Once, while hiking in the Sequoia National Forest, San Luis Obispo poet laureate Jerry Douglas Smith came face to face with a grumpy black bear.
“I came around this redwood tree and this bear was on this berm,” he recalled, no more than 10 feet away. “I surprised him. I was in his social distance, so he was really angry.”
The enraged bear charged at Smith, then pelted down a ravine, breaking fallen pine trees with his broad chest.
As Smith joked in his poem “Close Encounters, it was “another change-your-shorts experience.”
Smith, who was publicly proclaimed poet laureate Oct. 16 at the San Luis Obispo City Council meeting, frequently draws on personal experiences in his writing.
“What I enjoy in a movie or book is being taken to a place I never imagined,” explained the poet, who turns 70 next week. “I think if a poet or a writer does their job, (they have) the chance to transport someone to another situation and make it real.”
Smith will give his first official reading as poet laureate Friday at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art. The event, part of the 29th annual San Luis Obispo Poetry Festival, also features readings by past poet laureates Michael McLaughlin of San Luis Obispo and Bonnie Young of Arroyo Grande.
Festival co-founder Kevin Patrick Sullivan said that selecting Smith as poet laureate was a no-brainer.
“His poems are brilliantly, simply clear,” said Sullivan, noting that Smith is the 13th county resident named poet laureate by the festival’s board of directors. “They do what a poem is supposed to do. It’s supposed to tell a story.”
A unique path
Smith grew up 7,000 feet above sea level in Salida, Colo., a mountain outpost so remote that residents didn’t have access to broadcast television until his junior year of high school.
“It was a great place for kids to grow up in,” recalled Smith, who spent his spare time hunting for arrowheads, geodes and wild game. “We could run around on our bicycles anywhere we wanted to go.”
Although Smith’s parents ran a Studebaker dealership , he had no desire to enter the auto business. Instead, he got a job at the Safeway store across the street.
Smith, who moved to California in 1964, spent most of his adulthood working in grocery stores, retiring as a produce manager at Spencer’s Fresh Markets in Morro Bay. “Stocking fruit leaves the mind free to think about particle physics, the nature of the universe, whatever’s interesting,” he wrote in an email, making it the perfect job for a creative spirit.
Still, Smith didn’t find his voice as a poet until roughly two decades ago, when a woman told him his writing was “poetic.”
“I was pleasantly surprised the people would be interested in what I had to say,” Smith said. “(Poetry) was a way of communicating that I hadn’t had before.”
Together with local poets Anne G. Phillips and Rosemary Wilvert, Smith started a SLO NightWriters poetry critique workshop, now called Poets On The Edge. The group, which has published two anthologies, meets the first and third Tuesday of every month in San Luis Obispo.
In addition, Smith has hosted Second Sunday at Seven, a monthly poetry reading at the Coalesce Bookstore’s Garden Chapel in Morro Bay, for about 13 years.
Inspiration all around
At a typical reading, listeners might hear Smith speak about his childhood, his adventures fly fishing in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, or his visit to Honduras during the war between the CIAbacked Contras and the Sandinista government in neighboring Nicaragua.
“That was an eye opener,” Smith said of the trip, sponsored by the rural development organization World Neighbors. He was accompanying his daughter, then a political science major at Cal Poly.
In addition to exploring the ancient Mayan city of Copán, whose majestic ruins inspired his poem “The Maya,” Smith remembers meeting Contras commander Enrique Bermúdez and Elías Sánchez, a leader in Honduras’ ecological agriculture movement. His poem “Lobsters” was read at Sánchez’s funeral in 2000.
Although the poet gets plenty of inspiration from his own life, he sometimes ventures into more unfamiliar realms. The poem “Shambhala,” for instance, evokes the first European expedition to enter Tibet in the 17th century, while “Bog-Men” looks at life during the Iron Age on the west coast of Ireland.
“A lot of times you have to tell the story from another point of view, another culture, another value system,” said Smith, who supplements his fertile imagination with plenty of research. “You can’t be authentic unless it sounds like you’re coming from an authentic place.”
Capturing that authentic voice is essential to Smith, whose poems reflect a deep respect for other cultures and the natural world.
“The purpose is to write an authentic poem that somehow inspire(s) emotions in the reader,” he said. “It just has to ring true.”
COMMUNIONBy Jerry Douglas Smith
If you are buried in green willow and deer catches your scent and freezes in mid-stride, or coyote loping along investigates you, sitting upwind against a pine, or you round the redwood face-to-jowl with black bear, or if eagle lands on the tan bluff and peers throughout your being, or when bobcat pads up deer’s trail and discovers your lair in the granite, or at dusk, gray owl lands in your tree and cranes his head side to side determining your depth, be silent.
They do not fear. If you need, speak in an undertone. When you both understand, allow them to leave first.