When Jerry Douglas Smith was in high school, he hated poetry. He thought all poetry dealt with the teacher’s idea of the poem’s meaning, he said.
It wasn’t until approximately 25 years ago that he found his niche. When his mother passed away, Smith wrote a brief part of a poem for the memorial and was told his writing was “poetic.” It’s been approximately 22 years since he “started writing poetry knowingly,” he said.
Now the 70-year-old is the 2013-14 San Luis Obispo poet laureate.
“The poet laureate program is a great thing and we’re grateful to the city that they support the poets this way,” Sullivan said. “It’s a special deal and all of the poet laureates have had a marvelous ride.”
A poet laureate is chosen by the festival board, he said, which currently consists of four people.
“We put out a call to the public at large and the poetry readings — all the local poetry readings,” Sullivan said of seeking poet laureate nominations.
Nominees don’t have to be San Luis Obispo residents, but they do have to be from the county. Smith was nominated by two people, Evelyn Cole and 2011-12 poet laureate Bonnie Young, Sullivan said.
“Not only is he a very interesting poet, (but) he gives his poetry and his enthusiasm for it throughout the community,” Cole said about Smith.
Cole describes Smith’s poetry as “alive” and, at times, humorous.
“Every time he goes somewhere, he writes wonderful stuff about it,” Cole said.
After nominations have been made, the festival board chooses a poet laureate based on various criteria including their written work, their work in the community and capability of representing the city, Sullivan said.
Smith’s community work comes in part by way of his hosting the monthly poetry reading “Second Sunday at Seven” in Morro Bay, he said.
But before being involved in the San Luis Obispo County community, Smith grew up as an only child in Salida, Colo., 7,000 feet above sea level in the Rocky Mountains.
“Salida was a great place,” Smith said. “There were two rivers that ran through town.”
Smith enjoyed outdoor activities as a kid, including hunting arrowheads on the weekends for recreation, he said.
Once he turned 21, he relocated in order to attend Cal Poly, where he studied wildlife biology, though he didn’t graduate.
His love for the outdoors is still evident through the continuous enjoyment he finds fly fishing and playing golf on occasion. Smith also said he has a “pretty extensive garden.”
“Anything outdoors, that’s what I enjoy doing,” he said.
His appreciation for nature is just part of what has helped bring life to his work.
“Most of it comes from my experience outdoors, I guess,” Smith said. “You never know what’s going to spark a good poem — a story you hear, something you read about — you just never know.”
Smith has notebooks filled with ideas, one of which he carries in his fishing vest.
“I always carry something because you never know what you’re going to see or what two ideas might get juxtaposed,” he said.
Smith said many times when he compares two things that aren’t normally associated, he comes up with interesting perspectives.
This juxtaposition can be seen in his poems “Wind-Drinkers” and “The Maya.”
“My daughter and I visited the Mayan ruins, and we were the only people there except for the guide,” Smith said. “It was a different experience because there used to be 20,000 people sitting around this square and we were the only ones there. There’s hardly anybody that lives in this valley anymore.”
Smith said his poem “The Maya” juxtaposes the demise of the Mayan culture with the feeling he felt sitting there with his daughter and a local guide.
“Rains cease./The Maya eat their seed corn./Reigns of divine kings devolve/into obsidian depths,” the poem reads.
Most of Smith’s writing is done in his San Luis Obispo home, approximately 20 yards away from Prefumo Creek, he said.
Since the start of his poetic career, Smith has written approximately 400 to 500 poems and has won “50 to 70 contests,” he said.
This experience surely helped his odds of attaining his two-year poet laureate title. Smith is now the 13th San Luis Obispo poet laureate.
“I’d known most of the poet laureates in the past and I was honored to be in that group,” Smith said.
English lecturer and 2009-10 poet laureate James Cushing said the honor places recognition on one’s work in the field of poetry.
“There’s no money involved,” Cushing said. “I figured that my role was to continue to write and send out my poems and to be available for readings.”
Though Cushing didn’t get asked to do any more readings than before he took on the title, he was asked to judge a couple of contests.
Smith has also judged a lot of contests as poet laureate.
“I was one of the judges in what’s called (the) Poetry Out Loud contest, which is (when) high school students compete to go to the state contest and the state contest competes to go to the national contest of Poetry Out Loud,” Smith said.
Poet laureates have also been working with The Tribune during National Poetry Month — a relationship taking root more than a decade ago.
Since 2002, the poet laureate has chosen the poems that run every Sunday in The Tribune each week for that month, Sullivan said.
This is something Smith continues in his role as the San Luis Obispo poet laureate.
“Jerry is doing a great job,” Sullivan said of the man he describes as compassionate and strong. “He’s definitely somebody most people would like to know.”
Smith has no current readings planned other than the San Luis Obispo Poetry Festival this November.