Dennis Schmitz, author of many books of verse and the city of Sacramento’s first poet laureate, died in his sleep Sept. 12, according to his family. He was 82.
After more than 30 years of teaching at Sacramento State, Schmitz was given the honor by city council in 2000 alongside Viola Weinberg, with whom he shared a two-year term as poet laureate.
“We need to make poetry available or accessible to people,” he told The Sacramento Bee at the time. “It’s not a dangerous instrument that you can hurt yourself if you pick it up.”
Despite being very different people with divergent backgrounds and literary approaches, Weinberg shared a close and easy friendship with Schmitz, partly due to his extraordinary kindness, Weinberg said.
Looking over some of his students’ more fraught poetic exercises, Schmitz would tell her, “every plant has to get started as a seed.”
As poets laureate, the two worked to produce “The Sacramento Anthology: One Hundred Poems,” which captured the spirit of the capital city in the voices of Sacramento poets, held a host of poetry readings in the community and managed to visit every Sacramento school, from elementary to collegiate, within their two years.
“We reached people we never thought we would reach,” Weinberg said. After their laureateship ended, she recalled Schmitz telling her, with his trademark dry wit, “I’m never telling anyone what I’m doing next again.”
Paul Schmitz, his son, speaking on behalf of the family, said his father was born in Dubuque, Iowa, to a machinist and a hospital dietitian. He moved to Illinois after getting his degree in his native Iowa and attended graduate school at the University of Chicago, where he worked a variety of manual jobs to support himself.
His poetry was first published in 1960 after he won a writing contest, and he went on to teach at St. Mary’s College in Indiana, the Illinois Institute of Technology, and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee before being hired at California State University, Sacramento, in 1966, Paul said.
Sacramento State poetry professor Joshua McKinney was ostensibly hired to replace Schmitz after he retired from the university in 1999 — but he insisted that Schmitz was irreplaceable.
McKinney, who maintained a friendship with Schmitz for years, said thousands of poets in the region studied under him and the entire Sacramento poetry community is collectively mourning his loss.
“I consider Dennis a poet’s poet,” McKinney said. “He was the most humble and wonderful person.”
Students of Schmitz include the well-known short story writer Ray Carver, Weinberg said. She recalled Schmitz saying he learned more from Carver than the other way around.
When discussing Schmitz with other well-established poets, McKinney said they inevitably ask why more people don’t know his work, which McKinney described as meticulous, sophisticated and dense, yet still comprehensible.
Patrick Grizzell, a local poet and songwriter who studied under Schmitz at Sacramento State in the 1970s, said the common thread in his work is a direct, instructive quality.
“In them almost always was some sort of valuable information,” Grizzell said of Schmitz’s poems. “(He was) knowledgeable and generous with his knowledge.”
Working on a cast-iron typewriter out of a small office in his garage on 57th Street, Schmitz composed his poems, some reminiscing on his Iowan youth and the working-class neighborhoods of Chicago, interweaving classical literary allusions while still touching on contemporary issues, Paul said.
“Throughout his life he was clear in his opposition to war and the death penalty, and an advocate for social justice, the rights of the poor, and the environment, and these themes featured in his writing,” Paul said. “There was a profound morality to his poetry, even if it wasn’t always overtly political.”
Mary Zeppa, a local poet and longtime fixture of the Sacramento Poetry Center, said she first met Schmitz about 40 years ago when she was a disaffected part-time state worker looking to refine her poetic craft.
She visited Sacramento State to talk with him, and Schmitz shared a peanut butter cookie with her — his characteristic generosity, she said — and was later enrolled in his classes.
Zeppa said Schmitz tried to never mold students in his image or alter their styles to imitate his. “He tried to point everyone in the direction that would make them the best writer in their own way,” Zeppa said.
Grizzell once asked Schmitz why he wasn’t famous. He just told Grizzell that he was comfortable with his contribution to American letters, fully confident in its significance.
Schmitz didn’t preoccupy himself with self-promotion, McKinney said, and stood out from many contemporary poets who can sometimes be more interested in where a poem is published than in its intrinsic quality.
“I don’t think you’ll see Dennis’ like again,” McKinney said.
Schmitz had received the Pushcart Prize and the Shelley Memorial Award — among whose recipients include E. E. Cummings, Adrienne Rich and John Ashbery — and was a National Endowment for the Arts fellow three times.
After leaving Sacramento State and serving as Sacramento’s poet laureate, he moved to the Bay Area to be closer to his family and continued writing up until he died, Paul said. He authored nine books of poetry and recently finished a manuscript he sought to have published.
He is survived by his five children and 10 grandchildren. His wife, Loretta, died in 2016.