Creative Spirits Soar in Poetry Workshop for Seniors

Courtesy Photo | Members listen attentively as one person reflects on the poetic idea of the day in a poetry workshop session in the kitchenette of Mount Pleasant Home in Jamaica Plain in spring, 2016. The nature scene outside the window is inspirational.

by Sandra Storey | March 2017

Similar to the exhilaration I feel after writing a poem is the thrill I get listening to “Never Too Late to Be a Poet” workshop participants read the poems they have just written. This happens near the end of each workshop. Here participants have the chance to comment on what they appreciate in each others’ poems.

Poetry writing workshops like this one for people over 62, particularly Bostonians who live in area senior residences, were the brainchild of Boston Poet Laureate Danielle Legros Georges, whose Boston Poet Laureate Program has sponsored several workshops, including “Never Too Late,” since 2015.

“I was interested in supporting or creating spaces for elders who may or may not have had experience with writing, particularly in adult day health centers and residences. There’s a lot of knowledge in those spaces and I wanted to privilege it,” said Legros Georges.

Mount Pleasant Home, an independent rest home along the Emerald Necklace in Jamaica Plain, hosts the “Never Too Late” workshop, which I facilitate. It has filled up fairly quickly every season it has been held. Some participants live in Mount Pleasant Home, and some live in the surrounding neighborhoods. Outreach inside and outside lets people know about this opportunity, which is free to participants. 

“When Mount Pleasant Home got involved with the poetry workshop, it was our first experiment in integrating community people with our residents for a creative opportunity,” Activities Director and Volunteer Coordinator Lynn Muller said. “Now after several sessions hosted here, it has proven without a doubt to be a total success.”

“It is just wonderful to have some of our community friends come into this space,” she added. “We strive to keep our elders independent, physically and mentally active. This has enhanced our community spirit and awareness and added to the joy of being creative.”

Preparation for writing poems begins about a week before each session starts. At the end of the gathering, I simply announce what the “poetic idea” for the next week will be. Participants report that they usually start turning the idea around in their minds right away.

People say they are astonished when they learn that participants write their poems in about 15 minutes in the workshop setting. How can this be? Well, they write and share their first drafts there. They can revise them later.

“I feel freer to try expressing myself when I have a time limit,” participant Jane Bowers said.  “I'm pushed to write now, not to hold back, but I'm not able to be a perfectionist about it when the time is so short.”

 “I also like the fact that the writing part is timed,” Wendy Loveland agreed. “It takes the pressure off and enables the most important ideas and words to flow.”

Poetic ideas—limitless, of course—are conveyed each session through two to four sample poems I distribute. Together the participants and I take turns reading the poems and discussing their strategies. People usually find a lot to notice, and thoughts bounce from reader to reader. I might introduce and comment on a poetic device or element, or a structure used by a poet. When participants want to know more about a particular poet, idea, or a poetic device or style, I prepare something for the next session.

Photo by Joni Lohr | Workshop poet Gloria Johnson reads her poems at Jamaica Plain Porchfest, as other members of “Never Too Late to Be a Poet” spring, 2016 workshop, who also read their poems before a crowd, look on. Workshop participants were invited to read and were taped by BNN-TV. Young people from local youth organizations also participated. More than 70 porches hosted music and other performances at JP Porchfest July 9, 2016.

After reading the exemplar poems, we go around our big table, and participants reflect on the chosen “poetic idea” of the day, describing their observations in rich ways. In this regard, I think, many “show their age” by using their years of experience as a basis for expressing themselves. What they say is often edifying, entertaining (We laugh a lot and cry every once in while, too.) or both.

“I appreciate the willingness of everyone to listen with acceptance no matter what I say about the subject and how it hits me,” said Mary Ann Sayers. “I like how different subjects are explored by each person. It gives me something to think about. Then I come back to my own idea.” 

“I like that the workshop is poetry with a touch of memoir, which is appropriate for our memory-rich age group,” Connie Nelson pointed out.

“All this gets the juices going well before we face the blank page and have to actually produce something. It eases us into producing something before we realize it.”  Janell Fiarman said.

When it’s time to write, participants spring into silent action, pens and pencils moving to set their thoughts on paper in the form of poems they will eventually share.

Some fundamental concepts for these workshops come from I Never Told Anybody, Teaching Poetry Writing to Old People, by Kenneth Koch, published in 1977 and again in 1997. The popular poet wrote the book after teaching a poetry workshop in a nursing home in New York City.

Koch advocated having a poetic idea every session, and he said responses from readers/listeners should only be positive to any poem presented. He went out of his way to include people in his workshop who might have physical problems writing. The book is full of helpful anecdotes, sample participant poems and the poetic ideas he used.

The internet and some special websites provide much of the additional materials I use in these workshops. Poems on hundreds of poetic ideas from different time periods, by a variety of poets and in different styles can easily be printed to read and discuss. Mass Poetry’s Common Threads, a publication of 7-10 poems by Massachusetts poets chosen by a Massachusetts poet, makes a good source of inspiration, too.

The ideas are either topics, for example “porches” or themes, such as “love.” and both offer hundreds of poems organized by content. These websites also provide biographical information about the poets, which can be shared with participants.

Courtesy Photo | Some workshop poets celebrate after their well-attended Jamaica Plain Porchfest performance in July, 2016. Left to right: poet Betsaida Gutierrez, whose porch was their “stage;” Gloria Johnson; workshop leader Sandra Storey; workshop founder and Poet Laureate of Boston Danielle Legros Georges; Cecelia Estrada Vaughan; and Gwen Lewis.

“I got to love poetry by taking the workshop,” Betsaida Gutierrez said. “The workshop opened my mind to get ideas for poems. Now I’m looking at and thinking about trees, for example. Having ‘math’ as the poetic idea one week was a real eye-opener. Now when people ask me what I do, I say I am a poet as well as a community organizer.”

Managing a poetry workshop for people over 62 asks for special provisions that may not exist in other workshops. For seniors who have physical difficulty writing, Koch recommends that the leader or a volunteer write as the poet quietly “talks” a poem. I do this in my workshop. One devoted volunteer has also participated and written herself.

I have discovered two other management devices that seem to be extra important for many elders:

1) Each session should be self-contained. There should be no homework. If a person misses a session due to illness, an appointment or travel, they won’t be “lost” when they return during the 10 weeks of these workshops.

2) Participants should face one another as best possible. It’s easier to hear, see and hold inspiring conversations and readings this way. At Mount Pleasant Home we all sit around a big table in the kitchenette. We’re lucky. A huge window looks out on beautiful trees and sky outside.

Participants often report that they come away from the workshops with more than poems.  Sharing thoughts and experiences with others through poetry fosters feelings of connection and friendship.

“The poetry workshop got me out of my element as a cancer survivor,” Gloria Johnson said. “It got me into ‘poetry time.’ I got to meet people. A giant burst of expression came out of me through the workshop.”

“What a lovely way the workshops provide to get to know other seniors. I believe I get to know people a little more than superficiality when I hear what they want to say in their poems,” JaneBowers said.

The poems that come out of the workshops are varied, thought-provoking, and moving. In some of the workshops, we’ve compiled poems into collections for the poets to keep at the end. In July, 2016, participants in a spring workshop read their poems from one workshop member’s porch during Jamaica Plain Porchfest. This was a big hit.

BNN-TV featured the reading in a program on July 29. Our segment starts at about 20 minutes, 22 seconds. 

Sandra Storey is the author of the poetry collection, Every State Has Its Own Light, a finalist for the May Swenson Poetry Award and published in 2014 by Word Poetry. Her poetry has appeared in New Millennium WritingsTHEMA and the New York Quarterly, among other journals. Storey was founder, then editor and publisher, of two bilingual Boston neighborhood newspapers for 20 years. A member of Jamaica Pond Poets and former teacher, she now leads poetry workshops for people over 62 established by Boston Poet Laureate Danielle Legros Georges.