The lyric moment

Jeff Knorr

Jeff Knorr will read poetry during a fundraiser for the Sacramento Poetry Center on Thursday, November 29, at 1224 40th Street, from 6 to 8 p.m. Tickets are $30 or $20 for SPC members. Visit <a for info.">

Jeff Knorr will read poetry during a fundraiser for the Sacramento Poetry Center on Thursday, November 29, at 1224 40th Street, from 6 to 8 p.m. Tickets are $30 or $20 for SPC members. Visit for info.

photo by richard schmidt

Credit a dream-killing college adviser for Jeff Knorr’s career in poetry. The avid outdoorsman and onetime-struggling bio major wanted a job at Yosemite National Park when his blunt-talking adviser at California State University, Chico set him straight: “Dude, this is trouble.”

Knorr took his adviser’s heed and plunged himself into humanities courses before he found his come-to-Jesus moment during a revelatory modern drama class.

These days, Knorr teaches literature and creative writing at Sacramento City College. He’s also authored three books of poetry and was recently named Sacramento’s new poet laureate. Knorr talked to SN&R about his new gig, why poetry still matters and how the road less traveled sometimes isn’t a road at all.

When you told your parents you wanted to be a professional poet, how upset were they?

(Laughs.) I don’t know that I told them I ever wanted to be a professional poet. I kept that a secret for a long time. I remember having a conversation with them when I was living in Spain … and I remember telling my folks, “I think I wanna write!” And I remember my dad saying, “Well, how much money can you make doing that?”

How did you become Sacramento’s poet laureate? Was there an underground limerick battle involved?

(Laughs.) We didn’t really go toe-to-toe in a limerick battle, but there was an official selection process. The program is sponsored by the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission. They take nominations … [and] SMAC collected all the nominations, whittled those down to finalists … and then had [the finalists] do a little minireading.

What’s your responsibility as poet laureate?

For two years you’re out there in front as sort of a spokesman for the rest of the poetry community, really. It also means working with agencies and organizations to be a proponent for poetry as a general piece of culture, both in our immediate region of Sacramento—in the city and county—and also the state. And then, of course, SMAC would like you to engage in a project of sorts as well. What I’d really like to do is raise money and help get some writers from the community out into classrooms—fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade classrooms.

Let’s say you’re going somewhere trying to get kids excited about poetry. What do you open with?

It depends what age. Some kids are just fired up about it, and some kids aren’t. So I’ve had some kids say, “Why does poetry matter?” It’s a fair question, right? And oftentimes I’ll say, “How many people have ever written a song or a story or something, and you’ve given it to a friend and they don’t quite get the same meaning you had?” Hands will go up. And I’ll say, “How many people have ever felt like you were being misunderstood?” More hands will go up. And I’ll say, “That’s why poetry matters. Because if we can write poems and we can read poems, it sharpens our sensibility about language. And when we can sharpen our sensibility about language, it allows us to explain things more clearly and get the fine details where they need to be and, ultimately, explain to people how we feel.”

When you look at the different forms of literature, poetry is a truncated form. It’s a laser-fine point of meaning.

It totally is. I’m always telling my students, “Compress, compress, compress.” And that compression of language, oftentimes for poetry, is what makes it spark. It’s like banging rocks together. So that whole notion of texting, Twitter and all that, it’s closer to poetry than other forms. It is compression.

Does modern technology make the step into poetry a little more natural?

It could. The thing that’s not happening in that language is that we’re not looking for a lyric moment. It really is about information being delivered. But to counter that—to argue with myself a little bit—maybe it does deliver in some ways a lyric moment in that that’s why people throw up a tweet or they shoot a text message to someone. Which, in some ways, is kind of a lyric moment. It’s not quite the quiet or poetic moment of mystery, but in some ways, maybe it’s a contemporary, social lyric moment.

Finish this famous couplet: “There once was a man from Nantucket …”


I’ve never heard how that ends.

Who grabbed a bucket of fish so he could chuck it. (Laughs.)

Very well done.

We got a double rhyme in there with “bucket” and “chuck it.”