Diary of a Poet

The Making of a Winning Poem: Writing “The State of Jefferson”

More than two years ago, I started tinkering with a poem about my long drives up and down Interstate Highway 5, drives that began when I was a child and continued, with regularity, until the present day. 

My first note was an entry in my journal, dated December 15, 2017: “I cross the border going 75 while telling my father, who is a tiny jar of ashes, that we’re moving to Oregon.” There it sat for over two years. 

On January 3, 2017, I saw this call at Zócalo Public Square:

We’re Looking for Verse That Best Evokes Connection to Place

Since 2012, the Zócalo Public Square Poetry Prize has been awarded annually to the U.S. poet whose poem best evokes a connection to place. “Place” may be interpreted by the poet as a place of historical, cultural, political, or personal importance; it may be a literal, imaginary, or metaphorical landscape.

I remembered the poem I’d started two years ago. I thought of the effort started in 1941 to make a 51st state out of parts of Northern California and Southern Oregon, which would be called “Jefferson.” 

The call from Zócalo stated that place could be imaginary or metaphorical. Oregon and California are real places, but Jefferson, at least so far, is not. I liked that juxtaposition and started playing with it.

On January 17, 2019, I wrote:

The State of Jefferson

I’ve driven through it 
hot & distracted, a jar of  
my father’s ashes on 
the passenger seat 
I talk to my father
I tell him we’re moving
and even though most of him
is under a tree in California
this little thumb-sized jar 
will stay with me forever
we pass a dragon 

The dragon, named Penelope, is one of several large metal sculptures that appear along I-5, donated by local sculptor Ralph Starritt.

View of Mt. Shasta from Weed, CA

I began to think of other landmarks along the way: Mt. Shasta, the towns of Weed and Yreka (proposed capital of Jefferson), the grazing cows, the inexplicable signs. I thought of how enormous the landscape is compared to my car, which is also a place, a home while I’m driving. Like a home, the car quickly gets cluttered and dirty, especially on long trips. 

Through it all, the presence of my father, dead eight years, infused the poem with an eerie humor. Driving with his ashes sitting on the passenger’s seat was both comic and surreal – I found myself talking to him, making weird jokes, and feeling a little smug that I was the one driving, not him.

I had a pretty good draft by early January, but I could tell it was missing something. I left it alone for a week. At the time I was reading Volume II of Sylvia Plath’s letters. In it she mentions that her poem, “Mussel-Hunter at Rock Harbor,” is written in 7-syllable lines. 

A light went off in my head. I re-wrote the poem in 7 and 8-syllable lines. Sure enough, as I wrote in my blog post of January 28, 2019, it gained a “bouncy, energetic forward motion,” which perfectly suited a poem about driving.

The email that I’d won came on February 28. The idea that a car, freeway and imaginary state were places that existed together and separately had won the prize. I read “The State of Jefferson” in front of a full house on May 2, 2019, at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy in Los Angeles. A copy of the poem was included with the evening’s program. 

May 2 reading
Photo by Jennifer Hudson-Gorman

I also received a cash award and some nice gifts, and met the Zócalo Public Square Book Prize winner, Omer Bartov, as well as some of the wonderful people of Zócalo Public Square: Gregory Rodriguez, Louis Wheatley, Lisa Margonelli, Moira Shourie, and Krist Novoselić, the drummer for Nirvana.

“The State of Jefferson” is a poem of the West, of the huge empty spaces we must cross, barely noticing the landscape as we rush through it, in order to connect with each other. When we meet, we talk about the vast distances we just traversed. 

When I read the poem on May 2, I sensed the audience appreciated that as much as I did. It’s a rare event when a poet knows, without a doubt, that her poem resonated with its readers. 

I’m immensely grateful that the poem won. My deepest thanks to Zócalo Public Square.

Read the poem and my interview with Lisa Margonelli here.

5 replies »

  1. Well this is fun…Makes me think there’s a nice genre developing of “I-5 Literature.” Ursula LeGuin comments in an essay (printed in one of her collections) how “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” gestated in her car as she drove down I-5 between Portland and Eugene. She saw the sign for Salem, thought of “Salem, Or”, played with reading it backwards as “Omelas” … and the rest is history. (It’s her most famous short story, I believe.)

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