Editor’s note: this column is reprinted here with permission.
BY JEFF E. SCHAPIRO Richmond Times-Dispatch – Jan 21, 2022
The musings of a famed Democratic phrase-maker notwithstanding, Ghazala Hashmi governs in poetry.
The first-term state senator, an academic whose district embraces parts of urban Richmond and suburban Chesterfield County and all of rural Powhatan County, adores poetry. She has since she was small girl growing up in the late 1960s in Statesboro, Ga., a racially riven former cotton town.
The Indian immigrant daughter of a political science professor at the local state university — he and her mother would recite to their three children the ancient poetry of the subcontinent, written in Urdu — Hashmi would borrow from the public library anthologies of poetry and copy by hand verse that moved, amused and informed her.
Mario Cuomo, the late governor of New York and orator par excellence, famously said, “You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.” It was an ear-pleasing way of reminding the victors, but more importantly, their voters, that the lofty aspirations of politics ultimately yield to the gritty practicalities of policy.
But Hashmi, a Democrat who holds a doctorate in American poetry from Emory University and is the first Muslim woman elected to the Virginia Senate, has found a way to govern in poetry. It requires, however, planting tongue firmly in cheek.
On her Twitter feed, usually as the annual legislative session is taking an inevitable odd turn, often late at night, Hashmi — drawing from the vast catalogue of poetry that she’s amassed since age 9 — will blend the words of the craft’s masters with an observation of her own. And she will do so in a manner that respects each poet’s signature style.
On Feb. 26, 2020, during her first months in office, Hashmi mused digitally shortly before midnight, borrowing from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” and with a bow to Mark Antony, a politician from long ago who knew something about a peril that to this day vexes the racket’s practitioners: falling on one’s sword.
“Friends, Virginians, countrymen, lend me your ears,” Hashmi wrote. “I came to read Bills, not to sit around waiting for them. The nonsense that some men utter lives after them; Their well-thought efforts are oft buried amid piles of paper. So let it be within these Chambers.”
Earlier that evening, Richmond-raised Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” inspired a commentary on the inefficiency endemic to the General Assembly, if only because its work is defined by the inefficient process of forging consensus among 140 people from different parts of the state, with different agendas and different loyalties.
Hashmi tapped, “Once upon a midnight dreary, while we pondered, weak & weary, over many a quaint stack of bills. While we nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping. As of someone gently rapping at the senate chamber door. ‘Tis some Delegate,’ we muttered, ‘Only this & nothing more.’”
A little over an hour later, Hashmi returned to Twitter, drawing again from Poe’s opus to grief, loss and love:
“Round & round the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning, soon again I heard a rapping, even louder than before! ‘Surely,’ I said, ‘those are Delegates at our Chamber door. Surely, they have brought stacks and stacks of bills to explore.’ But ‘twas the wind & nothing more.”
For Hashmi, a former administrator at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, the poetic is a means of understanding the prosaic; that exceptional prose can elevate ordinary politics.
For such a perspective, she turns to Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, Langston Hughes, T.S Eliot, Emily Dickinson, and other American poets who address in their work hope for the common man, frustration with rigid, often outdated, social conventions and optimism, tempered with realism, that society can improve for all.
“I am always thinking in the context of poetry and philosophy,” a masked Hashmi said during an interview in her office on the fifth floor of the interim General Assembly Building. “What we go through on a day-to-day basis can be connected on a transcendent level. … What tasks do we bring to this fight every day?”
Sarah Graham Taylor, Alexandria’s assistant city manager and its eyes and ears in Richmond, delights in Hashmi’s poetic posts, saying they are an instructive window on the legislature, offering an explanatory glimpse of a process that can be confusing even for veterans.
“It’s a different way of seeing what goes on here,” said Taylor. “Whereas some members put out a vitriolic tweet or put out a talking point, I appreciate that people like her push out thoughts about their perspective … their life experience.”
Hashmi has yet to share verse with the Twitter-verse this session. It’s early days, though, with the General Assembly closing its first full week, one dominated by quarrels over masking, race, and the environment, between Democrats, whose limited power hangs on a one-seat majority in the Senate, and the new Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin.
Youngkin’s swearing-in this past Saturday included a poetry reading, a regular feature at inaugurals. Suparna Dutta of Fairfax, an engineer, Indian immigrant and Youngkin supporter attracted by his put-parents-in-charge education plank, read Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” a poem widely viewed as an ode to life’s choices.
During the ceremony, which technically is a session of the General Assembly, Hashmi — while listening to Dutta’s reading — considered another poem by Frost, “Fire and Ice,” a nine-line reflection that touches on conflicting emotions, which, no doubt, were abundant with the transfer of power from a Democrat to a Republican.
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Contact Jeff E. Schapiro at (804) 649-6814 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter, @RTDSchapiro. Listen to his analysis 7:45 a.m. and 5:45 p.m. Friday on Radio IQ, 89.7 FM in Richmond and 89.1 FM in Roanoke, and in Norfolk on WHRV, 89.5 FM.