San Luis Obispo County poet laureate Jeanie Greensfelder has a secret.
“I didn’t really connect with poetry” as a kid, Greensfelder, 77, acknowledged. “My history with reading poetry in school was not that wonderful, positive experience that one would like. I just didn’t understand it.”
“It wasn’t until poems came my way” as an adult that she fully appreciated the power and beauty of the art form, she said. Now Greensfelder, whose two-year term as poet laureate began Jan. 1, hopes to share that excitement with others.
“For people feeling like ‘Oh, poetry isn’t my thing’ … (I say) ‘You haven’t found the right poem yet,’ ” she said.
Greensfelder found her first calling — psychology — when she was a girl in St. Louis, Missouri.
“When I grew up, you could either be a secretary or a teacher or a hairdresser. Those were the choices my mother gave me,” Greensfelder said with a chuckle. But she chose a different path.
“In high school, I knew I needed something to help me figure life out. In the olden days, your parents didn’t know much, so they didn’t teach you much about what goes on in here,” she said, touching her head.
After majoring in education and psychology at a St. Louis teachers college, she went to graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis. Greensfelder then spent a decade working as a counselor at a Jewish family services agency, followed by 15 years in private practice.
“It’s been a fun journey to learn how to help other people and help myself along the way,” she said.
Greensfelder now volunteers as a grief counselor at Hospice of San Luis Obispo County in San Luis Obispo, her home for the past 20 years.
She and her husband, Andy, started living in Cambria part-time in 1993. They settled permanently in San Luis Obispo in 1997.
Asked what attracted her to the Central Coast, Jeanie Greensfelder replied, “Climate and beauty. We always imagined, even though we both grew up in St Louis, (that) ‘There are better places in the world. Let’s find one.’ ”
According to Greensfelder, her interest in poetry bloomed during her time in San Luis Obispo.
When she took a poetry-writing class taught by Diane Halstead via Cuesta College’s Emeritus community education program, “That was pretty much the opening of the door to poetry as something meaningful to read … and accessible,” Greensfelder said.
“People have some history of feeling that poetry is above them or beyond them,” she said, and there are plenty of complicated, challenging poems that fit that lofty category. “But it’s not all there is.”
As examples of approachable poems, Greensfelder cited two of her favorite works by Mary Oliver: “Wild Geese” and “The Journey.” The first poem opens with the memorable lines, “You do not have to be good./ You do not have to walk on your knees/For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting./You only have to let the soft animal of your body/love what it loves.”
“There are a lot of people who feel they aren’t any good,” Greensfelder said, and “Wild Geese” offers a way to forgiveness and self-acceptance. “That sort of poem resonates with me as a psychologist (because) I know a lot of people who can benefit from that point of (view),” added the poet, who started a group at Hospice where participants could share poems with soulful meanings.
“The right poem at the right moment can be a changing thing,” Greensfelder said.
Her poem “First Love,” which details a youthful romance, was featured on the public radio show “The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor” in 2013. Former U.S. poet laureate Ted Kooser showcased Greensfelder’s poem “Sixth Grade” in his weekly column, American Life in Poetry, as a “good example of straightforward language used to maximum effectiveness.”
Greensfelder, who also writes fiction and non-fiction, acknowledged that her poems often take an autobiographical bent.
“In looking for something to write, I will pick something that happened and create a story” about it in verse form, she said. “I’m thrilled when beautiful lines (just) come to me. But it’s work. It’s a little easier when you’ve got a little narrative, a little storyline to work with.”
“Everybody actually loves writing a poem as soon as you tell them it’s just short sentences,” she added with a laugh.
As poet laureate, Greensfelder said her aim is to “bring more of the pleasures of poetry to people who didn’t know it was there to be had.”
Through her countywide Coming Home to Poetry program, she emails four poems a week to a listserv of poetry lovers. More than 100 people have signed up so far, and Greensfelder is always looking for more participants.
“Part of the problem in our community is that we’re reading to each other. Poets tend to come to poetry readings,” she said. She’d like to include people who are newer to the art form.
In addition, Greensfelder hopes to inspire schools, book clubs, social groups, church congregations and organizations to share and discuss their favorite poems.
“We don’t know how to talk to each other sometimes,” Greensfelder said, and poetry can open the door to deeper, more meaningful conversations.
“A poem stops you, lets you pause for a minute,” Greensfelder said. “And we all need to pause for a minute, to breathe and take in something beautiful or soothing or interesting. …
“It’s a way to stop and come home to yourself briefly.”
Poets Jeanie Greensfelder and Ben Lawless will read from their work from 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday, April 2, 2017, at Studios on the Park, 1130 Pine St. in Paso Robles. For more information about the free event, call 805-238-9800 or visit www.studiosonthepark.org.
Other poetry-related events in San Luis Obispo County in April include:
▪ Local poets will read from their work at 6:30 p.m. Aoril 6 at Atascadero Library, 6555 Capistrano Ave. in Atascadero, as part of the art and poetry exhibition “Discovery.” The show runs April 3 through May 31. For details, call 805-461-6162.
To receive daily poetry emails from San Luis Obispo County poet laureate Jeanie Greensfelder, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Honoring San Luis Obispo County’s poet laureate
The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors will recognize Jeanie Greensfelder as the county’s new poet laureate at its meeting, starting at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the County Goverment Building, 1055 Monterey St. in San Luis Obispo. For more information, call 805-781-5450 or visit www.slocounty.ca.gov/bos.htm.