26, is curious to see who else might be looking at the congressional community and finding the raw material for verse that she sees. Earlier this year she posted fliers around the Capitol to gin up interest in her blog, searching for new readers, new writers and — who knows? — maybe even the poet within a member of Congress.
Kruszewski has never taken a poetry class in her life — she studied the environment at the University of Virginia — but has been “stuffing” poems into her diary for a while now, she says. She started writing Congress-themed poetry a couple years ago when her bosses began sending her to hearings. She realized she could be productive in the wide stretches in the hearings when they weren’t addressing the topics she was focused on.
“I’d find myself wanting to describe not so much what was being said but … more of the general ambience, the procedures, the atmosphere,” she says, adding that, since then, she has been interested in writing about “the guys sitting at the dais — mostly guys — and imagine what their lives are like.”
She has compiled a portfolio that takes aim — affectionately, she says — at just about every subgroup in the Capitol Hill community: lawmakers, staffers, reporters, liberals, conservatives, guards. She also writes about Congress’s physical aspects, comparing the Capitol building and its surrounding offices to clique-y high school types in “Their Secret Lives” and paying tribute to the Senate’s Kennedy Caucus Room in a poem with the same name.
“It’s loving stereotyping, what I do,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong, I really love working in and around the Hill, and I have a deep respect for everyone and all the players in the jigsaw puzzle that makes it what it is. But it’s very unique, and after a while, you start to … just want to write about it from a non-policy perspective and want to write about it from a fictional perspective.”
Her ultimate goal is to create a diverse community of readers and writers who submit their own work and perhaps even start a poetry circle where people get together to recite their own poems or share others’ pieces that they enjoy. The idea, she says, is to keep the forum light, since it exists in an otherwise very staid atmosphere.
But Kruszewski recognizes that some members of the congressional community might have reservations about participating (she’s answered a few emails of interest so far but has yet to receive a submission). She sees that, in a city where people get fired for edgy Facebook postings and opposition research is a thriving sector of the economy, people’s writings could be misconstrued and ultimately used against them. On the other hand, Kruszewski argues, something like her blog could add to Capitol Hill’s camaraderie when people read a poem and are then able to say, “I know that! I know those guards who make you throw away your coffee when you’re going into the committee room! I hate that, too!”
That’s not to say that Washington hasn’t fostered well-known poets before. According to the Academy of American Poets’ website, Walt Whitman wrote some of his most famous works here before losing his job at the Interior Department when then-Secretary James Harlan realized one of his employees wrote a poem he found offensive (“Leaves of Grass”). Langston Hughes was also a busboy and budding writer here, and several of the countries most famous poets — Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost and Gwendolyn Brooks among them — took up residence with the Library of Congress as the country’s poets laureate.
Bishop turned her eye to the Capitol during her 1945-1950 tenure as poet laureate when she wrote “View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress.”
“Moving from left to left, the light/is heavy on the Dome, and coarse,” the first verse reads. “One small lunette turns it aside/and blankly stares off to the side/like a big white old wall-eyed horse.”
Tim Swoape at Capitol Hill’s Folger Shakespeare Library points out that, while there’s no major body of poetry written specifically about Congress, poetic verse has wormed its way into congressional culture in the past. The late Sens. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) both had a penchant for quoting poetry while going about their work, Swoape says. Both men liked William Butler Yeats, and Kennedy would also bring up the works of Frost, Thomas Hardy and William Blake.
As for Kruszewski, she doesn’t fancy herself a budding professional writer — though she jokes about how romantic it could be.
“Don’t we all have our secret dreams of … quitting our jobs and inhabiting the life of a writer living in a basement in Brooklyn?” she says, adding that she just hopes that writing can be “a bigger part of my personal life.”
Meanwhile, she’s content to continue observing Capitol Hill and composing poems like “Sitting with the Staff:”
Sitting with the Staff
ties firm and
some high five
some barely alive
the blackberry twirls
youth’s smug wink
and propriety’s sink
behind enemy lines
my true nature shines
ready to bristle
at authority’s foul whistle