The California State Poetry Society is delighted to present Georgia Jones-Davis, our 2021 Annual Contest Judge. The following is an email interview with Georgia - she had a set of questions to work with and wrote a lively, coherent and fascinating narrative. You will find her biographic note after the interview, followed by the Annual Contest Submission Guidelines. Enjoy!
WHY DO YOU WRITE POETRY?
The quick answer would be that I cannot NOT write poetry, I am compelled. A phrase might hook me. Sometimes reading poetry suddenly suggests a thought, a feeling I must put on paper (or in the computer).
The longer answer goes back to my college days in the 1970s. In a class on contemporary poetry, one day I was suddenly taken by a small, lyric poem —maybe three stanzas of four lines each— ﬂoating in the white space on the page.
The words of that poem lifted me into a stratosphere of a new, mysterious emotion, almost like hunger. The imagery beckoned toward a wordless world of shape and shadow that I suddenly knew existed between the syllables of our spoken language. The poet was speaking words that could not be expressed or even heard in everyday conversation.
The poet was Denise Levertov. I don’t recall the exact poem. But that was the moment I knew what I wanted to do with my life: ﬁll a small portion of the white space on a page with tightly packed words expressing the unsayable with “truth and beauty.”
HOW YOU WORK AS A POET?
I do not show up to my desk on a daily basis. I wish I did, and I had a great friend who was a novelist who wrote 1000 words ﬁve days a week, no matter what. She admitted, though, that was poetry is a strange and elusive critter and maybe not a good candidate for such formal rigor.
I read about three poets or books of poems at a time, nightly. I write, two or three a week, in the mornings.
Rumi said to pick up an instrument and play before settling down to write. So I ﬁddle around a bit (not literally), neatening or organizing my writing space, listen to birdcall or music or wind or a neighbor’s voice. Then I reread the poems that I read in bed the night before.
Sometimes I encounter a poem so powerful I have to literally copy it into my notebook. The act of copying a poem by hand has a magic slowness to it, an absorption of the poem’s properties and energies. It can be a a good way to begin to write.
Poems seem to arrive wordlessly and quickly. I just start writing and something comes. Or it doesn’t. Sometimes simply nothing happens and the words and the feeling go away and poetry feels like a huge mountain I’m not capable of ascending. Where do my poems come from? I have often asked myself. They can seem like vague little visitors from another world.
WHAT DO YOU VALUE IN A POET’S CRAFT?
What I most enjoy in a poem is surprise — a newly encountered image, an unexpected verb, a phrase that I don’t think I have encountered before, a point of view or narrative that is just diﬀerent. I like when the poet steps away from the spot light and lets the poem and the poem’s narrator take over. From my years in journalism, I have to come to value succinctness and never using too many words if the words aren’t needed. I like lyrical poetry and free verse, and I enjoy internal and slant rhyme.
I am drawn to short lyrics and the “workshop or anthology” length poems that are no more than one or two pages long. I love brevity. I like to be left at the end of a poem with a sensation of the mysterious power of language and its impact on our imaginations.
I like poems that do not preach. “We hate poetry that has a palpable design on us,” Keats phrased it something like that in his brilliant, beautiful letters that tell us so much about writing poetry.
ARE MFA PROGRAMS AND WRITING WORKSHOPS GOOD FOR POETS?
Yes and yes, depending on your needs. Community, constructive editing suggestions, making contact and friends with other poets, learning from the masters — these are the beneﬁts of such programs. MFAs might help a poet get a job as a creative writing teacher (so many poets are academics these days).
I would like to see more poets from “out in the ﬁeld,” — poets who work at all kinds of jobs— from plumbers and farmers to wine-makers and Amazon staﬀers to school nurses …. veterans and scientists … I’d like to hear more voices from outside university English departments.
Sometimes one’s best teacher might still be found between pages of a book— an outstanding voice from another time —Countee Cullen, Elizabeth Bishop, William Carlos Williams, Sylvia Plath.
WHAT ABOUT POETS WRITING TODAY?
American poetry today is a widely cast net of voices of all background and ages, men and women, straight and gay and trans, native born and immigrant — from Ocean Vuong to Terence Hayes to Nobel Prize winner Louise Gluck. When I pick up the Kenyon Review or Poetry magazine, I’m introduced to unknown voices with each issue. Poetry is rocketing far ahead of my own knowledge of the contemporary ﬁeld.
WHO AM I READING RIGHT NOW?
The pandemic year has been a time of much house-bound quiet and I have been reading and learning about the great masters of Haiku, Basho, Issa and Buson. I love the translations of Robert Hass and Sam Hamill.
I grew up in New Mexico and again am living in the high country again, but spent most of my school and working years in los Angeles.
In Los Angeles I was reading the poems of many Angelenos I was meeting and came to discern a particular LA tone—, urban, noir, cool, Hollywood, beach-town, canyon, tough, competitive voices from many cultures all swirling in the same humongous urban pot, inspired by many similar sources but translating them in distinct ways.
The poetry scene in Santa Fe is very diﬀerent from LA. We live at the edge of vast, dangerous wilderness, and the poetry reﬂects the onslaught of nature right outside one’s front door, a reminder of the earth’s geologic history, a spirituality outside of traditional Western religious