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Grafton County Seniors Pen Poems in New Arts Education Program

  • Trudy Savage, of Etna, N.H., reads a list poem about her spice collection during “Opening Windows — Exploring and Writing Poetry,” a Lebanon-based poetry class for seniors at the Center for Elder Services on Friday, April 14, 2017, in Lebanon, N.H. The class is part of Experience/Arts, a new arts education program for adults over age 55 in Grafton County. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Catherine O’Brian, center, shows a poetry book to Eunie Guyre, left, and Charlie Green, right, at “Opening Windows — Exploring and Writing Poetry,” a Lebanon-based poetry class for seniors at the Center for Elder Services on Friday, April 14, 2017, in Lebanon, N.H. The class is part of Experience/Arts, a new arts education program for adults over age 55 in Grafton County. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Charlie Green, of Bath, N.H., participates in a free writing exercise at “Opening Windows — Exploring and Writing Poetry,” a Lebanon-based poetry class for seniors at the Center for Elder Services on Friday, April 14, 2017, in Lebanon, N.H. The class is part of Experience/Arts, a new arts education program for adults over age 55 in Grafton County. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Catherine O’Brian helps students workshop their poetry at “Opening Windows — Exploring and Writing Poetry,” a Lebanon-based poetry class for seniors at the Center for Elder Services on Friday, April 14, 2017, in Lebanon, N.H. The class is part of Experience/Arts, a new arts education program for adults over age 55 in Grafton County. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, April 15, 2017

Lebanon — Neither Martha Solow nor her daughter, Marjorie Moorhead, expected the other to write a poem about a bathrobe.

But they both did, though they wrote of different bathrobes.

The poems were the product of a writing prompt for “Opening Windows — Exploring and Writing Poetry,” a Lebanon-based poetry class for seniors in which Moorhead and Solow are enrolled.

The class is part of Experience/Arts, a new arts education program for adults over age 55 in Grafton County. The result of a partnership between the Grafton County Senior Citizens Council and the Arts Alliance of Northern New Hampshire, Experience/Arts recently received a $49,250 grant from the Aroha Philanthropies’ Seeding Artful Aging initiative to fund its three classes.

In addition to the poetry class, there also is a visual arts class for seniors in Plymouth, N.H., as well as one in Haverhill on working with clay.

The classes are all currently at capacity, which speaks to “a real hunger for accessible and substantive arts programs among older adults,” said Roberta Berner, executive director of the Grafton County Senior Citizens Council.

There will be a second session of classes later this year, said Frumie Selchen, executive director of the Arts Alliance.

The poetry class, which gathers every Friday at the Center for Elder Services in Lebanon, is taught by Catherine O’Brian, a longtime poet and former arts in education coordinator for the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts.

While some students in the class are lifelong writers, like Charlie Green, of Bath, N.H., a former Navy journalist, and self-published Eunie Guyre, of Lebanon, others came into the class cold — including Solow and Moorhead, the mother-daughter duo.

“I’m surprised by the enthusiasm I’ve found for poetry,” said Moorhead, who lives in Lebanon and declined to give her age, as did her mother. “I feel like this class really plugged me in. I feel energized by it.”

The class begins with a free-write exercise, during which students scrawl away with abandon in the thick hardbound notebooks O’Brian handed out on the first day of class. Sometimes she plays music, like Butterfly’s Day Out, a bright, acoustic mountain melody by Yo-Yo Ma. Afterward, students may read aloud what they’ve written.

The idea behind the program’s design is based in a growing body of research that shows that “more intensive, skill-based, sequential arts learning is particularly valuable to older adults, and is shown to have a variety of health and social benefits,” Selchen said.

According to one 2006 study funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, seniors who participated in cultural programs like Experience/Arts reported better physical health and morale, and less loneliness, one year after the completion of their programs compared to control groups who did not participate in those programs.

They also were more likely to engage in similar activities in the future — in other words, learning begets learning, Selchen said.

But several participants in the class said they did not need clinical evidence to convince them of the program’s benefits.

“I write to please myself,” said Green, the former journalist, adding that his poems often take the form of “rants.”

“It gives me release from the doldrums of everyday life,” the 71-year-old said.

And Solow, a former Hanover selectwoman who O’Brian said was on the reserved side at the beginning of the class, has “blossomed” over the course of the class. In fact, she’s already published — her poem, Fake News Blues, appears on New Hampshire Public Radio’s website.

It begins: “Fake news/Gives me the blues/You can believe/whatever you choose./Alternative fact.../What the heck is that?” And so on.

Guyre said these opportunities for playfulness and levity are part of what makes O’Brian’s class a breath of fresh air compared to more traditional senior programs.

“Lots of things for seniors are focused on memory loss or health issues or being off-balance,” said Guyre, who works at the senior center in Lebanon. “There’s nothing wrong with sitting around and talking about your arthritis, but it’s refreshing when the conversation is about joy rather than illness.”

But even as many students in the class use poetry as a way to elicit laughter, others use it to make sense of grief and trauma for which there is no easy answer.

Mia Vries, of Canaan, recently wrote a poem titled Crystallized Moment.

It was about driving to the cancer unit of a local hospital, where the love of her life lay dying.

On her way to the hospital, she saw a snapping turtle crossing Etna Road, and stopped to help it reach the other side. In her poem, she realizes that this moment also was about helping her husband “cross over” to his final destination, away from her.

She read her poem aloud to the class, audibly on the verge of tears. Afterward, in the space usually reserved for class feedback, no one spoke.

“Mia, your poem was so piercing, it has driven us to silence,” Solow finally said.

O’Brian supports these moments of “emotion bubbling out,” which she believes are healthy for seniors, who have often lost the most in life but are not often encouraged to express these feelings publicly, she said.

“We’ve talked a lot about the question of what even is a poem, and I try to teach them that a poem can be a prayer. It can be a wail, or a howl of indignant anger. It can be an image, or an ode to something — even shoes,” O’Brian said, alluding to a poem by Francisco X. Alarcon that inspired Solow and Moorhead’s bathrobe poetry.

On May 5, the class will culminate in a final reading at 11 a.m. to celebrate their creative growth over the past eight weeks. The reading, which is open to the public, will take place at the Upper Valley Senior Center in Lebanon and includes a free lunch.

But although the reading is the culminating event of the class, it is not its crowning achievement, according to Selchen.

Instead, she said, “it’s all about the process itself.”

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at eholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.