What is your primary artistic medium?
Often described as two minute plays in verse, my poems pursue a lyrical narrative that work toward a crescendo and reveal.
How did you get started as a teaching artist?
I began as a teaching artist in 1991 when I was working as office manager for Poets House, the poetry library in Manhattan. A high school class was coming into the library for a class visit and Lee Briccetti, the brilliant poet and executive director, asked me if I would read and recite a poem and engage the students to write their own poems and then recite them aloud. It was quick. The class couldn’t stay long. But I got them to do it. And what occurred was magical. I recited a poem I was crazy about called A Poem For Magic, by Quincy Troupe. It’s an ode to the basketball star, Magic Johnson. As I recited, the class began to laugh and then hoot and then holler and on the last line they cheered. We talked about the poem a bit and I got them to recite a few lines. And they loved it.
What led you to Creative Aging?
For Poets House I led many workshops in local libraries through a program we developed called Poetry in the Branches. We worked directly with the public and also held poetry staff development workshops for librarians and administrators. During one of those classes a librarian from the Brooklyn Public Library’s division of Service to Seniors asked me if I could bring what I was doing to them. So independently she and I created poetry workshops for seniors all over Brooklyn. The workshops were held in some libraries, but mostly in senior centers, day centers, nursing homes and live-in facilities. I began by using some of the same materials I was using in my other workshops. I simply applied the same formula to my earlier teaching.
What has been the biggest surprise in working with older adult learners?
One of the great surprises of working with seniors that might seem like common knowledge is the kind of in-depth conversations you have about life experience. Their knowledge is vast. But often this wisdom has been undervalued by society or never been given the opportunity to be showcased. Another surprise is how much this engagement feeds you and your own work as an artist.
What are the differences and similarities in working with the K-12 and older adult populations?
Some of the challenges we face working with seniors are somewhat different than with younger students. You are now dealing with a population who’s concerns and issues are often centered around health and eyesight and hearing and all the things that can go along with aging. But it’s also important to remember to never make assumptions about their capabilities either.The outcome I always strive for in teaching any population is somewhat the same. I want the students in my workshops to create high-level work that represents themselves well and that they are proud of claiming.
What have been your biggest challenges? How do you respond?
I recall once in a nursing home when we couldn’t work in our assigned conference room and instead they set us up in a TV lounge. I thought, chalk this day up as a loss. But I went with it. What else could I do? And when we got there they had a table set up and the regular participants were there. And then when some of the soap opera watchers realized what we were doing they decided to come over and join us. This seemed encouraging. The class size had jumped from twelve to twenty one! After we read a poem and I gave them a little writing exercise it was time to share.
When almost everyone had shared the quietest lady, who was in her late 80’s, asked if I would read her piece for her. So I agreed. As I began to read, from the corner of my eye, I could see she was beginning to weep. I had asked them to write about giving something back to someone they had never been able to. Her poem was dedicated to her brother who as a teenager raised her, and her sister, after her parents had suddenly been killed.
She had lived in the senior home for twenty years and no one there ever knew this part of her biography. It was a beautiful and overwhelming moment to witness the outpouring of generosity and empathy. Her friends, the site coordinator and the director of the center thanked me for making a space for this to happen. The work there got deeper and deeper every week. And all I could say is what a blessing, what a blessing.
What is the most satisfying aspect of this work?
To unleash new work on the world is always invigorating, especially if it is from a source that has been forgotten or oppressed. Early on I created an anthology of work from a group of seniors that I called, Let Me Tell You. From that title alone I got them to spring into action with stories that they had been dying to share. A good title can take you a long way
What have been your most memorable moments?
I was teaching in a center a few years back where most of the seniors were survivors of Auschwitz and the stories they were writing and recounting were devastating. And as I assisted one lady to physically write down her story as she told it to me she said, “You’re getting a helluva lot more out of this than we are.” And I knew it was true. And I told her so. I was getting an education. She missed the next couple of weeks of class and then returned once more. But I could tell things weren’t going well. That day she told me part of another story and then abruptly had to leave. She passed away soon after and left with me fragments of a piece that she never finished. I took those notes and wrote a poem dedicated to her that I published. And in these kinds of moments, while “teaching” seniors, I continue to “get taught.” Learning from my students is always critical to my process. And in turn the knowledge I gain feeds my own work.
What skills are most important when working with older adults?
Of course, patience is indeed a virtue at times and having a willingness to adjust on the fly is always helpful. I always try to have a back up plan in terms of what we are doing today. You never know when something you’ve planned might take a turn because of something unforeseen. And sometimes that flexibility can reap some brilliant work.
How does this work inform your own artistic process?
I primarily work as a poet and playwright and over the past couple seasons some of my pieces have taken on a visual component. I’m now also creating text based collage incorporating poetry and letter forms. This new work grows out of my teaching practice at The Cooper Union School of Art where I have taught collaborative workshops with visual artists for seventeen years. My teaching practice is always directly linked to my artistic practice and often vice versa.
What are your current or upcoming teaching or artistic projects?
I have an upcoming poetry workshop for seniors this spring at the Kings Highway Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. I’m continuing to serve as Poet-in-Residence to the New York City Department of Probation. My newest original works are available at davejohnsonpoetry.com
Thank you Dave for your wonderful work with Lifetime Arts.
Check back each month where we will feature a new Teaching Artist who has excelled in their work with the Creative Aging process.