Poetry helps older writers surprise themselves

Originally published on the Knight Foundation blog, October 5, 2016. Photos and images by Naomi Cohn.

We’ve all heard artists explain that the struggle of doing what they do is worth it for the sheer joy of creation. For some artists, though, even making it to a creative space is a struggle unto itself. Naomi Cohn, founder of St. Paul’s Known By Heart Poetry, sees evidence of that every time she leads one of her poetry classes for seniors.

“Just getting to class can be a huge deal for folks. Sometimes their transportation doesn’t arrive, and I’ve more than once had relatively frail students pushing wheelchairs of other students so they can get to class. People with memory issues get calls from the less forgetful. Before we’ve even started, art is doing its magic: people who care about writing and poetry and each other create a self-organizing community around getting out of bed and getting to poetry class.”

As a teaching artist, Cohn specializes in bringing poetry to underserved communities, particularly older adults and people with disabilities. Her Knight-funded Writing Homeproject focuses on seniors living around St. Paul’s Creative Enterprise Zone, which she sees as a valuable resource for collaboration. “Part of the opportunity of the Knight Arts Challenge funding is that it gives Known by Heart a chance to develop programming customized to the needs and interests of local elders and local site partners serving older adults. And it gives us a chance to look at intergenerational possibilities with all the younger creative folks living and working in the Creative Enterprise Zone.”

Cohn is following a mission she sums up as “Better living through poetry.” For many of her students, poetry is much more than just a hobby; it’s a form of sustenance. “Reading a great poem or sharing our story through words can help us work through tough times,” said Cohn. “I guarantee you that by the time you’re 85 or 90, life can present some tough times… Solving the puzzle of writing a good poem can keep us healthy.”

One of the great lessons of Cohn’s teaching experience is that everyone does have a poetic voice. “Right now I have a class with several students who, due to blindness, stroke or other health issues, can’t read or write,” she said. “They are still brilliant and they have a long history of loving learning, writing and language. So they come and find ways to participate. One woman, when I asked if she would like help scribing her words, said ‘I enjoy writing the poems in my head.’”

With Writing Home, Cohn aims to connect with students in a more personal and personalized way. “Rather than coming in with a cookie-cutter set of workshops, the Writing Home sessions are growing out of conversations I’ve been having as an artist-organizer, talking to experts in aging in and around the Creative Enterprise Zone, visiting existing programming for older adults – exercise classes, craft and arts groups, riding shotgun with someone delivering meals to homebound elderly.”

In a field where just getting to class counts as a victory for many students, it would be tempting to set the bar low, but Cohn measures her success by an array of metrics both challenging and inspiring. “I know sessions are succeeding when people come back for more,” she said. “We’ve succeeded if people have written something in class or between sessions. We’ve succeeded when people are bursting with eagerness to read what they wrote. We’ve succeeded when people share writing about a difficult experience and I get to witness that writer being supported by the community of writers gathered around the table. We’ve really succeeded when a student is willing to take the risk of revising work. We’ve succeeded if I share a poem an elder wrote and younger people are surprised by the quality or voice of a poem.”

And sometimes students even surprise themselves. “As a poet, one of my favorite moments is when a timid student, usually one who was given a whole lot of DOs and DON’Ts by a school teacher 70 or 80 years ago, takes a risk and tries something new in a poem. I remember a rush of pleasure when we were writing about art and I’d brought in a variety of images for writers to look at, and a student who usually wrote in very competent but tight rhyming couplets wrote an amazing, wild, gorgeous prose poem, and then looked up and asked innocently ‘Is this a poem?’”

Known by Heart’s Writing Home project launched in September in St. Paul’s Creative Enterprise Zone. Visit knownbyheartpoetry.com for more information.

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