Brown and the community

Never too old

“It troubles me that we live in a country that doesn’t value the contributions of elders,” says poet Benjamin.

Credit: Joanna Zhang ’13

Poems of the elders

Residents of EPOCH Assisted Living on the East Side are producing original poetry under the tutelage of Brown lecturer Rick Benjamin.

By Joanna Zhang ’13  |  April 7, 2010  |  Email to a friend

“I don’t really like it,” Dodo says frankly, nudging her glasses closer to her face.

The students sitting around Rick Benjamin, lecturer in literary arts, are blunt about their views. But they are no ordinary students. Every one is in his or her 80s and 90s, and, without worries about grades or peer intimidation, they are open and honest. Benjamin encourages his students to talk about their lives and their thoughts. He prods 86-year-old Doris (Dodo) Hirsch, “Why do you feel that way?”

Every other Monday, Benjamin, who teaches a Brown course called “Poetry and Community Service” and also visits local schools, oversees the poetry group at EPOCH Assisted Living on the East Side.

“Many people [in the group] have never written a poem before, yet they’re able to express themselves thanks to the background Rick has given us,” says resident Elaine Frank Lieberman ’39, age 93, a former drama teacher at Providence’s Hope High School and a developmental language therapist. “I took a poetry course at Brown when I was there, but it was more formal. Here it’s a narrative, emotional kind of approach. It has to do with life experience.”

Some of the EPOCH “regulars” discuss poems with instructor Rick Benjamin, at right.: Some of the EPOCH “regulars” discuss poems with instructor Rick Benjamin, at right. Benjamin begins each session by presenting a selection of poems to set the mood and theme of the day’s writing. The class discusses the poems, which function as a catalyst for wide-ranging conversations. The “combination of [student] characters” and group dynamics make for “great back and forth banter,” Benjamin says.

The end of each class is devoted to writing and sharing poems. “I’ve never written poetry before,” says resident Barbara Kauffmann Locke, 85, an artist. “I’m experimenting.”

The poetry sessions at EPOCH began as a group of residents that met to listen to and appreciate poetry. Resident David Horowitz, who recently passed away, would read a selection of poems. One day, Benjamin came to visit the group at the request of EPOCH Life Enrichment Director Karen Ferranti.

“Karen asked me to come once,” Benjamin recalls, “and I had such a good time that I asked to come more frequently.”

Rather than only reading his own poetry and that of other poets, Benjamin, who recently published his collection Passing Love, changed the focus to writing, encouraging residents to create poetry of their own.

Benjamin: Honoring the creativity of elders.: Benjamin: Honoring the creativity of elders. “To be honest, I didn’t think they’d be interested in writing at all,” says EPOCH’s Ferranti. “I thought it was going to be a disaster, but this is now one of our most popular programs.”

With a loyal following of about 10 regulars, the poetry group continues to grow. “Karen was looking for people for the class, and I wasn’t really interested,” says resident Abe Gershman, 86, “but I came and sat there. I never wrote a poem in my life until I met Rick. All of a sudden I started thinking about poetry.”

The group’s original poems are being gathered for an anthology that will “celebrate the work of elders,” Benjamin says. “It troubles me that we live in a country that doesn’t value the contributions of elders.” He hopes the EPOCH poems will increase awareness of the creativity and voices of the often-overlooked older generation. “If a byproduct is that people have their stereotypes undercut, that would be great.”