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Seniors Learn to Spread Their Wings, Create Poetry

August 23, 2007 By:
Rachel Silverman, JE Feature
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Lynne Ellis (left), Stiffel Center program director, and Nathalie Anderson, writer and workshop teacher, admire their poets' works.

Sarah Katuran never went to college. Neither did Irene Carasso or Mary Dubin. Instead, these three women -- all of whom grew up in South Philadelphia during the 1920s and 30s -- followed the trajectory of many others in their generation: They went to work, got married and raised children.

Now, at ages 90, 84 and 89, respectively, the women have taken on a role they admit comes even as a surprise to themselves: They've become published poets.

Words in Bloom: An Anthology of Poetry contains the works of 24 senior citizens, all of whom are current or past students of a poetry class held at the JCCs Jacob and Esther Stiffel Senior Center.

The class, which began in 2000, operates as a community outreach project of the Rosenbach Museum & Library.

It is taught by Swarthmore College English professor Nathalie Anderson, and funded by both the Hirsig Family Fund of the Philadelphia Foundation, and the Virginia and Harvey Kimmel Arts-Education Fund.

Contributing poets and their families gathered several weeks ago at the museum to celebrate the release of their 56-page anthology. After briefly touring the museum, attendees nibbled on snacks, and took turns reading their work at the podium.

While some readers delighted listeners with lighthearted compositions ("Paris Hilton: Queen of the Universe"), others shared intimate verses about old age, wedding jitters and regret. Since six of the contributors to the anthology are no longer living, others read in their place.

Speaking at the event, Anderson -- a published poet herself -- explained that the course includes seven writing workshops per year.

During some of these sessions, the instructor said she brings in different materials -- Yiddish music, Renaissance paintings, photos of Native Americans -- to serve as a stimulus. Other times, she uses evocative questions -- "Tell me about your first kiss" -- to get the creative juices flowing.

Working with seniors, Anderson said much of what she tries to do is access personal stories, and so many of the pieces students have produced offer fascinating glimpses into their past.

Lillian Davidson, for example, used one poem to describe her parents life in czarist Russia.

"Papa was a tailor, as was his father before him," she wrote in the anthology. "In those times, life was difficult for the Jewish people."

Another poem, by Nate Pepper, recalled a lost love named Shirley.

"She had a beautiful voice like a torch singer," wrote Pepper. "We had a good lengthy companionship."

As evidenced by these excerpts, the poetry that the students create does not always rhyme; in fact, Anderson said one of her objectives is to try to debunk the myth that poetry is rigid and stuffy.

"I try to bring in poems that are conversational, straightforward, approachable," she said, citing authors like Shel Silverstein and Gertrude Stein. "I want them to understand that we all use words as the substance for communication, and that poetry is just concentrating those words."

Still, Anderson noted that "every year there are folks that don't believe they can do it."

Initially, Carasso said she was one of these disbelievers.

"I never thought I could write it," said the grandmother of two, who worked for years as a payroll supervisor. "I never even thought about writing it."

But after taking Anderson's class for eight years, Carasso has produced more than 100 poems on topics like loss and her childhood home.

Susan Hoffman, the site director at Stiffel, praised the effect the class has had on participants.

"Many of them have found a new creativity they didn't know they had," said Hoffman.

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